Heroes in Home Entertainment 2020

It’s been a year of tragedy and controversy, topped by the coronavirus pandemic — an unprecedented event — and also including protests over police brutality, widespread denunciations of racism and a contentious election.

Key players in the entertainment sector stepped in to help.

To support the mission of When We All Vote, a nonprofit co-chaired by Michelle Obama and founded to increase voter participation, HBO Max streamed for free to non-subscribers a get-out-the-vote election special featuring the original cast from “The West Wing.” For the first time in 17 years, the cast came together for a stage presentation of the “Hartsfield’s Landing” episode, and WarnerMedia made a financial donation to When We All Vote.

Moved by the murder of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police, ongoing racism and disproportionate suffering in the black community as a result of the coronavirus, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings and his wife, Patty Quillin, in June announced they would donate $120 million to educational institutions emphasizing access to students of color.

Also in June, The Walt Disney Co. pledged $5 million to support nonprofit organizations that advance social justice, beginning with a $2 million donation to the NAACP. On May 2, Disney aired a slate of special programming on a number of its TV networks to encourage a discussion of racism and oppression in America.

Disney also stepped up to assist health workers during the pandemic. On April 1, the company announced the donation of 100,000 N95 masks and 150,000 rain ponchos to healthcare workers in California, New York and Florida.

In the spring during the initial shutdowns, Lionsgate presented “Lionsgate Live! A Night at the Movies,” a program of free movies streamed live on YouTube, and hosted by Jamie Lee Curtis, to benefit theater employees furloughed by the COVID-19 crisis. The studio, along with Fandango and YouTube, live-streamed four of Lionsgate’s most popular library titles — The Hunger Games, Dirty Dancing, La La Land and John Wick — on Lionsgate’s YouTube page and Fandango’s Movieclips YouTube page. Lionsgate’s initial donation as well as audience and partner donations throughout the event benefited the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, dedicated to helping workers throughout the motion picture industry.

To support the shuttered live theater industry, Universal Pictures on April 2 announced a “The Shows Must Go On” YouTube Channel, providing live theater fans with a West End and Broadway experience online for free. Fans on the site could make a charitable donation to a variety of organizations, including Acting for Others, Broadway Cares and Actors Benevolent Fund. The initiative came from the Universal Pictures Home Entertainment Content Group, a London-based “repertoire centre” of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment that acquires and produces entertainment for distribution across theatrical, home entertainment, television and digital platforms.

Meanwhile, with public schools switching to online classes during the coronavirus pandemic, Comcast Corp. CEO Brian Roberts and his wife, Aileen, in March pledged $5 million toward the purchase of laptop computers for school children in Philadelphia.

While giving was and is widespread in Hollywood, Media Play News for a third consecutive year has selected a few honorees in the home entertainment industry who are known for their charitable and activist work. From the executives who serve on boards or participate in direct charitable giving and activities, to those focusing their talents as foot soldiers in philanthropic and activist endeavors, this group is contributing how and where they can.

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Sheila Appleton

Senior Analyst, Business Operations, Disney Platform Distribution

Sheila Appleton

While most of us have been making a sport of being a couch potato, bragging about our binge-viewing prowess during the pandemic, Appleton has found a way to stay busy, even when she’s sitting down.

Among her many volunteering efforts, she helps out a nonprofit called Zooniverse through the Smithsonian Museum by entering historical statistics on climate change, wildlife patterns and other phenomena into a computer.

“Research vessels have gone out and tracked the weather in certain regions or tracked migration, and those are all hand-written logs,” she says.

Appleton takes scans of those logs and transcribes them for easy use and search on the Web.

“Different scientists trying to do a study, students, all sorts of people then have access to this research that was done, rather than it just sitting in a storage room somewhere in a notebook,” she says. “I’ve done one where you’re documenting a photograph in the Serengeti of the different wildlife, where you count the wildlife, write about what they’re doing, put down what type of wildlife it is.

“It’s great because it’s helping a scientist, a biologist or someone who’s studying climate change and the effect of that. If I can help do my little part, I’m thrilled.”

This type of volunteering also holds a special interest for Appleton, as she was a history major in college. She is currently working on transcribing data from the Holocaust.

