What Makes a Pluralist Visionary
6 minute read
When Emmy- and Peabody-winning journalist Imara Jones called for a “reimagination and an expansion of Blackness” in Time Magazine’s recent issue featuring voices of the “New American Revolution,” she did so with the goal of shifting the current culture of hostility towards transgender people in the United States.
“Trans people, just through our existence, show the power and the resilience of change, and possibility of how we can do things differently,” wrote Jones. “We are creating a future less defined by gender roles, and defined more by what we can create than what we can destroy.”
To understand the inherent cultural power of leaders like Jones, who are telling a new and different story about our nation, in 2020 the Pop Culture Collaborative’s Becoming America Fund set out to invest in eight individuals who are on the path towards becoming our nation’s cultural stewards and guides, recognized for contributions that shape and make meaning of the era in which we live. Supported through the fund’s Pluralist Visionaries Program, these individuals are in various stages of their careers and public visibility. Some lead social justice movements, others use art—comedy, storytelling, visual art—to advance a pluralist vision.
The Pluralist Visionaries Program is focused on a core question: What society do we yearn to create and who can we empower to lead the way?
“Each Visionary was already conceptualizing or advancing a piece of work that aligned closely with the goals of Becoming America,” says Rupa Balasubramanian, the Pop Culture Collaborative’s Vice President of Field Resourcing and Director of the Pluralist Visionaries Program. “These leaders, many of whom are women of color, are all at the point in their careers in which they are ready to create a storytelling vehicle that allowed for their unique voice to be introduced to a broader audience in a way that is authentic and powerful.”
The Pluralist Visionaries Program is designed to expand the influence and reach of these artists and social justice leaders as nationally recognized public figures whose ideas and stories help translate the real-life impact of social justice issues and shape the intellectual, moral, and cultural waters that we all swim in. The resources provided by the Pluralist Visionaries Program help to maximize the elusive “it” quality that each of the Visionaries possesses, but may only currently be seen by a dedicated support or fan base.
Enter the Abundance League
What does it take to move these leaders from their communities into the national spotlight? What kinds of special expertise can propel them into mainstream conversations? What could funding and support do to make renowned leaders in their respective fields become sought-after voices with enough clout to affect public dialogue and influence industries?
At least one industry has figured out how to nurture talent and build cultural power simultaneously: Hollywood. For decades, the entertainment industry has successfully helped artists discover their public voice and grow their followings. Could that model be adapted for social justice and culture change leaders?
Enter the Abundance League. Comprising experts, advisors, and coaches in public relations, media production, social media, and digital branding, the Abundance League is a support squad modeled after the infrastructure commonly built to launch an entertainment artist’s career. In addition to direct support to each Visionary to create and launch a new storytelling vehicle, the Pluralist Visionaries program also matches them with Abundance League members based on each Visionary’s needs, goals, and strategy, to most effectively amplify their public voice. The Abundance League works with each Visionary on building a loyal audience, reimagining a brand identity, securing high-profile op-eds and interviews, creating compelling digital content, designing personal websites, developing project pitches, and more. The Abundance League has helped introduce these voices and their storytelling projects to audiences that may not have been familiar with their work, through features and interviews in national publications and broadcast shows, including Vanity Fair, Newsweek, Time, Marie Claire, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio, InStyle, The Daily Beast, AM Joy, Pod Save America, and NowThis.
During a funder learning immersion hosted by the Pop Culture Collaborative in Fall 2020, Vanessa Anderson, Founder of AM/PR and publicist for actress, writer, and producer Issa Rae, shared her approach to unearthing a leader’s brand promise. “I encourage leaders to consider: What is the need or the gap that you want to fill? What is the key audience? What is your unique intervention?” For instance, before the Emmy-nominated hit TV series Insecure, Rae yearned to speak to other “awkward Black girls,” so Anderson worked with her to develop the aesthetic, media platform, and content universe that authentically emerged from that yearning. Today, Rae (a 2017 Collaborative grantee for her talent pipeline solution, Color Creative) sits atop a media empire that includes hit television shows, films, a bestselling book, brand partnerships, production companies, a talent management agency, and a music supervising company.
