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October 10, 2019,   10:31 AM

The Off-Book Mentoring Circles Of Media’s Elite: How Lena Waithe, Meagan Good And Other Powerful Black Women Are Lifting The Next Generation

Brianne Garrett

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Image Credit: flickr

With 5.3 million people following her on Instagram, Meagan Good could spend days sifting through every message in her inundated inbox and comment section. It’s an unrealistic task for any human, much less for a Hollywood star and director. But something compelled her to respond to one particular note back in 2012—a note that eventually connected her to a woman who would become her mentee and friend.

“It said ‘Hey, my friend is really going through a tough time, would you be willing to reach out and encourage her?’” Good remembers. Good did just that, and emailed the friend in question, Keyera Williams. Soon Williams and Good were exchanging text messages and having FaceTime chats with such frequency that Good’s husband started jokingly begging for more attention. 

But Good has been just as much of a sponsor as she has been a mentor. The actress, who at the time was starring in hits like Think Like a Man, used her contacts to help get Williams—who’s now a producer for Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith’s Westbrook Inc.—one of her first big internship gigs, at BET. 

“There’s a lot of things I don’t like about social media,” says Good. “But one of the things I do love is that you can connect with anyone in the world.”

It’s a type of off-book mentorship that wasn’t possible just ten years ago: Virtual communities like “Black Twitter” have helped women of color in media and entertainment form connections with their idols in a way that might not have been attainable before. Whether it’s via social media or through networking events, conferences or even book signings, powerful women in media like Good are making themselves accessible for eager learners in the industry to lean on. To help compensate for the under-representation of women of color in the media, these figures have been making it a priority to recognize young talent, nurture it and help it reach new heights. And since only about  27% of organizations offer formal mentoring programs, many are bypassing traditional networks and taking matters into their own hands.

“It’s that saying: ‘If you see it, you can believe it,’” Vanessa K. De Luca, editor in chief at Zora Magazine, says. “It’s a way of recognizing that opportunities are available to you; that if this person overcame institutional impediments to get where they are, so can you.”

Those institutional impediments are daunting: Women of color represent less than 8% of U.S. print newsroom staff, 12.6% of local TV news staff, and 6.2% of local radio staff, according to the Women’s Media Center. Among producers of the top 300 films from 2016 to 2018, only 1.6% were women of color, and only four directors were women of color. And in 2018, there were only eight women of color media executives across all corporate positions. 

But how can young black women get those opportunities in the first place? After all, celebs don’t have the bandwidth to respond to every message on Instagram. Producer, writer and actress Maura Chanz—whose production credits include IGTV’s “Unguided” by Yara Shahidi—had a strategy at public events and conferences the she would use to stand out. “I have this practice where anybody I wanted to speak with, I would wait until the very last person at a Q+A and I would say ‘I don’t have a question, I don’t want a picture, but do you mind if I walk you to your car?’” she says. 

It’s that kind of chutzpah that made actress and producer Keri Shahidi want to invest in Chanz. “I noticed Maura’s drive and initiative, and when we started working together (I think she was maybe 21), I really didn’t look at it as well let me mentor you. Regardless of age, regardless of our different experiences, I think our shared experience is that the rising tide lifts all boats. We don’t have time to say well I’m just going to make it.”

Shahidi’s daughter, actress and activist Yara Shahidi, has adopted a similar mentality—one that she says was passed on by her mother, one of her first and most influential mentors. “The one thing that we’re always talking about in our household is this idea of relationship equity,” says the younger Shahidi, whose mentors include Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Cullors. 

Lena Waithe approaches the equity question from a different perspective: “It’s about you helping me help you,” she says. “A lot of times people think mentorship is, We’ll hang out, I’ll tell you all these words of wisdom, you’ll sit at my feet and we’ll make s’mores together,” the Emmy-winning screenwriter, producer and actress says with a laugh. “That’s not what mentorship is. What I try to do as a mentor is ask a mentee questions: ‘What do you ultimately want to do? Do you want to write a script? Television or features? Drama or comedy?’ If you say comedy, I know who to point you towards; if you say drama, I know who to point you towards.” 

Waithe noticed a lack of access to opportunities for underrepresented communities of aspiring media professionals, so she founded the Hillman Grad Network to help. The network consists of about 140 mentees—aspiring writers and producers mostly between the ages of 25 and 35. The ones who stand out work their way up to become part of Waithe’s team and eventually get their hands on their own gigs. Racquel Baker, for example, went from Waithe’s first assistant to a writer’s assistant for shows such as Twenties and Boomerang; Kendra Jordan went from being a mentee to a writer’s assistant on Boomerang, and now she’s Hillman Grad’s mentorship director. “Lena provides resources, even if she can’t touch you one on one,” says Jordan. 

Actress, writer and producer Issa Rae is another example of the way women of color are bypassing traditional power structures to create off-book networking opportunities. Rae says she has never really considered herself to be a formal mentor; instead, she says, “I am just always happy to help talented people who are serious about their work.”

While Rae did cofound ColorCreative, a platform to discover and support emerging storytellers of color, she also finds mentees organically. She’s hired an assistant from a meet-and-greet at one of her book signings; she also meets mentees from friend of friends. “The co-sign from other women I trust goes a long way,” says Rae. 

The lesson for aspiring mentees? You never know who your network will lead to—just as you’ll never know how far one informal interaction can go. Former BET Networks CEO Debra Lee puts it even more bluntly: “People shouldn’t really ask you to be a mentor,” she says. “I think that’s kind of off-putting and implies a lot of work. What I recommend is if you want to become close to someone, you ask them out for coffee, you ask them out for lunch. And then if you hit if off, you keep doing it periodically.” 

During her time at BET, Lee created the Leading Women Defined annual conference aimed at facilitating conversations and mentorships for women of color, and she has also generated a network of 30 to 40 individual mentees, both men and women, who’ve worked for the company over the course of her roughly 30-year career. 

Seeking a mentor—even if you don’t call her that—in the media and entertainment industry isn’t easy, but it’s also not unattainable. It requires authenticity, but it’s not always going to work out with every woman you encounter, says Keyera Williams, the woman whose career has received help from Meagan Good. For the relationships that do stick, she says, the results can be life-changing.

“Mine and Meagan's relationship is so much deeper than the industry,” says Williams. “I'm alive because of her and her seeing me through one of the deepest moments of my life.” 



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