SIMA Studios is a global curator of social impact media with multiple arms: SIMA Awards, which honor high-quality social impact media across the globe; SIMA X, a community film screening and distribution initiative; and SIMA Classroom, an educational program designed to “provide first-class visual storytelling resources to education forums worldwide.” Recently, we chatted with SIMA’s founder and executive director, Daniela Kon, and global partnerships director Viri Pittaro about SIMA Classroom, their new impact assessment tool for measuring empathy, and the power of storytelling through film. Here’s what we learned.
Media Impact Funders: Can you describe what you do at SIMA?
SIMA: At SIMA, we have a saying: “Documentary is fatal to prejudice.” Documentaries can bring us right into the action by allowing us to experience powerful personal narratives. They help us see the world through someone else’s eyes, adding vital perspectives to the way we comprehend people’s circumstances and ultimately, the way we relate to them.
As a global impact media agency, we have been working to set new standards for transparency and integrity in social impact storytelling since 2012. Through the annual global Social Impact Media Awards, a network of 2,000 content creators in more than 140 countries, and international screening programs in communities across 30 countries, we are amplifying the world’s best social impact documentaries with the goal of transforming audiences into agents of change.
MIF: What was the genesis of your education program, SIMA Classroom?
SIMA: In 2016, we invited a group of Los Angeles high school students to join on the pre-selection committee of our annual awards. Learning how this experience impacted them was a wake-up call. While we had previously set all our efforts on facilitating screenings and engagement platforms on the grassroots level across six continents to mobilize local community activism, the idea of opening a distribution channel for students and educators to access worldwide, inflamed a new ambition and sense of purpose amongst our team. We were sitting on a goldmine of global social impact content, and here was our opportunity to harness the power of some of the world’s best social impact storytelling in service of quality 21st century education.
SIMA Classroom, our online global citizenship education and film platform now reaches 1,850 educators and 44,000 high-school and college students in 30 countries. It combines a carefully curated collection of over 140 award-winning short documentaries and virtual reality films with learning resources and participatory skill-building lessons that bring global social justice issues, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and social entrepreneurial innovations to life. This is exactly in tune with how the current generation of students consumes information about the world— through powerful, short-format media.
MIF: How are you thinking about the impact of SIMA Classroom?
SIMA: We know SIMA Classroom is having a big impact. For example, students from Israel, Palestine, Morocco and the U.S. all watched the same SIMA Classroom film about refugees in Greece and came together to discuss different perspectives on the refugee crisis while bridging cross-cultural divides in the process.
SIMA Classroom inspired a student-led advocacy campaign about local animal shelters in the Ukraine, which, in conjunction with a student VR production, culminated in a charity marathon with local council members, military and police officers. The project went on to win the national Design for Change campaign, which allowed the students to participate in the ICAN global summit in Rome, bringing youth from 100 countries together to learn to design projects around the United Nation’s sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Students in the U.S. have led fundraising efforts in support of relief for Syria, organized a town-hall meeting, led local advocacy campaigns about industrial farming and GMOs, and researched sustainable business practices while devising ideas for social enterprises.
Students in Ghana experienced Kayayo, a film about family enforced child labor and exploitation, set on a market place in Accra just a few miles from their own school—learning about crucial consequences of poverty while reflecting on the meaning and potential of their own access to education. Students from New York to Iraq to Singapore have used SIMA Classroom films to advocate and present on the UN’s SDGs, feeling empowered to actively participate in creating the changes they want to see in the world.
In many ways, these impact stories tell us more about our impact than hard numbers could ever do, but we are challenged by the demands for quantifiable metrics of both grantmaking institutions and our own quest to find a more straightforward and reliable way to assess and improve our work.
Since launching SIMA Classroom, we have been gathering individual testimonies, conducting surveys and developing case studies on how our program affects the learning experience. We collect and analyze quarterly educator and student assessment surveys which include a combination of both qualitative and quantitative data.
MIF: Tell us about the next phase of impact measurement. You’ve created a free Impact Media Literacy Course for educators and are developing something interesting called the Empathy Index.
SIMA: We are in the early stages of developing the Empathy Index to measure the impact of our program on students. The Empathy Index will be based on indicators that look at student’s perceptions of other people and cultures before and after experiencing social impact films with SIMA Classroom. This will allow us to quantify the qualitative components of empathy to provide evidence of attitude changes, actual learning outcomes, and behavior changes as a result of access to “education-entertainment” in the classroom.
MIF: Do you see any challenges associated with this work?
SIMA: If we agree that the bedrock for “doing good” for global awareness and civic engagement is rooted in the experience of empathy—the ability to “feel with” another person, through the use of our imagination that calls for understanding, not judgement—then the challenge for education is to regard empathy as a skill that needs to be practiced and improved. It’s our challenge at SIMA to position social impact media as the tool and treadmill that helps students build and flex their empathy muscles, and we are excited for the prospect of the Empathy Index to help us make our case.
We believe that when it comes to measuring our impact, we have to remain innovative and flexible. Major players such as the Knight Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Ford Foundation have directed significant work and funding towards impact measurement tools and models for media, leading to the creation and sustained development of hubs for best practices, thought leadership, and innovation in impact measurement such as the Media Impact Project at the University of Southern California’s Norman Lear Center.
But startups and organizations in the field are still left to experiment and rethink measurement metrics that may still work in the fields of health, food and banking—but don’t apply to media. Media’s impact has an element of mystery that is unique compared to other fields. We must leave some space to embrace the mystery. The real impact solution may not ever be a cutting-edge tool or formula that generates data and information, but may just be what’s at the heart of what inspired all of us to work in this field in the first place: Storytelling.
SIMA 2020 is now open for entries to the 8th annual SIMA Awards, which recognizes the most thought-provoking films and media productions of our time. In addition to its traditional Awards categories, this year SIMA is widening the scope of appreciation by honoring Impact Media Funders (Grant-makers, Foundations + Corporate Entities) whose support of social impact media is uniquely empowering the work of content creators in the field. We invite you to enter SIMA 2020 to be recognized for your commitment to catalyzing impact media. Learn more.