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Culture Shift: What Community-Based Nonprofits Are Doing During the Strikes

Since launching its summer lab for entertainment professionals with disabilities in 2019, RespectAbility has learned to pivot. The onset of the pandemic meant going fully virtual for the following two years, and by 2022 it seemed like the disability advocacy nonprofit had found its groove, intending to maintain both a virtual as well as an in-person cohort in Los Angeles every summer.

“[This year] our in-person lab began on May 1,” says RespectAbility senior vice president Lauren Appelbaum, who heads its Entertainment & News Media team. “The Writers Guild strike began on May 2.”

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The organization had already begun making adjustments to the lab’s six weeks of programming, which traditionally have included studio-hosted sessions. “When you’re partnering with a studio, they provide the location, food and speakers,” explains Appelbaum, whose staff includes both WGA members and those aspiring to join the union. So instead of spending the lab’s lean budget mostly on ASL interpreters and live captioners as usual, this summer RespectAbility paid for all its speakers and many of its meeting locations as well. “We had to shift funding around, and that led us to losing at least $50,000 in lab sponsorship that we would have otherwise gotten this year,” Appelbaum adds. “But we wouldn’t consider crossing a picket line to go onto a studio lot.”

RespectAbility is just one of the many media advocacy organizations feeling the impact of the writers’ and now actors’ strikes. These nonprofits play a vital role in the entertainment ecosystem when it comes to the inclusion and representation of people historically excluded from the industry, maintaining close relationships with both artists and studios. “In non-strike times, our positioning between the studios and the talent has been one of the accelerators of our community’s success as we see it, because we’re able to encourage hiring and build connections between those two groups,” says Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment (CAPE) executive director Michelle Sugihara. “So this is an interesting time.”

While Sugihara – like many of her counterpart leaders at other organizations – spoke favorably of the studio executives her group interacts with (“the people we have the privilege of working with are the DEIA departments… obviously they get it”), the nonprofits are unanimously supportive of the striking artists. “We’re all working in social impact, so our hearts and minds are oriented towards justice,” says Sanaz Alesafar, executive director of Storyline Partners, the narrative change coalition whose member organizations include CAPE. “If we can’t have [the writers’] back, then what are we doing here?”

Many of these groups have shown up on the picket line: Storyline Partners brought a coffee truck to Universal in early June, while the Inevitable Foundation was one of the first entities to host a themed picket, bringing a fully accessible bathroom truck from Momentum Refresh to Amazon Studios in May and conceiving of other ways to address access needs. “We heard the amount of standing was taking a toll, so we brought chairs so people could rest,” says Inevitable Foundation co-founder and president Richie Siegel. “Knowing that Burbank in late summer is incredibly hot, we brought the first cooling station to the picket line at Disney. We had these cooling towels with our [slogan] on them – ‘Hey Hollywood, the future of disabled creatives is non-negotiable’ – and these incredible misting fans from Home Depot.”

CAPE
From left: CAPE programs manager Rhian Moore, communications manager Jes Vu, board members Nina Yang Bongiovi and Peter McHugh and operations manager Grace Kao provide lunch on the picket line.

Solidarity with the artists has also meant suspending a lot of the nonprofits’ typical activities, much of it revenue-generating. The Muslim Public Affairs Council’s Hollywood Bureau has already decided to postpone its annual Media Awards, originally scheduled for Nov. 11, to next year. Between sponsorship and ticket sales, the event is the bureau’s biggest moneymaker, says bureau director Sue Obeidi, while its retainers from consulting for studios have also been put on hold. “It’s a hard hit, but it’s nothing compared to the sacrifices the creatives are taking and experiencing,” Obeidi adds. “It’s in the Quran to make sure that people are paid equitably, that when one weighs, they are fair.”

Other nonprofits report that their retainer fees for the year were prepaid and that studios have made verbal commitments not to penalize them for withholding their consulting services until the strikes are over (“The [prepaid retainer fees] are what allow me to pay my team’s salary,” says RespectAbility’s Appelbaum. “I’m currently working on the 2024 budget and I’m a little nervous because in some cases, the people we were working with have been let go [as part of the DEIA executive exodus]”), but the longer the strike goes on, the more organizations will feel the pinch, even as they contribute from their coffers to various strike-aid funds. Storyline Partners made what Alesafar calls “a modest donation” to the Entertainment Community Fund, on whose behalf Gold House, the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) and IllumiNative jointly hosted a virtual panel to inform their respective constituents of the resources available to them. The MPAC Hollywood Bureau gave $5,000 to Humanitas’ Groceries for Writers program, while the Inevitable Foundation has been directly disbursing monthly microgrants to disabled writers through its own emergency relief fund.

