Can Film and Dialogue Change the World?

As another presidential election lingers on the horizon, we’re once again reminded of the seemingly irreparable divide that plagues our nation. In fact, public discourse seems to become more polarized every day, as talk show pundits, bloggers and even cable news anchors fling shrill epithets at the “other side.” Of course, our people’s inability to find common ground isn’t anything new. But as we grapple with mounting challenges like unemployment, poverty and a broken education system (to name a few), we have no choice but to address our ideological divisions and come together to find solutions. This is where Active Voice ( has put its stake in the ground.

The dialogue and deliberation world knows these challenges all to well, as practitioners nationwide devote their careers to deepening connection and understanding. As an organization committed to using stories to spark change, Active Voice has always valued the importance of dialogue as a step in advancing progress, and for more than a decade we’ve been using powerful films to support real, substantive conversations that are geared toward creating sustained impact.

We work with film, in particular, because of its unique power to provide viewers with a shared experience that can spark new understanding about complex issues. We acknowledge that change takes time, and firmly believe that tackling social problems requires people from different perspectives to connect and listen to each other. That’s why we work with films that encourage people to reflect, empathize, and express clear, informed opinions about things that matter to them. Films like Welcome to Shelbyville (, The Education of Shelby Knox ( and Food, Inc. ( have the power to bring together people you would never expect to see in the same room – policymakers, funders, grassroots advocates, academics, young people – and give them the opportunity to discuss issues that matter to them, identify shared values and develop collaborative plans for action.

Of course, careful facilitation and dialogue are essential pieces of the puzzle. Using film as the launch pad and dialogue as the vehicle, Active Voice’s process has helped spark immigrant-friendly welcoming committees, create congregations that are open and affirming to LGBT people, and inspire programs that support healthy eating among children living in “food deserts.” While these may be small steps in the grand scheme of things, they are true indicators of the power of film and dialogue to bring about change, and the willingness of our people to come together toward a common goal.

As we turn our eyes toward the presidential election, many people are feeling anxiety about the future. But I think of those small steps and remain hopeful. Because regardless of the election results, I know we are capable of pushing past divisiveness and finding common ground. If many of us strive to do this on the small scale, then perhaps we can create the equitable and inclusive society our nation was founded to be.

Shaady Salehi and Sahar Driver from Active Voice will be playing a meaningful role in next week’s NCDD event in Seattle. Not only are they partners of NCDD 2012, but they will be sharing some of their innovative work during Saturday’s lunch and presenting the workshop “Dialogue and Deliberation 3.0: New Platforms for Storytelling as New Opportunities for Dialogue” on Sunday morning.

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Hannah Ornell

Sandy, I definitely agree with you that film is a very effective way to create policy change. Film is very integrated into popular culture, so using it is a great way to get to consumers in a medium they’ll respond to. I have been a part of the organic food movement and the animal welfare movement, and I can say from personal experience that watching films on these topics not only brought the message home for me, but also for people who would not normally think about their food choices.