*UPDATE, 1/11/2012* Education Under Fire DVD kits are now for sale through the Baha’i Distribution Service. As a part of this package, you will receive the documentary and five copies of the open letter regarding the Iranian government’s attack on the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education co-authored by Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Desmond Tutu and President of East Timor, José Ramos-Horta. This letter provides action points that will help mitigate the effects of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s policies. In addition, included with this package is a “Guide For Action” providing step-by-step suggestions for beginning the conversation on your campus or in your community.
Less than a month after the New York premiere of Education Under Fire (EUF), the documentary screened at four Boston-area campuses with resounding success in the campaign’s mission to raise awareness about the plight of students in Iran.
EUF tells the story of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a community-run initiative in Iran that serves young Baha’is who are barred from university because of their religious beliefs.
On Nov. 11 the film screened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in conjunction with the Amnesty International Northeast Regional Conference.
Three more days of Boston-area screenings followed, at Wheelock College, Boston University and Harvard University.
Among many outcomes, the Harvard Graduate School of Education confirmed in an email from Dean Kathleen McCartney that it now accepts BIHE coursework for transfer credit.
Actor and Baha’i Rainn Wilson was on hand for the panel Q&A sessions after each screening, along with EUF founder and executive producer David Hoffman, EUF director Jeff Kaufman and other panelists who could speak to the Iranian government’s policy to deny university education to religious minorities and other groups deemed undesirable by the regime.
Media coverage included the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, Harvard Crimson, Harvard EdCast, BUniverse, BU Daily Free Press, and radio stations at Emerson College and Wellesley College.
Campaigns can be successful without star power
While the EUF organizers acknowledge that Wilson’s involvement in the Boston-area screenings added to the campaign’s success there, the team is reassured that other campuses can replicate the experience by drawing on local resources.
“We really want folks to know,” Hoffman says, “they can have meaningful process-driven campaigns without the presence of ‘star power.’”
All it takes, he says, are “the resources we provide online, the relationships brewing with Amnesty International and others, and most important your own local connections.”
For example, the Boston University (BU) screening benefited from an introductory talk by BU professor and Baha’i Ruha Benjamin, who drew on the university’s long-standing defense of the right to education.
“This inspiring talk served to connect with larger human rights issues locally and to instill a sense of pride in the 500-member BU audience,” Hoffman says.
Meetings with influential faculty and administrators pointed the way to actions the campaign could investigate, such as a BU professor who assigned attendance at the screening in lieu of class and asked students to devise lines of action they could undertake in support of the campaign.
“Action stations” at the Wheelock event helped attendees identify ways to get involved.
Thousands engaged by screenings, publicity
Since the documentary debuted in late October on two New York City campuses, Hoffman said thousands of people have attended a screening on college campuses, engaged panelists in dialogue, and committed to actions in support of those denied education in Iran.
Many thousands more have heard, watched or read interviews and other media accounts of the campaign.
Hoffman also counts thousands who have completed the “Join Us” form on the website www.educationunderfire.org since the project began in mid-September. By mid-November, about 50 had signaled interest in organizing screenings and were in various stages of planning.
He points to the University of Oregon, where a Nov. 15 event was organized with “very little assistance,” as proof that it’s possible to plan a screening on college campuses without heavy involvement by the EUF team.
“This is an important development,” he says, “because we are hoping for hundreds of screening conversations which will be planned at the local level.”
The key, Hoffman says, is for organizers to review the online resources on the website, after which they should require only a couple hours of one-on-one consultation with an EUF team members to share pointers and best practices.
Other learnings that have become clear after several screenings include:
- EUF taps into a wellspring of support in this country for freedom of education and justice.
- Successful screenings are possible not just on large campuses or in large Baha’i communities.
- If planning is approached as a process rather than an event, relationships built at this time will make further collaborations that much more effective.
- Likewise, organizing a screening builds capacity that will be invaluable in all arenas of service.
Tips from the executive producer
Hoffman offers some pointers for anyone seeking to organize a screening of EUF and conversations surrounding it.
Collaborate with Local Spiritual Assemblies. Boston-area planners attributed their success to collaboration with the Boston Spiritual Assembly.
Continual consultation with that institution, they say, “integrated the various teams, avoided fragmentation of thought and action, and helped to structure the enormous degree of complexity that the team faced.”
“It is clear and evident,” Hoffman says, “that when a Local Spiritual Assembly makes serious efforts to galvanize a solid core of the friends who, working together like a well-oiled machine and with single-minded intention, set about in a systematic and constant manner, the … results are mysteriously exponential.”
The team says it conceived of the EUF effort “as an opportunity to build institutional, individual and collective capacity” both in support of BIHE in Iran and for the Boston-area Baha’i community.
“Frequent reference was made during the planning to the importance of avoiding an ‘event-focused’ mentality wherein attendees derive momentary inspiration but lack clear opportunities to act and contribute in some way.”
Be focused but flexible with the conversation portion. New online tools are in development to help streamline the conversation portion that typically follows the documentary screening.
While Hoffman says it’s not necessary, or practical, for every screening to be followed by a panel, he notes that a clear and simple road map to facilitate conversation and action is critical.
The framework the campaign envisions is focused but flexible, to allow for what Hoffman calls “the power that arises in the creative process.”
He suggests the Nobel laureates’ letter that kicked off the EUF campaign as a good starting point.
“Doors are quickly opened in asking friends, colleagues and associates to endorse the letter. Nobody will do that without reading it first. Everyone will read a letter by such well-regarded individuals,” Hoffman says.
“Once they read it they will have a very good picture of what the problem is and suggestions of steps they can take to help mitigate it.”
Reach out to the community before and after a screening. Engage in outreach leading up to a screening is important for more reasons than one, Hoffman says.
“While this period can be seen as a time to promote the coming film and event, it’s really more than that,” he says. “It’s when the conversation begins. Efforts during this period could have monumental results even if it wasn’t followed by an event, even if there was no film.”
Equally important, Hoffman says, is to think of ways to keep the conversation going after the event, to work together towards solutions.
“It’s all about making connections. As Baha’is we know the importance of walking the path of service with others. EUF provides a very tangible and easy-to-connect way to do just that.”
High school campuses are good screening venues, too. The first screening at a high school was organized for Dec. 7 in St. Petersburg, Florida, where student John Pilz “virtually singlehandedly” planned the event, says Hoffman.
“John has been proactive in reaching out to his principal, several teachers and the entire student body,” Hoffman says. “He secured a wonderful venue, started a Facebook page, reached out to a neighborhood private high school and is even considering reaching out to the county school board and neighboring universities.
“He has garnered the support of and galvanized his Local Spiritual Assembly in the process and is really moving and shaking.”
Don’t overlook non-academic settings. Hoffman welcomes community-based initiatives that are not necessarily tied to university or high school campuses.
He notes the National Spiritual Assembly may call for such activities when schools are out for summer break, but says in the meantime individuals should not be discouraged from signing up to organize a screening in their communities.
“The important thing is that folks know that it is OK to organize such events and that, like the campus-based initiatives, we want them to view the event itself as part of a process.”
The EUF website has resources geared toward non-academic settings as well. Hoffman recommends that planners consider religious groups as potential partners along with Amnesty International chapters and similar organizations.
“One approach might be for the community to invite some academics or administrators to an event and reach out with the [Nobel] laureates’ letter and other tools in advance, like we hope will happen at universities,” he says.