"Chewing Gum" and "The Crown"

That television can serve as a driver for social change feels like an equally obvious and dubious statement. As a storytelling device that reaches tens of millions in the U.S. alone, television content has an impact on how we see the culture around us. And while philanthropists, artists, and social change leaders are developing and piloting new creative, pipeline, and audience engagement models, there are still many lessons to capture and questions to answer.

Break the Story sat down with Felipe Estefan, Investment Director at Luminate Group, and Adey Fisseha, U.S. Senior Program Officer at Unbound Philanthropy, to discuss the insights they have gained through their own work and as members of the Pop Culture Collaborative’s Managing Partner network about the narrative power of television and the unique role philanthropy can play in supporting partnerships between the entertainment industry and social justice.

Let’s start with the fun question: What is your personal connection to television right now?

Felipe Estefan

Felipe Estefan

Felipe Estefan: I have too deep of a personal connection to TV! I watch way too much of it. Always have. I’m watching so many things right now but I’m particularly paying attention to Schitt’s Creek. I love it so much, not only because it’s hilarious but because I think it makes some statements about common humanity even among people who, at face value, may have nothing in common. I love how much of it is about common issues while also being incredibly outrageous; everything from how much it normalizes the relationship between David and Patrick all the way to the craziness of Moira’s wigs.

[Netflix’s] One Day at a Time is also high on my list. We had a great opportunity, as part of the Collaborative, to visit with their showrunner [Gloria Calderón Kellett] and I’ve been so delighted see a show where I can see more of my culture more properly reflected, rather than tokenized. [Editor’s note: One Day at a Time was cancelled by Netflix after this interview was completed. But we’re all urging another network to pick it up!]

And I just cannot stop talking about Surviving R. Kelly and following the news and the commentary. I’m fascinated by the story itself and also by that method of doing this revealing multi-episodic series that can lead to very tangible action. I’m finding more and more that both myself and people around me are looking towards these documentary-style series that make us really challenge our thinking.

Adey Fisseha

Adey Fisseha

Adey Fisseha: No judgment on what I’m about to say, but I don’t have a TV. I watch online. I watch on my phone, my computer, or my iPad. I generally watch through Netflix and Amazon Prime. But I’ve also downloaded the ABC app because I’m a fan of a few of their shows. I love period pieces; I really love [Netflix’s] The Crown. And I’m a binge-watcher—which is why I don’t have a TV. I have three small children and I don’t trust myself to set good watching habits. Aside from period pieces, I really love the the British show Chewing Gum. It’s quirky and innovative. And unlike almost any other show I can think of, I see myself reflected in it. Obviously I’m not in the UK, I grew up in the U.S., and I don’t live in a council flat, nor have I ever. But there’s this idea of a black child, who’s a child of immigrants and who’s navigating that space—I really like the show for that. Aside from that, I went through a phase of Tidying Up and Marie Kondo shows. But now that my apartment is completely Kondo’ed, I have moved on.

I’m wondering what you think the relevance of television is to social change and narrative change.

Estefan: I think that TV can be a positive driver for social change. Having said that, I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to ensure that the right kind of stories are being told that are the most conducive to the kind and speed of change we would like to see. In many ways TV is so powerful because, when it is episodic, the episodic nature makes you see the characters develop over time. With some of these characters, if you have an identification with them, you truly follow them on a journey over time as they grow and face challenges. This, I think, allows for the type of connection required to elicit the feelings that are at the center of individual action that can eventually be part of collective action. There’s a very powerful tool that TV has when it comes to creating characters where we can see ourselves reflected. Or the issues of our time reflected. Or where we can imagine how we would like our communities to be. Or understand the challenges as to why they’re not what we would want them to be. There’s definitely incredible potential there and I’m glad that it’s being furthered.

Fisseha: When I was traveling recently, I was flipping through the TV, just to find something mindless to watch for a little while before I went to bed, and Sixteen Candles came on. I hadn’t seen it in decades. But it colored a lot of what I thought while growing up. We moved to the U.S. in 1980, and Sixteen Candles and other John Hughes movies really defined, as a child of immigrants, what it meant to live in this country. I didn’t have a familial roadmap to what it means to be American, and the John Hughes movies were that, so I loved Sixteen Candles when I watched it for the first time. Now, as a parent, in the face of #MeToo, I watched it and was so horrified at how much I missed and at the norms that it set.

I know that it’s a movie but it’s all a part of the negative side of the power TV and movies have: to set norms, how we then interact or understand what it means to be in high school or in relationships, or about sex and sexuality. Those interactions are what I thought about when I think about this question. It’s true on the issues that I care about and that I work on.

When I was new to the U.S., my parents were learning with me, and television was a roadmap.

What does that roadmap look like today?

