Unity Productions Foundation: Creating Peace through Media

By: Casey Hammond

July 26, 2018

Background

Unity Productions Foundation (UPF) is a non-profit 501(c)3 foundation registered in California with operational offices in the Washington, D.C. area. It was founded by Michael Wolfe and Alex Kronemer in 1999. In an interview with Kronemer, he described that 20 years ago before UPF’s inception:

"There were very few active projects that engaged Muslims. There was a book that I read around that time called Reel Bad Arabs by Jack Shaheen that really illuminated and identified the idea that Muslims and Arabs were generally portrayed very negatively, in often heated, prejudicial, and stereotypical ways that only serve to raise fear, raise a certain amount of disgust towards Muslims and Arabs. This was largely a media phenomenon because very few people knew the Arab Americans and Muslims at all in any personal interactions." 

As such, the mission of UPF is to counter bigotry and create peace through media. In light of political events following the bombing of the World Trade Center, these tensions that UPF works to counter were exacerbated. UPF produces films that aim to dispel the negative, xenophobic sentiments that plague the Muslim and Arab communities. These films tell compelling stories for television, online viewing, and theatrical release. UPF “screenings have taken place in thousands of classrooms and civic institutions. Over 83 percent of participants in UPF film screenings and dialogues indicate positive feedback after viewing.” These screenings culminate with dialogue events centered on forming interpersonal relations by partnering with prominent Jewish, Muslim, and Christian interfaith groups. UPF has successfully gathered more than 80,000 participants in classrooms, community centers, living rooms, government offices, and religious congregations; has had its films viewed by an estimated 150 million people worldwide; and works in Hollywood with its Muslims on Screen and Television Resource Center to provide facts and research to script writers and producers on popular shows worldwide. 

Description

As a non-profit, UPF is composed of a board of trustees and a team of experts that handle day-to-day operations and projects. The two heads of the organization are Alex Kronemer, one of UPF’s executive producers and its CEO, and Michael Wolfe, the other executive producer and president. The rest of the team encompasses roles ranging from producer and development director, coordinator, director of programs and producer, outreach and production associate, sales and operations, donor care, to event and project coordinators. UPF’s film productions and events target community centers, religious institutions, and schools to host film screenings and dialogues. Year after year, UPF’s films are recognized for excellence, having won, to name a few, Best Documentary at the 2007 American Black Film Festival, 5 Telly Awards for excellence in educational documentaries, and the Hamburg World Media Film Festival’s Gold and Silver Awards. Moreover, not only have nine of UPF’s films been nationally broadcasted for the U.S. Public Broadcasting System, but also many of these films have been distributed to wide international audiences.

To fund its projects and film productions, UPF receives donations from donors who support UPF’s mission to reshape the discourse on American Muslims and Arabs. In the past, UPF has met the standards of foundations such as Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the United States Institute of Peace, who have partially funded previous projects. More recently, UPF in partnership with the Kingdom Mission Society, an intra-evangelical and Protestant movement, has received funding from the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID) to support their Peace Requires Encounter campaign—“. . . a powerful new initiative to build peace between Muslims and Evangelical Christians communities across America” by launching 50 screenings of the docudrama The Sultan and the Saint [1].

Religious Lens

The nonprofit organization approaches its work through many religious lenses, which aids its efforts in promoting interreligious dialogue and informing how it facilitates such events. UPF primarily works with Muslims as it tries to reshape the discourse on Islam, but the religious makeup of the organization is diverse. Kronemer recognizes that “. . . lodged deeply in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam–in fact, almost the central idea—is a notion of social justice, even though the approaches are different.” By focusing on the intersection between interreligious dialogue and social justice, UPF fosters a team and work environment dedicated to causing transformative change in the field of social activism, regardless of one’s faith or background in the pursuit of a mutual purpose: to nourish pluralism in the United States and around the world.