In addition to consultations on scripted studio projects, other nonprofit-provided work currently on pause include the planned publication of new resources, such as Define American’s latest reference guide on storytelling about immigrants (“we want to ensure that when we release it, folks are able to use it,” says entertainment partnerships and advocacy director Charlene Joy Jimenez, “but also we are cognizant of conversations that don’t need to be at the forefront right now”) and many of the pipeline programs, run by nonprofits in partnership with studios, that the industry relies on to get historically excluded voices into the business. In addition, The Black List’s Diversity Lists – annual contests run in partnership with groups like GLAAD, CAPE, NALIP, MPAC, IllumiNative and Easterseals to showcase the best screenplays from their respective marginalized communities – are on hold until the studios reach a new agreement with the WGA.

“Several of our programs focused on creative talent – incubators, workshops for writers – had to be paused,” says NALIP executive director Diana Luna, “but the pause gave us the opportunity to rethink and strategize what now are the priorities.” For NALIP, that has meant developing a new event, LatinxConnect, specifically to help entry- to mid-level execs move up the ranks. “We are not necessarily crossing any lines, but we are supporting the executives as they are also being impacted,” Luna explains. “The fact is, we don’t have much representation in terms of executives. We need to make sure they are still in the studio system.”

It’s the cultural impact, moreso than any financial sacrifice, that the nonprofits remain the most concerned about. “There are several Pacific Islander-oriented projects coming out in the next year from various studios, and we had built relationships where they were bringing us in to help give guidance right at the time the writers’ strike happened,” says Dana Ledoux Miller, screenwriter and co-founder of the Pasifika Entertainment Advancement Komiti (PEAK). “When you’re in a group that gets no press, the fact that we’re in any project at all – it’s really painful because we know how hard Pasifika people work to get onscreen or any job at all in this business.”

Adds PEAK co-founder and executive director Kristian Fanene Schmidt, “As the only Pasifika-led organization, there’s no one else doing this level of advocacy for our community, so we’re already erased as it is and now we’re muted to a degree.”

Nowhere is this FOMO felt more acutely than when it comes to the ability to promote long-overdue projects centering historically excluded people. In recent years, studios have increasingly partnered with community-based groups to throw influencer screenings and make talent available for special panels and Q&As as a winning marketing strategy. But with actors boycotting studio publicity, the organizations are trying to find a balance between promoting the work created by artists from their communities while respecting their fight for their livelihoods. “There’s this almost existential conversation of where can we pick up that mantle to promote these wonderful projects that are being released during this time, but also making it clear that we are supporting the WGA and SAG-AFTRA for what they are rightfully asking for,” says CAPE’s Sugihara. “If the project doesn’t do well, a year from now it’s not going to be, ‘Oh, it was because of the strike.’ It’s going to be, ‘It didn’t do well because it was BIPOC,” and the context of the time is going to be buried or forgotten. So it’s important to us, and I’m sure the talent involved, that their projects do well.”

So far the nonprofits have found their calling in carefully orchestrated events and social media posts that include neither involvement from studios nor striking artists and plenty of disclaimers and vetting with the guilds. “We’re filling the rooms with people who are community leaders, business founders, people who aren’t directly impacted by the work stoppage but still want to celebrate that art,” says Gold House executive director Jeremy Tran. “We talked to some of the artists before we made that decision, and overwhelmingly everyone’s been so supportive. They publicly can’t say, ‘Yes, please do this,’ but they feel grateful there are still organizations kind of filling the shoes that they can’t.”

And so while the strikes continue, the community-based nonprofits are staying busy, continuing to carry the torch for diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the industry amid the larger fight playing out between artists and studios. Earlier this month, many of them met as members of the Reimagine Coalition, formed in 2021, to discuss their role amid the strikes. “If anything, [the strikes] have given us a stronger resolve to make sure that the issues we are most concerned about are included in the dialogue that should be happening between the guilds and producers,” says Kyle Bowser, senior vice president of the NAACP’s Hollywood Bureau.

In these unprecedented times, the organizations are also taking the opportunity to do a little future-proofing. “We’re focused on making sure this is not a fatal event that sends a lot of people packing and out of the industry and undoes years of progress, but we’re also trying to use this time to do a lot of internal strategic work around how to meet the needs of writers and soon-to-be filmmakers in a post-strike world,” says Inevitable Foundation’s Siegel.

“Everyone’s making sacrifices,” says PEAK’s Ledoux Miller, who in her day job as a writer had to walk away from a number of projects in development, all Pacific Islander-based. “There’s a grief and a loss to all of it, but if the unfortunate side effect is not getting to have a voice and be able to advocate for these projects in the short term, hopefully what we’re building in the long term will last. Ultimately, we’re playing a long game and we’re going to stick around and keep fighting for our people.”

Culture Shift reflects coverage dedicated to diversity and inclusion. For more, subscribe to the weekly Culture Shift newsletter.

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