• Lex Harrington

Storytelling for Mission Driven Orgs: Behind the Scenes with Amherst-Pelham School District

With documentary content, the best stories are formed when there is an unwavering common thread between subjects – a narrative with tangible consistency from a range of sources. From one person to another, recurring themes, consistent mentions and affirmations of a collective truth make for a reliable and compelling story.This Spring, Opalite Media had the pleasure of collaborating with the Amherst-Pelham school district to create a signature piece that highlighted the vision, mission, and core values of the district. A remarkable aspect of this project was the resounding consistency of affirmation that the district’s mission was well at play, not only from the perspective of the Superintendent and the teachers, but from the students as well.

The theme that rang out above all others was that of diversity and inclusion within the Amherst-Pelham community. These values were evident through the range of testimonies we acquired from students who shared with us experiences in their school community. These were also reflected by the teachers who discussed how the curriculum allowed them to explore broad questions of inclusion, race, gender, and sexuality within the context of an academically rigorous environment. We were able to capture their words at face value through the beautiful and inspiring artwork in one of the middle schools, in the in-depth historical research projects within a high school, and through promotional posters for Pride events in an elementary school library. Through our lenses we were able to see first-hand that the district truly walked their talk.

This documentary-style approach for showcasing the district is powerful for a number of reasons. The audio-visual format is an easy, concise, and highly accessible way to spread a message. Beyond a targeted message, there is an excitement that comes with audiences having the ability to get a glimpse of the subject from a new perspective. By applying documentary-style production, the video showcases subjects speaking in their own words with authentic conviction. it’s not simply telling a story — it’s documenting a real and ongoing story shared through lived experiences.

There has been increasing discussions of the merits of social-media based engagement over the past year. Gloria Horsley, a Forbes Councils Member for the Forbes Nonprofit Council penned an article in May discussing the expansive benefits that creating a YouTube channel specifically had for her nonprofit. Horsley explains how her team had previous thought YouTube was too specific of a demographic and wouldn’t be accessible for prospective donors and volunteers they were trying to reach. However she laments that they “couldn’t have been more incorrect and would have continued missing out on a great opportunity to engage with our target audience if we hadn’t developed a YouTube strategy.”

Joe Sanfelippo and Tony Sinanis express a similar sentiment regarding the rich benefits of video-based promotional content in their paper Telling Your Story. However, their take highlights the ultimate strength in showcasing the emotion behind your story, writing that, “We provide the opportunity to connect, and through that connection we develop a great deal of social capital with the people in our world. That social capital is pivotal for trust. A picture, video, or post can have a profound impact on emotions. The world has always belonged to the storytellers, and always will.” Both perspectives outlined highlight varying valuable aspects of video-based storytelling, from digital strategy to emotional impact on the viewer.

Specifically for school districts, a signature video is a powerful resource for communicating a vision and mission to diverse stakeholders, including parents, community members, other districts, and the school community. For prospective parents or students, this kind of visual media represents an opportunity to gain a more in-depth understanding of what a district has to offer them. Through rich storytelling, the district can communicate an image and identity for who they are and what they do as an organization. This sense of identity provides an anchor for engaging with families and reinforcing trust in the community.

Encouraging engagement via accessible forms of new media, and utilizing popular outlets such as social media allows organizations to not just show “who we are” and “what we do,” but allow audiences to experience it first-hand. Utilizing relevant platforms and adapting to modern technology also emphasizes an organization’s commitment to developing with the times. Our work with the Amherst-Pelham school district serves as an example of documentary-style storytelling being used to deliver on key organizational goals in multi-dimensional ways.