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American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact Receives $1.73 Million in New Grants

The grants will expand comedy and social justice programming and initiatives at the innovative center

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Comedian Kenice Mobley at GoodLaugh Initiative Launch Event

The Center for Media and Social Impact (CMSI) has received three transformative grants totaling $1.73 million, which will support and expand its research, creative, and event programming in comedy and social justice.

CMSI, housed within American University’s School of Communication, has evolved into the premier research center in the country studying and producing comedy for social justice. The work brings comedy, the entertainment industry, and human rights organizations together.

"Entertainment and comedy are powerful forces that shape our present and our future and bringing comedy and human rights together is a winning strategy for imagining a kinder world," said Caty Borum, executive director of CMSI and principal investigator on the grants. "Philanthropic collaborators are absolutely essential to this work." 

The award from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation will support a full range of comedy initiatives, along with new grants from Open Society Foundations and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges program to support the Yes, And…Laughter Lab.

“Shaping a future world that is healthier, more just and equitable is intentional work, and we must include the role of creative culture—entertainment, comedy, the stories we tell and see—in these efforts,” said Isabelle Gerard, senior communications officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “CMSI’s work in comedy and social justice is pathbreaking in this regard, and the [foundation] sees it as innovative and important.”

CMSI’s team has spent nearly a decade building programs to showcase how and why comedy should be taken seriously as a theory of change when it comes to social justice, health, and equity. CMSI’s portfolio includes public-facing and peer-reviewed research, books, events, collaborative creative production models, and media production.

“Comedy is uniquely powerful as a form of persuasion, cultural amplification, resilience, message amplification through widespread sharing, and motivator for change—a statement that rings true across multiple forms of study and practice,” said Borum. “Comedy in participatory culture is vital as the entertainment industry undergoes revolutionary change, particularly for communities that have been historically marginalized.”

“It is readily apparent that comedy and storytelling are powerful mediums for dismantling barriers and creating connections across community divides. In those moments, they are highly effective at conveying critical perspectives,” said Zeyba Rahman, director of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program. “We are pleased to support CMSI’s groundbreaking creative project to combine social justice with comedy to address systemic inequities and contribute to advancing social change.” 

Since 2018, CMSI has launched several initiatives to research, shape, support, and distribute comedy for social justice, including GoodLaugh, a comedy production engine and knowledge lab; Yes, And…Laughter Lab, a competitive incubation lab co-directed with Moore + Associates that elevates diverse comedy writers and performers; Climate Comedy Cohort, co-directed with Generation180, a network of comedians creating climate change focused comedy; and the Comedy ThinkTanks program, a creative workshop series that brings together social justice organizations and comedians.

“As our democracy continues to expand at a rapid pace, we understand that comedy has the potential and ability to reach new audiences through their hearts and minds to understand complex issues that impact all of us,” said Jennifer Shaw, senior program manager for narrative change at Open Society-U.S. “We are so excited to support the work of the Yes And… Laughter Lab. Comedy allows us to be human, it connects us and it allows us to create empathy, joy and understanding in ways that are important towards building an inclusive and open society.”

With its new philanthropic support, CMSI plans to expand staffing, launch new comedy and human rights collaborations, increase student engagement, and shape new programs in 2023 and beyond. The core Center for Media and Social Impact team members who work on the comedy portfolio are: Caty Borum (Executive Director and Principal Investigator), Bethany Hall (Creative Director of Comedy Initiatives), Varsha Ramani (Operations Director), Jordana Jason (Comedy Producer), and Kenice Mobley (Consulting Producer).

Roy Wood, Jr. on stage at GoodLaugh Initiative Launch Event

Comedian Roy Wood, Jr. performs at CMSI's GoodLaugh Good day event