By Darlene Donloe
After working in the entertainment industry for decades, Cheryl L. Bedford, an independent producer, got tired of seeing the same lack of representation year after year as it relates to women of color.
Even though she has been involved in several women’s organizations, she still felt a need “to have one for us,” she said, referring to women of color.
So, seeking other like-minded professionals, she threw a party and invited 100 women of color. 150 showed up. The invite read, “Women of Color UNITE!,” which became the name of the organization she launched in 2018.
Women of Color Unite is a social action nonprofit organization focusing on fair access, fair treatment and fair pay for women of color in all aspects of the entertainment and media industries.
Bedford, a Baltimore native, who moved to Los Angeles in 1990 after a stint in New York, makes her living as a line producer and producer. She has worked on numerous feature films, shorts and a huge amount of digital content.
She’s a bold entertainment professional, who is best known for the 2011 groundbreaking documentary she produced called “Dark Girls.”
The film explores the deep-seated biases and attitudes about skin color — particularly dark-skinned women, outside of and within the Black American culture. She received an NAACP Image Award nomination for her work.
Bedford, 57, has known since she was 17 what she wanted to do with her life.
“I wanted to work behind the scenes,” she said.
So she armed herself with a bachelor of fine arts degree from Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and a master’s of fine arts in producing from the American Film Institute. She also taught all aspects of producing at the New York Film Academy Los Angeles Branch where she became the very first chair of diversity development and taught The Art of Line Producing at UCLA Extension.
I recently caught up with Bedford to talk about Women of Color Unite
DD: Why was Women of Color Unite! launched?
CLB: In February 2018, I felt a need to have an organization for us. I wanted all the women of color I knew in one room. All I wanted to do was to get everyone in the room to talk about us and what was going on. About 150 women of color showed up. It sparked a movement. The first thing I wanted to do was to create a database for above and below-the-line professionals. People sign up for the JTC (Joan Theresa Curtis) jobs list named after my mother. About 93 signed up on the spot. We’ve grown from 93 to 6,000. I officially became the leader of a movement. I guess I was destined for that.
DD: Describe the organization.
CLB: We’re an advocacy group for women of color. We write white papers. We do a lot. The most recent thing is that when Time’s Up imploded, we took up the slack. I hadn’t anticipated that.
Women started hitting us up. We had no money. People didn’t want to go public. We took on Sony Entertainment when a young Black woman brought a sexual battery case against one of the company’s vice presidents, who happened to be a Black man. That perpetrator was gone within three months. That makes me proud. What we do is difficult and sometimes we do it with no money. Unfortunately, some people say they are fighting for us when they aren’t.
DD: What do you do with the statistics you gather?
CLB: WOCU takes annual surveys with its members, over 6,000 women and non-binary people of color working in the entertainment industry. We create specific, vital insight into this vulnerable and often invisible group of people and their career progress.
DD: Are your members in unions?
CLB: Our statistics show that women of color working in entertainment are severely underrepresented in labor unions, guilds, trade associations and such. We took a sample in 2020. Of the 1,800 women of color working in the entertainment industry, only 10.12% are members of a labor union. Only 1.89% of our membership is a member of a guild, trade association, or similar organization. They don’t have full membership with a labor union. That means 88% of women of color working in the entertainment industry don’t have access to the benefits of labor unions.
The isolated stats for women of color are to demonstrate the need for proactive measures by the entertainment industry gatekeepers to be inclusive.
DD: How do you measure the organization’s success?
CLB: We ask our membership. We measure it through surveys and statistical analysis. Our vice president does a lot of it. We are updating stats this year. About 12% of our membership got jobs directly related to our panels or our mentorship programs. About 1,700 members got their Writers Guild of America cards through our StartWith 8 program.
Statistics show 44% of women of color leave the industry after 10 years because they don’t hit a glass ceiling, instead, it’s concrete.
DD: Who can join?
CLB: Women of color. We are the largest WOC organization. All women of color are welcome. If you have always rolled and strolled as a woman of color, of course, you can join. If you have gone through life that way. If you have to ask me if you qualify, this probably isn’t the organization for you.
DD: I understand there is no membership fee. How is the group funded?
CLB: It’s very difficult. The strike hurt us financially. Black women’s organizations only get 0.5% of the grant money that is available. We are the largest women of color organization. Everything we do is transparent. There are organizations like Time’s Up and Women in Film. We’d be funded if we were white women. Everyone would be saying, “Look, look, if we were white.”
DD: Women of Color Unite boasts 6,000 members. What do the members get?
CLB: They get community. We have a job board, discounts, resources, and workshops. Women of Color Unite members hire other women of color. It’s about the camaraderie. They get hope. They know they are not alone. We are a whole ass community.
DD: The JTC List is named after your mother, Joan Theresa Curtis.
CLB: It’s a Google Doc of 1,300-plus women of color in entertainment, which is shared throughout the industry. Never again will someone be able to say they can’t find any women of color for any job above or below the line. It’s named after my mother because she was a statistician and my best friend.
DD: Women of Color Unite helps others produce their projects but you also produce your content.
CLB: All props go to Gregory (Zide), our treasurer. He did all of the research and worked on the contract with our two Black, female attorneys so we can stay 501 c3 compliant. The projects are from people who are our advocates. I can’t pay anybody but we can serve as their production entity.
Most of the people we work with are either people who are advocates or they have volunteered for years. We don’t take outside projects. We want to start with supporting our core groups because they don’t get paid.
DD: Talk about the Startwith8 Program a networking and career development program.
CLB: It started during Black Lives Matter. All we did was ask those who have the power to give something up — meaning their time, energy, etc. We ask them to take on eight women of color to do something substantial. They can tell us what it is. We match them. It’s first come, first served. Everyone gets two when they sign up. Together, they formulate a plan of action based on each participant desires.
DD: Women of Color Unite has a lot of support.
CLB: I couldn’t do what I do without people who believe in our mission. I’m very proud.
“Making a Difference” is a regular feature profiling organizations that are serving their communities. To propose a “Making a Difference” profile, send an email to email@example.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.