Growing Empathy, One Documentary at a Time

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UU the Vote is about more than getting out the vote. It is about connecting with your community, local and national, to change the world. It is about offering spaces where people are challenged to stretch and grow in relationship. In Georgia, Adam Hicks has founded an intentional community that leans into the responsible search for truth and meaning. He speaks to what a community like this can mean for our future as a country — and how one shared interest can grow into something much more.

It is often said that we live in an increasingly polarized society. So what does it take to bring a multi-racial, multi-generational, and multi-faith group of people to sit in a circle or more recently, on Zoom, to learn, engage, and move people to seek truth and apply their knowledge in their everyday lives?

Movies, of course.

To be specific: documentaries. Adam Hicks, a graduate student in Atlanta, Georgia, has used his passion for documentaries to create a growing and changing community of people. They are from all walks of life, and they do what people from all walks of life do — they gather together and talk about the world, its ills, its beauty, and its controversies.

What Hicks has built is a place where they do it with people they likely would have never met. 

The idea of this program first formed when Hicks was teaching English to elementary and middle school students in South Korea, where he spent two and a half years. His experience of being immersed in a culture different from his gave him an opportunity to stretch his ideas about living in community and in a deeply interconnected world. Hicks started the documentary group when he joined a Sunday Assembly group in Atlanta, a weekly gathering similar to church and attended mostly by atheists. 

For 6 months, Hicks hosted the documentary group out of his friend’s apartment, which held about ten people. Then the friend moved away, and the idea died out for a while.

After finding Northwest UU in December 2018, Hicks got the opportunity to bring his program to UU’s and the broader community in the Atlanta metro area. At the after-service coffee hours he learned that they were trying to host more events, so he suggested that they try the documentary discussion group.

One of the ways that Hicks created a space where people keep wanting to return is by focusing on small group discussions during their time together. He believes that this pushes the attendees to learn from each other, not just the documentary, and that this interpersonal connection bridges the gap between people’s differences.

“I wanted to get a really broad base of people who might have never met or interacted,” said Hicks. “Instead of just learning from the documentary and all of its great ideas, you have all of these people who are experiencing the documentary in different ways. You get to learn from and grow from that different experience.”

“Instead of just learning from the documentary and all of its great ideas, you have all of these people who are experiencing the documentary in different ways. You get to learn from and grow from that different experience,” said Hicks.

The group grew larger and larger, with every monthly session drawing more interested people. By the time a year had gone by and just a dozen documentaries into the project, 70 people showed up to the final meeting before COVID-19 prevented the in-person gatherings. 

As can be expected when people from vastly different backgrounds come together, there have been bumps in the road. The community has risen to the challenge.

Rather than debate, the documentary group has embodied a core Unitarian Universalist truth: that in the search for truth and meaning, our faith is welcoming with open arms — and in making it a responsible search, we hold fast to our call to affirm dignity and dismantle oppression. From this common ground, attendees are able to discern their roles in justice movements, reflect on their political identities, and articulate what their exposed values look like in public.

From this common ground, attendees are able to discern their roles in justice movements, reflect on their political identities, and articulate what their exposed values look like in public.

Hicks does not under-estimate the power of shared learning. “By watching the documentaries, you are creating a shared group experience. Then people can bring their personal experience and they can bond over that,” he said. 

The discussions opened via Zoom after a hiatus regrouping from COVID-19, and the group continues to be popular. There are some unforeseen advantages that accompany the online platform as well. On an online platform the group now has attendees from Boston to Portugal, and directors of the documentaries even tune in.

Many of the attendees are motivated by their discussions to get involved in the issues presented to them by the documentaries. The gathering has served as a landing place, reflecting energy that some people want to move into electoral and social justice actions. 

One way that Hicks encourages this is by inviting local leaders to join them. He invited a member of Galeo, a Latino voter rights organization, to call in to their most recent discussion about voter suppression.

“The group is not only bringing people together, but they are really wanting to take action. When we are having documentaries on certain topics, I try to invite Georgia organizations to attend. Then when someone is inspired, they have someone in the room who can point them in the right direction,” said Hicks. “Everything is focused on growth. The more that people are connected, the better our society will be.”

Hicks may not call himself an organizer, but he is invested in the relational work of building an intentional community that provides the opportunity to learn, and to transform. A group of people who gather to watch documentaries together may seem insignificant — but it is just this kind of activity that can build trust in each other’s common humanity and grow the empathy we need today.

Hicks may not call himself an organizer, but he is invested in the relational work of building an intentional community that provides the opportunity to learn, and to transform.

UU’s everywhere are cultivating learning communities through online programs. In California, Rev. Ranwa has created “Turning the Tides”, an online justice summit for folks to gather around the work to dismantle white supremacy, protect our elections, and create a more just and loving world. UUCSJ has invited UUs to Action Circles, a small group experience designed to foster active sharing and community-building in addition to opportunities to act.

And UU the Vote is happy to be building a learning community with Side With Love with the “Taking a Collective Breath” a five-session series built around the elements of the BREATHE Act. The webinars will explore the components of the BREATHE Act and utilize its structure as a way to focus our energies to effectively support ongoing racial justice work. 

If you would like to attend Hicks’s documentary nights or learn more, he has asked that you contact him at his email, [email protected]

Written by Aidan Wertz, UU the Vote blogger. Aidan is a college student in Middlebury, Vermont and a lifelong UU.

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