Based on its successful track record and visionary leadership in research and creative media at the intersection of entertainment and social justice, the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) was awarded a new $750,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in February 2022. To date, it’s the largest single grant to CMSI from the Foundation, and it represents the global philanthropy’s long-term support of CMSI, a creative innovation lab and research center based at American University’s School of Communication.
As a member of the MacArthur Foundation’s inaugural Participatory Civic Storytelling grantee cohort (part of its Journalism and Media program) over the past six years, CMSI has expanded its programmatic work and staffing exponentially since receiving its first large-scale MacArthur Foundation grant in 2016 under the direction of principal investigator and CMSI executive director, professor Caty Borum Chattoo. Professor Borum Chattoo has raised nearly $7 million in external funding to support CMSI staff and programs since her leadership appointment in 2015. In 2021, she was recognized with American University’s annual Outstanding Scholarship, Research, Creative Activity, and Other Professional Contributions Award.
Since its inaugural MacArthur Foundation support, CMSI has expanded its core team from zero funded staff members to six in addition to Borum Chattoo, including Varsha Ramani (operations director), David Conrad-Perez (research director), Bethany Hall (creative director of comedy initiatives), Aras Coskuntuncel (post-doctoral fellow), Kenice Mobley (comedy programs coordinator), and Kimberly Reason (strategic communications and media consultant). Additionally, since 2016, CMSI has produced more than 30 public-facing research reports and peer-reviewed studies and has launched a series of high-visibility ongoing public initiatives that involve collaborations with the entertainment industry, social justice and movement organizations, and students, including:
- State of the Documentary Field (launched in 2016), the largest biennial global study of documentary trends, including diversity and equity, platforms, and economics, facilitated in collaboration with the International Documentary Association.
- Story Movements (launched in 2016), CMSI’s flagship biennial national convening that examines the role of narrative and media in movements for social equity.
- Yes, And…Laughter Lab (launched in 2019), a creative incubation lab and training program for diverse comedians working on social justice topics, launched in partnership with Moore+Associates and Comedy Central, with partners ranging from Netflix, Amazon, ViacomCBS, and WarnerMedia to Color of Change, Define American, and the Opportunity Agenda.
- Comedy ThinkTanks (launched 2019), a creative workshop series that brings together social justice organizations and comedians to co-create new comedy for public engagement, equity, social change. Partners have included Color of Change, IllumiNative, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Hip Hop Caucus, and others.
- The Lens Reflected (launching in 2022), an unprecedented research program that examines gender and racial equity in the nonfiction film and TV industry in the streaming documentary age.
- Documentary Power Research Institute (launching in 2022), a collaborative research initiative that brings leading researchers across disciplines and methodological approaches to examine the social impact/social justice work of contemporary documentary storytelling in a transforming media ecosystem.
The MacArthur Foundation sees CMSI as a “center of gravity” for the ongoing field-building of organizations and leaders who work within entertainment media and culture, documentary storytelling, and public engagement to support positive social change.
“The digital era has had a profound impact on civic and political life, expanding opportunities for those from historically marginalized communities to participate in our democracy in new and novel ways and democratizing access to tools and technologies for creating and disseminating media at mass scale,” said Jen Humke, Senior Program Officer for the Journalism and Media Program at the MacArthur Foundation. “Amidst these dramatic changes, the Center for Media & Social Impact at American University has emerged as a center of gravity for the field, helping to build and nurture a new generation of civic media makers, from journalists and documentary filmmakers to interactive and virtual reality storytellers, gamers and comedians who share a commitment to creating a more just and inclusive society through the stories and information they share.”
With the support of the MacArthur Foundation grant, CMSI plans to expand its programming in research, creative media production, and convenings.
About the Center for Media & Social Impact
The Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI), based at American University's School of Communication, is a creative innovation lab and research center that creates, studies, and showcases media for equity, social change, and social justice. CMSI is a “think and do” organization: In collaboration with leading social justice organizations and movement leaders, entertainment media companies, and philanthropy, CMSI facilitates and produces research, convenings, and creative media that bolsters social change and progress around issues of racism and racial violence, environmental justice, gender equity, and other pressing societal challenges. CMSI also co-directs the Yes, And…Laughter Lab with cultural agency Moore+Associations.