Fisseha: As we grapple with immigration and race, and since we are still a pretty segregated society—in the absence of actual in-person deep interactions in communities—I think that TV, both local news, cable news, and fictional and reality TV, are the basis for the roadmap of our understanding of other populations, or other lived experiences. And even when they’re well-meaning, they’ve been largely problematic to date. We were talking a lot about immigration even before the 2016 election. But when you were looking at the national election and the 2018 congressional races, every time immigration comes up you have this B-roll of people jumping over the fence. Or you talk about gang members as a proxy for immigrants. It’s kind of an immersive experience where you begin to associate the two. Obviously, the president has a bully pulpit, so TV both reflects that kind of political conversation and fuels it. In turn, through local coverage and incessant cable news—coverage of the caravan, for instance—and then fictionalized works that seem to play on those tropes, you end up reinforcing these narrow ideas.

Estefan: On the other hand, there’s the Surviving R Kellys of the world where TV is being done as part of a broader strategy for social transformation. Where it’s not simply that content was produced and then, as an afterthought, there was a conversation about how that content could be foundational for advocacy. I think that’s really interesting because it connects to a conversation that increasingly is happening in the world of movies when it comes to impact campaigns. We know how hard it is to get good content done. And I think for a long time people in the entertainment industry, not just exclusively in TV, had thought of content creation as the ultimate milestone. That all of the collaborative work, all of the funding that you needed to pick up, all of the idea generation that needed to occur, all of it eventually led to a product, a piece of content.

Actually, the model that we’re seeing now, where content is part of a broader social campaign strategy, is that the content is not the final point: it’s the intermediate point between the process that starts with content being produced but does not end when that’s finished. Content can be foundational to future campaigning that builds on it. I’m glad to see that increasingly we’re seeing TV take that role seriously and that content can be produced so it becomes a conduit for broader social action.

In addition to news and documentary series, let’s also look at the role of narrative episodic TV. What’s the opportunity philanthropy has when it comes to fictional stories on television?

Estefan: I think in some ways fiction has a great point in its favor: it is much more accessible. For example, I think of the work Superstore has done with the character of Mateo [Editor’s note: See “Rewriting the Narrative: How Social Change Organizations are Bringing Communities Inside Writers Rooms”]. I can’t think of what would be a more accessible way to tell the story of a character like Mateo, who’s undocumented and gay and figures it out while in this job, which he needs.

Were one to do a documentary, I wonder how many of the people that one would really want to see that content would naturally gravitate to it. But I think that fiction and comedy are narrative devices that can be leveraged to bring more people into the content. On the flipside, what is harder for fiction to do is to transform that into clear, tangible action that goes beyond “raising awareness” or “telling the story”, because fiction is less likely to have a direct call to action in a way that documentary serials do or could. I think that’s the point where being able to foster robust connections between content producers who won’t necessarily be experts on campaigning (or social movement or advocacy) with people who are experts in those areas and who, in turn, aren’t experts in creating comedy is important. I think that’s the bridge we should be building. I think that is where the magic could happen for fiction. And where one could leverage the benefit that fiction has of being more accessible while mitigating the hindrances that it has when it comes to turning that attention into tangible social action.

Both of you have been able to see small-scale attempts at building those bridges. What have been some learning moments for you on how philanthropy and the world of television could meet more intentionally?

Fisseha: One of the things I thought wouldn’t be useful was research. But I think Color of Change, which did a report on the representation in television writers rooms, gave folks in the entertainment industry something to hang their hat on. The numbers gave them a basis to say: we’re establishing a baseline, you guys are not doing well, and you can come back and have those conversations in a year and see if there’s been any movement. You talk a lot about wanting diversity and maybe you have increased representation in front of the camera but not in the writers room. When it comes to the people who are telling the narratives, it’s still a dismal story. The role of research, and here I’d add The Opportunity Agenda, which did a similar study on the representation of immigrants on television, can be really helpful, for philanthropy to understand the scale and breadth of the problem and to help to organize in the social justice space. But more important, I thought, was the way it was more useful in the entertainment space.

Estefan: One of the big learning moments I’ve had in terms of the role of philanthropy is that writers rooms are constantly looking for interesting ideas and things they can say. And social change activists have lots of things they want to say, but they don’t necessarily know how to say them in a way that will mobilize support. Being part of the Collaborative and being able to visit a couple of writers rooms, I was struck by how much people in writers room were yearning to hear stories by people who were experts on particular issues, but how little that sometimes happened. I definitely think there’s a role that can and should be played by both network-builders and philanthropists in making sure that we build connections between writers rooms and social change activists. These are folks who operate in completely different circles. They often don’t even live in the same cities. They don’t go to the same parties. They haven’t gone to the same colleges. They haven’t studied the same things. They don’t have the same friends. So those networks operate in isolation from one another. Which I think also makes it harder when they meet to then collaborate in a way that is productive.

