The Emma Bowen Foundation is celebrating 30 years of promoting diversity in entertainment and professional spaces. This year, the Emma Bowen Foundation is sponsoring the Micheaux Film Festival – a multicultural film festival that highlights diverse representation both in front of and behind the camera. Heavy.com sat down with Rahsaan Harris, CEO of the Emma Bowen Foundation, to find out more about the program, their summer internships, and why they chose to get involved with the Micheaux Film Festival.
Landon Buford: The Emma Bowen Foundation is celebrating 30 years and has impacted hundreds of thousands of young people of color. But for those who are unaware of, who Emma Bowen is and what the foundation does, can you educate the readers at home?
Rahsaan Harris: The Emma Bowen Foundation was founded in 1989. Emma Bowen was a Harlem advocate, appointed by people of color to change the way they were being portrayed in the news media. In particular, Bowen didn’t like the images of African Americans, especially how African American males were being portrayed. So, she advocated and went down to the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] to make sure that the broadcasters who had licenses to deliver the news were held accountable for how they approached diversity. She also partnered with a few other people such as Rev. Dr. Everett Parker, and Dan Burke. Burke was at ABC capital city. Rev. Parker was an advocate for social justice and was working nationally to make sure that the movement wasn’t blocked, nationally or on local news. The three of them together made sure they created an on-ramp for people of color, which started out as internships at the news stations. Since 1989, we have flourished and developed those internships at news stations and multiplied those internships. We now partner with multiple media outlets and a few technology companies. Companies such as Comcast, NBC Universal, PBS, Fox, as well as several PR firms.
We also work with NPR and PBS, doing hard-hitting investigative journalism news. We’ve created opportunities not just in the news realm, but also in the PR and technology space. We started off in the media because that’s where news journalism was and the production of it. That was really where Emma started. She wanted to make sure that people of color would be represented behind the camera, but she also related it to the business of media. She wanted people of color to also see how revenue is generated and operated; how media and technology companies are implemented; and lastly, the innovation of media across the platforms of technology and the hardware of broadcast.
To double back to how people got involved – In the beginning, we had high school students and college students. We now have an application that’s open to college students, where they can intern over the summer at one of our partner companies. We had thousands upon thousands of submissions for roughly 200 positions this summer across the country at our partner companies. Those people who have come through our program as alumni have affected hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people as they become alum and go on to have a career at those media and technology companies. For example, we have Fox News’ anchor Arthel Neville, CBS News producer Rodney Hawkins – who have all come through our program and gone on to have successful careers. Niija Kuykendall, who is the Executive Producer of the film Just Mercy. She’s been Executive Producer of Oscar-winning films and is one of the top executives at Warner Brother Films. We also have other people like Gio Benitez, who is a correspondent for Good Morning America. And they’re all influencing hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people through the arts and the media they’re producing, that is released across the country and in some cases, the world.
Landon Buford: Can you speak more in-depth about Emma’s legacy and how she was able to affect the industry from a political standpoint with politicians on Capitol Hill?
Rahsaan Harris: Emma Bowen started the first interns of Color program to get more congressional internships on Capitol Hill. She recognized that putting pressure on lawmakers was a catalyst to effect change. She didn’t get upset with the broadcasters when the local broadcasters didn’t listen to her, she went directly to the FCC.
Landon Buford: Why did the Emma Bowen Foundation decide to come on as a title sponsor for the Micheaux Film Festival?
Rahsaan Harris: Noel Braham is what the Emma Bowen Foundation was created for. He is a talented young man of color that compared to any white colleagues or other peers of color, has the skill shown to improve and excel. So, he is excellent regardless of background, and he is also connected to communities of color and wants to make sure he reflects the different narratives that come from our culture. He has interned at Comcast, a major company, and did a great job with his internship, and that was his experience on the business side. And he also nurtured his creative side as an actor, producer, and by creating his own art and films. He is the epitome of what we want to see: someone who recognizes that access creates opportunity. And then taking that opportunity to take it to the next level, to create new stories and narratives that everyone can learn from, and access. Noel’s film festival makes us feel proud, and we definitely want to be supportive of it.
