Marginalized creators are tired of waiting for Hollywood to open its doors more widely to them and are making their own openings instead. Now entering its second year, the Disrupters Fellowship continues to challenge the whiteness of mainstream media by providing television writers of color who identify as trans and/or nonbinary, disabled, undocumented, and/or formerly undocumented immigrants with the opportunity to learn the inner workings of the industry.
Operated through the Center for Cultural Power, the Disrupters Fellowship was conceived as a response to the inequities in Hollywood—both in front of and behind the camera—exposed by social media movements like #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #OscarsSoWhite. While the center provides various online resources for creators, including a guide for artists and creators on how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and a guide on how to create art that is aligned with the goal of liberation, the fellowship seeks to address the biggest barriers to creators of color in Hollywood: access and financial instability. Ten participants spend three months in Los Angeles learning how to create and sell a TV pilot and are given a $6,000 stipend. The program also introduces them to mentors, showrunners, and industry powerhouses who will be able to recognize their names in the future.
Writer and comedian Roma Murphy, a 2019 fellow who wrote a half-hour teen mystery dramedy about two identical twins during her participation in the program, says the entertainment industry is built on internal referral systems that exclude BIPOC creators. Traditional avenues to industry relationships that can lead to opportunities are often closed to BIPOC creators, especially if they lack connections to vouch for them due to not knowing anyone in the entertainment industry or being unable to access film school programs that might provide networking opportunities.
“Outside of fellowships, contests, and staffing programs, the most common path into writing jobs in Hollywood is to have someone influential vouch for you,” explained Murphy. “BIPOC creators are much less likely to have access to those relationships. Very few BIPOC creators have family in the industry, and in order to have friends in the industry, you have to either attend film school—which can be prohibitively expensive if you aren’t lucky enough to get scholarships—or meet them through work in the industry.”
The process of writing her teen mystery dramedy pilot during the program gave Murphy concrete skills and boosted her confidence in her own voice as a creator. She learned how to pitch and how to develop, write, and revise a pilot script in under 10 weeks. However, the most valuable lessons Murphy gained were the emotional growth and knowledge made possible by working without the pressures of the white gaze. Through the community provided by the Disruptors Fellowship, Murphy realized that she doesn’t have to make her stories more palatable for mainstream audiences.
“I learned to trust myself and my voice, that the stories that feel true to me and my life are worth telling and will find an audience,” Murphy said. ”I learned that kindness and generosity are the key to forming lasting connections that go beyond typical networking. I learned that standing up for what is right will never be a career error and will always lead me to the creative spaces I long for.”
Senior program manager at the center and co-creator of the fellowship Julio Salgado drew on his own experiences of being undocumented and queer to create the program. Salgado says Hollywood was not created to accommodate BIPOC creatives with intersecting identities such as being trans, gender-nonconforming, undocumented, and disabled. He believes the antidote is to invest in creators with multiple intersections through making sure they’re given the tools, training, connections, and encouragement they need to have a chance.
“When you’re part of these communities, entering the world of Hollywood can be extremely tough,” Salgado said. “A lot of these cultural institutions were not created with us in mind. As Hollywood is coming to grips with these realities, we need to invest in these creatives of color with mentorship, spaces for them to create, and a community where they can rely on each other for support.”
That investment is also financial as well as educational. One of the major obstacles for marginalized people to enter the entertainment industry is a lack of financial resources to keep them afloat, such wealthy parents who can foot the bill until creators start making money.
“If you come from communities where your family doesn’t pay your bills, you’re going to get whatever job and hope to work on your craft some other time,” Salgado said. “We need to invest in these creatives from the get-go!”
This year, the Golden Globes has been heavily criticised for not nominating key creators of color in the industry. The 2021 Oscars nominations have been similarly criticized, with Insider reporting that though the gap between the number of nominations given to white people compared to people of color has closed in the past four years compared to the previous six, Oscar nods are still overwhelmingly white. The same report revealed that only 6.3% of nominations went to Black creatives, while 2.6% went to Latinx people and 1.4% went to Asian people. And creators who inhabit multiple intersections of marginalizations are few and far in between.
“There’s a lot of talk of diversity in Hollywood, but it feels like nobody wants to invest in you as an artist,” Salgado said. “We don’t expect fellows to sell their pilots right after the fellowship. But they at least can start networking with folks in Hollywood, work on that project that’s been in the back of their mind, and get paid in the process.”
The fellowship is gearing up to release the names of its 2021 cohorts later this May. The mentors for this year’s fellowship include industry veterans who understand the nuances of being a BIPOC creator in an overwhelmingly white space: Jenniffer Gomez from Vida, Zackery Alexzander Stephens from Q-Force, and Carolina Paiz from Orange Is The New Black and Grey’s Anatomy. The creation of an affirmative community is one of the strongest benefits of the fellowship.
“It was important for us to select industry leaders who are not only excellent in their craft, but understand the gap in access to Hollywood and are committed to opening pathways for diverse voices,” said Kat Evasco, the program director of artist leadership for the center.
The need for the Disrupters Fellowship is exemplified by TV writer Jenniffer Gomez from Vida. Gomez will be doing one-on-one sessions with the selected mentees and provide feedback on their scripts. It’s a role with personal meaning for Gomez as she’ll be filling a gap for the program fellows that she experienced in her own career journey.
“One of my biggest obstacles was finding a mentor—especially a BIPOC mentor,” Gomez said. “For so long, I felt like I wasn’t moving up because I didn’t have that champion—that person who was willing to look out for me, to teach me, and to hold a door or two open for me. Luckily, this fellowship is designed to address that very problem.”