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Take One for Social Impact

Yesterday, The Rockefeller Foundation was pleased to host a dynamic group of film makers and funders gathered by the Sundance Institute to engage on the topic of film and social impact. Two storms—and two corresponding Rockefeller Foundation impact grants—provide insight into why we hosted the discussion.

In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, it was the power of televised images that shocked the entire country—we saw a major U.S. city flooded, stranded people on rooftops, distraught survivors at the Superdome.

Those images are still in our minds. But it was Spike Lee’s film When the Levees Broke that took that footage and distilled it into perhaps the most powerful indictment of government failure during Katrina.

In 2007, The Rockefeller Foundation made a grant to Teachers College at Columbia University to take When the Levees Broke and develop a curriculum for dialogue in schools, colleges, and community organizations.

The grant aimed to seize the opportunity afforded by Lee’s film to initiate conversations and creative projects about difficult issues, particularly  the situations of individuals who, by dint of race and class, found themselves most vulnerable to the storm’s wrath, and to the failure of local, state and federal governments to protect them from the disaster’s worst effects.

30,000 copies of the curriculum were distributed and a valuable discussion was fostered—a small part of a much broader national conversation that vowed to never let another Katrina happen.

Seven years later Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast, and the response was different. Evacuation plans were in place and we saw much better coordination between levels of government.

But many challenges—familiar from Katrina—remained: public housing residents trapped by the brutal combination of the immediate storm and intergenerational poverty; government struggling to balance helping people quickly and ensuring public money is well-spent; difficult questions about whether some communities should be rebuilt—or not.

And we at The Rockefeller Foundation hope film can again make a difference in improving the response and better preparing communities for these types of storms that—with climate change—seem likely to become more common and more fierce.

This Time Next Year, a film to be released next month, tells the story of the recovery and resilience of the residents of Long Beach Island, NJ, in the year after Sandy. The filmmakers are Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman. The Rockefeller Foundation has been working with the Tribeca Film Institute on the development of the film and the public engagement campaign that will follow—including using the film to spur communities to action that will increase their resilience.

Both campaigns respond to one of the Foundation’s strategic goals:  helping people and communities build greater resilience to shocks and stresses, both natural and man-made. In the aftermath of both Katrina and Sandy we have seen film—and impact campaigns built around those films—as powerful tools to advance that goal and achieve lasting impact.

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