Social Impact Producer and Duke Adjunct Instructor, Heidi Nel, is in conversation with Sini Chen, Duke University Student and intern at American Documentary Inc. (Amdoc).

Stories and film have long had the power to raise awareness, shift perception, and bring about change. That is at the heart of AmDoc, collaborating with filmmakers to amplify their voices and offering programs with unique point-of-views.

While training and professional development in storytelling, filmmaking, and behaviour change communications has historically been limited to those in creative or marketing fields, Duke University is forging a new path.

Through POLIS, Duke’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service (which is housed in the Duke Sanford Public Policy School and helmed by Professor and Associate Dean Frederick “Fritz” Mayer), Duke teaches undergraduate and graduate students how to leverage stories and film to create social impact and influence policy change. A dedicated track in the new Democracy Lab, “Driving Social Impact Through Film” (which in full disclosure, I co-teach with fellow social impact strategist, Amy Hepburn) is designed to empower the next generation of changemakers to solve contemporary political challenges with new creative approaches.

Sini Chen, a student at Duke University who participated in this Democracy Lab course, is now interning at American Documentary’s America ReFramed, an independent documentary series featuring personal stories to explore the diversity and social issues of America. In the interview below, she shares her learnings and insights about the intersection of documentary film, social impact, and policy change.

HN: What aspects of stories inspire you and how do you think they’re able to drive social change and influence policy?

SC: I absolutely believe in the power of stories to build empathy and change hearts and minds. In class we talked a lot about narrative transportation, the ability for someone to lose themselves in a story and reflect that through renewed attitudes and intentions. Since we are limited by our surrounding and our conditions, we do constantly rely on stories to teach us about the rest of the world, through the emotions, triumphs, and heartbreaks of others. This is especially meaningful when storytellers are able to bridge misconceptions and connect with audiences in a manner that impacts the way they view an issue. In this sense, stories are great ways to influence public opinion and inspire policy change. I also believe that in this political climate, being able to tell stories through differences and myths is more important than ever.

HN: What lead you to enroll in the “Driving Social Impact Through Film” course in the new Democracy Lab at Duke earlier this year?

SC: At that point, I had already declared a major in public policy studies because I really enjoy learning about and breaking down complex social problems, and applying analytical framework. At the same time, I really fell in love with everything the Center for Documentary Studies had to offer, including the diverse selection of courses on the ethics and impact of storytelling, representation, power, history, and collective memory. I was ecstatic when I first heard about “Driving Social Impact Through Film” – a course at the intersection of my two very different academic interests. I knew that I needed to explore what that was like.

HN: In the course, you designed an impact campaign plan for a documentary film. Can you share about the film you selected and why?

SC: Absolutely! My team selected TRAPPED, a very powerful documentary on the state of reproductive rights in the U.S., by award-winning director Dawn Porter. I first saw the film a year prior at the National Young Feminist Leadership Conference in D.C., and remembered it being not only informative, but also effective in inspiring action – I started looking for ways to contribute and volunteer immediately after seeing the film. One of my team members has had personal experience with reproductive care in the past, and was very passionate about reproductive rights and healthcare. My other team member was very interested in exploring a politically polarizing issue that is oftentimes labeled as a fundamental debate on morality.

HN: Using the Fledgling Fund’s Impact Workbook as the backbone, you and your team created an impressive “mock” campaign plan for TRAPPED. How was the framework of the Impact Workbook helpful to you?

SC: The Fledgling Fund’s Impact Workbook informed a lot of our strategic thinking in pulling the campaign together. We consulted the workbook in articulating our vision, thinking through a change strategy that was practical yet ambitious, using data to measure and deepen impact, and coming up with creative and timely calls to action. The book provided an analytical framework that was easy to understand and follow, and allowed us a lot of creative freedom to think through implementation. As a team, we really appreciated the inclusion of data in the Impact Workbook – we recognize that there often isn’t a strong emphasis on data, but it is an important matrix to measure success and document impact.

HN: What were some of the most valuable things that you learned through your participation in the Democracy Lab? What about now at America ReFramed?

SC: The course equipped me with practical tools to think about impact production, and it also gave me the framework to think about change strategy, success matrix, data, and impact in a critical and intentional manner. I was able to hone in a lot of transferable skills working on such a large project, from time management to team collaboration. At America ReFramed, I am learning a lot about the industry itself. It is absolutely wonderful that I get to pre-screen documentaries, participate in editorial meetings, attend events, and really just learn the ins and outs of the field.

HN: What’s the most recent issue-driven documentary film that you’ve watched and how do you think it will affect social change?

SC: I recently went to a community screening of Deej, which premiered on America ReFramed last month, with an upcoming encore broadcast on December 26th followed by a 30-day free streaming window on It tells the story of DJ Savarese (commentator and co-producer), a gifted, young writer and advocate for nonspeaking autistics. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story that is profound and unflinching. I was amazed at how packed the community screening is and how engaged the audience members were. I believe the discussions of neuro-diversity, education, and inclusion will stay with the audience members, changing public opinion one person at a time. In this very organic way, the film is already facilitating social change – by including stories historically discarded, addressing topics not discussed, and acknowledging the creative power and political power of marginalized persons.

HN: How do you think documentary film is changing the world?

SC: I think documentary films are broadening our horizons, bridging cultural and political differences, shedding lights on issues, telling untold stories, remembering important moments and movements, inspiring personal actions, and so much more. There is no limit in the number of ways documentary films are moving the needle and making impact.

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Heidi Nel
Heidi Nel is a Principal at The Raben Group where she leads the firm's social impact entertainment practice area. A media expert and and social impact producer, she uses stories, art, film, and technology to make the world a better place.With over a decade of experience at the intersection of film and policy, she has worked on multiple award-winning films, and helped move the needle on civil rights issues such as, sexual assault, criminal justice, and immigration. She is also an adjunct instructor at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, where she co-teaches “Driving Social Impact Through Film," and a partner of the Truman National Security Project. A native of South Africa, Nel grew up in Colorado, graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts, and resides in Alexandria, VA.