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More Than A Network: How WEEN Is Cultivating The Next Generation Of Girl Bosses In Entertainment

WEEN is continuing to empower and support women in the entertainment industry, and is cultivating the next generation of women bosses!

Celebrity News

When you are seeking a job in entertainment, it can be hard to build your network and get your foot in the door. Luckily, there are organizations such as WEEN that makes things just a little easier.

I first heard about WEEN (Women In Entertainment Empowerment Network) back in 2009 as a sophomore student at Howard University. True to the Howard stereotype I was a woman on my grind and unwilling to stop at nothing to make my dreams a reality. I knew I wanted to work in the entertainment business (at the time I was more focused on marketing than journalism), and became actively involved on our campus in entertainment organizations as a volunteer for the Homecoming committee, and the campus radio station WHBC, in addition to a bunch of other initiatives that I had my hand in.

WEEN Founders (left to right): Sabrina Thompson, Lauren Lake, Kristi Henderson, Valeisha Butterfield

But one thing I knew even then was the importance of having a solid support system of likeminded women. Anybody whose dabbled in entertainment knows that it's a tough industry to navigate. It'll test your strength, your perseverance, and your dedication. You'll find out if you're really as much of a go-getter as you claim to be, and you'll learn how much integrity and morals you really have. With so many challenges it becomes vital to have a group of women you can turn to when you need a bit of advice regarding your career, or even just an opinion on navigating the various circumstances that you'll surely be presented with.

So when I learned about WEEN, their network of women in entertainment and their mission to empower women and highlight those who positively portray women in the industry, I was elated. That year they were doing a scholarship fund, and I, along with one other scholarship recipient, submitted a video detailing why we deserved the award. Out of many applicants we were selected and invited to attend the WEEN Awards that took place in Washington, D.C. To say that it was an experience of a lifetime would be an understatement. As a girl coming from Daytona Beach, FL by way of Greensboro, NC, it was an honor to walk around a room (and rooftop) of people that I had always looked up to and admired. I shook hands with Debra Lee, snapped photos with Angie Martinez and Malinda Williams, joked around with Vivica A. Fox, and Shanti Das, and semi-stalked MC Lyte for a photo before the night ended. (Yes I was stanning, no I'm not ashamed!)

I graced the stage to accept my award in front of a room full of women (and men as well) whom I've watched and admired, and over the years ran into many of these people again throughout my various jobs and internships. And though they probably don't remember me, I remember them and those few hours when I felt the warmth of their support amongst one another.

Cari Champion, Naturi Naughton, Faith Evans, Rocsi Diaz, and WEEN Founder/CEO Valeisha Butterfield-Jones at the 2015 WEEN Awards

On November 18, the non-profit organization celebrated their 5th annual WEEN Awards and eight years of service—honoring notable women Regina Hall (Think Like a Man) and Naturi Naughton (Power), Faith Evans (Singer/Songwriter), journalists Cari Champion (ESPN) and Rocsi Diaz (HLN), and Tiffany Smith Anoa'i (SVP of Diversity & Communications, CBS Entertainment), and Marilyn Mosby (Baltimore State Attorney).

It's amazing to witness the growth and success of such a powerful organization that builds you up while allowing you to build your network, and is proof that we are stronger together as women supporting one another, than we are apart tearing one another down.

Following the event, I spoke with co-founder Valeisha Butterfield, and she gave me a little more insight into the WEEN movement and the WEEN Academy, which is cultivating the next generation of women bosses.

What's different about the WEEN Awards now than the prior years?

It was our 5th annual so we were really excited about that so not only to highlight the achievement of our honorees but in our 5th year having the awards and our 8th year of service since we were founded in 2007, it really was a celebration of the honorees, the organization, and most importantly the WEEN Academy graduates. and so you know it really was a celebration of all those things and it was exciting to really watch some of our academy grads and see their accomplishments and how they've grown over the years.

You guys also do the WEEN Academy, which is a free four-week crash course in the entertainment business with classes taught by leading celebrities and entertainment industry executives. Can you talk more about that and how you've seen it impact the young women?

It's an annual summer program, but members from all four of our classes came back this year to celebrate, and so it was really like a class reunion for a lot of them. So many of them now are working mid-level and senior-level jobs at places like BET, VH1 and radio network stations--and the list goes on and on. Many of them are doing well now.

What is the training that the students have to go through during the summer course?

The program has a curriculum that we created with Dr. Nsenga Burton, and that curriculum is focused on how to help women compete and navigate the entertainment industry. So we cover areas such as marketing, public relations, advertising and talent management. The list goes on and on of all the things in that curriculum. And when the students complete the program, they not only receive WEEN certification, but they are groomed and ready to take on their new roles in the entertainment industry whether it's as an intern or an entry level job.

Editor's note: At the completion of the program, top WEEN Academy students receive an official WEEN certification, a WEEN mentor for twelve months to support the graduate's progress post program, and access to internships in the entertainment business.

How do you go about selecting the students?

No experience is required, but every March (Women's History Month) we have an open audition where young ladies (college students form 18 - 22-years-old), sometimes thousands, come from all over the country to compete for 30 slots in the academy. The young women come in and we have a celebrity panel of judges (think like American Idol), and the judges listen to their business pitch for 60 seconds on why they should be inducted into the academy. Again, they do not have to have entertainment experience, but they do have to have passion, drive, and a hunger to succeed because the academy is extremely intense, just like the entertainment industry is.

You also have the mentors involved too, right?

Yes, every WEEN Academy graduate is assigned a mentor for one full year after the program. Those mentors are there to answer the questions and to help them navigate the steps they'll need after the academy to get their first job.

This year you also honored women who aren't in entertainment, but are also making great contributions to the community (e.g. Marilyn Mosby). How did you select this year's nominees?

We have a small board that helps with the nominations, so the ladies nominate the honorees of their choice based on their work to empower other women, their track record, their consistency, and there's a formula that they use for all of those things. There's a nomination process and then we vote as a board and as a committee. We had seven honorees this year, and all were selected, nominated, and voted on by the board of the committee.

Is there a certain criteria that they have to meet in order to be nominated?

Yes, but within that category. For example, Tiffany Smith Anoa'i (SVP of Diversity & Communications, CBS Entertainment), she accepted the Corporate Leadership Award. Also Regina Hall received the Image Award because of her positive portrayal in television and film and on screen. And so there are categories that went to each of the ladies that were honored, and it was definitely based on their track record and their accomplishments over the last year.

What's next for WEEN?

Of course, the WEEN Academy we will have again this year; we're hoping to expand it into new markets. Also, we're rolling out a college campus program throughout the country to serve as WEEN reps, and ultimately the goal there is to create chapters on college campuses, so we're starting with the reps this year with the goal of having small campus teams. Also, we will be releasing our first annual WEEN Power 100 list to highlight women and the unsung heroes in the entertainment industry and beyond who deserve the recognition and the work they do in their areas of business and for their work to empower women. So those are a hosts of things we are doing right now.

What does being a WEEN woman mean to you?

A WEEN woman means that you are fearless—you take life as it comes. You do it fearlessly, with integrity, and most importantly you're willing to do the work.

Find out more about WEEN by visiting their website WEENonline.org.

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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Featured image by Shutterstock

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