With Sundance Institute’s generous invitation, I had the privilege of attending the 2017 Skoll World Forum on social entrepreneurship as a Stories of Change Fellow.
Our task was to meet with Skoll Foundation awardees to excavate stories and search for points of connection and to see what possibilities existed between our work as storytellers and the stories embedded in their work. Many of the awarded organizations are sitting on an ocean of stories, a dream for any filmmaker. This year the awardees are involved in the amazing work of creating small-scale farming, earthquake-resistant building materials, networks for human trafficking victims, and remote access healthcare. Joining me as Fellows were the very talented and accomplished filmmakers Heather Rae, Michele Stephenson, Nicole Newnham, Jerry Rothwell, and Lynette Wallworth.
Absent, though, was an invited Fellow, Arthur Pratt from Sierra Leone, who was denied a visa by UK authorities. The loss of Arthur’s voice was deeply felt. Later, we heard of Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist with the Silk Road Ensemble, denied entry as well until powerful voices intervened.
The Skoll World Forum turned out to be a cauldron of these moments – equal parts maddening, inspiring, emotional, and oftentimes reaffirming.
One of these moments occurred on the last day. Deputy Chief of Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, Mandy Gull, traveled from Quebec to talk about her long fight to protect the Cree Way of Life along the Broadback River. Mandy was a remarkable speaker, though a late addition, thanks to the moderator’s insistence that an Indigenous Rights panel include one indigenous leader. During the Q&A, a journalist from Istanbul asked Mandy if she had heard a river in New Zealand had been granted the legal rights of a person. A look of astonishment, followed by joy, came over Mandy’s face, then words of renewed purpose.
It was a moment of global community, seedlings perhaps of solidarity.
So it was, that the most impactful voices I heard were leaders in their own communities, working locally to address complex problems. These leaders came with stories and questions about the challenges they were facing. They spoke from a place of lived experience.
Another memorable speaker was Hamdi Ulukaya of Chobani, a billionaire who was raised tending sheep in Turkey. Hamdi vowed not to turn into the wealthy people he grew up despising. He talked about daily vigilance and how that vigilance led him to litigate corporate law until his 2,000 employees could become his business partners. His challenge to himself others has encouraged Chobani to hire translators and buses so that they could employ hundreds of refugees.
Listening to Hamdi’s stories was deeply affecting and formed my greatest takeaways: If we want the world to be a better, more just place for everyone, we must challenge ourselves. We must interrogate existing assumptions and existing power structures. And it must be a daily practice.
And as filmmakers, we must challenge the dominant narratives.
A funder told me over dinner, “Funders invest in people, not ideas, so they’re investing in the founders. That can drive social entrepreneurs to adopt a hero complex.” It’s important to look at how power works, who gets to speak, who is represented, and how they’re represented These are the same questions that pushed me into producing and distributing. At the Forum, it became important to ask, who gets invited? Who is allowed to speak?
Undoubtedly there were moments of disconnect. I experienced it when a well-meaning American lawyer described his company’s solution to human trafficking in southeast Asia… by using a series of flowcharts. But what Skoll Foundation has built is a powerhouse global community.
So here lies an opportunity to shift the narrative. We can amplify leaders like Mandy Gull who speak from a place of lived experience. We can challenge ourselves, like Hamdi did in hiring translators and buses, to invest in the tremendous work coming from within local communities around the world.
And in our Sundance cohort of Fellows, I got to experience a microcosm of this global community ideal for six days. As the late great Grace Lee Boggs said, “Conversation is revolution.”