Today we’re highlighting the Pop Culture Collaborative, a philanthropic resource and funder learning community working to transform the narrative landscape in America around people of color, immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and Indigenous peoples, especially those who are women, queer, transgender and/or disabled.
We sat down with Bridgit Antoinette Evans, Chief Executive Officer of the Pop Culture Collaborative, to learn about the group’s beginnings, their current focus, and the deep impact of their work.
Why did you decide to help start the Pop Culture Collaborative and get involved with the broader work?
My whole life, I’ve been really into art. As a child, I was involved in theatre and loved to sing; I thought I was going to grow up to be a professional artist. At the same time, my mom’s family in the south has a deep legacy in the Civil Rights era. So there was always an expectation that in whatever I chose to pursue in life, to make sure I was increasing social justice at the same time. This confused me, honestly. I’d ask myself what art had to do with social justice, and that was a big question for me as I transitioned from high school into college. So for me, college was about learning how the worlds of social justice and art-making intersected.
After college, I stepped out into the world and into drama school with a very clear passion of making art and creating culture that contributed to advancing social justice. I began exploring theatre through that lens, and the relationship between great art and cultural change kept expanding for me. As I dug deeper, I started working with movement leaders and advising them around their culture change work. That led me to become a culture change strategy designer myself and ultimately recognizing that this work was incredibly important but sorely under-resourced. As a result, I started to get curious about philanthropy. I became a fellow at the Nathan Cummings Foundation and began working with the philanthropic leaders who were conceptualizing the Pop Culture Collaborative. I was ultimately invited to be the founding director. I very quickly brought my colleague Tracy Van Slyke onto the leadership team, and we began the process of building out the organization.
What is it that draws members to the collaborative?
We have a number of different kinds of partners. We’re fundamentally a philanthropic fund, so we give millions of dollars in grants to individuals, organizations, or companies in the social justice sector, the entertainment industry, the research field, and the cultural strategy field. We have a rich community of hundreds of field leaders who are doing work at the intersection of pop culture, social justice, and narrative change. We also have a really incredible network of philanthropic leaders—women, people with immigrant backgrounds, BIPOC people, queer people—who are working together to dramatically expand the resources available for the Pop Culture for Social Change field. They’re involved because they have a passion to really grow the philanthropic landscape around this field and the level of investment. We believe that narrative change work is the breath, the muscle, the heartbeat, of the work of building a pluralist and just culture in the U.S. and should actually be invested in at the same scale as the policies and organizing and other work that is so critical to advancing social justice. This group is doing everything they can to create transformational and historic levels of investment in this field.
And then there’s a lot of people in the entertainment and other pop culture industries who aren’t necessarily grantees of ours but are thought partners and co-collaborators in building out the infrastructure and the momentum around this field: production companies, streaming services, and more—who all believe that Hollywood and other pop culture industries have a critical role to play in normalizing pluralist culture and advancing social justice in the U.S.
Can you share a little bit more about who those philanthropic leaders are? Are they individuals? Foundations?
Historically, our philanthropic partners have been mostly foundations with living donors but strategic grantmakers who are working across a whole range of issues and art forms. So the Pop Culture Collaborative’s “founding mothers”, as we call them, were: the leadership and staff at Unbound Philanthropy which is the nation’s largest foundation focused on immigration funding; Ford Foundation which funds all over the world in a range of social justice issues; and the Nathan Cummings Foundation which is one of the first foundations to create a formal program around art for social justice grant-making. They’re now joined by nine other foundations who have all pooled their resources, thought leadership, and networks to create more abundance for this field.
How has the collaborative evolved over time?
I think our arc over the last five years has been characterized by the evolving embrace of this field and methodology as a core to how social justice changemaking happens. Five years ago, the Pop Culture for Social Change field primarily consisted of field practitioners who were often working in silos and certainly without the proper resources—creating stories, producing campaigns, but really not being able to reach the scale that they needed in order to build power. We’re doing the hard work—what we call “the boots on the ground” work—of making the case for why philanthropy and the broader social justice movements need to take up culture and narrative change work. The Pop Culture Collaborative was actually introduced into the field to help support those trailblazing funders in making the case for this type of work. And I think that we’ve done that. What we’re seeing is that more and more foundations who are super clear in their belief that narrative change work matters are now asking themselves, ‘What does that mean?’ ‘How do we build a formal grant-making strategy?’ ‘How can we support the field?’ So our work has evolved into becoming a learning community for philanthropy to really move toward a formal strategy in order to get to a vibrant, thriving, deeply networked, well-resourced field that can reliably achieve narrative change goals at scale.