Through this work, UPF understands its constraints as well, as it takes a team of pundits from respective faiths to develop effective methods of communication and dialogue. Thus, UPF consults a team of Muslim leaders when they create educational films. In turn, these experts inform the writers of the theological and cultural aspects of Islam to ensure the film’s accuracy. However, this expertise is only one aspect. Expertise and theological concepts must permeate communities to instill change and to change the discourse. Daniel Tutt—who leads the scholarly development of UPF films and directs its outreach and educational programs—perceives interreligious dialogue as “. . . the main catalyst for assisting the understanding of my own Christian roots. . . and interreligious dialogue—precisely because it introduced me to people who had a lot of grounding in their faith tradition—assisted me in reflecting on my own grounding.” While accuracy and the correct interpretation of holy texts is important, being able to communicate amongst groups of people from different faith traditions is equally as critical. Interreligious dialogue is one medium through which this communication is possible.

This particular religious lens—being able to de-otherize people and recognize their common humanity—is essential to UPF’s mission. In its basic form, interfaith dialogue rests on the premise that “We are all equal, we all face social oppression in different ways. It is the basis of common ground.” The caveat, however, is that these dialogues must be framed in the right context to avoid contention. If not framed appropriately, dialogues can diverge into sessions of comparing social oppression, visceral fights, or perhaps events that reinforce stereotypes and preconceived notions rather than correcting them. Dialogues ought to be community-based activities that demystify the other, not meetings that spur more conflict and exacerbate social conditions. To re-highlight Kronemer’s point, UPF focuses on the personal aspects of faith while engaging with the shared root of social justice, i.e. what can communities of diverse people do in conjunction with one another to cultivate harmony? UPF’s work is necessarily adaptive and flexible in nature, akin to the way in which religion is often dynamic and unpredictable. If one looks at the discourse on Islam and other faiths, problems facing these respective communities are often overdetermined by geopolitical forces. In this sense, UPF’s team and productions must be malleable to these changing discourses and respond accordingly, whether it was after the 9/11 outcry or the recent Muslim ban proposed by the Trump administration. Films, dialogues, and events are catered to specific audiences with precise goals, as interreligious dialogue is innately volatile. 

Without a recognition of interreligious dialogue’s flexibility, UPF’s work would not be as successful. Because UPF is concerned with long-term change, it is afforded the opportunity to strategize and construct powerful narratives and projects from religious roots. When reflecting on his own understanding of this field, Kronemer said interreligious dialogue “. . . has meant at times simply to bring people together, to try to bring goals and information, discussions and meanings in this time, or bringing people together for a deeper purpose to have a deeper engagement and respect for one another.” In short, UPF’s work necessarily involves theological, professional, and personal religious contexts, consequently making the organization evaluate its methods in light of changing social and political environments. 

Innovative Work

The hallmark of UPF’s work is storytelling through the power of film. These stories, which are specifically crafted with the intent to promote discussion, mediate critical messages to their audiences. Storytelling, Kronemer posits, involves “… neurological processes that are still being explored to better grasp social understanding, but our brains process those stories as if they are happening to us.” In other words, whether we read a book, listen to a story, or watch a film, we relate to the themes and characters in some fashion. Consequently, these stories are used as facilitators of interreligious dialogue—breaking down boundaries and encouraging conversation on relatable grounds.

In its most recent campaign, Peace Requires Encounter, UPF has partnered with Kingdom Mission Society and KAICIID to build bridges between evangelical and Muslim communities within the United States. The Sultan and the Saint, a film produced by UPF, is a story about the courage and peacebuilding efforts of St. Francis of Assisi and Sultan al Kamil during the height of the Crusades’ deadly conflict. By using this film which portrays a newfound friendship between two prominent figures in Christianity and Islam who wish to build peace, UPF and its partners hope to redesign the way in which interreligious dialogue between evangelicals and Muslims has historically been pursued. This initiative emphasizes: “Instead of a purely theological-based dialogue or a politically-based dialogue over issues such as abortion, pornography or other conservative values that both communities support, this dialogue will focus on the central issue of the imperative that both faith traditions place on peacemaking” [2]. The Peace Requires Encounter campaign aims to hold 50 screenings nationwide and reach over 10,000 individuals. Two hundred peacemakers will be identified and tasked with providing materials for these discussions and maintaining the robust peacebuilding relationships. 