Luigi Picarazzi, CEO and Founder of Digital Media Management and an Abundance League consultant, believes the process of working with a Visionary Leader is more than a typical branding exercise. It is about “refining the clarity and authenticity of someone’s mission and what they’re putting into the world.” It’s not merely about replicating a branding strategy as much as it is learning how such an approach can be adapted for social impact.
When working with Elle Moxley, the Abundance League helped her evolve her project from a historical documentary about Marsha P. Johnson, a gay liberation and Transgender rights activist who played a central role in the 1969 Stonewall uprising, to an autobiographical project. The process of evolving the story with the Abundance League was key to Moxley’s own personal evolution. She recognized that her personal narrative could anchor Marsha P. Johnson’s story and legacy, a revelation that also helped her see herself not only as an organizer and social justice leader who uplifts other people’s contributions, but as someone who has earned her own place in the history of the Transgender rights movement.
Rebecca Lehrer, podcast producer and strategist, and Co-Founder and CEO of The Mash-Up Americans, has also witnessed this transition point in leaders who are discovering their national voice. “This work requires deep research and preparation to get the final product right. We think about how to channel the intensity and depth of knowledge of these Visionaries, but also make the content succinct and accessible. You have to find their lane,” Lehrer says. She produced Sunstorm, a podcast hosted by Alicia Garza and Ai-jen Poo, helping not just to create the framework for the podcast and define the content and tone, but to package it in a way that highlighted Poo and Garza’s magnetic personalities and hosting skills in order to familiarize listeners with the idea of a movement leader hosting a nationally syndicated daytime talk show.
Likewise, to develop Zahra Noorbakhsh’s podcast Don’t Stop Believing, The Mash-Up Americans conducted an immersive whiteboard session to clarify the unique value Zahra fills in the packed podcast space,a process that helped the comedian crystalize her ideas into an episodic framework, brainstorming potential guests, sample topics to explore, show structure, and an audio mood board. Mash-Up Americans then designed a pitch deck to share with potential distributors.
Meet the Visionaries
The inaugural group of Pluralist Visionaries include Alicia Garza, Ai-jen Poo, Imara Jones, Eric K. Ward, Paola Mendoza, Elle Moxley, and Zahra Noorbakhsh.
As co-hosts of Sunstorm, “Alicia and I are essentially trying to speak to the newly waking,” says Ai-jen Poo. “The people who know enough to know that change has to happen and that they want to be a part of it still may have questions about how and what is most effective. You don’t have to be Alicia Garza to make change. You can be you and it can be really powerful.”
In February, Imara Jones released a new season of the podcast TransLash, which elevates women of color and trans leaders in elected office, educates listeners on pluralist policy conversations, and uplifts stories of Trans joy.
Eric K. Ward is working to create narratives that help those struggling with the tensions that come with a changing and diversifying America. His stories seek to provide a sense of hope, community, and belonging that will inoculate those in fear of this inevitable demographic shift against social movements driven by exclusion and hate.
Artist and immigrant rights activist Paola Mendoza released her first YA fiction novel Sanctuary (written with Abby Sher) in Fall 2020. Sanctuary brought to life a dystopian future in which all American citizens are chipped at birth, so that the government can identify and imprison immigrants.
Transgender rights activist, artist, and community organizer Elle Moxley’s autobiographical short film transports us back to her hometown in Ohio, bringing to life her experieces as a Transgender woman and Black Lives Matter organizer.
Iranian-American Zahra Noorbakhsh is creating the interview-based podcast Don’t Stop Believing, which aims to investigate the beliefs that drive our decisions.
“This program centers and multiplies the power of visionary cultural stewards and guides to radically shift our belief in what is possible,” says Balasubramanian. “When provided with the right strategies for creative, coordination and amplification, these Visionaries can galvanize the American people toward change. We’ve only just begun to tap into that power.”
Murtada Elfadl is a culture writer, critic, and podcaster. His writing has been published at Backstage, The Film Experience, The Film Stage and Mediaversity Reviews. He hosts the film podcast Sundays With Cate.