By Ellen McGirt
January 26, 2017

The Academy of Arts and Sciences clearly heard the critique of #OscarsSoWhite. This year’s Oscar nominations, announced on Tuesday, offered a welcome contrast to 2016, when no people of color were tapped for top categories. This year, every acting category included a person of color, along with welcome nods for directing, producing and writing.

This new openness to under-represented people and themes means that studios have a chance to make an impact far beyond award season, says Martine McDonald, the director of programs for Journeys in Film. “When we are working with film studios we like to convey the value of extending the life of their film in a way that isn’t just about the bottom line, but really is the amplification of connection,” McDonald says.

Journeys in Film is a unique nonprofit that selects inspiring or provocative films from the global marketplace, and with support from filmmakers and studios, creates discussion guides and curriculum for classroom teachers, all for free. (Their materials are great for families, faith, and youth groups, too.) Says McDonald: “The curriculum meets all of a teacher’s standards—English, social studies, and math—in a way that’s fun for the students.” But it’s the bigger themes—social justice, uplift, history, conflict resolution, etc—that are the real attraction.

The organization is staffed by educators from a wide variety of backgrounds. Founder Joanne Ashe is a social worker and a tireless activist, has a master’s degree in education, and is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Education director Eileen Mattingly, spent a large portion of her career developing curriculum for the PeaceCorp. McDonald has a degree in peace and conflict studies and came to the organization from the education department at Los Angeles’s Museum of Tolerance. And they all relish the chance to share important films with audiences who could benefit from the often overlooked stories they tell. “We want to make the world a better place through film,” says McDonald.

Media giant 20th Century Fox recently hired the organization to create a discussion guide and a full STEM interdisciplinary curriculum of social studies, math, civil rights and science lessons for its film, Hidden Figures. Another project, a collaboration with National Geographic, focusses on their “Gender Revolution” magazine issue and accompanying video. Other materials from their growing catalog include Disney’s Queen of Katwe, 20th Century Fox’s Bridge of Spies, and Fox Searchlight’s He Named Me Malala.

A new collaboration with USC’s Rossier School of Education should expand their reach and has already provided a lot of excitement. Last week, working with the LA Promise Fund for Public Schools, USC treated 10,000 middle school girls from public schools around the city to a screening of Hidden Figures, with Janelle Monae and Pharrell, and some NASA notables, in attendance. The girls screamed with delight at all the science parts, said McDonald. “It made me cry knowing that there was a film where they could see themselves.”

The close-knit team continues to build their catalog by pitching their skills to studios, foundations, and indie filmmakers when they find just the right film. Again, it’s bigger than ticket sales and awards.“They’re developing a relationship with a group of students and educators who see a value in seeing other lives,” McDonald says to studio execs. “They might sell more DVDs, but they also might become the brand that’s associated with open-mindedness and creativity and compassion.” She pauses, then laughs. “I don’t know if that’s what I say outright, but I know it’s what I’m thinking.”

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