“We are the only ones who elevate everyone.”
Opportunities for women of color in film and entertainment are severely limited. The status quo for Black women in Hollywood reflects their realities across industries and throughout society. Cheryl L. Bedford, a producer and the Executive Director and Founder of Women of Color Unite and the JTC List is using her experience and network to provide support to those who have been systematically boxed out of the film industry.
Nominated for a NAACP Image Award for her producing work on the documentary film, “Dark Girls”, Bedford has made 16 feature films, taught the Art of Line Producing at UCLA and was the very first chair of Diversity Development for the Los Angeles branch of the New York Film Academy. Bedford, who belonged to a few groups of women and people of color in the entertainment industry, started hosting small groups for women of color, eventually leading her to creating Women of Color Unite (WOCU) which was a natural extension of her vast experience and knowledge. Today, WOCU is a “social action organization focusing on fair access, fair treatment and fair pay for women of color in all aspects of the entertainment and media industries”. What started as a small networking group, expanded to a 2018 event of 150 women of color in film who signed their names on a Google doc because Bedford was “tired of white folks telling me they didn’t know any.” She named it the JTC List in memory of her activist mother, Joan Theresa Curtis who died in 2016, and since last year the list has grown to close to 500 members.
“I accidentally became the leader of a grassroots movement and spent about $25,000 of my own money to keep us going,” Bedford tells Wear Your Voice Magazine, “In January, our non-profit status became official and I opened up an account—[it] felt really good.”
This year, Women of Color Unite is hosting a no-cost, by-invitation-only gala on the 28th of March at the California African American Museum. The event begins with a purple carpet and networking event, followed by an awards presentation which includes actress Marla Gibbs and producer Effie T. Brown. The goal is to provide a space for women of color to network and support each other, but people who can hire women of color, fund their content and distribute their projects are welcome to attend by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
Wear Your Voice Magazine interviewed Bedford for her insight into the industry, its failures and how people can support Black and Brown women in Hollywood.
What does Women of Color Unite hope to achieve?
Our motto is Hire, Fund, Distribute. Hire WOC, fund their projects, distribute their content. The success of “Black Panther”, “Moonlight”, [and] “Crazy Rich Asians”, [shows us that] audiences are hungry for content from a different perspective, through a different lens.
The creator of #OscarsSoWhite, April Reign, attended the Oscars—do you think that the film industry has made meaningful strides towards racial/gendered equity behind and in front of the camera in the past four years?
(Laughs) — well if “Green Book” won for Best Picture. Cue eye roll. I think the stats tell us no.
At Wear Your Voice, we often discuss the inaction of white allies who claim to support Black and Brown women, but these are often just that—claims. As a Black woman producer, are there any white allies who have demonstrated tangible support or does support remain largely something you receive and share with other Black women?
I honestly don’t know where to start with this question. I have been called a racist by two white women in the last few months for speaking truths about white female allies not doing enough of the hard work. In December, Melanie Wise of Artemis Film Festival called me a racist*. At a panel at Sundance, Miranda Bailey of Cherry Picks called me a racist—there is actual video of that one. Both times it was because I said it was up to other white women to talk to each other and that Black and Brown women were done trying to explain. I was told that I was racist for dividing women. Both times I had the same response—that since I don’t control people’s employment, schooling, housing, etc. I can’t be a racist. But the most disappointing factor was that the white women who I thought were allies either didn’t say a damn thing and/or continue to associate with these people. I was so disgusted in general, I just started removing myself from their groups and ghosting. Don’t try to be intersectional in these professional groups if you aren’t personally. You leave too much work to the Black or Brown person who came to network. We did not join your groups to school and teach you.
I felt that many of these white feminist led groups were using me and my members to say, “Hey look at us, we are intersectional.” Many knew me or of me years ago and never asked me to join their groups. They didn’t give a damn until it became “popular”. I have always been intersectional since the start of my career—I think most WOC have been. Our network is so vast. This isn’t a “trend” for me, this is my life.
With that being said, I have amazing white female allies on my team: Dellany Peace, my social media producer and plus size advocate; Verona Blue, website and graphic designer; Alesone MacCormack, my disabled advocate; Rosser Goodman, who sits on my board, and Vanessa Naive, who was my coordinator when I worked at AwesomenessTV and who volunteers [at WOC Unite] as well. These women are ride or die.
Can you speak on why it is important for BIWOC (Black, Indigenous and Women of Color) to have events like Women of Color Unite when it comes to networking and sharing opportunities?
Back to the side hustle—to barter, to not be beholden to anyone. To lift each other up and encourage each other. To have a soft place to land. To have each other’s backs. And we don’t charge for memberships and we don’t charge fees for events, panels, workshops or seminars. We don’t charge companies to receive The JTC List. We don’t charge WOC to be on the list. When I came to [Los Angeles] in 1990, going to AFI, there were so many events I just couldn’t afford. A friend took me to one that was $50—that was groceries for a week, maybe two if I stretched it. I remember being at this party and people exchanging cards and networking. I was one of the only WOC in the room. I knew then that this was how we were kept out—whether by design or not, that was the effect. So when this movement started, I swore I would never charge. Women in Film, the old guard for networking, charges $200 to join.. How are WOC supposed to afford that? We cannot talk about diversity and inclusion and not talk about the economics that keeps us out of the room. And we belong in those rooms.
How would you like to see Women of Color Unite evolve into the future?
Easy—hire, fund, distribute. You want interesting content, come see us. You want to hire extremely qualified WOC above and below the line, come see us. You want to impart wisdom, tell us tricks of the trade because we haven’t been in the rooms traditionally? Do a panel, workshop or seminar. Come to an event. Here is what I know: there is no company who can say that they can’t find any WOC for ANY position. Want a VP, SVP, Head of Production, Head of Development, come see us. [If] you don’t get WOC in those positions, within 10 years, all these people taking all these Diversity and Inclusion programs will be stuck wondering what happened.
Though my ultimate goal is to raise $1M to help WOC fund their content.
I always hear that the people in power don’t want to give it up, which is why the needle doesn’t move forward. What I hope they realize is to stay in power, they have to start coming up with content from somewhere other than the white, straight male gaze. To get this content made, they have to hire SVP’s, VP’s, etc., who understand the content and can shepherd, hone and advocate for this content and the marginalized groups behind it. Statistics prove over and over that to get a company diverse and inclusive, you have to hire WOC. We are the only ones who elevate everyone. When we are in charge, the companies and content reflect the world and the companies make more money statistically.
Lastly, Hollywood has enough money and since we have been grossly underpaid, DONATE here. We could use some of that Les Moonves money. We are still looking for sponsors for the event as well and I can be contacted at email@example.com, especially for those that say that they want to help WOC but don’t know where to start. So far Marva Smalls, Chief Diversity Officer at Viacom, and Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i at CBS Diversity have graciously donated funds to help make the event happen.
Women of Color Unite Gala: Thursday, March 28, 2019 from 6pm to 10pm at the California African American Museum.
*Editor’s Note: The exchange between Melanie Wise and Cheryl L. Bedford was witnessed by Christianna Carmine, Anastasia Washington, Amy Rosner and Jillian Corsie, and took place during a directors collective meeting attended by Wise, Bedford, Washington, Rosner, Carmine and Corsie.
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