My friend and I run a diversity fellowship out of a TV production company here in NYC…
I had breakfast with a colleague last week. We talked about politics, we talked about the grape tomatoes that were weirdly served on top of our chia seeds and yogurt (they were pretty good, btw), and we talked about writing. But mostly, we talked about diversity.
My friend and I run a diversity fellowship out of a TV production company here in NYC. It’s a highly competitive program that pulls from a national pool of writers of color who want to break into children’s TV. Since its inception last year, we’ve launched 15 new writers, talented and accomplished men and women from around the country, in what we hope are meaningful ways. From the start, we were determined not to fall into the depressing pattern we’d noticed happening with similar initiatives at the networks and cable companies: creating a ghettoized track for “diversity hires,” a track that invariably leads nowhere. We not only introduced all of our fellows to studio executives and production heads, we also helped several of them secure development deals as well as freelance script assignments on existing shows.
The timing seems auspicious. According to a recent article in the New York Times, the explosion of digital content from places like Netflix and Amazon and the current political climate have led to a sudden demand for TV writers who are female and/or of color. I’ve certainly noticed this over the past two years. A few weeks ago, I got a call from a producer I know, a smart and concerned woman, who was looking to staff her new series with diverse writers. Why was the bench of experienced applicants so shallow, she wanted to know. Why were there so few writers of color working in children’s TV?
The fact is, there are plenty of interested writers out there who are desperate for the work, people every bit as talented as those already on shows. But TV is overwhelmingly an industry of connections. Many of these people don’t have the access to the job network, or they don’t have agents, or they’re simply seen as lacking the experience. Even in children’s TV, one needs the dreaded “network approval” to get staffed on a show… and network approval is something that takes one very lucky break, years of hard work, or both.
I mentioned this to my friend over breakfast. She is smart and idealistic, as well as younger and more energetic than I am. But to be honest, neither of us wants to find ourselves playing the role of righteous scold. I find myself thinking this when talk turns to cultural appropriation and who is allowed to tell which stories. I have never felt comfortable telling others what to do or what stories they can tell; to me, creative empathy and the ability to find the truth of a character outside of one’s personal experience is magic, one of the greatest things a writer can do. Of course, allies are important. But they’re just that – people we can turn to for continued help and support. But the main work – training, mentoring, and providing profession tools — is something we can and should do ourselves.
This year, our fellowship has focused far more on the actual craft of writing. Children’s TV, more so than other forms, is often assumed to be easy, something anyone can do. But as the story editor of a new Netflix series, I can tell you that my writers struggle daily with the same questions of story and structure as any narrative writer: character, want and conflict, how character is expressed via action, stakes, and resolution.
I know one thing: these things can be taught. And while I can’t guarantee anyone a job or ensure a fairer and more equitable workplace, at least I can help offer a better understanding of the essential tools of writing, namely craft.
For more information, check out the website: https://sesamewritersroom.org/