By Isa Baranowski and Kali Shulklapper
Erika Alexander is an actress, producer, writer, and activist, as well as the Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Color Farm Media — an organization working to elevate underrepresented voices in media. She recently produced the acclaimed documentary John Lewis: Good Trouble, which chronicles the civil rights leader and his lifelong fight for social justice. Erika joined us for an inspiring conversation with Chief Member Jacalyn Chapman, Director of Employee Advocacy and Belonging at Salesforce, to discuss the importance of representation and diversity in storytelling.
How her acting career brought visibility to historically marginalized people:
EA: Living Single was a show that I did in the early nineties, and I played a character named Maxine Shaw. She was a lawyer, and her character was actually named after a real entertainment lawyer named Nina Shaw. You never really know how something will hit the zeitgeist — you just do the job, and you hope you do a good enough job. But we knew the show was a hit from the moment it came out. A lot of young women became attached to the character Maxine, because she inspired them to pursue careers in law, politics, and business. She even inspired Stacey Abrams and Ayanna Pressley. Women would come up to me and say, "I went into politics because of Maxine Shaw. I became a judge because of Maxine Shaw." They said, "Maxine Shaw looked like me. She gave me permission to be me, and to show up as my natural self."
On Color Farm Media, and its role in creating opportunities for underrepresented voices:
EA: There were very few choices for young Black actresses or anyone who was dark-skinned. And it's not even about choice, it's just about opportunity. I was chosen out of hundreds of girls at a random audition for a movie and it was like winning the lottery; it just doesn't happen. But I was playing parts like slaves, prostitutes, and foster kids, and I started thinking: How could I play the roles that I saw other people playing? I asked my agent about playing an ingenue. He said, "No one would ever believe you to be an ingenue."
I founded Color Farm Media not only to create more opportunities for myself, but for others. The organization exists to find voices and to support new faces of color. We want to make sure that if you are discriminated against or from a marginalized community, we can find you. One of our taglines is "we're looking for you."
How storytelling impacts social change:
EA: Stories are how we learn our history. And some of the stories that we tell ourselves stop our progressive movement as humans. Somebody told the lie that Black was ugly and dark and inhuman. And for hundreds of years, that translated into the slave trade, oppression, marginalization, and incarceration of Black people. That's a story, too — and we're not going to get out of this race thing until we start telling ourselves better ones. We have to push beyond the boundaries that perpetuate all sorts of stories about white supremacy, what women can or can't do, and what differently-abled people can or can't do.
And to be a good storyteller, you have to be a good listener. But you can't listen if you've got your computer and your headphones on. You've got to give yourself a chance to look at a blank wall and see the wall start to move. You're supposed to use your imagination to draw from your life, but people have been looking at their phones and thinking that's their life. When you step outside in New York, you can hear what the city is really saying and the story it wants to tell.
What it will take for the entertainment industry and beyond to become more equitable and inclusive:
EA: Money. What you invest in creates value. It shows what's important to people or a society, to see where they put or don’t put their money. Right now, there are executives who don't believe in racism. They don't believe in someone telling their story because of this or that — and the people who could do the most good are underfunded.
We need to support unique voices and give them opportunities to succeed — and we need to be aggressive about supporting the people who are trying to change the game. We need to support Ava DuVernay and Issa Rae, but we also need to support the people who don’t have those big platforms. Even if it’s just to say, "Hey, I saw your show, and it was great. Keep going." That’s what really matters.
You can also teach younger women how to do the things that they're not taught how to do, and eventually, one of them will think, "Okay. I can do that." The way you teach it may resonate with somebody who has never heard it taught in that way.
And lastly, we need to keep sharing our stories and using them to empower and enable others to make an impact — to do the things that they wouldn't otherwise be exposed to.