Stepping Up to Drive Change
In conversation with Joan Jenkinson, Executive Director of the Black Screen Office
Joan Jenkinson is no newcomer to the fight for equity in the Canadian screen industry. In the 1990s, she was part of the Black Film and Video Network, which recognized the need for Black creators to organize behind clearly defined goals in order to push the industry toward more diverse representation, both on screen and behind the camera. While the BFVN itself was relatively short-lived, that need never went away. Enter the Black Screen Office. Formed in 2020, the BSO is on a mission to help Black Canadians “build their careers, strengthen their networks, and share their stories.” Jenkinson outlines the BSO’s ultimate goals and reminds us that, while her office is making considerable progress in broadening representation and ensuring more Black stories get told, “we are only scratching the surface.”
The grim events of 2020 appeared to catapult many organizations toward overdue change, including greater recognition and representation of the Black community. What’s your take on these efforts within Canada’s screen industry?
The knowledge of systemic racism has been with us for a long time, but what 2020 brought to the fore is that anti-Black racism is particularly virulent and has resulted in the worst outcomes for Black people — including death.
It has been energizing and gratifying to see so many organizations step up to issue statements of solidarity, to make plans for equity and inclusion, and to develop training programs for emerging talent. I applaud the Canada Media Fund’s plan to design their programs through the lens of equity and inclusion, Telefilm’s plan for modernization and transparency, and the quick action the CMPA took to include Black leadership.
I’m thrilled to see the huge strides the Indigenous Screen Office has made toward narrative sovereignty with the infusion of funds from the federal government. And the CBC’s diversity commitment — that at least 30% of all key creative roles on its new original series be held by Indigenous, Black and/or people of colour or persons with disabilities — is a big step in the right direction.
My worry is that as these changes are being made and these programs are being developed for the BIPOC community, the fight against anti-Black racism may be lost under this umbrella.
Why is a Black Screen Office necessary in Canada?
The roots of anti-Black racism and systemic discrimination in Canada run deep. Even among well-intentioned people, I see how ingrained systemic racism is in the things they say and do. There are unconscious biases, hidden barriers, nepotistic practices and insular “clubs” that still dominate the system. We have a huge task ahead of us to increase racial diversity and representation in our industry. There is a lot for the BSO to do.
What are the BSO’s ultimate aims?
We want to see sweeping industry-wide changes — where Black Canadians can thrive and where our stories can be made and seen by audiences globally. We want to have a positive impact through our leadership as a national organization. We are working to become a unified, safe place for all Black Canadians working in the screen industries. And we want to promote a global awareness of Black content and content creators — to realize that our success can be borderless.
What challenges do you face as you move forward on the BSO’s objectives?
Our challenge is getting long-term core funding so that we can plan for sustainability. We appreciate the CMPA’s support and look forward to a long relationship.
As a long-time advocate for change in the screen industry, you must have witnessed your share of ups and downs. Can you tell us a little more about that?
My work in advocacy has had various iterations. Now it’s all about storytelling: I help storytellers bring their ideas to life. I am advocating for the stories of Black Canadians to be made, to be seen, and to inspire and entertain audiences around the world.
For many years, I was the only Black gatekeeper who was commissioning content in the TV industry. In that role, I created opportunities for many Black producers and creatives to get their first opportunity in television, which helped launch their careers. It made all the difference. There were major networks with massive budgets who did nothing for years. Efforts are being made now to hire more Black decision makers, which is a big step forward. But they are working within the same system, and it’s yet to be seen what actual change will be realized.
What would you say to Black content creators who are just getting started?
Everyone is looking for fresh, new and unique perspectives. The status quo isn’t cutting it for a lot of people. But while doors are opening, you have to come prepared. Seize training opportunities, particularly real-world opportunities — in writing rooms, on sets, in production companies and with broadcasters. Get as much training and experience as you can. We need you to build your career so that, together, we can create a vibrant screen sector.
Getting down to business
The BSO is making good on its mission to lift up Black screen artists. Some examples:
The Rogers/Black Screen Office Script Development Fund ($750,000 over three years) is a first-of-its-kind program in Canada to assist Black creators and creators of colour through the process of creating pitch-ready projects.
The BSO is collaborating with TELUS STORYHIVE on a Black Creators Edition, providing access to funding, distribution platforms and mentorship for Black content creators in Western Canada.
In partnership with a major broadcaster, the BSO will administer an incubator program as a real-world pre-development initiative. The office is also in talks with US studios, networks and streamers to develop similar opportunities.
The BSO commissioned the market research firm Ipsos to conduct a national race-based audience survey — another first in Canada — to shed light on the screen-media preferences and consumption habits of Black, Indigenous and POC audiences, including how these audiences value seeing their likenesses and stories on screen.
A market intelligence survey is in the works, with the objective of increasing evidence-based data on Black participation, training, challenges, supports, progress and interest to work in the industry.
The BSO is running My First Break, a community social media outreach campaign to bring together emerging, mid- and senior-level Black individuals working in the screen industry.