ONWARD storytelling project aims to advance the dialogue on immigration

Not too long ago, I helped out a friend who was running for local political office and went to a meeting at a neighborhood church where the topic was immigration reform. There was talk, there was discussion, but somehow the meeting didn’t gel, perhaps because despite their good intentions, those who organized the meeting didn’t have an immigrant story to share.

I’m a journalist, so I couldn’t help wondering what was missing. Since the media is still often the message — or at least a starting point to kick off a discussion about the message — I realized what was missing were real stories about real people, to go along with the statistics.

The next time this group wants to meet, it could turn to a new initiative, appropriately named ONWARD,
which describes itself as “a story plus data project to advance an informed, productive dialogue on immigration in America.”

ONWARD, which is set to go live this month, was conceived at Active Voice, an organization of communication experts, who for 15 years concentrated on making film-based engagement campaigns to advance social change. The scope was broad and utilized storytelling through socially relevant films dealing with all kinds of issues — healthcare, education, criminal justice, and of course, immigration.

But over the past year, the Active Voice team decided it was time to shift gears and “refocus on … deepening the connections between story, strategy and sustained impact,” as they wrote in a farewell explainer.

What will distinguish ONWARD from Active Voice is the emphasis on one issue — immigration — and the focus on working with Christian faith-based communities that have made immigration reform a priority, or that simply want their congregants to know more about the issue.

“Our traditional model has been working with a single film and finding the right audience for it,” said Shaady Salehi, who as executive director of Active Voice played a key role in the development of ONWARD. “We were well poised to ask our expert partners what types of issues/stories would be most useful to their work, as opposed to assuming what would be useful. “

Time and again, their partners said they wanted to be able to take a more in-depth look at immigration stories and share them with their communities.

“We have been working with immigration organizations for a while, and there has been increasing polarization and misunderstanding when it comes to immigrants and immigrations,” Salehi said. “We launched this project as a way to push past that polarization and move ‘onward.’ That inspired the name.”

ONWARD will provide a one-stop shop of curated films, video clips, and news stories paired with discussion prompts. It will also offer “pairings” linking timely stories to scriptures that connect religious principles to what the real world brings to us.

Some of the first “bundles” or packages of material that ONWARD will make available will focus on films dealing with family issues within the broader framework of immigration — such as “Sin Pais,” which looks at a family separated by deportation, and “Indivisible,” which examines one family’s struggle to be together again.

Image from the documentary “Sin Pais” by Theo Rigby. (Courtesy of Shaady Salehi)

ONWARD’s key partners in the faith-based community are two organizations that have long been active around immigrant issues — Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service and SojournersWelcoming America, a national network of nonprofit affiliates, is also onboard. Major funding is coming from The MacArthur Foundation.

“We saw a tremendous opportunity to work with communities of faith, to help people understand the human implications of policies through the use of story, and help people better understand the data and statistics and abstract news you see when you hear, for example, about unaccompanied minors.” Salehi said. “There are a lot of headlines, but people don’t understand why people are undocumented, why people have so many assumptions.”

ONWARD hopes to present immigration themes and topics in easy-to-understand and relatable ways. This means providing people with data and statistics and — for groups that seek it — insights to biblical teachings that relate to today’s issues.

Salehi emphasizes that ONWARD is an inclusive organization with an inclusive scope. “We brought in a consultant who is a theologist who had worked on social issues with communities of faith. She is reviewing those materials so they are relevant across denominations,” Salehi said. Materials will also be available to secular organizations or non-Christian faith-based communities.

At the meeting I attended in Florida, parents were asked to consider how they would feel if they had to send their child on a journey to another country. Family separation was something any parent there could understand on a gut level. But they didn’t have a story.

Next time, with the resources that ONWARD will be making available, that discussion may be more fruitful.


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