Pop Culture Collaborative Leaders Discuss Funding Narrative Change

Editor’s Note: This dual interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Bridgit Antoinette Evans and Tracy Van Slyke, who are, respectively, the Chief Executive Officer and Chief Strategy Officer of the Pop Culture Collaborative, a philanthropic resource and funder learning community.

Bridgit Antoinette Evans and Tracy Van Slyke, courtesy of Bridgit Antoinette Evans and Tracy Van Slyke

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

Bridgit Antoinette Evans: I wish that I’d been introduced to Octavia E. Butler much earlier in life. Octavia wrote about this concept of “positive obsession,” which she described as “not being able to stop just because you’re afraid and full of doubts.” My mother and her siblings were leaders in the Civil Rights movement in Savannah, and while she fiercely believed that her daughters could be anything we wanted to be in the world, she was very clear that we needed to be improving the world while doing it. I wanted to be an artist, and so, as a teen, I became obsessed with one question: “What is the relationship between a great story and widespread cultural change?”

I think, if I’d experienced Octavia’s words, which bring such dignity to the bumpy journey artists and organizers can travel en route to our life’s work, especially culture change work, when I was 16, I might have seen more clearly how my obsession could someday become an impassioned career, one that has brought me to the incredible job I now have leading the Pop Culture Collaborative, a fund that supports a powerful field of artists, organizers, strategists, researchers and funders who are just as fascinated by this question as I am.

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

Bridgit Antoinette Evans: Since our launch in 2017, the Pop Culture Collaborative has offered our staff and the more than 200 funders we’ve convened a laboratory in which to investigate how to resource the pop culture for social change field to achieve narrative change goals at the scale of millions of people.

Before 2020, I would have said that our greatest challenge was to make the case to philanthropy that narrative change work is real work, just like organizing, policy and litigation work. If just systems are the bones of a healthy society, pluralist culture is its breath, heartbeat and muscles; one cannot flourish without the other. But the COVID pandemic, racial justice protests and election season have made it clear that the next chapter in the march towards justice, democracy and our pluralist potential is unfolding on the terrain of culture, including the pop culture we engage with every day. Toxic movements enlivened by racist and misogynist narratives and ideas recognize this and are amassing the narrative infrastructure they need to contend for the future they seek. In order to build social justice narrative power at that scale, philanthropy needs to make historic, transformational investments in the narrative change field. Our team is doing all we can to expand resources for our grantees.

3. How does your gender identity inform your work?

Bridgit Antoinette Evans: As a philanthropic leader, my strategic approach is rooted in the Abundance Mindset. This is no accident: I am a Black, queer woman whose mother, aunties, and uncle contributed their genius to the deep South movement to dismantle Jim Crow. The expanse of imagination required to believe that social change of that magnitude is possible is astonishing. Like these women, I know that no matter how ferocious the backlash, it is so often Black people, especially cis and trans women and nonbinary people, who have the instinct to make a way out of no way; to dream and then scaffold the future even when others lose hope. This practice of resilient abundance sits at the heart of my leadership at the Pop Culture Collaborative, where we recognize that BIPOC, cis and trans women, and nonbinary people are natural stewards of America’s future. From Patrisse Cullors to Crystal Echo Hawk, Tarana Burke to Ai-jen Poo, Ava DuVernay to Imara Jones and Storm Smith, our grantees are guiding millions of people through this portal moment and onto the path towards the pluralist society we are capable of becoming. Philanthropy can do more to invest in their ability to contend for narrative and political power at the national and global level.

4. What inspires you most about your work?

Tracy Van Slyke: I used to walk home from school every day with my nose buried in a book. My parents would regularly get calls about how I was almost hit by a car because I never looked up crossing the street. Combine my passion for immersive stories with growing up in a household steeped in fights for justice, and it is only fitting that I am now a passionate advocate for the power of women and BIPOC storytellers, movement leaders and pop culture fans to co-create new narrative environments that can lead us to a pluralist future.

I love how the Pop Culture Collaborative is often the first seed funder in the leaders who design, test and build foundational narrative infrastructure. For example, when we launched, we listened to the artists who knew how the entertainment industry was broken. Since then, we have invested in grantee partners Break the Room, Unleashing Giants and The Barcid Foundation to design alternative television writers room models. We have supported ARRAY Crew, ColorCreative, Yes, And Laughter Lab and Starfish Accelerator to launch new pipeline programs into the industry. All of these efforts skip Band-Aid solutions, and focus on innovative leadership that centers the narrative power of BIPOC, trans, disabled and immigrant artists and workers inside Hollywood. 

5. How can philanthropy support gender equity? 

Tracy Van Slyke: At the narrative level, the gender justice movement is siloed into reproductive justice, safety, caregiving, work equity, gender identity; and even race, economic strata, geography, and religion. While there has been meaningful strategic communications investments, it has been difficult to engage in shared narrative analysis, visioning and strategy design powerful enough to subsume the racist, patriarchal narratives rooted in mass media and pop culture that underlie all these issues and communities. This is a critical moment for philanthropy to invest in narrative infrastructure for the gender justice movement: cross-sector partnerships within mass media industries; investments in values-aligned artists as both storytellers and entrepreneurs; multi-year support in the culture change strategies of BIPOC, immigrant and trans-led gender justice organizations; and more. In addition, the Collaborative is exploring how to support a cross-section of gender justice leaders and artists to continuously come together in a cohort to share learnings on narrative change strategies, explore the core mental models that currently shape millions of people’s views of race, patriarchy and society; build transformational relationships; and co-create a long-term narrative vision.

6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?

Tracy Van Slyke: Gender justice touches all aspects of our work and our world. It is not just tied to women; it is inherently connected to queer and transgender, racial, immigrant, Indigenous, disability, climate and reproductive justice issues. If philanthropy invests appropriately to unleash the narrative superpowers of gender justice movements and artists to, as Bridgit says, “transform the narrative waters we swim in,” in 10 years, tens of millions of people will recognize that it is their work to fight for a society that is unshackled from the toxicity of racist and patriarchal beliefs and systems. The gender justice movement will have played a critical role establishing gender, racial and economic justice as societal norms; and creating new ways of understanding our roles, our relationships and the way we behave toward each other. In this world, men have re-imagined themselves outside of misogynistic norms, and women, trans and genderfluid people will be able to own their joy and have a deep sense of belonging. We will have created the infrastructure, systems and policies to support those communities as core and critical members of our society.

More on Bridgit Antoinette Evans and and Tracy Van Slyke:

Bridgit Antoinette Evans is Chief Executive Officer and Tracy Van Slyke Chief Strategy Officer of the Pop Culture Collaborative, a philanthropic resource and funder learning community working to transform the narrative landscape in the U.S. around people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims and Indigenous peoples, especially those who are women, queer, trans, nonbinary and/or disabled.

This interview has been minimally edited.

Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at jtravers.journoportfolio.com.

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