September 15, 2022
By Sam Zalutsky, screenwriting faculty
I’m sure many of you have seen this quotation: “Be the change you want to see in the world,” on everything from coffee mugs to refrigerator magnets, which has been widely but incorrectly attributed Mahatma Gandhi. (The actual source isn’t entirely clear, but I did find this intriguing article.) While he might not have said it, the sentiment is inspiring. Who doesn’t want to think that our actions can change the world? And I believe they can. In fact, our purposeful action is especially needed today in a country that continues to slip toward autocracy, fundamentalism, censorship, and fascism.
As writers, I think we can adapt the saying to prioritize our own talents: Write the change you want to see. In no way do I mean we shouldn’t take action. We must continue to speak out. But what about writing out, using our words to advocate for change and bring attention to our disturbing state of affairs in this country and this world.
Of course, I would encourage everyone to write this change into their creative work. As a mentor, is there anything more exciting than when a student has created a world on the page, something that isn’t exactly our real world but something close to it, and full of originality and life? Creatively envisioning another world in our work is a profound and essential exercise.
But we can also use our skills with words, both written and spoken, to bring attention to the pressing issues of today. So how can we inspire? How can we help people connect and understand our complicated and strange world today? How can we convey the seriousness of our current situation in a way that inspires and doesn’t make people hide under the covers? I don’t think tweets, TikTok videos, or Facebook posts are nearly enough. And I am inspired by the adage, “Democracy is a verb.” We must participate in civic life in order to create this just and better world. The world needs our participation in so many realms: racial justice, voting rights, climate change, reproductive rights, trans and queer equality. That is why I am so inspired to teach in the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Writing at Spalding, the first certified “compassionate university” in the world, committed to compassion and social justice as an institution. What a wonderful way to combine these passions for creativity and social justice.
I’ve participated in a variety of activities over the past few elections. I will always love painting signs with clever slogans at political rallies. Another easy task I’ve enjoyed lately is writing letters to voters through Vote Forward. It’s a creative way to encourage people to vote, especially infrequent voters. I write a short statement about why I vote. There is no partisanship, no talk of parties or candidates. My current go-to statement is, “Our Democracy works best when all our voices are heard, including mine and yours.” The other main volunteer work I do is with a group of filmmakers, writers, and designers called The Creative Resistance. We use our talents to create change. I’ve written scripts, directed and produced, and worked as a crew member on a bunch of different ads, primarily focused on New York State candidates and issues.
There are so many ways to use our creativity and our voices. Our talent is revealing the truth through our words. The world needs that truth more than ever. For if we don’t act, who will? Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote and spoke eloquently about the passivity of the German people in the time of Nazi Germany. The subjects he’s speaking about might not be exactly the same, but the sentiment is equally important today. And I leave you with his words:
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Sam Zalutsky’s feature film Seaside, a revenge thriller starring Oscar winner Ariana DeBose, won the Best Feature Jury Award at the Klamath Independent Film Festival and the Yale in Hollywood Film Festival and is streaming now on Amazon. His first feature, You Belong to Me, was shortlisted for the Independent Spirit Award’s Someone to Watch Award. He has directed on true crime shows and has written, directed, and produced short films, web series, and videos for nonprofits. Visit his website.