“I think the more we learn from history of mistakes made in the past, the more we will prevent those mistakes from happening again,” she says.

“Mentally it’s very draining because these are people that most likely didn’t make it, and they had to give all the information on their entire family and those people were then getting rounded up and imprisoned and killed.”

The work is affecting in another way. Growing up, her grandparents’ next-door neighbor was Gerda Weissman Klein, a Holocaust survivor who wrote a book about her experience (All But My Life), which she read.

“I knew her, so when I saw this project it was like I’m going to do this in honor of her because this is someone who was in my life, who survived this, who shared her story,” Appleton says.

During the pandemic, her daughter, who is a nurse, kept her apprised of the PPE needs at the hospital. Appleton made face masks for the hospital, as well as for volunteers at a local food bank experiencing a crush of needy citizens. Lately, she’s been making scrub caps for the nurses.

“I guess they’ve found recently the coronavirus does tend to cling to different parts of your body, especially your hair, and a lot of the nurses have longer hair, and typical scrub caps were made for men with short hair,” she says. “So I make scrub caps that have little ponytail pockets that can encapsulate all their hair.”

Among the other charitable ventures in which she’s involved are working for a clean-water nonprofit, serving as the communications chairperson on a Disney employee resource group in the disability space, spending time as a ski patroller providing first-response medical care (though she doesn’t even ski), composting, recycling, donating to local animal shelters — and serving on the board of a nonprofit that supports a school in Haiti.

“We’re so spoiled in this country because we have free education,” Appleton notes. “In a country like Haiti, you have to pay to go to school. Few kids get to go to school, so very few people learn to read and write and have the opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty.”

A lot of the girls at the school are basically indentured servants. “You’d think in this day and age that doesn’t happen, but it does, and by providing them a meal every day, all of their school supplies, their tuition, the uniform, everything, it gets their whole family out of poverty because they can then get a job, earn money, not have to work basically as an indentured servant,” she says.

Giving back is important to Appleton and her family, and she says one bright spot in the pandemic is that it’s allowed her to convert some of her two-hour commuting time into volunteer activities.

“I’m someone who doesn’t like to sit still,” Appleton says.

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Ryan Black

VP, Acquisitions and Development, Grindstone Entertainment Group, a Lionsgate Company

Ryan Black

Black’s work with the veteran community began as many stories do — with a dog.

Stan Wertlieb, head of acquisitions and a partner at Grindstone, and Karen Kraft, chair of the board of directors for Veterans in Media and Entertainment (VME), met while walking their dogs in their neighborhood.

VME is a nonprofit organization of more than 4,200 members that unites current and former members of the military working in the entertainment industry through programs for jobs, internships and education.

“VME had been searching for a way to get some of their talented writers experience in pitching projects and to get their scripts seen by more studios and production companies,” Black recalls.

Out of Wertlieb and Kraft’s dog walks would come the Grindstone-VME annual script pitch program and the opportunity for Black to begin working with veterans.

With the encouragement and support of Barry Brooker, president of Grindstone, Black spearheaded the first of several script pitch events, in which VME members pitched their scripts to the Grindstone team. This pitch program gave the veterans experience pitching to film executives and offered Grindstone the opportunity to find good scripts that it could help get produced.

Ryan Black (left) and VME members Danillo Prieto (Marine veteran, standing) and Mark Maley (Army veteran) after the L.A. Marathon.

“One of the old adages about screenwriting is write what you know, and these folks have lived through a lot of experiences that someone like me can’t even fathom,” Black says. “What they bring to these scripts is from personal experience. That’s something that you just can’t teach.”

The Grindstone team has since put several of these scripts into development. The subjects fit right into the action-thriller genre for which the company is well known.

Inspired by the veterans he met in VME, Black then volunteered to be the civilian co-lead of the Lionsgate Veterans Employee Resource Group at its inception in 2017 (a position he held until the end of 2019).

Along with co-leader Leon Pilosof, Navy veteran and Lionsgate EVP and head of procurement, Black led numerous philanthropic and volunteer events to benefit veterans in the Los Angeles community with organizations such as Veterans Day L.A., New Directions for Veterans, Operation Gratitude, Mission Continues and Honor Flight Homecoming.

