A Community for Creators
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, the son of a community activist and political trailblazer who became the first Latino elected to public office in Illinois. A few years before he ran, my father, Ray Castro, met with then-Mayor Richard J. Daley, who told him he’d never get elected, because he was Mexican. Mexicans don’t vote, Daley lectured, and no one else was going to vote for a Mexican candidate.
My dad proved Mayor Daley wrong. In 1980, he was elected 7th Ward Committeeman by building a coalition of Latinos, African-Americans, and Polish-Americans—the immigrants, the working class families who made up our neighborhood. He understood that what connects people can be stronger than what divides them. I learned an important lesson at his knees: the power of community, collaboration, and a story told well.
I am reminded of my father’s story when I think of what’s happening in the entertainment industry right now. When I first started supporting diverse creators 17 years ago as Executive Director of Philanthropic Initiatives at Time Warner, and then as an executive at HBO, I focused on the (still incredibly important) task of getting more women and people of color into writers rooms. But as the recent Think Tank for Equity and Inclusion writers room report has shown—as well as the work of Pop Culture Senior Fellow Maha Chehlaoui, getting individuals in the room is not enough.
There are now artist leaders—Ava DuVernay, Issa Rae, Tanya Saracho, Jill Soloway, Lena Waithe, Heather Rae, America Ferrera, and Ryan Murphy, to name a few—who are chipping away at the decades-long structures, assumptions, and barriers that have stymied transformation towards a more inclusive industry.Tanya Saracho built a room made up entirely of Latinx writers for her show Vida. Every episode in Vida’s first season was helmed by a director of color. For a new series she is developing, Tanya reached out via social media to find talented Afro-Latina artists (similar in inspiration to how Sameer Gardezi built the writers room for East of La Brea). Ava DuVernay ensures all the directors for episodes of Queen Sugar were women of color.
These visionary artists are cultivating the next generation of creators and industry leaders—while changing the stories we consume. And as much as they are artists, they are also organizers in their own right because they understand that to change the story, they must challenge—and change—who has the power to green light, conceive, create, and market shows that reach millions of people.
But power shifts never come easy. And progress can be fragile.
As exciting and promising as such recent developments are, these creators are still working—and must succeed—in a system that is not designed for them or the kind of change they are seeding. The industry is risk-averse, not constructed to foster those who take chances on new talent or new storytelling models. Success for showrunners and creators is a constant struggle and professional capital is dynamic. The overwhelming majority of gatekeepers, from creative executives and talent agents who determine what gets made, to critics who decide if it is worth seeing, are white men.
What can we do to support groundbreaking creators in positions of leadership?
Inspired by my father, and all the great organizers of the world, I believe that if we build and support a community of practice among these creators, we can help amplify and expedite the shared vision of a more inclusive industry. As Senior Fellow in TV Storytelling and Cultural Change at the Pop Culture Collaborative, I am focused on exploring, with creators, the needs and promise of such a network.
In community, artist leaders can share experiences, seek and offer advice, and collaborate on solutions to challenges. They could cross-collaborate creatively with their individual projects, connect multiple projects across story worlds, or create new projects together and become a kind of social-impact creators collective. The simple existence of an intentional community that you can to turn to, made up of individuals who are fighting the same battles, navigating the same obstacles, and striving to accomplish like-minded goals, can itself be energizing and sustaining.
As my dad taught me, there is power in community.
Luis B. Castro is a Senior Fellow with the Pop Culture Collaborative. He is an independent producer and consultant whose mission is to fuse storytelling and social impact.