How Black Lives Matter sparked a week of virtual coffees between staffed writers and the underrepresented.
In early June, Ashley Soto Paniagua (Vida) started texting writers she knew, asking if they wanted to participate in a campaign called #RaiseThePercentage. The hashtag was the brainchild of Soto Paniagua’s co-organizer, actor and producer Jessie B. Evans (who founded Hollywood Here, which seeks to make the larger creative community more inclusive). At the time, Black Lives Matter protests had exploded nationwide after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, and social media was a hotbed of rage and sorrow.
The goal of #RaiseThePercentage was to address—in a cut-through-the-clutter, what-can-we-do-today kind of way—the persistently low percentages of Black TV and screenwriters. “Free Virtual Networking: An Opportunity for Black Writers to Meet with Staffed TV Writers,” the invite circulating on Twitter read.
The campaign spread quickly. Soto Paniagua sent the link to Kiley Donovan (Station 19, Grey’s Anatomy) who in turn sent it to the staffs of both shows, as the campaign picked up more tweets and hashtags—from Felicia Pride (Grey’s Anatomy, Queen Sugar), Amy Berg (The Alienist, Warrior Nun), Terri Kopp (The Chi, Black Mafia Family), and Gloria Calderón Kellett (One Day at a Time), among others.
This is how, over the week of Juneteenth, 319 WGAW members of varying levels came to participate in more than 1,000 30-minute virtual coffees with Black and Afro-Latinx writers who have never staffed. Nobody had to leave their house, much less move to Los Angeles, or even find parking. Here was a way to set change in motion via everybody’s principal mode of connection these days: the internet.
“The cultural moment we’re in, alongside the pandemic we’re in—they all came together to make sure this could even happen,” Soto Paniagua says.
As one of the participating showrunners in quarantine, Calderón Kellett agrees. “I am seeing a lot more happening, specifically on social media,” she says. With a production restart on One Day at a Time uncertain, and a new development deal at Amazon, Calderón Kellett isn’t staffing, but she is always looking—now via Twitter. On July 9, for instance, she tweeted: “Dear Asian and South Asian comedy writers. Hi. I'd like to get to know you. I've found that when I'm staffing you don't get sent to me so I'm doing my own diversity program.”
“I’ve been doing a lot of threads about who’s out there,” Calderón Kellett says. This has included queer writers, Black trans writers, and writers over 40.
The functional question for #RaiseThePercentage was, how do you coordinate a thousand virtual meetings over the span of a week? Soto Paniagua and Evans came up with ground rules: The 300-plus WGAW members put themselves down for timeslots over the meeting platform Setmore; any Black or Latinx writer who wanted a virtual coffee first had to attend an introductory webinar, hosted by Soto Paniagua and Evans.
For many participating in #RaiseThePercentage, this would be their first face-to-face meeting with a working writer, and the organizers wanted to impart some tips on how to take a general (e.g., don’t just ask someone to read your script). On the other end, WGAW members were able to see intake forms on each of the participants they were meeting.
Jack Moore (Dear White People) ended up with a dozen bookings. One writer was in London, and Moore bought yearlong passes to MasterClass for others. He is reading scripts, too. Moore is a white showrunner on a staff that is otherwise composed of writers of color. Black Lives Matter, he’s noticed, has brought renewed energy to the issue of staffing writers of color—that, and the fact that many writers are housebound right now. “I think we’re saying, ‘Yeah, everybody has extra time,’” he says.
Meanwhile, as #RaiseThePercentage suggests, the industry has perhaps arrived at a put-up-or-shut-up moment. “I do feel like oftentimes there’s this white liberal thing in Hollywood of wanting to look like you’re doing the work instead of doing the work,” he continues.
As a result of #RaiseThePercentage, Final Draft donated 300 copies of Final Draft 11 to aspiring writers. Evans is planning similar virtual coffees with producers and development execs, Soto Paniagua says, while on Twitter the hashtag movement continues.
