Shelbyville Multimedia: Why the “It’s Complicated” Relationship is Often the Best Kind

February 22, 2011 //

February 22, 2011

By Maikiko James, Active Voice Program Manager

For the last decade, Active Voice has built its portfolio of work around stories of immigration, an issue that becomes increasingly polarized while solutions seem to be dimming. With Shelbyville Multimedia, we’ve embarked upon our most ambitious and challenging project on the subject to date. Initially conceptualized as a series of web videos chronicling the experience of a small southern town undergoing rapid demographic shift, the project eventually grew into a full-length documentary and multimedia campaign that explores the characters’ journeys and transformations, and invites others to share in the process. Now with a documentary film, webisodes, an interactive website and social media campaign in our arsenal, we proudly unveil a project as multifaceted as the issue of immigration itself.

So what exactly comprises Shelbyville Multimedia and what’s it all about? The independent documentary, Welcome to Shelbyville, directed and produced by Kim A. Snyder and executive produced by BeCause Foundation in association with Active Voice, paints a vivid picture of what demographic change in America looks like today – a black and white population transformed by a wave of Latino immigrants followed 15 years later by Somali and Burmese workers arriving for jobs at the local meatpacking plant – and lets viewers intimately get to know Shelbyville’s vibrant residents as they address this shift. The more compact resources like the webisodes and video modules (produced by Kelly Whalen, a producer for Not In Our Town) delve deeper into some of the major themes from the film and provide quick hooks for training and dialogue. The on-the-ground film and clip screenings, many helmed by Welcoming America and a cadre of other faith-based, policy and community organizations, have sparked real relationships and diverse action plans around the country. The website (developed in collaboration with Free Range Studios) and social media tools provide an interactive forum for immediate reflection, and of course, connection and story sharing.

It’s incredible to think that all of this started three years ago, when we asked our allies in the immigration policy world what kind of story would help address the volatile nature of immigration discourse in America. It was clear that they needed a conversation starter that p
ushed past the rhetorical noise and uncovered the layers of the issue – the nuance, the complication, and the connectivity. Shelbyville’s story is one of revelation by local residents that life has changed. Like it or not, newcomers and long-time residents are connected, and avoiding that connection has led to tensions that strain a community over supporting it. Building on that connection, while a long and challenging road, results in more livable dynamics for everyone, no matter what side of the political issue they may find themselves.

In a case of art (or engagement) imitating life, the success of Shelbyville Multimedia rests in our deep relationships, collaborations, and commitment to the long term processes of developing those. In a world of glorified quick-fixes, what started as a “little” initiative of short online videos morphed into its own solution to the problem. To be what it truly needed to be required both telling the whole story and having more concise access points, creating an “ecosystem of change” or symbiotic network of not just organizations but genuine personal relationships bridging them, and not willingness but eagerness to work together. This is not to say in the formation of Shelbyville Multimedia we’ve found the adhesive for our broken immigration system, but maybe we’ve found a bit of it. Progress for any community, national or local, requires the investment of the community, investment requires personal stake – which generally requires an authentic and meaningful relationship of some kind. And as far as I’ve learned, most good relationships have a pretty sweet story attached to them. We hope you like this one.


  1. The Whitman Institute on February 24, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Thanks, Maikiko! It's exciting to see how Shelbyville continues to evolve. I really like how you raise up the importance of process and relationships throughout. We need more stories like this one!