Ryan Black and other Lionsgate employees with members of the VME at American Legion Post 283 in Pacific Palisades carb loading prior to the L.A. Marathon.

Black also helped organize roundtrip shuttle buses for homeless veterans to participate in the Los Angeles Veteran’s Administration’s Stand Down Day which provided assistance such as dental and medical services, haircuts and hot meals. He also led Team VME/LG Vets in running the 2019 L.A. Marathon, raising more than $11,000 for VMEconnect, an online platform for veterans and hiring managers.

The Lionsgate ERG group also helped facilitate several veteran hires at the company.

“I’ve always been in awe of the military and the bravery of those men and women who serve this country,” Black says.

Black wants to encourage other civilians to get involved.

“It’s an honor to be able to give back in some small way to help show appreciation for those folks who have put their life on the line for our freedom,” he says.

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VaNiesha Honani

Software Developer Engineer in Test, FandangoNow and Vudu

VaNiesha Honani

For Honani, a member of the Hopi Nation, giving to her community is a family affair.

Her great-grandfather was a Bronze Star code talker during World War II. A code talker is the name given to Native Americans who used their tribal language to send secret communications on the battlefield. Her grandfather served in the Navy in the same war (lying about his age at 16 to enlist after Pearl Harbor). And she served in the Navy as an IT technician from 1998 to 2005.

Honani now gives back by working with and talking to kids in her Hopi and other Native American tribes about jobs in STEM. She has also shared her career path to becoming an engineer at local elementary school career days and at the University of California, Riverside, Science and Entertainment Exchange, and Hopi Education Endowment Fund events. She also is a regular speaker for AISES (the American Indian Science & Engineering Society).

From the small village of Walpi, one of the oldest inhabited places in North America located on the Hopi Reservation (population 19,327) in northern Arizona, Honani learned from her grandfather Perry Honani Jr. to serve those around her.

“It’s something that he just really drove into us,” she says. “If we’re going to leave the reservation or we’re going to leave home, we do something to help our people.”

(L-R): VaNiesha Honani’s cousin Caroline Sekaquaptewa, her paternal grandmother (Mary Ann Honani), Honani (holding the gold medal) and her aunt Rosa Honani in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 20, 2013. The medal was awarded to the tribe on behalf of 11 Hopi code talkers.

Honani, who has also played semi-professional football as a lineman for the Los Angeles Warriors, sees herself an unconventional role model. She got into IT by teaching herself and gaining experience in the Navy. Starting as a radio technician on the ship, she moved into networking and at one point got a book on how to repair computers.

“Before you knew it, I was managing our network shop, our IT shop,” she says. The Navy started sending her to schools for certifications, and she got into QA work, which eventually led her to MGO, which was acquired and became FandangoNow.

She uses that experience to show kids “you can come from a village with no electricity and water and be in technology.”

There’s not one pathway to success, she emphasizes.

“I was horrible at math and my teacher told me, ‘That’s OK if you don’t know math. You’re probably not going to be an engineer,’” she recalls. “Today that’s what I do.”

At a hackathon for AISES, she helped a dyslexic girl working on a dictionary for her native language learn how to use computers to make it easier to read. After speaking at a school for Fandango TECHWomen, Honani received a thank you card from one of the girls who attended. Honani always brings her football equipment with her and shows kids how to run a test on the screen. In her note, the girl said she wanted to get into coding and play football, as well.

“I come from a very traditional family. As far as Hopi, Native American, we’re very traditional people. I’m like an octagon in a square box,” she says. “You reach somebody like that — and that was what it was all about.”
As a veteran, she has been a member of Iraq & Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) for 10 years, utilizing resources through IAVA to raise awareness about PTSD, suicide prevention and mental health in conjunction with the Hopi’s local American Legion Post. She recently finished her first “ultramarathon” (50K) to raise awareness for Hopi water issues. She started her own blog, “1,000 Words and a Cup of Coffee,” where she writes about a variety of topics, including the history of Hopi code talkers and her military service.

