The collaborative’s projects seek to spur the ongoing reckoning around racial justice and belonging. Photo: Eli Wilson/shutterstock
The collaborative’s projects seek to spur the ongoing reckoning around racial justice and belonging. Photo: Eli Wilson/shutterstock

Some of the most enduring stories we tell each other on screen and on the page aren’t just entertainment. They’re empathy-generating machines. Late 1970s miniseries sensation “Roots” didn’t just bring the realities and horrors of slavery into homes across the country—it also forced white America to empathize with a Black single family across generations.

More recently, Ava Duvernay’s Netflix offering “When They See Us” brought more awareness to the Central Park Five. But not only that—it galvanized the public to apply social pressure, leading to prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s resignation from the board of Vassar College and from the board of a nonprofit. She also lost her publisher. And HBO’s “Watchmen” has done the impossible and made Black Wall Street the household name it should have been from grade school, with President Joe Biden marking the 100-year anniversary of the planned massacre a few days ago.

This is what storytelling can do.

Pop Culture Collaborative describes itself as a “philanthropic resource and funder learning community working to transform the narrative landscape in America around people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims and Indigenous peoples, especially those who are women, queer, transgender and/or disabled.”

The collaborative gives away around $3 million annually in grants, backing well-known organizations like Duvernay’s ARRAY Alliance as well as Harness, launched by America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama and Ryan Piers Williams in response to the 2016 presidential election. It has also funded 5050by2020, an intersectional initiative of the Time’s Up movement, whose advisors included Shonda Rhimes and Lena Waithe.

More than just Hollywood, though, the collaborative is focused on harnessing all forms of pop culture to enact social change. Pop Culture Collaborative’s $5 million Becoming America Fund focuses on supporting pop culture artists, entertainment companies and social justice movements as part of the nation’s ongoing racial justice reckoning. Its Pluralist Visionaries include prominent POC leaders like Alicia Garza, co-founder of Black Lives Matter; Erik K. Ward, a former program officer at the Ford Foundation; and Ai-jen Poo, a labor activist who leads the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA).

All the while, the Becoming America Fund has pulled in support from the Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and others.

But just how did Pop Culture Collaborative take shape and garner such big-name support? And can its strategy of using culture as a lever to enact social change really make waves in philanthropy?

Culture change as strategy

The collaborative’s CEO Bridgit Antoinette Evans and CTO Tracey Van Slyke believe it can. Raised by civil rights activists in the South, trained in theater and armed with degrees from Stanford and Columbia, Evans has produced in the United States and abroad. Inspired by the life of Saartje Baartman, a Black South African woman trafficked to London in the 19th century and known as the “Venus Hottentot,” Evans’ goal was to support organizations fighting sex trafficking in the here and now.

Evans went on to become a culture change strategist, working for a decade with movement leaders to design long-term culture change plans for organizations like the NDWA’s focus on marriage equality; and the ACLU’s attention to police violence. “I really had the opportunity to learn that movements, particularly those focused on grassroots organizing, have a very clear sense of what the urgent stories were that needed to be told, and really, really yearned to have relationships with artists and other content creators to tell their stories and tell them at scale,” Evans told me.

In 2015, she joined the Nathan Cummings Foundation as a fellow to continue engaging in that work on a larger scale and normalize it within social movements. Soon after, Pop Culture Collaborative was born, with Nathan Cummings providing early funding.

As opposed to the theater circuit, Van Slyke entered the field of culture change through media. She was a publisher of In These Times, the staunchly progressive monthly magazine of news and opinion founded by socialist James Weinstein, with help from Julian Bond, Noam Chomsky and Herbert Marcuse. “I was able to cover the Violence Against Women Act and was shoulder-to-shoulder with Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Jackson Jr.,” Van Slyke said.

In the meantime, she began to study the right’s media apparatus and search out gaps in the independent, progressive media space. Ultimately, she concluded that “our side was so focused on communications and getting the daily headline, we were missing where people’s deeper passions lie, and where their beliefs are formed.”

The power of funding a story

Pop Culture Collaborative directs funds to grantees in a range of sectors: social justice movement building, entertainment and the arts, advertising and brands, journalism, academia, digital content, science and technology, immersive/experiential media and pop culture communities.

Last year, the collaborative supported a viral video rendition of “What to My People is the Fourth of July?” produced by Offsides Productions for the Movement for Black Lives, which features Daveed Diggs of “Hamilton” channeling his inner Frederick Douglass. W. Kamau Bell then connects with Black audiences about the meaning of the holiday.

Documentary series “To See Each Other,” meanwhile, aims to complicate the existing progressive narrative about white, rural Americans in places like Michigan, Iowa and Indiana. And “Essential Americans,” a series of short videos, encourages a more expansive and imaginative concept of “belonging” in America.

Van Slyke and Evans believe that pop culture wields enormous influence and can play an important part in bringing more diverse and representative narratives into the fold. “It’s a space where so many people, millions of people, are making meaning out of both past and present, and can start to reimagine the future,” Van Slyke said.

Alvin Starks, a senior program officer at the Open Society Foundations, echoed those words. Having worked at the Arcus Foundation and as a racial justice thinker and writer, he believes that as we march toward a more multiracial, more just society, culture must move along with it. OSF has contributed at least $1.3 million to the Becoming America Fund. Starks wants to give resources to creatives, artists and systems that magnify the picture around who, precisely, becomes American.

When I asked him how philanthropy can continue to step up in this area—especially in a realm that is not particularly quantifiable—he was quick to say that funders should include culture in their grantmaking strategies.

“It’s a tool, and actually how people understand the world around them, right? It’s not exclusively through laws and policies. Culture really sets the tone here, and actually establishes the imagination of the world that we want. So for funders, investing in culture becomes a critical strategy to really be proactive, but also to really open up new doors of  not only expression, but inclusion,” Starks said.

The emotional appeal

As a leader of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Caring Across Generations, Ai-jen Poo said she has been deeply invested in changing cultural narratives through the years. Domestic work in America—the work of nannies, house cleaners, home care workers—has historically been associated in the culture with women, and even more so with women of color.

“The racism in this country is so deeply seated, and has really defined how this workforce has been treated in law and policy, but also in culture, to this day. We still refer to this work as ‘the help’, right?” she said.

Part of her work, then, has been to change these entrenched beliefs. As a Pop Culture Collaborative Pluralist Visionary, Poo leads “Sunstorm” an audio salon, alongside Alicia Garza. “Sunstorm” focuses on speaking to “how women stay powerful and joyful amidst the chaos of life in America today.” Guests have included Megan Rapinoe and Bryan Stevenson.

Like others I spoke with, Poo believes the social change field cannot just rely on collecting data, doing research and presenting the facts. The past five years is proof enough of that, and the rapid evolution of progressive movement building during that time makes Pop Culture Collaborative’s work all the more pressing.

“What we’re less accustomed to is really engaging people on an emotional and human level in ways that speak to things that are unconscious about how we make meaning, how we make decisions, and what drives us to do certain things or to not do certain things,” Ai-jen Poo said.