Landon Buford: The Micheaux Film Festival was founded by Emmy-nominated producer Courtney L. Branch, and Emmy-nominated filmmaker and Emma Bowen alum Noel Braham. As an alumnus, how do his contributions to the industry reflect positively on the foundation?
Rahsaan Harris: In general, I think the Emma Bowen Foundation loves to highlight when our alumni are successful. When our alums are successful, it shows the best part of what we can do. And Noel and the film festival are a shining example of that, so we’re really proud of him and try to be supportive. And we want to grow our network and make sure that more professionals of color have the opportunity to connect with our partners. Our partners don’t just want interns, they want entry-level employees and mid-level employees – leaders. Because that’s what the industry and the market are demanding. And the more that we can highlight the talent that we have in our network, the more industry and business will be able to meet their needs.
Landon Buford: Emma Bowen, like Oscar Micheaux, wanted to provide a voice for the voiceless. How do you see the festival evolving in the coming years that will continue to hold high the aims of these visionary leaders?
Rahsaan Harris: Just the pure fact that the festival was created as a benefit to evolving the systems of creating art, and examine the human condition. Also, they’re taking the standpoint of trying to be part of the solution and to help the least of these, help the homeless, the people who need additional assistance. I think the Emma Bowen vision literally is one of giving a voice, but a voice that leads to action and solution. And what Noel has done is bring people together to create a new cohort of visionaries that will provide solutions and inspire others to do the best that they can.
Landon Buford: You were tapped to become the CEO of the foundation a few years ago. What are the initiatives an ambitious venture that you have for the foundation consider your Ivy League, non-profit, and philanthropy background?
Rahsaan Harris: I was tapped to run the Emma Bowen Foundation on January 5, 2015, that was my first day at work. I didn’t have a media career; but I understood philanthropy and non-profit, in the same spirit as Emma understood. She wasn’t a media person, but she recognized that you change hearts and lives if you can affect policies. And that can affect change. My career in philanthropy taught me the imagery that comes forward through narratives that are created in the news, in the movies, and on television-or the business practices, for example. The decisions companies make about what they are going to show or not show, really impacts culture, and millions of people. And if you can impact culture, the way people think or policies, or the way people are speculated, then you really have true power in the way others don’t.
So, I came to work, recognizing, that it was really important to change the imagery and looked at what policies could be changed.
Even on a small level, one of the things we encourage is not to think of the Emma Bowen intern as a summer intern. We refer to them as a fellow and an investment that the company is making in the future pipeline of employees. If you are investing in them, then you are not looking at them just as a summer intern, you are looking at them as an entry-level employee, and you are evaluating them and asking the critical questions when they’re about to leave: do you have the skill set that is needed to fill an open position? By taking it from just being a summer internship to being a career pipeline, I think we have helped people convert into their fields right away.
From a policy standpoint, we try to make sure that our companies are not explicitly, but at least implicitly – open to interviewing all qualified Emma Bowen [alumni] back to apply for jobs. If you’ve heard of the Rooney Rule with the NFL – when there’s an open coaching position, they should interview a candidate of color. We don’t call it the Rooney Rule, but we call it the Emma Bowen rule. If you’ve had an Emma Bowen [alumni], and you have an open position if there’s a qualified Emma [alumni], who applied, you really should interview them, because they’ve met all the standards and they know the culture. By having input the policy of inclusion and being intentional, according to the data of who applies, we’re transforming the number that is converting into their careers.
Landon Buford: Do you think millennials are changing the landscape of the workforce?
Rahsaan Harris: I would say that millennials have benefitted from the struggles of those before them, they have more of a voice and not to be the first in the office all the time. The generation before them was the first to break down the doors, and the first to get the opportunities and had a certain responsibility to make sure that they stay. I think millennials and younger generations now have a sense of agency from the generation that came before them, and they found their voice in a way that’s been helpful in a way that others haven’t because they’re connected through social media and through other means. So through having the courage of feeling they belong, through having the information, and being connected to one another, and also by having examples of generations of the past, millennials have done a great job of creating a new narrative and creating spaces that are different. When you’re the first black person in the office and going hard “for the culture,” it doesn’t really give you much-staying power. And the staying power is necessary for folks to get ahead. Once you have a little staying power, the question becomes what do you do with that. So that’s the problem the next generation has to hit.