At one point several years ago, she helped folks in the town of Piru in Ventura County, filled with agricultural workers, install solar panels that took them off the grid. Recently, she has been raising money for Hopi Relief, which is providing supplies during COVID while the reservation is in lockdown. The closest stores are about 100 miles away.

All the while, Honani has recalled the core Hopi values of community — sumi’nungwa, meaning “come together for the benefit of all”; and nami’nangwa, helping others in need without being asked or expecting something back.

“Be useful,” she recalls her grandfather telling her. “Don’t be a lump on a log. Be useful.”

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Michael Murphy

President, Gravitas Ventures

Michael Murphy

For Murphy, there’s no place like home to make a difference.

Murphy is an executive at independent supplier Gravitas Ventures — which has had a footprint in his hometown of Cleveland since 2013 and completed its move from Los Angeles in 2019, buying a building in the city. He’s also been working for years at another hometown venture — Boys Hope Girls Hope of Northeastern Ohio, a college-prep program for high-potential, underprivileged kids in the city’s Garfield Heights suburb.

“The executive director was a high school classmate of mine, and I’ve known him for a long time,” Murphy says. “I initially got involved in the big fundraiser each year that’s a golf tournament. I was able to help him out with that, and he said, ‘Well, we really need you to join the board.’”

Murphy has been on the board of directors since 2016 and has raised more than $1 million for the mission.

“It’s an outstanding organization, and they are extraordinarily effective at what they do,” he says.

Boys Hope Girls Hope identifies children in fifth grade who are recommended by principals, teachers or others in the community as having potential and needing assistance.

These kids, called “scholars,” he says, “have some real motivation but are in bad circumstances through no fault of their own.” They stay with the program through high school and receive support through college graduation and career launch. About 18 scholars live on the campus in Northeastern Ohio while another roughly 180 non-residential scholars visit the campus at least weekly.

“Only 11% of children from poverty who are the first in their family to attend college actually graduate,” he notes. “For the scholars of Boys Hope Girls Hope, who fit the same profile, the persistence and graduation rate is nearly 90%, so the efficacy of the program was what drew me to it.”

Michael Murphy in 2019 at the dedication for the football field donated by the Haslam family that owns the Cleveland Browns.

The Boys Hope Girls Hope campus offers scholars assistance such as counseling and tutoring and amenities such as physical centers for yoga, basketball courts, and even a football field that was donated by the Haslam family that owns the Cleveland Browns. In fact, the organization was the first non-school recipient of a field from the family. The kids, who go to school throughout Cleveland, are transported to the campus by volunteers and staff.

“Some of these are students who, if they were left wherever they were, probably wouldn’t graduate high school,” he says. “They’d be an unfortunate statistic that’s very real in our community.”

The campus also offers amenities to the community surrounding it, and during the pandemic shutdown, Boys Hope Girls Hope was able to assist local schools with “at risk” students, allowing them to use the campus.
“I thought what does ‘at risk’ mean?” he recalls. “That meant they’re homeless. These were students that had nowhere to go. If you’re homeless and you’re at a shelter where you may have to vacate during the day or, even if you don’t have to vacate, you can only imagine trying to do Zooms or other things in that type of environment.”

During the shutdown, the organization also brought food to and checked in with their scholars, who were eager to get back to campus.

“The poverty in the city of Cleveland is very high,” he says. “It’s actually some of the highest in the nation, and it’s unfortunate that it’s happening in the place that we love and we call home. Margaux (his wife) and I decided that we’re going to take an active role in this.”

Murphy notes education is an important tool in breaking that cycle of poverty. Many of their scholars are the first in their family to attend college who will “be able to go back to their neighborhood and their community and say, ‘I did it.’”

“They become a role model, and hopefully what they’ve done is something that can be replicated,” he says. “A kid can say he or she did it; I can do it too.”

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Tara O’Donnell

Director, Global Digital Marketing, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Tara O’Donnell

“Think globally, act locally” is a common phrase among advocates, but it sums up O’Donnell’s activism.

She has been volunteering with the ONE Campaign for more than a decade. ONE is a global movement that seeks to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030. O’Donnell lobbies members of Congress about legislation that aligns with the organization’s mission and has helped to pass more than 10 important bills.