Carla Kettner (The Blacklist, Bones) wasn’t part of the #RaiseThePercentage week of meetings. But, motivated by the social justice protests and a sense that the time had passed for “performative” gestures on social media, she sent out a tweet of her own on June 5: “I’m a showrunner who wants to give back in the small way I know how. If you’re an aspiring Black TV writer, my DMs are open—send me your sample script. I’ll read the first 10 (warning: it may take a while). #ReadBlackWriters Any other upper levels want to jump on this train?”
“My intentions started out small and then snowballed,” Kettner says, looking back. “I was very moved by the Black Lives Matter protests, but I also had an awareness that there’s not a lot I can do to change the political climate. So I decided to see if there was something I could do in our backyard that could make a difference to aspiring Black writers who didn’t have a clue how to move forward.”
“I didn’t want to do any of those sort of performative things that is always the temptation,” Kettner adds. “You can post a little something, a message of support, or a black box. I really wanted to try to reach out to individuals and try to get them to the next level. That felt like the most significant difference I could make as a writer and a human being.”
Kettner turned off her DMs after four hours and 67 submissions, promising to read everyone’s script in time and give detailed feedback on the 10 that were closest to completion. “I just had a private Zoom with one woman who lives in Tennessee. If virtual writers’ rooms remain for a little while, then an aspiring Black writer who lives in Tennessee has a shot at staffing.”
Kettner held two Q&As over Zoom with a fellow former Bones writer, Pat Charles (Black Lightning). Those 67 submitters all got a copy of WritersRoom Pro. At the same time, Kettner was running her own room for Florida Man, a series currently in development.
“You never have time to put out that kind of broad offer to new talent,” she says. “Maybe it’s the blessing of COVID, if I’m to look for blessings. Even though it isolated us so much, it did in a way make the world smaller. It wasn’t weird to be communicating with strangers over Zoom and Twitter because that’s pretty much all we’ve got left at the moment.”
Camille Corbett, 25, recently staffed for the first time on Netflix’s upcoming multi-camera sitcom Dad, Stop Embarrassing Me. On June 9, she tweeted: “I am a staff writer on her first TV writing job who wants to help mentor young black writers in college or college age. Email me your samples.”
“I made a Facebook group just so I can see everyone and have them in one place,” Corbett says. She uses the space now to post resources for writers, job opportunities, and to share access codes to writing competitions on Coverfly.
As the WGAW’s Committee of Black Writers noted in a recent open letter to Hollywood, the common refrain that Black writers are hard to find is belied by the fact that the Guild has at least 823 self-identified Black members (this figure is based on self-reports by writers who have permitted the Guild to publish their racial identity in the Find A Writer database). “I personally think it’s problematic that people can get to showrunner level and not know POC writers,” Corbett said.
“If we want to tell stories empathetically, then we need to make room for other people’s stories,” Moore says. If that seems obvious, he also understands the fear among many white writers. “We are raised with a scarcity mindset” that “jobs are impossible to get, and you must defend them at all costs.” But Moore feels such career concerns needn’t equate to the writers he met through #RaiseThePercentage. “I don’t at all feel like I am training my replacements.”
“There may be a separation between white showrunners and POC showrunners,” Calderón Kellett said. “Because I’ve been doing my own diversity hiring since I was a showrunner.”
It took Calderón Kellett 12 years to get her own show; encouragingly, she noted, Tanya Saracho got Vida on the air in half that time. “It’s a pipeline issue, it’s an access issue. This is stuff we’ve talked about for a long time, but the fact that the broader writer community is talking about it is really, really exciting. It means that actual change could be happening.”
When she was staffing One Day at a Time, Calderón Kellett remembers, she called UTA and asked if they had any Cuban writers on their roster. “They said, ‘Yeah, you.’ And then I later found out they had another Cuban, Valentina Garza, who would have been great for my show, but they didn’t know she was Cuban.”
Typically, her assistant pores through responses to her calls for underrepresented writers and picks four candidates for her to meet with. What is she looking for? Aspiring comedy writers who “seem like they’re hustling, they’re doing the work, they’re on the right path, they just maybe need a little bit of guidance and support. I’ll do Zoom meetings with them. The last month I’ve been doing just Black trans writers. I’ll meet four a week and give them guidance and amplification on social media. What’s really cool, in reading through the threads, is how these writers are also finding one another.”