Challenges to voter access in the 2020 election. A collaborative global jazz ensemble inspired by the Kuwaiti pearl diving music of the Indian Ocean trade. And the impact of growing diversity in the film industry on the onscreen stories that shape our culture.

These subjects are the focus of the first three episodes of Ignite Change: Impactful Storytelling Through Audio, a new podcasting fellowship designed to bolster students’ careers in audio while examining issues of inequality with NYU researchers. The fellowship is a partnership between the Cross-Cutting Initiative on Inequality, the NYU Production Lab, and the Wasserman Center for Career Development.

With an estimated 117.8 million monthly podcast listeners in the US alone, the fellowship helps NYU students leverage the ongoing growth potential of the podcasting medium while learning the storytelling and producing skills that are unique to audio. The fellows—whose backgrounds range from theatre, film, journalism, and radio—participated in a series of workshops and feedback sessions designed to help them learn skills in project management, storytelling, writing, interviewing, and recording to produce the original audio stories that bring new insights to the NYU community and highlight the impact of groudbreaking NYU research.

“The Ignite Fellowship helped me realize my potential as a producer, which is something I had never considered before. I absolutely loved it. I
had never realized the creative, collaborative, directive, journalistic nature of the medium and I now see a future for myself in this role. This program opened up a whole career trajectory for me that I don’t think I would have pursued otherwise” - Anna Vernarchik, fellow.

The first three episodes in the podcast are available on several major platforms, including Spotify and Apple iTunes, and shine a light on the various ways inequality can manifest across industries and around the globe. The first episode, “By the People, For the People: The Vote 2020 Initiative,” considers how crisis after crisis—from the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic to the nationwide reckoning with racial inequity—was a powerful opportunity to push American voters to the ballot box. But how did they show up on election day?

“Uncovering Bridges" is told through the music that inspired research into the Kuwaiti pearl diving trade and the lives of those who risked their lives for the precious gems. The story reflects on the difference between tradition and heritage, national identity, and includes practical examples of what cultural sharing can look like.

"From Behind the Scenes to On the Screens" examines whether diversity behind the camera translates to diversity on the screen through interviews with emerging and established female filmmakers of color.

The 2021 fellows include Anna Venarchik, Eugene Markin, Mary Cecilia Walker, Neeta Thadani, Beryl Liu, Mateo Cruz, Susan Pinchiaroli, Iván Budnik Pereira, Cate Hynes, Malcolm “Mack” Walker, Matthew Lai, and Toby Frederick Tinson.

More information on the first three podcast episodes can be found below.


Produced by Anna Venarchik, written by Malcolm Walker, edited by Matthew Lai and engineered by Iván Budnik. Original music composed by Carmen Lustik, John McQuaig, and Shuhui Yao.

NYU faculty: Erica Foldy and John Gershman, NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service

In the months preceding the 2020 elections, NYU Professors Erica Foldy and John Gershman were concerned about voter turnout. The country continued to reckon with one crisis after another—from the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic to persistent demonstrations against racial inequity—and the ballot box would be a powerful opportunity for Americans to respond. But would voters show up
on election day? And even more alarmingly, would those who want to vote even be able to? The solution, Erica and John realized, was to mobilize organizers who could educate and empower America’s electorate—and who better to mobilize than their students at NYU? And so began the university’s VOTE 2020 Fellowship.

From the summer preceding the elections to the senatorial run-offs in January, the VOTE 2020 Fellowship partnered NYU students with grassroots organizations that champion voting rights. Erica and John secured funding from the university provost to support the students, and then, like matchmakers, paired students with organizations that could utilize their talents. In total, thirty-two fellows partnered with nearly ten organizations around the country—they taught constituents how to use mail-in ballots, advocated voting accessibility for people with disabilities, challenged the discriminatory use of A.I. intelligence, and worked to prepare election sites for the logistical challenges of a pandemic.

