ActivismFilm / TV

interview: meet the daring new collaborative kicking down the racist & sexist foundations of hollywood

February 6, 2018
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As movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp take over red carpets across the 2018 awards season, it is clear that a social reckoning has come to Hollywood. Although there is undoubtedly still a long and treacherous road ahead, it’s fair to say that the racist and sexist foundations of American entertainment are crumbling in promising ways.

This is not the result of a Trumpian backlash, or the natural progression of oppressive systems collapsing in on themselves. Whatever change we are witnessing is the culmination of decades of backbreaking work by activists and artists alike who have recognized the powerful role entertainment plays in shaping our world, for better or for worse. These forces have historically been relegated to working in silos, but their power reaches the fullest potential when brought together, which is exactly what the new Pop Culture Collaborative has been doing over the last year.

Described as “an innovative hub for high impact partnerships and grants designed to help organizations and individuals leverage the reach and power of pop culture for social justice goals,” the collaborative funds and facilitates artists and activists tackling racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia through popular media. Supporting projects like Issa Rae’s Color Creative TV and the organizing behind the Time’s Up Golden Globes takeover, the collaborative brings together the brightest minds in entertainment today to catalyze world change.

AFROPUNK spoke to Executive Director Bridgit Evans and Strategy Director Tracy Van Slyke to learn more about their vision and plans for a freer future through revolutionized media.

AFROPUNK: Tell me how the collaborative came together.

Bridgit: The Pop Culture Collaborative was formed by a number of leading foundations who have been funding for a number of years (in more discreet ways) different projects aimed at transforming the way mass audiences feel about people of color, immigrants, women, Muslims and LGBT people. One of the things they discovered is, if they wanted to create deep systemic change, they had to take a different approach. They had to move from independent one-off projects to a more holistic approach where they as funders would come together and develop a clear and shared vision, an ecosystem to create those stories in a more coordinated fashion.

That’s where the collaborative was born. In 2015 we came together and launched with summits in LA and SF that Tracy and I produced for (these funders). Those summits introduced their vision to the entertainment industry, tech sector, and others who were working in silos to dramatically transform the landscape by bringing them together.

The project is first and foremost a grant-making organization. We do over $1.5 million in grants yearly. We also see ourselves as leaders in bringing people together through networks, cohorts and retreats for people in the social justice world and the entertainment industry.

We are also about education. In order for this to be real and lasting, we all have things to learn, so we create opportunities for these people to come together and move to new insights that can affect their insights.

AP: Obviously your vision for this project began before the 2016 election, and so you know that the issues you are tackling far predate the current administration. But certainly Trump hasn’t made it any easier to tackle racism and xenophobia in the media, and has even cut public funding for the arts. In what ways has your mission changed since his election, and in what ways has it stayed the same?

B: The need for a collaborative has been obvious for artists working in these spaces for many years. In terms of our work and focus, it really hasn’t changed at all. I would say the most significant difference since the election has more to do with how other people respond to our mission.

We came into the collaborative assuming that part of our work early on would be baking the cake for the idea that the industry and the social justice community belonged in the same conversation and should be thinking about how stories move people toward their greater humanity. We thought that would be a challenge. What November 2016 did was make a lot more artists and activists who may have been wary about that relationship really begin to reckon with the real ways pop culture has contributed to toxic narrative spaces.

It’s driven gross misconceptions of Black people and normalized dangerous levels of police violence. It’s driven gross ideas around Muslims, immigrants and women. Those narratives have been around since before 2016. What’s happening is a real reckoning with the role we have all played around telling those stories or normalizing them, even with the best of intentions. In that sense, being able to create a bigger vision and live more honestly in relationship to these painful and difficult truths has become easier than I imagined it would be.

Tracy: And we’re seeing that reckoning in a lot of different ways. One is a real deep look at the internal structures that reinforce these terrible narratives. Our grantee Color of Change put out a report earlier this year on the negative effects of overwhelmingly white and male writing rooms. We’re talking about what happens behind the scenes.

We’re also seeing it play out in story-lines. I just binged season 2 of One Day at a Time on Netflix, and you’re seeing these stories integrate the ideas the president has reinforced negatively about immigration and immigrants, and they’re tackling it in powerful ways. The premiere of Black Panther would have been hot anyways, but there is such a connection to that because it feels like an antidote to the negativity in government.

The collaborative is working in concert to really build on these things and help us imagine a new future as well as build an infrastructure for the relationship between social justice and entertainment that would be able to make these changes.

AP: We’ve already seen push-back to the Time’s Up campaign in recent weeks, and of course none of these changes will come easily when they have been so entrenched. How does the collaborative plan to tackle the inevitable fatigue on the part of activists and artists and backlash on the part of their detractors?

B: If you look at the history of conversations around complex issues, you’ll see that these have already been happening before this moment. Before there was the 2016 election or the collaborative founding or #MeToo, there were years of the really powerful churning of the Movement for Black Lives, which continues to be a driving force. Before this moment, there was another moment, and before that there was another.

