Spring Grant Spotlight: Paving New Career Pathways in the Media Arts

As the old saying goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” But what if you don’t know the right people? What if your world feels so remote from potential gatekeepers or opportunities that some professional pathways seem completely out of reach, if they’ve even occurred to you at all?


As the old saying goes, “It’s not what you know, but who you know.” But what if you don’t know the right people? What if your world feels so remote from potential gatekeepers or opportunities that some professional pathways seem completely out of reach, if they’ve even occurred to you at all?

This is exactly what the Alliance for Media Arts + Culture hopes to address with its program Arts2Work, with newly announced support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Established in 1980, the Alliance speaks as a united voice for its 350 member organizations, and has long sought to make the media arts a more inclusive field. But Arts2Work, one of the Alliance’s newest initiatives, tackles equity from a different approach altogether. It is the first federally registered national apprenticeship program in media arts and creative technology, meaning that participating organizations are eligible for technical assistance, tax credits, and other incentives from the federal government.

By encouraging media arts organizations to hire paid apprentices, Arts2Work hopes to create accessible entry points for people from low-income backgrounds, veterans, people with disabilities, and women looking to reenter the workforce, paving a pathway toward successful, sustainable careers. In addition to on-the-job experience, Arts2Work also provides participants with mentorship opportunities and online training through a virtual portal. We spoke with Alliance Executive Director Wendy Levy about the program, and how she thinks that diversifying the media arts workforce will lead to transformative change.

NEA: What was the motivation for establishing the Arts2Work program?

WENDY LEVY: If you want to be an electrician, or if you want to be a construction worker, you can get a job and get paid to learn on the job and then finish your apprenticeship and have this incredible career pathway and often a union job for life.

So we decided to try to create those similar career pathways with that kind of rigor that could be approved by the U.S. Department of Labor. We want to be part of the movement to end unpaid and low-paid internships that don't often lead to living-wage jobs and meaningful career opportunities. We want to provide access to training for everyone who wants it, not just folks who can afford to go to college, or can afford internships that are designed for people who can afford to work for free or next to nothing.

We realized the need for online training was really important for us—this is way before COVID. Employers were saying, "We need people who know this software, or can help us with virtual reality." We decided that we needed to have a community-based training hub, which was envisioned as a mentored online studio where we could offer storytelling, media production, and editing courses to help prepare low-income, emerging, and reentry media artists for professional opportunities and careers in the creative economy. It was also going to be a place where once you got a job as an Arts2Work apprentice, you can supplement your on-the-job learning with advanced and culturally relevant media training in collaboration with your peers, mentors, and employers who were working across the country.

So it's the idea of helping people feel that these careers are now more accessible than they've ever been. It's time. We have spent so long fighting #OscarsSoWhite and the #MeToo movement, and we see how difficult it is for folks of color and women and anyone who really doesn't know someone in the industry to find a career pathway and be successful. We're hoping in a small way that accessible online training can at least give you a leg up.

NEA: How do you hope creating a more diverse workforce will change media arts as a whole?

LEVY: Ultimately we want to see artists of all types in positions of creative leadership. That could be leadership of your own career, it can be of a department, it can be of a studio, it could be of a museum. We can see in research that even though we might be giving more folks of color and more women opportunity to enter [the creative workforce], at the top level it starts to become much less diverse and much less inclusive.

One thing I learned from the U.S. workforce system is this great phrase called "train and pray." You can take a class and learn how to be a great whatever, but without a pathway, without engaged relationships with employers and folks who could help open doors, it's not going to work. We're hoping that with each course that's in this training hub, if we get employers to sponsor those courses—it doesn't mean necessarily laying out money, but if they can agree to provide one mentor from their creative business—that could really help. So you're not in a total bubble of an online course where no doors are opening. If we can provide that human experience into an online learning platform, we can really deepen people's experience and help them build the relationships they need to actually take the next step in a vibrant career. Then we can start watching the whole industry change. Whatever your career pathway is, we've got to hold the doors open for each other in a better, more robust way.

NEA: What other steps would you like to see the media arts industry taking in terms of opening those doors more widely?

LEVY: For me, there's very little that's more important than building equity by actually hiring people who don't traditionally have opportunities in your company. And not just [for] a three-month internship. People need jobs with the potential for advancement, and independent artists need a real investment in their careers. We need to bring these ideas into practice and bake it into a sustainable business model.

We're finding that those companies who do that are the ones that are really at the forefront of innovation and that it is profitable. According to a 2014 Center for American Progress report, Canadian companies reported that every dollar invested in apprenticeships generated a $1.47 return on investment.

So it's time to stop saying you made a contribution to a committee that's going to talk about diversity and inclusion. Look at your board, look at your staff, look at your leadership, look at the people who have opportunity in your company. If it's not equitable, do it. Partner with those who can really help you do it, and do it. We hope that Arts2Work can be a new opportunity for creative businesses that can then get training grants and tax subsidies. There is a workforce system in place that can actually support people who make the decision to hire. This is that opportunity to walk the talk. There are a lot of people who are like, "Yes, Black lives matter," and, "Yes, this is what we are committed to doing." But we want to see you do it. We want to see the films and we want to see the movements and we want to see the leadership opportunity. We want to see the investments in black- and brown-owned businesses. We want to see women at the CEO level. The only way to do that is to make that investment financially, psychically, socially, morally, and politically. It's got to happen.

NEA: You've been working virtually for years with certain programs, like your video roundtables. I imagine that’s a lifeline right now for many people who are isolated at home. I was wondering too whether you have any advice for other organizations that might be totally new to a virtual model.

