While creative writing isn’t one of the most active fields in arts philanthropy, it’s not immune to funders’ growing calls for greater equity and inclusion.
The Roddenberry Foundation, named after “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry, recently partnered with A Day of Unreasonable Conversation, a program of the social impact agency Propper Daley, to launch the Roddenbery Impact Awards to support television content creators committed to telling stories that “better represent the diversity of people, thought, and expression throughout society.”
“The world would be more inclusive and fair if everyone saw themselves in it,” said Roddenberry Foundation board member Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, who, along with his wife Heidi, established the foundation in 2010. “If we change who we place in stories and how we tell them, we can change the way we experience the world, and ultimately, we change the story of our future.”
Two months earlier, the Speculative Literature Foundation (SLF), which prioritizes science fiction, fantasy and horror writing from economically disadvantaged, female, ethnic minority and LGBTQ writers, announced changes to its annual grant schedule. Offerings include the Older Writers Grant, Diverse Worlds and Diverse Writers Grants, and the Working Class Writers’ Grant, which assists “working class, blue-collar, poor and homeless writers who have been historically underrepresented in speculative fiction.”
In late March, the foundation’s director, Dr. Mary Anne Mohanraj, spoke with Tor.com about the state of speculative fiction and queer science fiction in particular. “My main concerns right now have to do with equity and access,” Mohanraj said, before mentioning that most science fiction workshops are too expensive for writers of limited means. “That’s part of why we give a Working Class Writers’ Grant at the SLF, to try to extend that reach just a little further.”
Towards a “More Harmonious Society”
It’s important to note that the Roddenberry Impact Awards transcend the field of science fiction, reflecting the foundation’s broader mission of cultivating a more connected and tolerant humanity.
In 2016, the foundation launched the $1 million Roddenberry Prize, a global competition to “crowdsource innovative solutions to issues that demand audacious, far-reaching, and scalable responses.” 2017’s $400,000 grant prize winner was the team behind Opus12, a device that converts industrial CO2 emissions into chemicals that can be recycled into fuel or used for other useful purposes.
2016 also saw the launch of the Roddenberry Fellowship, a $1 million investment in the “activists, community leaders, and organizers leading the efforts for a more just and equitable country,” and with it, the foundation’s pivot towards greater social activism in the age of Trump. “My father… would have been appalled by the current rhetoric and ugliness in which we are attacking each other for the differences in our faith, race, place of birth, or choice in life partner,” Rod Roddenberry said at the time.
The new Roddenbery Impact Awards will provide $10,000 grants to creators who are committed to storytelling that advances its founder’s principles of “a more progressive, inclusive and harmonious society.” Winning submissions can be pitches for content or proposals for mechanisms that support such projects and should pertain to one of three areas: Inclusive Futures, Authentic Content Creation, and Increased Representation. Grant recipients will be announced on June 9. Applications and criteria can be found here.
The other player here is the Los Angeles-based Propper Daley, which helps brands, including previous clients Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Clinton Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, broaden and evolve their thinking around “social impact.” Speaking with Forbes last year, Propper Daley’s Amy Randall laid out the challenge facing brands accordingly:
Impact actually means that young consumers are looking at whether a brand is an environmental polluter; whether they have a diverse work staff whom they pay them well and equally? They’re asking what a brand’s values are. And all of those things now start to coalesce around a different world of impact that they have to live in because they’re getting asked those questions by consumers and they’re making purchasing decisions based on what they find.
The Roddenbery Foundation hoped to announce the awards on March 30 to coincide with the second annual A Day of Unreasonable Conversation, dubbed an “invitation-only annual gathering expressly designed to equip creators of popular culture,” including writers, artists, producers, and executives. Planners canceled the event because of the coronavirus.
“As we ‘return to normal,’ we have a chance to redefine what normal looks like and to create a more just and equitable future,” said A Day of Unreasonable Conversation founder Greg Propper.
“Find a Way to Talk to Each Other”
Mary Anne Mohanraj founded the Speculative Literature Foundation in 2004 after discovering that most science fiction writers did not apply for grants due to two key reasons. First, writers were discouraged by grantmakers’ preference for the nobler and more esteemed field of “fiction.” Funders also believed, Mohanraj concluded, that “sci fi” was an inherently “commercial field.” As a result, writers could rely on royalties, rather than philanthropy, to support their work.
“There wasn’t an understanding for the need for grants to support writers,” Mohanraj told Girls in Capes. “Essentially, we wanted to create a space to do what the NEA does for literary arts but focus it on SF/F, create gateway grants that would be easy for general writers to apply for, and have a low bar for the application process with the hope of facilitating the creation of really great work.”
In addition to its grant offerings, the SLF launched the Portolan Project, an open-source resource that extends free creative writing instruction across the globe. “We need these stories, and we need to help these writers get the resources they need to write them well,” Mohanraj told Tor.com. “When we put together an anthology of climate change science fiction, we can’t just be talking to the techies in Silicon Valley; we need to hear what the Bangladeshi farmers facing flooding think the solutions might be.”
Looking ahead, Mohanraj said the foundation hopes to create an international literature project and, if funding allows, an accompanying short fiction award. The idea here is to ensure that readers from all over the globe have equal access to science fiction writing. “In so many places, the state of science fiction that writers can access—the books in the bookstores—are 30 or 50 years behind what we have in the U.S.,” Mohanraj said. “I worry about Balkanization, that we’ll end living in separate fictional worlds.”
Channeling her inner Gene Roddenberry, Mohanraj argued that “if we are to have any hope of solving the problems of the future and supporting the people of today in all their queer/trans/etc. diversity, we need to be speaking to each other. That was always the hope of first contact stories, wasn’t it? That we’d find a way to talk to each other, discover that we were more alike that we’d thought, cousins under the skin.”