She is currently the congressional district leader for California’s 29th district (where she lives), represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by Tony Cardeñas.

“ONE strives to have congressional leaders in all of the congressional districts across the United States,” she says. “It really matters to the representative that you live in their district, that you’re their constituent.”
O’Donnell organizes people in her district who are supportive of ONE’s aims to make their opinions known to the representatives. They set up tables at like-minded events to spread the word. Every February ONE has a summit in Washington, D.C., during which volunteers meet with their members of Congress or their staff and talk to them about issues of concern.

“This past February I was in Washington, D.C., and we were talking about replenishing the United States funding for GAVI, which is the Global Vaccine Alliance,” she says. “GAVI helps vaccinate almost half of the world’s children against deadly infectious diseases like measles and mumps.”

The United States is an important supporter of GAVI.

“The funding bill will expire every few years for GAVI, so we went in to talk to our representatives about making sure that the United States replenishes our funding commitment,” O’Donnell notes.

Tara O’Donnell (right) with U.S. House Representative Tony Cardeñas.

In fact, her work often involves just keeping funding in place from the United States.

“One of the things we campaign on regularly is the international affairs budget,” she says. “That’s the portion of the United States budget that gets allocated to international affairs. It’s a very small part of the budget. It’s like less than 1% of our overall budget. It covers all sorts of things like the Peace Corps and embassies, but also programs like the Global Fund, PEPFAR and GAVI. It’s always a challenge to make sure that none of that funding is cut, and you know it’s always a big success when it isn’t cut.”

While ONE’s work may seem remote from the kind of boots-on-the-ground aid of other organizations, it is having an effect, O’Donnell notes. In a recent tourist trip to Tanzania, “I saw a lot of signs around for projects from USAID and that’s the international affairs budget — so you could see the United States’ impact on the areas of the country that I was visiting,” she says.

She also talked to locals who mentioned the job opportunities created by those programs.

“I’m actually not a fan of politics,” she says. “That’s why I like ONE because it’s not about politics; it’s about advocacy.”

In fact, the group is nonpartisan and doesn’t support any piece of legislation that isn’t co-sponsored by both sides of the aisle in both houses. In persuading those unsure of giving overseas when there are problems at home, she says, “It’s a national security issue for us when there are countries that aren’t stable.” She also discusses the aim of moving countries “from aid to trade,” making sure people have jobs, can send their kids to school, etc.

“Then they become trading partners, which is good for us as a country because we have people we can sell goods to, and then that creates jobs in our country,” O’Donnell argues.

It’s also just the right thing to do, she says.

“We’re the greatest country in the world,” O’Donnell says. “We should be a leader. We should protect people who can’t protect themselves. We should have a voice for people who don’t have a voice.”

O’Donnell notes the ONE world focus is all the more important as the globe faces a pandemic.

“What COVID has taught us is that we are not alone in this world,” she says. “It’s a global economy. It’s a global world. We all impact each other. That’s why we should focus externally, as well as internally. We should fix our problems here, but we should also not ignore what’s going on outside of our borders.”

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Donny O’Malley

Founder and Chief Content Officer, VET Tv

Donny O’Malley

In his profession and as a volunteer, retired Marine Capt. O’Malley epitomizes the adage that laughter is the best medicine. He has employed comic relief in entertaining and salving the wounds of the veteran community, both as founder of San Diego-based subscription streaming service VET Tv (veterantv.com), which offers humorous content about military subjects, and as architect of the veterans nonprofit Irreverent Warriors.

Irreverent Warriors brings military veterans together at “Silkies Hikes” around the country, as well as at other events, to help build social connection while improving veteran mental health and reducing the number of veteran suicides.

“Silkies are these tiny little green shorts that used to get issued to us in boot camp,” he explains. “They can be worn as underwear. They can also be worn as outerwear. But they’re really short and they expose a lot. And so naturally in the military, when a bunch of guys are wearing silkies, you can’t help but laugh.”

The idea for an irreverent event came to him as he watched the dark humor of his fellow veterans and experienced one of them, a friend who had enjoyed his blog of funny stories about combat, die from suicide.