Fisseha: That brings me to an area of concern. Right now you have a number of path-breaking organizations that, I think, are really well coordinated, in part thanks to the Collaborative, in developing relationships with writers rooms, really working together to support each other’s projects, to share contacts. But if you took this work to scale in the social justice space, you risk overwhelming the very limited number of contacts and rooms that are open to it. It’s a question of how you expand the number of opportunities for social justice folks to be engaged. We went to see Superstore and they were really interested in talking to anyone. But if the climate folks are doing this, and the family planning folks are doing this—which we want! We want them to think about cultural strategies, we want them to engage, we want the stories to be complicated—how do you do it in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the few positive contacts we have? Are we building the necessary infrastructure to take this to scale? And on the entertainment side, how do you expand the number of shows so that it’s not all just going to Superstore?

Is that the biggest challenge facing philanthropists hoping to collaborate with TV creators?

Fisseha: Well, I also think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding in the social justice field about all the ways you can engage in cultural change work. Even if you limit it to entertainment, it’s really limited to leveraging celebrity. Even that has been done in very limited ways. It’s primarily transactional (“Can you tweet this?” “Can you attend our event?” “Can you emcee our gala?”). I think there needs to be more capacity-building in social justice leaders.

Estefan: There has to be more work done on designing that collaboration between TV writers and producers and showrunners, with social change activists and policy folks, structuring it in a way that their collaboration actually leads to something that is better for all. First, we need to build better networks and second, ensure that the relationships that are built as those networks are created are structured and facilitated in a way that is conducive to people being happy and being able to do what they do best. I certainly believe that philanthropy has a role there, because philanthropists are normally in many different networks and can serve as connectors. But we also have the resources necessary to offer personalized collaboration and to incentivize people who wouldn’t traditionally work with one another to do so.

Fisseha: I also think it’d be really helpful to have some increase in philanthropic investment. I think the pooled fund in the Collaborative is fantastic. But it can’t be the sole place where we fund it. We have to increase the scale of philanthropic investment, through both a pooled fund and with aligned funding. I also strongly believe in the role of intermediaries-as-interpreters. Pop Culture Collaborative staff have been an interpreter for philanthropy. Somebody who can translate what we’re saying to the entertainment industry is critical. If we’re going to go to scale, one of the gaps is a pipeline of cultural strategists that can help shepherd, interpret, and mediate the relationship between the entertainment industry and social justice organizations. There’s a dearth of people who can do that.

How should the philanthropic field be thinking of the power of television and narrative change?

Estefan: I think there is a lot of evangelizing that still needs to be done in philanthropy for people who still think entertainment is “just entertainment.” Or that narrative devices aren’t really about social justice or that serious issues couldn’t ever be connected to comedy. We have to try to explain to them that, actually, philanthropy does have a role to play here. And that those kinds of narrative devices that are far more accessible can lead to social change.

But also that as individuals and as TV viewers we don’t compartmentalize what we watch, between the serious and the non-serious. We just consume content and it’s okay that we like things that go all the way from Schitt’s Creek to Surviving R. Kelly. That I have my worldview informed by all of that content, regardless of whether that content intended it to or not.

Fisseha: And you complicate that story by telling stories that don’t make you—and here I’m talking about immigrants and people of color—don’t make you the thing to fear, the thing that will bring down America. Some complication of that story needs to happen. And that happens because you increase representation, you increase the pipeline. I think that’s been a part of the conversation for a while: how do you diversify, at least who’s in front in the camera, to better reflect the multicultural society that we live in? But we also need to ask: does that shift in representation really change what we’re being offered? Melanin can’t be a proxy for diverse stories. Looking at the current Supreme Court can tell you that adding a person of color doesn’t necessarily shift the analysis. It’s about both diversifying who’s in front and behind the camera, and ensuring that those people are beginning to tell different stories.

Estefan: For those of us in philanthropy who care about social change, the idea that we wouldn’t use narrative devices to mobilize people to share with them what the key issues of our time are—it’s such a missed opportunity! We would actually miss engaging with people where they are, in the content that they like to see, and to ensure that that content better represents the diversity of our society and helps drive the direction in which we want society to evolve.

I couldn’t possibly think about a broad social change strategy that doesn’t go through entertainment. But I think for other folks in philanthropy, that is still a foreign concept. There are still conversations about: well, what does it mean in terms of risk? Or, do we get to inform what the content says? Or, why does it take so long? How do we know if it’s gonna work as part of our broader social change strategy? Can it actually hurt? How do we know? How do we evaluate? All these questions are quite legitimate. We ought to be funding these things with an eye as to whether they’re truly generating the changes we want to see, whether that’s perception-based or action-based. But we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, on something that should so clearly be a cornerstone of any philanthropic organization’s broader social change strategy.


Manuel Betancourt is a New York City-based writer, editor, and critical thinker. A pop culture enthusiast and an eternal Buffy fan, he mostly writes about queer and Latinx media and culture.