One thing that is reliable is that people will find a way to move their ideas into the forefront. We talked about #GrammysSoMale two weeks ago, but we were only riffing on #OscarsSoWhite which was started by another cultural organizer, April Reign, years ago. So the simple answer to “will (our work) sustain itself?” is yes, but it will evolve.

The question for us is: is there a way for us to actually be working together and in deep conversation throughout these ebbs and flows so that these disparate movements can work together for a shared goal? How does BLM and #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo, how do all these different movements begin to work together so that ultimately we are living in a dramatically different world that meets our shared value system?

I think that’s the question we should be asking. This momentum isn’t going to teeter out, it’s going to change. The question is to what end, and how do we get there together through a whole range of movements and industries?

AP: That’s profound. And we see how even though BLM are no longer the hottest news topic, the principles behind those calls for justice for Black communities are still being spread today.

B: Yes, and we really see this in the context of Times Up and Me Too. We see an opportunity for people invested in these conversations to come together with those talking about other kinds of racial harassment and violence that are evident in the entertainment industry. Our challenge is to support women of color leaders in order to connect the Me Too conversations with the racial justice conversations and begin to see the white supremacy and patriarchy at the heart of both of them, bridging together what may seem to be different conversations.

AP: Speaking of Times Up, tell me more about how the coordinated effort at the Golden Globes came to be.

T: As the Me Too movement started to become public, we were incredibly interested in the way we saw a lot of women coming out, but they were predominantly white. We were very concerned about where the the women of color were, both in who was telling their stories and who was leading.

We saw the opportunity for social justice movement leaders who were working in these areas for domestic workers and restaurant workers, wand e wondered how those movement leaders and the women within the entertainment industry could come forward and build community and strategy together.

Our grantees National Domestic Workers Alliance and America Ferrera were both working on Me Too issues within their own industry, and it all started to come together quickly before the Globes. Our role was to really support the activists who were coming together to help them bring their message in a strong, unified way, and make sure women of color were at the forefront of this movement, and the Golden Globes was a perfect activation of that.

We worked closely with Elle Communications to make sure all the activists were on message for the red carpet. We worked with one of our grantees The League on our social media campaign, and I think it was incredibly successful. This was led mostly by the activists themselves, but we are happy to be an amplifier and narrative driver behind this really important night.

AP: Do you generally let activists take the reigns in working through complex issues of intersectionality, such as the erasure of women of color from some feminist organizing, or do you take a more hands on approach?

B: I think it’s a combination of both. But we definitely have a theory that by supporting leaders from within marginalized communities their voice will begin making the in-roads in creating these understandings within these industries.

One thing that we are doing is creating these spaces where cohorts of people within the industry can come together and think about their work within the context of narrative change. We have brought culture change strategists who are embedded in TV writers rooms to talk about what it means to help writers think through these issues. We have brought showrunners and producers to talk about what they need to not only create the authentic stories they want, but also to create the workplaces that reflect their values.

We have been hosting these intimate gatherings over the past year and we will continue to do so in part because we think by allowing these people to talk among themselves and develop relationships, that will be a far more organic and meaningful way to create change, rather than for the collaborative to say “here’s what you’ve got to do,” which doesn’t work.

AP: How do you choose grantees?

T: In our pre-collaborative careers, Bridgit and I have built up a large Rolodex of individuals across the pop culture for social change space. So between them and new individuals who we’ve built new relationships with since the collaborative, we have been able to identify different grantees who fit into our framework. They’re developing long term change strategies, building new pipelines into Hollywood, doing audience research or re-imagining new types of writers rooms—these are the types of people we have built relationships with.

We also created a way for anyone to submit ideas in response to political and cultural moments, our rapid response grant that we give out twice a year.

AP: You also run a podcast?

B: One of the things we recognize is that if we are going to make tectonic shifts in culture, then we also have to accept that we have a lot to learn.

Tracy and I have been working together for a number of years before the leadership positions at the collaborative, and we really just acknowledged that we needed space for people across industries to come and dig into the really messy questions around this pop culture and social change field.

So we created the Wonderland podcast to explore the connections between pop culture, human nature, and social change by bringing together visionary social change leaders to come grapple with their burning questions. Over the course of the season, we were able to bring in MacArthur Genius Ai-jen Poo with researcher Schuyler Brown to talk about how to understand the deeper yearnings of audiences. There’s a great episode that brings together Diana Son, one of the showrunners of 13 Reasons Why on Netflix, and human rights advocate Rachel Roy, who is an anti-human trafficking activist to talk about demystifying stories around sexual violence in the writer’s room.

Throughout all of these episodes you’re not just able to listen in, but also to dig in further with our learner’s guide that we publish online. We’ve been really surprised that the audience has been growing larger daily, and it’s not just people in our field but people who are just fascinated with how culture works.

T: someone told me yesterday they wandered into a coffee shop and saw someone listening to the podcast on their computer (laughs).

AP: That sounds amazing! What other projects are you all working on?

Just want to really highlight our latest round of grantees, who we think are some of the most brilliant cultural workers and strategists.

We’re really excited to build with them because we see a really powerful interconnection between social justice, entertainment, and academia that we have never seen before.

Find out more about Pop Culture Collaborative here!