Landon Buford: The foundation has provided more than 1,300 internships to students of color to date. Is there a specific number of internships that you planned to issue this year?
Rahsaan Harris: The Emma Bowen Foundation has been able to provide fantastic opportunities, but there are a limited number of opportunities. The limits come from the number of opportunities that are offered by our partners. Last year we had over 5,600 applicants, and this year, we already have over 5,800 applicants, and we are not done. So, what we would like to do is to continue to get all our applicants connected to opportunities. Now that we are having connections to more people of color, we want to make sure our partners are opening up more opportunities so that we don’t just have 150 to 200 positions open per year for over 6,000 applicants. We want to make sure that the opportunities we’re able to provide are much closer to the number of applicants that we have. Last year we did the math, and our acceptance rate was under three percent. It was more stringent and tougher than you probably would have at Harvard or Princeton. We found that we had some very talented applicants, but the number of positions didn’t equal the demand for positions that were available from partners.
Landon Buford: What are the requirements needed for students to receive an internship?
Rahsaan Harris: To be clear, the Emma Bowen Foundation is a first of vetting-access of these students, and for us to vet them they must have at least a 3.0 GPA. Some of our partners want an even higher GPA, so that is the minimum. They must be a person of color. That means they have to come from an African American, Asian American, Latin American, or Native American background to submit their application. They have to meet the requirements that are required by our partners. If they are looking for specific individuals that are in the tech field, then they will need to know Java or know how to code. We will make sure that they know how to code, and that’s the first part of vetting them. And then we send them to our partner companies. If they have one position that’s open, we try to send 3-5 candidates per position. And that’s who our partners pick from. So once our partner picks someone for the position, that’s when they become an Emma Bowen fellow.
Landon Buford: Are there resources for post-grads looking for opportunities?
Rahsaan Harris: We’ve created an all multicultural media professional network (AMMP). It’s for everyone who is a person of color who desires to be in the field and has the skills, to potentially work for one of our partners. So being part of the AMMP network, you’re introduced to information on our partner companies and positions that are open, and you’re able to take total advantage of those opportunities. The AMMP network is on our website so people can sign up for it. We’re really proud of the success stories from AMMP, where people have seen postings for our partner companies and have been able to go on and work there too. So we recognize people of color who are talented and we want to put as many routes out for them, and our partners want to access them. So it’s not just about the internships. I think people who have gone through our internships are definitely vetted, but it’s about how talented they are. We’re providing access to an even greater pool of talent that we think the industry should have access to.
Landon Buford: With the foundation celebrating 30 years and having supporters such as Gayle King, Oprah Winfrey, and Robin Roberts, how important is it to champion diversity and practice it within the media and entertainment landscape?
Rahsaan Harris: I say if the organization does not have an inclusive approach in the way they do business, they will fail. Because they are in a world with so many intersections of gender, race, origin, and sexual orientation. There are so many different ways of seeing the world, and approaching the world, that if we were only able to give people one approach and one narrative, ultimately, it will be rejected because that narrative doesn’t reflect them. So, business needs to be reflective of who they’re serving, and include new stories so people will really latch on to the images that the businesses are putting out.
Landon Buford: I know that you will be releasing an op-ed piece focusing on the lack of financing for people of color and politics, and other industries. Considering your research and stance on the issue, how do you think Hollywood will be affected? Is diversity just a fad based on your research and numbers?
Rahsaan Harris: Diversity is not just a fad, because the numbers show that people of color will be the majority of the demographic very soon. We’re recognizing even demographically we’re skewing more towards women than men. So, there will be more women than men in the United States of America. Being inclusive of all of our talent will be a challenge for our country. We are going to need to be able to do that, and if not, then we won’t have a country.
You can purchase tickets to the festival: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/micheaux-film-festival-2020-tickets-81684938851