“His mother was crying over the casket, ‘Why?,’” he recalls. “I thought to myself maybe I can give his mother a reason why, maybe her son died so that others could live. If we could just come together and laugh, laugh with each other, good things are going to come from that.”

Donny O’Malley (left) with a veteran at a
Silkies Hike.

O’Malley decided to get a group of men with whom he served together for a hike. The idea was to “put some backpacks on, feel some weight on our back, have a little bit of that pain that we used to feel as infantrymen, put our combat boots on, and go hiking along the boardwalk of San Diego and stop at bars and laugh and tell stories and just have a good time.”

A buddy agreed, “Yes, let’s do it in silkies!”

The first hike was organized around the number 22 — with participants carrying 22 kilograms on their backs and hiking 22 kilometers for the 22 veterans who kill themselves every day.

O’Malley planned on a dozen participants, and 75 showed up, he says, attracting news coverage and spawning similar events hosted by volunteers around the country.

O’Malley later incorporated Irreverent Warriors as a nonprofit to facilitate safety and quality. Though he’s turned over day-to-day operations, O’Malley still attends a number of events around the nation. To date, Irreverent Warriors has brought together more than 60,000 veterans with dozens of hikes a year. While the hikes have been curtailed due to COVID-19, the group was able to sponsor 30 in 2020.

Then, in 2016 via a Kickstarter campaign, O’Malley brought military comedy to the streaming marketplace with VET Tv. At $5 a month, the SVOD service offers primarily original programming and has grown to 90,000 subscribers with 20 series and other content.

As a professional and as a volunteer, this former Marine’s mission is the same.

“The desire to bring veterans together to laugh, that’s what it all came from,” O’Malley says.

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Michael Roberts

Customer Marketing, Paramount Home Entertainment

Michael Roberts

Promoting the power of the vote is Roberts’ passion.

For the past few years, he has worked with various organizations helping voters use their voice up and down the ballot. Getting out the vote is incredibly important to him, particularly in underrepresented communities. He stresses that voting selects not only the president, but also district attorneys who enforce the law and school board members who determine how to teach our kids.

“These people put in these positions, everything from president to school board, they work for us, and we hire them,” he says.

Roberts has canvassed door to door (pre-COVID-19), phone-banked and through Vote Forward has written letters to voters across the country. Preliminary research from Vote Forward shows that hand-written letters, and sharing personal stories, have the same efficacy rate — if not a higher efficacy rate — as traditional canvassing door to door and talking to people face to face, he notes.

“I feel like hand-writing letters is a nice, personal touch,” he says.

“Whoever this person is they actually cared enough to take the time to fill out my name and address, put a stamp on this thing.”

He has sent letters to voters in Florida, Texas, Georgia and Michigan, among other states. The letters are not necessarily designed to persuade voters who to select, but to share why he votes.

“One of the things that I try to write in every letter is that I vote because I believe that every person in this country deserves a fair shot at health and happiness,” he says. “That’s how I start all my letters. At the base of it, that’s how I feel.”

For the Viacom Virtual Day of Service, Roberts led a team in texting, emailing, posting and calling people in their circle to get out the vote in concert with Michelle Obama’s When We All Vote nonprofit. He’s now focused on the Georgia Senate seat runoffs.

For Roberts, it’s all about engaging the power that voting affords those who didn’t start out with his advantages.

“I grew up in Southern California. I certainly never experienced any of the hardships that a lot of people around this country have experienced,” he says. “I’m grateful for the privilege I was given and born into, but I think that at the end of the day none of it really matters unless we are all given a fair shot.”

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Nicole Tiesma

Senior Manager, Digital Marketing, Paramount Home Entertainment

It was an old friend, J.D. Brown, who led Tiesma to put her expertise in digital marketing to work for a worthy cause. Brown had recently become COO of Trans Can Work, a nonprofit committed to advancing workplace inclusion for transgender individuals through training strategies and workforce development.

“He was asking me some questions about social media marketing,” she says. “They’re a very small team of six people, and the work they do is really great, but they can’t afford a full-time communications person, especially a full-time social person. So I offered to help give him and some of the staff members some training and consulting and basically help them build a toolbox so they can think like strategic social marketers and start to build out their social presence more effectively.”

