Pop Pluralism: A Funder Collaborative Works to Shift Norms in Entertainment

photo: logoboom/shutterstock

photo: logoboom/shutterstock

When we heard from the Pop Culture Collaborative last year, executive director Bridgit Evans called out a national “crisis of imagination,” and touted the power of pop culture to reshape our concept of what pluralism looks like. Over several grant cycles beginning in 2017, the $25 million fund has used culture change grantmaking to tackle inequities and “invisibilities” in the entertainment industry.

This isn’t new terrain for philanthropy, but we’re in a new moment, one of promise as well as peril for social justice advocates. Movements like #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite have gained a lasting currency in Hollywood. As we’ve been covering, similar critiques are spreading through the world of foundations and nonprofits. With a five-year mission to cultivate strategic change in an immensely influential sector, the Pop Culture Collaborative is well-placed to tap into that undercurrent. 

Backing the collaborative are plenty of big names in the progressive funding world: the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy, the General Service Foundation and the JPB Foundation. The NoVo Foundation, the Omidyar Network and the Open Society Foundations have also signed on, adding more heft to an already impressive lineup. Beginning with the organization’s inaugural round of grants last summer, total grantmaking so far adds up to $3 million.

Related: Inside a Funder Collaborative Seeking Social Justice Through Pop Culture

The collaborative sees itself as a learning community for funders, including those who’ve supported the arts in more traditional ways. Over the long term, Evans wants to gather a wide range of partners into the fold, each bringing unique expertise. That also applies to the grantees. Last year, the collaborative got things underway with grants to national movement organizations like Color of Change and United We Dream, as well as places like Define American, a nonprofit focused on culture change around immigration in the media.

Another one of those initial grantees was Harness, co-founded by entertainment figures America Ferrera, Wilmer Valderrama, and Ryan Piers Williams to “serve as a bridge between social movements and entertainment artists.” Judging from the collaborative’s most recent grants—including additional support to Harness—building those bridges has become a focus of this fund’s energies. Funding went out this summer to a number of social equity groups doing similar work within the entertainment field. They include Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY Alliance, Storyline Partners, 5050by2020 (courtesy of #TimesUp), and CultureStrike. 

The organization is also investing in efforts to amplify groups who’ve been misrepresented or underrepresented in entertainment media. Grantees there include IlluminNative and the Pillars Fund, the latter of which has adopted a culture change strategy to shift how American Muslims are perceived. Rounding out the collaborative’s grantees are a collection of equity-focused market research shops and labor groups like the National Guestworker Alliance and the National Domestic Workers Alliance. The aim there: promote more empowering images of immigrant and migrant workers.

A common refrain that unites most of this work is strategizing for the long term. Often, philanthropic projects seeking “culture change” through the arts tend to be one-off projects. While interesting, their scope can be limited by time frame and geography. By empowering female filmmakers, for instance, or building ties between Hollywood and grassroots movements, the Pop Culture Collaborative wants to sow the seeds for greater impact. 

At the same time, though, the nature of these projects is more nakedly ideological than most arts grantmaking tends to be. That may be par for the course these days. But it also seems reasonable to assume that more propagandistic projects (as some might interpret them) will fall short among the pop culture-consuming public, while deeper efforts to shift industry norms will fare better. Judging from the direction of its grants, the collaborative does seem to recognize that.

In commentary contributed to the collaborative’s website, Ai-Jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance was upbeat: “I think we’re all committed to democratizing every dimension of society, including popular culture.” That’s a sunny ambition, and it also reflects what a growing chorus of leaders want to happen in the nonprofit world. Whether we’ll get there is still an open question. Then again, films about African tech-utopias are box office hits nowadays, and songs in Spanish and Korean regularly top the charts. Maybe pluralism has a chance after all.