Q&A: ‘UNDIVIDE US’ Film is Breaking Down Barriers for Civil Conversation 

Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with “UNDIVIDE US” filmmaker and director Kristina Kendall and one of the film’s producers, Senior Vice President at State Policy Network Carrie Conko, to discuss the project. In our current, troubled political and cultural environment, the film is built around creating a dialogue and trust among Americans, especially those who disagree on today’s most pressing issues. Below, Kendall and Conko share how “UNDIVIDE US” came about, the key role philanthropy played in its creation and how the film can foster respectful civil discourse. 

Q: Why did you create this film? What prompted the idea? 

Kendall: Just like most of us, I think, I looked at the current state of public discourse and thought: What kind of world are we leaving for our kids? A world where we can’t disagree with one another and where we are losing faith in our fellow citizens. I wasn’t satisfied with this and as I started doing research on this topic, I came across a book by Tony Woodlief called “I, Citizen.”  

In his book Tony makes the important point that the vast majority of Americans can engage with people with whom they disagree without conflict, and are even eager to do that, but because the extremism dominates the public discourse it makes them reluctant to enter into conversations. The 80% of us who want to converse, we get worried we’re going to get jumped on and screamed at. Nobody wants that. 
Conko: State Policy Network supported production and marketing of this film because we value the key themes—the importance of pluralism and civil discourse and the role they play in self-governance and federalism. We’re being told by Washington that our problems are too big and we’re too divided as a nation to solve them. Time and again we see one size fits all solutions come from Washington generating divisiveness in our communities.  

Solutions can’t even be generated at the local level because the national narrative crowds them out. In the film we show that we don’t have to make a federal case out of every issue. We highlight the fact that the American people really are able to engage in civil discourse around the toughest issues and have conversations around solutions that are common sense. 

Q: This film is a great example of human connection and the value of local community. Why is 2024 the right time for this content? What do you hope to accomplish with the film? 

Conko: Election years are always polarizing events for the country. With this in mind, we had an ambitious production schedule for the film. We began in January 2023 and held our first test screening in August. In 2024, we want to inject that sense of respect, of conversation, of seeking understanding, all at a time when we’re not going to hear that from the media, politicians or on social media. We want to remind people that these differences that we have in our communities and our cities, our towns or states, are a feature of the system and not a bug. 

Kendall: Nobody is saying our disagreements aren’t real. They are. But treating your fellow citizens with respect and listening to the people sitting across the table, rather than just dismissing them as stupid idiots—that’s the goal. Seeing the way that naturally happens in this film is exciting to me. 

Q: Why does it even matter that we get Americans to talk again? What’s at stake? 

Conko: Americans have a long history of coming together in times of challenge and accomplishing big things. When we can’t see and value each other as fellow citizens, our humanity and civil society are at stake. When politics gets into everything—everything from our dinner table conversations to which doctor we choose—we start to choose sides and we start to label and villainize the other side. We want to encourage understanding, respect and curiosity.  

Q: What are your biggest takeaways from the film, and what surprised you the most? 

Kendall: I was a little surprised that nobody in the film changed their mind about the issues; people tended to leave where they started. But something did change. They changed how they felt about the people on the other side—they approached the issue with more humanity and were able to bring more civility to the conversation. That was amazing. And the participants loved it. The people involved in the conversations wanted to stay and kept talking with each other. They wouldn’t leave! That taught me that people are hungry for these conversations. They’re hungry for the ability to engage with their fellow citizens with respect and dignity.  

Q: What has the reception to the film been like? 

Kendall: People are excited after each screening, and generally each screening spurs a few more because people want to share it with the people they care about or take it back to their local community. We’re looking into getting the film on broadcast television, in addition to the 15 film festivals we’ve been in at this point. We’ve won a couple of them in terms of their best documentary category. 

Conko: We’ve also been thrilled to see community groups, churches, colleges hosting screenings. Eighty percent of people who watch the film and fill out our survey report back that they are more likely to engage with people from their community who share different viewpoints. Time and time again at the screenings, I’ve had people walk up to me and say they want to show the film to a family member who they’ve lost a relationship with. Or they want to take it into their classroom, workplace or community groups. So that’s been a wonderful piece of this—the potential to go viral and encourage civil discourse. 

Q: Speaking of community groups, the loss of community in this country is a big factor here. How can those walls be brought down? 

Kendall: Community is core to the success of our country. A lot of people talk about the decline of religion and the rise of loneliness leading to all kind of health and social problems. I think the best answer is to look at your own life and figure out how you can get involved—go to a sewing club, a church, a running meet-up, a bowling or book club.  The more we engage with one another and look to our neighbors rather than Washington D.C. for the answers, the better off we’ll be.   

Q: Did charitable giving play a role in bringing this project to life? What are some key ways funders can support future projects like this? 

Conko: This project was completely funded by philanthropy. So, we see a couple ways for the donor community to get involved. One is to spread the message. We’ve worked with donors who not only funded the production and impact campaign, but they’ve taken the film into their businesses or some of the organizations they’ve funded and have sponsored screenings. The second way is through direct support, particularly for funding screenings. Our goal is to hit 300 screenings and to be in 100 universities by the end of the year.  

Q: How can readers watch and share this movie? How would one host a screening? 

Kendall: You can watch the trailer and find a screening at our website. To schedule a screening, you can contact us at: [email protected]
To support this project, contact Christina Pajak at [email protected]. 

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