The ultimate goal of UPF’s Peace Requires Encounter campaign and its many other projects is to reshape the discourse on Arabs and Islam, primarily through a process of humanization but also as a vehicle for conflict prevention. By redirecting the attention from commonalities in both faith’s scriptures such as the presence of Jesus—who is portrayed in starkly different contexts which could escalate tensions rather than mitigate them—UPF “. . . may make a film that deals with themes that would help heal a divide between Christians and Muslims . . .That is our applied mission.” These dialogues, materials, and events, as a result, are carefully constructed under paradigmatic themes of social justice concentrated on peacebuilding. Mohammed Abu-Nimer, a senior advisor to KAICIID, rationalizes that interreligious dialogue “. . . is a form of conflict prevention; it can prevent conflicts from escalating and prevent conflicts from causing violence.” Indeed—UPF’s utilization of storytelling as the central method of delivery and development of dialogue is a turn in how interreligious dialogue is traditionally conducted. Instead of focusing on esoteric theological concepts that tend to be alien to laypeople, UPF is using an inclusive, familiar medium that transcends ethnic, religious, and national boundaries.

Other interreligious dialogue projects and peacebuilding efforts have used the commonality approach before, but sometimes clergy and religious leaders have trouble communicating their messages to individuals who fall outside their respective faiths. UPF’s educational work attempts to rectify this issue by employing methods through which everyone, regardless of one’s background, can find personal resonance. Other organizations and people could benefit from UPF’s example; by participating in this field, flexibility and perpetual reevaluation are undoubtedly necessary. Abu-Nimer comments that “. . . in this field . . . no matter what you do, you must always be flexible and adjust your plans to the local contexts and target audience you have.” In such cases, outdated models of peacebuilding based on past expertise could be ineffective. Volatility demands adaptability, and UPF does an excellent job by seeking to expand its knowledge of the field so it may respond aptly, rather than operating under speculations. 

Conclusion

One major area of concern, especially in the social activist and interreligious dialogue world, is measuring success. Especially in such qualitative terms, how can UPF determine the degree of impact its films and events have on their participants? Kronemer, Tutt, and Abu-Nimer express that there are many measures of success, one of which is evaluations. UPF and KAICIID routinely have participants fill-out questionnaires before and after events and screenings, which illuminates to what degree participants’ thoughts, opinions, and knowledge have changed. Additionally, if funding permits, UPF may keep in contact with participants and track their opinions and work over time. Abu-Nimer also indicates that one central method of determining success is to see how organizations KAICIID funds operate after they stop receiving KAICIID’s financial support. In other words, do these organizations have the capacity to work independently of KAICIID? Likewise, UPF is concerned with not only peacebuilding but also recruiting peacemakers. After such screenings and dialogues, how are people returning to their respective communities and inspiring change, healing divides, and building bridges? In effect, seeing people return to their communities and making active strides to build peace is the greatest indicator of success. 

Peacebuilding in religious communities can be taxing and difficult, but these tribulations do not prevent organizations like UPF from working to reshape the discourse on Arabs and Muslims. But this work is focused on long-term change. In this world, we face both climatic events and pressing systemic issues. When asked what his greatest takeaway from this field is, Kronemer recalled: “The biggest lesson we’ve learned that others could benefit from is: don’t lose your strategic focus, and don’t let events take you away from your focus.” Therefore, UPF must pick its battles. It cannot hope to respond to every issue, and if UPF tries to, it could lose its original focus. Events can have little longevity, but issues like discourse are sustained through normative and institutional structures that requires unrelenting, conscientious work. 

Moving forward, UPF has done important work in Hollywood and film to reconfigure the way Muslims and Arabs are depicted. Its educational, community, and popular outreach is expanding, and UPF’s work is internationally recognized and acclaimed. Its Peace Requires Encounter campaign is healing deep divides between two disparate communities, which will serve to expand UPF’s knowledge in the field of social activism and interreligious dialogue and hopefully cultivate further effective tools as it works to reconstruct discourses and build peace. It is difficult to predict whether peacebuilding initiatives will be successful, but groundbreaking work begins with a degree of risk, determination, and open minds. Above everything else, UPF does not lack in these three areas; its team and leadership are an adaptable, comprehensive unit with a shared vision, poised to take gambits and reevaluate its own strategies for its greater purpose.

[1] Daniel Tutt, Alexei Laushkin, “Peace Requires Encounter: Nationwide Evangelical-Muslim Peacemaking Campaign Centered Around UPF`s The Sultan and the Saint,” https://www.sultanandthesaintfilm.com, April 30, 2018.

[2] Ibid.

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Unity Productions Foundation: Creating Peace through Media