As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to be engaged in work that was involved in improving the lives and welfare of other people, particularly if it could also involve talking. I was always creating things as a child – short stories, cartoons, and even an imaginary company.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
My undergraduate educational experience was transformative for me. I was a communication studies major with a minor in sociology, and both are central to what I do and think about professionally today. I was entranced with the field of communication and media from the minute I enrolled in my first class. I took two classes simultaneously that influenced my professional vision: Media & Society, focused on the profound influence of media and mediated narratives in shaping the culture and our views of one another and the world, and Social Problems, a sociology class focused on social justice and inequality. Together, these courses provided a lens with which to see the challenges and opportunities to work with media in order to shape a more just world.
You’re currently Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact (CMSI) and a professor at the American University School of Communication. What does your job entail, and what is your favorite part about what you do?
As a professional, I am a hybrid mix of documentary producer, social change communication and media strategist, and a scholar who looks at social change through media and storytelling. My documentaries have aired on TV networks in the United States and internationally, covering topics from human rights to global development to environmental justice to race relations. The Center for Media & Social Impact is an innovation lab and research center that studies, creates and showcases media with positive social impact. I direct our research projects, convenings, and a team focused on examining crucial questions at the intersection of media, mediated storytelling and social good. We collaborate with philanthropic organizations, foundations, filmmakers, social change communication professionals and media companies in this work. As a professor, I also have the great benefit of teaching these topics to undergraduate and graduate students, and hopefully inspiring them to feel the way I did as a young person. So, essentially, on a daily basis, I am doing what I had always hoped to do but wasn’t sure I could combine into one big, messy, fun, exciting career: write, talk, teach, and create.
How did your liberal arts education help you when you first entered the workforce? Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded arts & sciences education are important in today’s society?
I have been motivated by the intersection of media, stories and social good my entire adult life, so writing, creating, and studying within this space provides me with great professional and personal happiness. A well-rounded education is essential to exploring new ideas and new ways of thinking. Future success and happiness are not just about tactics and skills, but about how to contemplate new ideas and topics.
Do you have any advice for current liberal arts students looking to get a start in social impact work?
As my own undergraduate and graduate students know, I am fond of telling them – with great passion and conviction – that professional happiness comes from two deep levels of understanding about oneself: What are you good at doing or creating, and what do you like to think about? The latter part is often underexamined, I think, but it’s absolutely crucial. What topic or idea or industry makes you feel passionate and motivated to do your work? What do you like to think about even when it’s not for a grade or a job? This is my best advice to current liberal arts students: Take classes about topics that supply the “what you want to think about” ideas, and follow those into a career, or create your own path.
Are you working on any upcoming projects or initiatives you’re excited about?
At the moment, I am writing two books that focus on the role of culture, creativity and mediated storytelling in social change. The first one, for University of California Press, is called A Comedian and An Activist Walk Into a Bar: The (Serious) Role of Comedy in Social Justice, written with my colleague and friend Lauren Feldman of Rutgers University. The second one, for Oxford University Press, is tentatively titled The Blackfish Effect & Other Stories: Documentaries & Social Change in the Information Age. I am also in the editing stage for a new documentary film, MIXED, co-directed with my friend and colleague, Leena Jayaswal, about the lives of mixed- and multiracial children and families 50 years after the legalization of interracial marriage in America, and less than 20 years after the Census first allowed multiple boxes in racial and ethnic identity. CMSI, the center I direct, is also hosting a national convening in March 2019, called Story Movements, which will highlight amazing speakers across media and social change who are using narrative for social good.
What book are you reading right now? Anything you'd recommend?
I just finished an amazing book by a sociologist, Matthew Desmond, called Evicted, which is a deep and very human dive into homelessness and the systemic challenge of affordable housing in America, and the vicious cycle of poverty. Sociologists write books the way I think about documentaries, so it’s an intimate way into a deeper challenge.
You can follow Caty Borum Chattoo on Twitter at @CatyBC.