LEVY: Some schools did this incredible job of switching over to online learning, but I think for many it's been really hard. There's a whole different approach to pedagogy when you're online. During the pandemic and during all of the racial uprising, we have to be more cognizant of the human factor in all of this. It's not just about what you learn, but who you are and how you're doing and how can we help humanize this process. In so doing, I think we're going to raise the bar for retention of what's being learned.

Alliance community organizations that were doing labs in person realized as soon as things shut down that their young people didn't have the tools that they needed to be able to do this training at home. We had to be creative about making sure that folks had access [to online tools] and if they didn't, change up what was being taught. Right now we have our first Arts2Work pre-apprenticeship program going on in Philadelphia and we've got seven pre-apprentices who transitioned from what was going to be an in-person program. What Arts2Work has been able to do is offer a kind of respite, where you can take everything that you're feeling and the stress that you're holding and express it into stories that people really want to hear right now. We can then lift those up and they can start to have relationships in the world as working artists while they're still students.

NEA: During remote learning, the digital divide has impacted education to an unprecedented degree. How does the Alliance address that divide?

LEVY: In Alliance programs, we don't assume any kind of access until we really know what people are dealing with. Before we launch any program, we work with the community-based organization on the ground to do a survey of, "What tools do your young people have? Does everyone have Internet connection? Do they have a smartphone? What do they need?" And we get them what they need. Because with the workforce system, if you're a construction apprentice, you get your hard hat and your boots. If we really want to make [our training] accessible and we really want to limit the inequality of that digital divide, we're going to supply the hardware and software that these young people need in order to be competitive out there.

One of the things we are doing for the online portal is there's going to be a whole entry-level range of courses that are completely free and that only assume the need of your mobile phone. We're not going to assume that you have a fancy computer with all of the coolest bells and whistles. We'll try to help you find the grant funding and the support that you need to build a sustainable career. You might not be on a track to go to college, but that doesn't mean you can't be a badass film editor.

I was lucky enough to be able to get to college, but I was also a waitress for 20 years even after my film got into Sundance. I was a white woman of relative privilege, and no one was giving me a job with an MFA in documentary filmmaking. If it was difficult for me to take an apron off to make a living, I can only imagine what it's like for folks without the kind of opportunity that I had.

NEA: You mentioned that some of your programs just require mobile phones, which have become these astounding gateways to creativity for so many people.

LEVY: That's right. And if you know how to create a TikTok video that can get 100,000 views, you're going to have so many businesses wanting you to come work for them. That's why the peer learning that we're building into the portal is going to be one of the most important things I think: to not only build relationships across the sector, but also to instill confidence in the youngest of artists that they have something to offer the field. You don't have to continue your life in a low-paid job where everyone else who's hierarchically above you has more talent. We have to start respecting young people for the extraordinary gifts that they're giving us right now. We have young emerging media artists who are already ready to mentor the younger ones. It's a constant inspiration every day for how much power we can put in their hands.

Stories are the engines for change. We know if we want to change the world, we have to change the stories first, and that means change who tells them, who gets to be at that table, who gets to say what those next stories are. We need to stop having only white folks be the ones that get to decide. We're at a moment of reckoning here, and I'm just grateful to be present for it and grateful to the NEA for helping us build the tools.

NEA: Let’s talk about that a little more. How do you think that stories can be an engine for change and transformation?

LEVY: Stories rise up the ideas that spur change to happen. Would we ever have known about so many of the current events that have spurred these movements without people there documenting with their phones? Going further than that, films have created an upswell of global conversation—Ava DuVernay's work, so many documentary filmmakers—that all of a sudden you have an idea whose time has come to enter the zeitgeist. Crip Camp, by Nicole Newnham and James LeBrecht, has completely changed the conversation about disability in America. It's not that there haven't been people working for years on this, but the story got to shine a light on it. There are activities going on across the country right now that are focusing on disability that would never have been happening without that film.

Whether it's racial justice or feminism or environmental justice, once you have certain stories move you, they tap into cultural identity, they tap into a sense of urgency in a way that is inclusive and engaging. Then all of a sudden we can work together on stuff. I feel like storytellers are those agents for change.

NEA: We’ve talked a lot about how the Alliance empowers people professionally, but I want to talk a little bit more about why it's so important to empower people to simply tell their own stories.

LEVY: For me, it really comes down to that idea that if you don't tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you or instead of you. It saps the humanity out of the experience, and it removes personal agency and power and it completely deflates the opportunity for equity and inclusion to happen and for people to be able to rise up as their own true selves.

When we use story labs and creative labs and innovation labs, the first thing we do is a story circle. It lets people know that their voice truly matters in that space and they're not here just to learn from this expert “other.” The whole experience is based on the equitable exchange of stories, and that's how we learn about each other, it's how we learn about the world, it's how we start to build the world that we want to see. So many films that get made about good ideas have completely sexist hierarchical production models, and minimize the voices of women and people of color. It's not enough just to tell stories about things. We must tell stories with the people whose voices we intend to illuminate. If they don't have the power within that production model, then it really is never going to work, and we will always revert to white supremacy.

In order to erode that in the most positive and energetic of ways, we've got to change one production model at a time of who's telling the story here and who gets the benefit of the story, who's represented in the story, who makes the decisions, who makes the money. We really have to interrogate it with integrity from day one.

There are creative movements in this country like co-creation, where we're really reimagining the role of the director or the executive producer, and looking at changing a system that perpetually and persistently limits and completely negates the voices of those not in power. There's so much potential that we have for this kind of creative revolution to actually start representing and being the change that we want to see. I am a white woman, lesbian, Jewish executive director, but all of our programs [at the Alliance] are run by consulting producers, who work in their own practices who get to create the programs as they envision them with their communities. So the management is distributed, the vision is distributed, they tell me what's right for their programs, and we work on developing those voices together of a community.