Many artists, entertainment industry influencers, and people in social movements have been working on projects focused on the intersection of pop culture and social change for decades. However, according to Tracy Van Slyke, chief strategy officer at the Pop Culture Collaborative, those projects have traditionally been under-resourced and segmented.
This lack of cohesion inspired philanthropic organizations the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Unbound Philanthropy, the Ford Foundation, and more to band together, forming and funding what would become the Pop Culture Collaborative, which was founded in 2016 and launched publicly in 2017.
As an organization, the Pop Culture Collaborative works to transform the narrative environment for and with people of color, Muslims, immigrants, refugees, and indigenous communities, with a particular focus on women, transgender, and disabled people.
We chatted with Van Slyke about the organization’s goals, the impact of last summer’s social justice movements on pop culture, and more.
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The Pop Insider: For people who may not be familiar, can you give us an overview of what the Pop Culture Collaborative does, and how it works toward its stated goals?
Tracy Van Slyke: We [work toward our goals] in a couple different ways. We do a lot of grant-making to those who are working in the pop culture for social change fields, social justice organizations that are starting or building long-term culture-change campaigns, artists who are sort of reimagining and reinventing new kinds of infrastructure inside the entertainment industry itself, entertainment companies that are moving and distributing really powerful stories, and a lot of different kinds of cultural strategists and researchers. So we do a lot of grant-making in that space.
We also do a lot of partnership and relationship development between social movements, the entertainment industry, and the philanthropic community. And we also do a lot of learning. Helping people understand what’s happening, what’s changing, and what are powerful trends. For example, we have spent a lot of time investing in the world of pop culture fandoms because we believe they’re incredibly powerful to not only how fandoms are changing pop culture storytelling — influencing the industry itself — but they are also actually models for communities that are being built online for social movements, both in very powerful ways, in wonderful ways, and sometimes in mildly toxic ways. So we have been doing a lot of investing through research and through our senior fellow of pop culture and fandom power, Shawn Taylor, who wrote a manifesto called “We the Fans.” We kind of do a lot of learning and then sharing those learnings back into the people we’re working with and helping them activate those insights through the work they’re doing.
PI: Can you give us additional examples of some of the work that the grant recipients are doing, especially in terms of fandoms?
TVS: Dr. Maytha Alhassen did a whole research project on stereotypical tropes around Muslims in Hollywood for the last 100 years, and she created this whole report around that. It is now being actively used by a lot of story creators, producers, and writers inside the industry.
We have a senior fellow, Zahra Noorbakhsh, who was working on what is broken in the pipelines for rising comedians — especially comedians of color, historically marginalized comedians — and what are innovative new pipelines and infrastructure that can lead to ascension and sustainability of all these fabulous comedians who are often pushed out of the traditional pipelines.
And, coupled with that, we have made grants to a new initiative called the Yes And Laughter Lab, which is a new kind of pipeline for comedians, mostly BIPOC comedians, who are telling stories that matter and partnering and pitching them with all sorts of entertainment industry partners and distributors. So we can create systems of grantmaking like that.
We’ve invested in a lot of fandom and experiential learning — early learning. It’s been a passion of mine for the last four or five years that I really focused on the power of pop culture fandoms. We brought Shawn on, who did a lot of work to really, actually think about, “What does it mean for fandoms to take all the powers, organizing, and creative skills they have beyond their pop culture passion and move it toward creating a just and pluralist world for social change at a systemic level?” And so, through his manifesto, he really lays out the “why” of it and what are these powers that can be activated for this kind of social change.
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We funded groups like 13Exp, which has done a lot of work at the intersection of experiential immersive storytelling and fandom work to help gather experts — across fandoms, experiential storytelling, social movements, and entertainment — to actually get together and talk about what it would look like to work together more and share a language. And then we started to fund particular projects that have fandom at their core. Like, how do you start thinking about and creating fandoms from the very beginning versus producing content then trying to create community? Through our Becoming America fund, we have funded Nation X, which Shawn is a part of, and Starfish Accelerator, which is an incubator for BIPOC, mid-career artists inside the entertainment industry. They are working on how to help them launch early IP, a piece of content, then build fan community around it, and then try to sell it. They’re trying to build a community before they try and land a big deal or partner in Hollywood because they’re trying to show the power that these fan communities have and allow that artist to have more control over their content than if an industry or studio or network was funding it from the very beginning.
PI: You mentioned the Becoming America fund. Can you tell us more about that initiative and how last summer’s social justice movements impacted pop culture, and vice versa?
TVS: The Becoming American fund has actually been in development for the last couple years. My colleague, Bridgit, has led a lot of the early thinking around the strategic experience framework around it. We knew that 2020 was going to be a year like we’d never known before, but we didn’t know how much. And so, we launched the Becoming America Fund with the idea that America was at this inflection point: Were we going to go back into our white nationalist, patriarchal past, or are we going to step forward into a more just and pluralist future?
The fund was designed to support content and storytelling and mass audience experiences that could galvanize the public imagination about the country we could become. And so this is the first time that we’re actually funding content, where we’ve funded a lot of work around content preproduction, infrastructure, and distribution. And because of the COVID era, we funded a lot of powerful digital content and experiences that really try to help mass audiences do a couple things: start to unlock their imagination and start to really root in the idea around our abundance.
We’ve often, in this country, been given this sort of scarcity mindset: There’s not enough for us and I’m not enough. So we try to help people unlock their belief in both their potential and human potential as a community through ideas of joy, dance, and love. What are the stories and experiences that could really help people unlock that emotion and believe in our potential? … We funded content and distributions for projects that could help build the instinct in audiences to actually start to embrace our differences, to help cross literal and metaphorical borders, and start to bridge the divide and understand that our society cannot thrive when one homogeneous group is in charge of a community.
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PI: Are there any 2021 initiatives, projects, or updates you can share?
TVS: This idea of joy, abundance, kindness, and healing is going to be a big part of what the Collaborative — and, I think, a whole sector of artists and social movements — are going to be building in 2021. So, how people commit to that content and move those ideas into the world is going to be really important because we’re crawling our way back from a deep pit. And there’s a need for that kind of joy, that kind of celebration, that chance of restoration, revival — for embracing each other in ways that we’ve been deeply divided before, but with an eye toward justice. We can’t discount systemic racism and sexism in our society. We would encourage people to try to connect to the content that was created [in 2020] and to seek out what can be created [this] year and how they can be part of moving those ideas out into the world.
“We’ve often, in this country, been given this sort of scarcity mindset: There’s not enough for us and I’m not enough. So we try to help people unlock their belief in both their potential and human potential as a community through ideas of joy, dance, and love.” — Tracy Van Slyke
PI: How can people interact with the Pop Culture Collaborative, and what can they do to help move toward social justice in pop culture?
TVS: If there are people who have pop culture projects and ideas and deeply want to connect with social movements with social justice at its core, they should absolutely connect with us. We have a whole portal for people to submit ideas on the grantmaking page on the website, and we really use that to meet new people and to expand the scope of gamers, designers, manufacturers, and those who are really thinking about the content and the narratives that need to be moving to millions of people in the world and in the country. We encourage people to connect with us. ϑ
For more information about The Pop Culture Collaborative, visit popcollab.org.
This article was original published in Issue No. 10 of the Pop Insider. Click here to read the full issue!
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly used the name “Pop Culture Collaboration” in the introduction. It has been updated accordingly.