Nicole Tiesma and her friend J.D. Brown (at top) have collaborated via video since the pandemic started.

Trans Can Work helps transgender and gender non-conforming job seekers in their search, assisting those looking for everything from entry level to executive positions.

“Looking for jobs is really hard, and then when you add on top of it being an othered person like that, I think it’s cool that they’re helping make that job search more approachable,” she says.

The other mission of the organization is working with companies to help teams and HR better understand gender non-conforming and transgender employees. Trans Can Work has assisted WarnerMedia, Bank of America, the City of West Hollywood, Netflix, Viacom and Macy’s, among other companies.

“I think sometimes a lot of companies now have LGBTQ training but a lot of it is focused on sexual orientation and not as much on the trans part of the letters, so I think it’s wonderful that there’s a resource for companies to go to,” she says.

In the past year, the group (founded in 2016) reports it has provided free employment services to 1,800 gender-diverse job seekers and has helped place more than 200 gender-diverse job seekers in full-time employment.
“We’ve seen so much progress just in the last few years in terms of awareness and inclusion in that area, so I love that they’re doing this really practical work in trying to make trans people more included in the workplace,” Tiesma says.

Since the pandemic hit, she’s been meeting with the Trans Can Work team remotely twice a week — and they are focused on a big December fundraising campaign.

“They have a matching grant from their board of directors up to $20,000, so I’ve been helping them craft their social media graphics and their communication around that,” she says. “I love social media marketing, and I love doing it for movies, but if ever I can take that skill set and try to have an impact somewhere else, I love that.”

It’s also a way to strengthen her bond with friends.

“I have a lot of LGBTQ friends, and it’s a way for me to be an ally,” Tiesma says. “I recognize my privilege as a cis person, and it’s so cool to be able to try to help have an impact for people who don’t have that privilege.”

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Chris Yates

GM, Redbox On Demand, Redbox

Chris Yates

Yates credits his mother and sister — both teachers — for his involvement in Los Angeles Team Mentoring (LATM).

“What they do is just life-changing for children,” he says. “I grew up around teachers and know the impact it’s had on me and the impact it has on other kids. It’s resonated with me throughout my life.”

Growing up in Australia and moving to the United States, Yates observed the American public education system’s challenges. “Public education is massively underfunded in the U.S., and no child should struggle for basics like food, security and safety. These schools serve such an important role for so many students — they provide so much more than just learning a curriculum,” he says.

Since 2012 Yates has served on the board of LATM, which supports Los Angeles-based middle school students by teaching them life and emotional skills. The nonprofit partners with 14 schools across Los Angeles, serves more than 1,400 kids every year, and focuses on driving opportunities for students from low-income and traditionally under-recognized populations of the school system.

For Yates, the goal of LATM is to empower students to “dream big.” Set up as a group mentoring program, students meet with their mentors in small cohorts and use a structured program developed by LATM to provide the students a variety of life skills, including emotional learning, confidence-building and conflict resolution. Students also have the opportunity to be exposed to new experiences such as visiting a college campus and learning about the college enrollment process. The program results include much higher high school graduation rates (22%), as well as improved GPAs and improved self-esteem and resiliency ratings.

LATM students at the California Science Center in Los Angeles.

2020 has been a tough year for many nonprofits and organizations, including LATM. A breakthrough for LATM this year was when it launched an e-learning program, called e-works.

“Our students need us now more than ever. E-works allows our students to stay connected to the LATM program,” Yates says. Led by LATM executive director Maria Melton and director of programs William Figueroa, the program has moved its learning to a virtual environment during the pandemic.

“With e-works, students are given the support they need, are better able to stay on track with their education; they need this stability more than ever during such a tumultuous time,” Yates says.

Yates sees the investment in student mentorship and public education as paving the way for a brighter, more inclusive future both in society as a whole but also for the entertainment industry.

“Representation matters,” he says. “A multitude of diverse voices better serves the entertainment industry. LATM helps their students become the next generation of leaders in this world and the entertainment industry.”

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