Cultivating compassion

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The president and CEO of Odyssey Impact on using the power of film to bring about a more just world


  • The president and CEO of Odyssey Impact Nick Stuart. Photo: Pete Monsanto

  • Nick Stuart, the president and CEO of Odyssey Impact, second from right, with, from left, the Rev. Derrick Harkins, the senior vice president at Union Seminary and an Odyssey Impact board member; Robert Corbitt, whose sister, Recy Taylor, was the subject of an Odyssey feature; Nancy Buirski, the director of "The Rape of Recy Taylor"; and Marcia Fingal an Odyssey Impactboard member. Photo:RaeAnn Walters

As a journalist in his native UK, Nick Stuart was thrilled when the network he worked for asked around for someone with a background in religion for a show they were creating. “I always envied people on trains and airplanes when they said, “Is there a doctor on board?” And I used to think, “Nobody will ever ask me, “Is there a theologian on board?”

Having earned a bachelor’s in theology and philosophy, Stuart was always bothered by the fact that many viewed religion as countercultural. Therefore, in 2009, when he was asked to move to New York to join Odyssey Impact, which creates documentaries that shed light on issues of social justice, with a focus on communities of faith, he knew he had found his niche. “I thought if we’re doing something about religion, if I could bring my insight to all these places around the world about the way it impacts the major stories that affect our lives,” the Midtown East resident began, “then New York is the place to do it.”

Tell us about your journalism background.

For about 25 years, I worked in mainstream TV in the UK as a presenter and reporter. I had a program which took me around the world looking at the religion aspect behind the world’s top news stories. And so they sent me to places like Gaza to cover the first intifada, South Africa for the end of apartheid, Moscow, Kiev, during the end of communism. And then the streets of Belfast.

How did your job at Odyssey come about?

I bumped into Odyssey at TV industry shows and conferences around the world. I was over in New York in 2008 and doing a speech at the History Makers’ Conference. It’s a conference where history program producers and buyers from around the world come and talk about what they do and what they want. At the end of it, the outgoing president of Odyssey came up to me and said, “I really like what you have to say. Have you ever thought of working in New York?” I was 48 at the time and as a foreign correspondent, I lived in countries for about two months or so, but never really lived there. And I thought, “If I’m going to do it, I should do it now. And, wow, New York.”

What attracted you to the nonprofit?

One of the key things that drew me to Odyssey was the chance to really combine the passion and insights of people of faith with the wider, mainstream world. It always bugged me that people sometimes saw religion as countercultural. When I came there in 2009, I said, “We are going now to look at social justice. This is going to be our mission. We are going to try and create films which tell really powerful human stories. Obviously, they’ll be based on issues.” It always seemed to me, especially coming from a news background, if you present an issue as the issue, you immediately have division around politics. But if you need change, you need to find a common ground where opposing groups will come together somehow. And it’s finding that common ground in human stories.

I know it’s hard to choose, but what’s a project you worked on there that you’re most proud of?

Well the first one we did was, “Serving Life.” We did that with Forest Whitaker for Oprah. It was the first documentary the Oprah Winfrey network commissioned. And I wanted to do this doc for the UK. It’s about the Louisiana State Penitentiary, regarded as the harshest jail in the South. There are 5,000 inmates there and 95 percent die there; it’s life without parole. It just seemed like hell on earth. I really wanted to challenge the perception that people who were put away for life were inhuman in some way; there was no redeeming quality. We followed the prison hospice on a project where they learned care for inmates. And at the beginning, we were interviewing an inmate who said, “I thought you had to a be a savage animal to survive here.” And I thought, “Where will we find compassion if they have it?” And after six months, you saw these tender moments of them looking after their fellow dying inmates. And you thought, “That’s it; even some killers can care. They can have compassion.”

What did you learn from that experience?

A year or two later, I was asked to do a speech at Morehouse, the African-American college, about leadership. And one question was, “What lesson have you learned from your career?” And I said, “I used to think that for wisdom, I had to look upwards to prime ministers or archbishops or professors. But actually in the words of some of those inmates appearing in the film, I found some of the most profound insights into human nature. So never be afraid to look down, because we rarely do.”

You are committed to telling the stories of ordinary people.

As a producer and journalist, I’ve always been fascinated by human stories. One of my main jobs in the UK was as an interviewer. I used to interview prime ministers and archbishops and leaders of industry. And the thing that really interested me most is what I call, “ordinary people being extraordinary.” I remember with the end of communism, in several countries that I was sent to, there would be a minister or a priest who would basically step out of the crowd and lead the people that final step, and then step back into the crowd. And I was really always impressed with that. The big names are like superheroes, they’re almost unattainable to most of us. But these people could have been you or you could have been them in the background. I remember early on in my career, I had just interviewed the Dalai Lama, and there was a TV crew following him, so they interviewed me afterwards. And they said, “Is he not the most wonderful person you ever interviewed?” And I actually said, “He’s okay, but...”

In a time when people tend to stay away from speaking about religion, how do you work through that?

I think the key is to find the common ground. Throughout history, certainly over the last two or three hundred years, the work to improve prisons or hospitals or education often came through religious organizations, so that’s where I start from. There is a history of religion working side by side to improve society. That’s not about what god you believe in. And we use the term at Odyssey, “to build a more just and compassionate world, people of faith and good will.” So if you could bring them together around those issues, I think that gets around the faith and secular division. And you’re exactly right, one of the big problems is the R word. If you hear it, there is a picture in people’s minds. And that narrative, to me, is so unfair.

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