Now, at our five year point, with all of that infrastructure in place and solid momentum within the field and with philanthropy, we’re setting our sights on the next innovation in the field. What we’re hearing from our grantees is that we need to break out of the mold of this sort of nonprofit context and begin seeding the values, strategies, and innovation of the Pop Culture Narrative Change field in all of these other industries. For example, we have field leaders who are moving out of nonprofits and into leadership within studios, and we have social justice movement leaders who have agents and are creating television shows. Conversely, we have major artists who are creating social justice informed infrastructure within the field. They’re starting non-profit organizations and creating pipelines that lead to robust collaboration. We’re trying to evolve with the field so that we’re not assuming a donor collaborative is the only entity that moves resources to this field. We want to be seeding the next layer of infrastructure that just creates more and more opportunity and abundance for all of these brilliant field leaders we’re supporting.
How do you measure the impact you’ve made with your collective donations?
We look at impact in three ways. The first is the impact of our grant-making and other resourcing on the grantees, the people that we’re supporting. Are we helping them to build their capacity? Are we helping them to really grow their narrative power building role within the field?
The second thing we look at is the way in which all of these different investments we’re making are cumulatively helping the field at large to achieve narrative change at scale. We recognize that no single organization can be, or should be, responsible for transforming a whole narrative ocean in this country around particular issues. That’s an unfair expectation that a lot of people in philanthropy may actually put on the shoulders of individual grantees. We know that grantees have their own areas of work and that ultimately, a networked and coordinated ecosystem or narrative network of people need to be working together to create that surround sound of deeply immersive pop culture experience that can actually begin to create the sea change at the mass audience scale. So we look at the impact of our investments on the capacity of the field to really claim narrative power and shape meaning at that mass audience level.
Thirdly, we look at our own performance in these narrative waters. How are we doing at igniting public imagination at scale for the pluralist society that we could become? How are we doing at helping people unleash their pluralist instincts and really embrace pluralist identity as a world view and behavioral instinct? And we look at the way in which the field is advancing that goal. Our grantees have been at the forefront of many of the transformational moments over the last five years, whether it was the #MeToo movement, the groundswell around Times Up, at the Golden Globes, the moment when the border crisis and the separation of families began to take hold, the Black Lives Matter uprisings, and more. Our grantees, our senior fellows, our pluralist visionaries— they're the ones who were designing those strategies and leading those kinds of media moments. We’re really proud of the ways in which we’ve been able to invest in the long-term and in the rapid response context to help people exercise their leadership in those ways.
What is the collaborative focused on right now?
We’re really excited because we’re just about to announce the grant-making guidelines for the second cycle of Becoming America Fund grantees. That fund supports narrative networks of artists, organizers, researchers, and strategists as they work together to build public yearning for pluralist culture and seed new narrative oceans that really expand imagination in terms of what we’re capable of. We’ll be funding at least 30-40 grantees over the course of the year to create new pop culture content or experiences, build audience experience campaigns, and more. We’re looking forward to unleashing a whole new ecosystem of content into the world in 2022.
We’re also involved in the strategic visioning process to really think about how the Pop Culture Collaborative can best serve the field over the next 5-7 years. Our visioning process involves over 150 of our field and funding partners who have been meeting in groups and larger sessions for a few months now. We’re eager to take hold of those ideas and operationalize them into our next chapter.
How can people get involved?
I think there are a number of ways. One thing I’d suggest is that if donors are interested in investing in social justice movement building and power building to consider the idea that investing in narrative change work and in the pop culture narrative change field is a really core part of getting to the world that we seek. That could look like creating a giving circle that’s specifically investing in the artists, the strategists, and the movement leaders who are driving cultural and narrative change in the U.S. Another way to get involved is joining other networks of donors like the Pop Culture Collaborative who are pooling their efforts to invest in this field at scale.
It’s also important, when opportunities present themselves, for individuals to make transformational investments of their own in different organizations and really think about the ways in which they can invest in field leaders who are driving this work directly. The Pop Culture Collaborative is certainly a resource to help people think about who those potential beneficiaries of their contributions could be. People are welcome to contact us if they want to think that through.
If I leave you with no other idea, it’s this: if social justice is in your heart... if you’re trying to figure out how to move the dial around racial justice, gender justice, climate, trans liberation, disability innovation, and more… really, really stop and think about how narrative and culture change investments and gifts can make a transformational impact.
To learn more about the Pop Culture Collaborative —including the causes they support—you can visit their website.