When children reach the age of 18, they are expected to know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their lives. The field they choose guides the decisions they make as to what college they should attend and what field they should major in once they get there.
While there are a great many young people who grow up knowing exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives and have the opportunity to make that happen for themselves, marginalized youth are often only presented with a limited amount of choices—the majority of which are not dream-fulfilling but rather “good jobs” and “money-making” opportunities that satisfy someone else’s desires and not theirs.
Jada Pinkett Smith told me that when the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag took off, she was moved to make a difference in Hollywood. She said it’s not enough to talk about it, you have to do something.
She said she asked herself, “What are you going to do to contribute to this problem we’re seeing?”
“We decided we want to start reaching out a lot more to marginalized communities that don’t have a lot of opportunities to create films, write their stories—for us to hear their voices,” she said. “I felt that we needed to reach back even further into the communities and go to the schools and travel the country and educate young people on what is available in the industry if you really want to create an avenue for our voices to be heard and our lives and/or stories to be told more authentically.”
This past Saturday, the actress was joined by rapper Wale, Jane the Virgin actor Justin Baldoni and Chachi Senior—executive producer of Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story—on a panel moderated by Amy Dubois Barnett, executive vice president of digital and chief content officer of The Grio. The panel was part of an all-day event called “The Blueprint: Building Your Pathway to Success in the Entertainment Industry,” which took place on the campus of UCLA. The event was put together by the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation (WJSFF) as part of their Careers In Entertainment initiative and was sponsored by Paramount and BET.
WJSFF started the Careers In Entertainment initiative as a means of providing both opportunities and inspiration to young people who would like to pursue careers in the entertainment industry—both in front of and behind the camera.
“We’ve had boom operators come, and makeup artists, so they can see things to know that it’s real and it’s tangible, so the hands-on experience is an important component of this. Let them not just hear about the industry, but touch it so to speak,” Smith said.
The initiative was founded on the belief that by mentoring the next generation of entertainment leaders from marginalized communities, the Smiths will be able to change the face of film and television, so their aim is to expose young people to the wide range of professional options available in the entertainment industry. They want to see the cameras, storyboards, budgets and deal-making meetings handed over to those “whose voices usually go unheard.”
In partnership with the Youth Policy Institute, CIELA featured panel discussions with industry insiders as well as interactive workshops that engaged the more than 250 high school and college students in attendance in discussions on topics that explored career possibilities in film, entertainment, costume design and gaming. Californi State Senator Ben Allen and Los Angeles Unified School District 4 Board Member Nick Melvin gave keynote speeches that highlighted the importance of arts programs in schools and creating opportunities for marginalized students in the entertainment field.
“When I was in school, there wasn’t anything like this,” Melvoin told the gathered students. He encouraged them to soak up as much information as possible during the day’s events.
During the featured panel, Smith, Wale, Junior and Baldoni shared their personal experiences of working in the industry and discussed what it takes to survive. The overarching message was that passion combined with a good work ethic will get you farther than anything else.
“I would rather take a chance on the person who may not have as much talent, but is willing to do the work than I would the person who has a natural gift but doesn’t want to do anything for it,” Smith told the audience.
Those on the panel agreed with her.
“People post on Instagram and show you the trophies and the spoils of their success, but they don’t show you the game face or the work they put into winning the race,” Wale said.
In our one-on-one interview, the rapper told me that there are days he doesn’t want to get out of bed. He might be exhausted and need rest.
“Sure, I can sleep until 2 p.m. every day,” he said, “but what would I get accomplished if I did that?”
He stressed the importance of being willing to do the work.
“If it’s something you love, you should be willing to invest in it every single day,” he said.
For Smith, Saturday’s event was a chance to allow the youth to be exposed to information they may not otherwise get.
“It’s important for our youth—and all marginalized youth—to know that these opportunities exist for them,” she told me.
CIE was created for just that purpose. Smith told me that Saturday’s event was just the first of many they hope to do. They are planning for the next event in Los Angeles on Oct. 2.
Although I was not the intended audience for Saturday’s event, the messages delivered resonated with me. Smith said it was the same for her.
“Sometimes you forget, so even for me just to remember certain aspects of it was a big deal,” she said. “Every time I come to a panel, I leave with something. Sometimes it’s about us just coming together. It’s like church.”
Every career—whether it be acting, rapping, working as a journalist or a publicist—takes hard work and dedication. You have to be committed to being the best you can be in order to stand out and shine.
There is no easy path to success, Smith stressed. Those who look for the easy way in tend to get scared off pretty easily. But those who have the will and the determination to go the distance are the ones who will end up with longevity in their craft.
But it starts with opening the door—and their eyes—to the opportunities available to them.
The CIE tour is a good start for that.
“Through CIE, we have been able to help young men and women take the first step in making their career dreams a reality,” Smith said.
And sometimes, planting a seed is all it takes.