“By the People, For the People: The VOTE 2020 Initiative’’ chronicles this experimental fellowship through one student, Maya, and her two partner organizations, Mi Familia Vota and Detroit Action. As Maya encountered, the challenges to voter access are often historically complex, politically weaponized, and contrary to the principles of democracy they’re meant to uphold. But just as elites can erode the foundations of democracy, so can everyday people uphold them. And “By the People, For the People” examines what happens when these everyday people—like Erica, John, Maya, and Carlos, a lifelong advocate and organizer—take ownership of their democracy.

Hosted by Neeta Thadani, produced by Cate Hynes, edited by Susan Pinchiaroli, and mixed and mastered by Mateo Cruz. Original music composed by Andrew Goehring, Cal Freundlich, and Devin Pride.

NYU faculty: Ghazi Faisal Al-Muliafi of NYU Abu Dhabi

Ghazi Faisal Al-Muliafi’s journey began with one statement from his grandfather, who was once a Kuwaiti pearl diving shipmaster: “All the men died at sea”. Now an ethnomusicologist at NYU Abu Dhabi, Ghazi has spent his career researching Kuwaiti pearl diving music and the lives of the pearl divers in order to connect with his ancestral past. In the process, his work has uncovered long lost narratives that have larger implications on how we think about cultural appropriation, tradition, and national identity.

When Kuwait became a nation in 1961, the music of pearl diving became codified as a national signifier for the country. The music was no longer allowed to morph and change as it had for hundreds of years prior when the pearl divers were out at sea, travelling along their trading routes. Ghazi realized that his ancestors were global citizens in their own right and, without the current ideals about fixed heritage and national identity, they experienced a freedom of cultural sharing that we no longer have today.

From this revelation, Boom.Diwan, Ghazi’s collaborative global jazz ensemble, was created. Inspired by the Kuwaiti pearl diving music of the Indian Ocean trade, with influences all the way from Zanzibar to Calicut, Boom.Diwan emphasizes fluidity and cross-cultural conversations through their music. Today, their work is a fusion of latin, jazz, and middle eastern influence.

Told through the music that inspired his research, Ghazi’s story contains reflections on the difference between tradition and heritage, national identity, and practical examples of what cultural sharing can look like. We relate these ideas back to similar narratives around the world and explain what Ghazi’s research means for how we move forward in the conversation about cultural appropriation versus appreciation. Our deep dive into the history of this music and culture is perfect for music and history lovers alike, and anyone interested in exploring the concepts of heritage, tradition, and culture.  

Hosted by Mary Walker, edited by Eugene Markin, mixed and mastered by Toby Frederick Tinson, and produced Beryl Liu. Original music composed by Alexandra Funes-Salazar, Brittany Harris, Josue Vera and Eugene Markin.

NYU faculty: Pamela Newkirk, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, College of Arts and Science.

“As long as “diversity” and “representation” is on the website, we are safe.” These terms that hold immense impact, nowadays have almost become exploited as a marketable proof that an institution is “politically correct”. From casting a BIPOC actor to a stereotypical role to building diversity initiatives that are for the benefit of the institutions, we seek to examine the issue of a lack of authentic and genuine change and inclusion in the film industry. Discussions around “representation” on screen is essential. However, at the root, are the decision makers in the room and those behind the scenes. From a series of interviews of emerging and established female filmmakers of colour artists, interludes of immersive experiences and educational interpretations from professor, journalist and activist, Pamela Newkirk, we hear first hand from those who are struggling to navigate the film industry and learn from the implications of it - what do we need to do moving forward?

The central question we’re tackling is this: does the increasing presence of diverse faces on our screen correlate with the faces that are present behind the camera? We want to explore how the representation of female directors of colour behind the scenes impacts films and their stories. Additionally, has the industry changed significantly or have things mostly stayed the same? We are bringing together female directors of colour from all stages of their careers to explore these questions and to lend their perspective to this multi-layered and complex question.