By Darlene Donloe
Fifteen years ago, twin sisters Shawneé and Shawnelle Gibbs packed their belongings in an old Honda, left Oakland and headed south to Los Angeles to start a career in independent short films.
They didn’t have family or friends here but they had hope in their hearts and a dream to tell diverse stories through comics, television, graphic novels, film and animation.
“The dream took shape as we discovered what was available to us as women — as we were developing as young adults,” Shawnelle said. “We both had a natural gravitation toward words. I discovered in elementary school that I had a strong writing talent. I could communicate effectively. It was easy for me to do. Words were my secret weapon.”
The twins said their upbringing shaped their career goals.
“When we were in Oakland, we were exposed to lots of art and culture,” Shawnee added. “We were exposed to the works of Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, Octavia Butler and Maya Angelou. We soon realized that writing could be a career. When I read, ‘I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,’ I felt I knew those characters. I thought writing and the arts could be a career. It’s as if those authors and poets handed us the baton.”
Before and after their arrival in Los Angeles, their work (“Ravishing Raspberry,” “Sule and the Case of the Tiny Sparks”) was included in the popular Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center Sistas Are Doin’ It For Themselves film festival.
Once they were firmly planted in Los Angeles, the sisters jumped right into creating independent short films.
“We are the CEO, writing team and scheduling team,” Shawnee said. “You never know where an idea comes from. We come to each other with ideas and decide to work on whatever is the strongest. We know it’s the right one when everybody is getting goosebumps.”
“We are a mini writing room together,” Shawnelle added.
Maneuvering through the industry wasn’t always smooth sailing for the dynamic duo but they were undeterred. Telling diverse stories about people who looked like them remained front and center in their determination.
“Some things that we were faced with were race-related,” Shawnelle said. “Sometimes you’re the last person to receive an assignment. Having people not understand our vision was tough. Being told that studios weren’t interested in the stories we told about young Black women was hard to hear. We came up on a lot of nos, and some discrimination but we always knew we had to keep going.”
One of Shawnelle’s goals was to create and produce a legacy of television projects that reflected the magical realism of the African-American experience.
“I’ve always wanted to have a career that produces projects I’m proud of,” she said.
“It’s important for our stories to continue to be told,” Shawnee said. “You can never have too many. It’s important for every generation to tell the stories from their perspective. We are living in a unique time.”
Today, the easy-going, always jovial Gibbs sisters, who studied cinema at San Francisco State, remain steadfast. The writers, who call themselves “The Property Sisters of Storytelling,” are thriving and surviving in an industry that is very competitive.
“I think cinema appealed to us because it combined two things we love — writing and visuals,” Shawnee said. “The combination of visuals and language — it called to us.”
“Growing up, we did a lot of creative writing,” Shawnelle said. “We were both editors of our school newspaper. They incorporated a video yearbook. Early on, we decided to combine forces.”
While they do a lot together, the twins said they each bring their “very different interests and strengths” to the table.
“We are creating a variety,” Shawnee said. “We’ve got animation work with studios. We write our own live-action stories as well. A lot of our work centers on women of color. Outsiders finding community. We like to explore coming of age, class, power, family secrets, history and characters finding family and identity on their journey to discovery.”
Shawnee and Shawnelle, whose grandmother was also a twin, said being twins has enhanced their lives professionally.
“Having a twin is a unique experience,” Shawnee said. “You’re born with a built-in friend and partner.”
The sisters, who grew up with just the two of them but later discovered they had a half-sister in the Bay Area, rely heavily on each other.
“I couldn’t have gone this far without a partner,” Shawnee said. “With a twin, carrying the load is made easy. It’s been a blessing.”
As impressive as they are together, so, too are the sisters individually.
Shawnelle Gibbs is a writer and producer with credits that span television, animation, film and publishing. She’s produced an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning series for NBC Universal, and countless hours of programming for networks including ABC, Food Network and Discovery.
A member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Women in Animation, and the Animation Guild, Shawnelle has served as a staff writer for Warner Bros. Animation and has also written for Dreamworks Animation, Mattel Studios, Cartoon Networks and Marvel Comics.
Shawnee Gibbs is also a writer and producer. She specializes in creating content for television, film and publishing.
A member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Women in Animation, the Animation Guild, and the Children’s Media Association, Shawnee produced a wide range of television shows for networks including the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel and National Geographic Channel.
As a writing team, the Gibbs Sisters authored the YA comic book series “Fashion Forward” and “The Invention of E.J. Whitaker,” published under their own BopSee Books.
The sisters have penned projects for Dreamworks Animation (“Not Quite Narwhal”), Mattel (“Barbie: It Takes Two” and “Barbie: Mermaid Power”), Cartoon Network (“Jessica’s Big Little World”), and more.
As successful as the sisters have been, nothing compares to the enthusiasm they have for their upcoming young adult graphic novel, “Ghost Roast” (HarperCollins), set to debut in January. It’s their pride and joy.
“I will be excited to see it in libraries and bookstores,” Shawnee said. “We want the stories we tell to be inspirational and to have value for audiences and the marketplace. I’m proud of our longevity and flexibility and our ability to navigate ourselves in a lot of different directions.”
“Our first love was always books and paper,” Shawnelle added.
“Ghost Roast,” set in New Orleans, has a paranormal setting.
The book, illustrated by Emily Cannon with color by Aishwarya Tandon, speaks to peer pressure, family struggles, racial identity and more.
“The story is about a 15-year-old protagonist named Chelsea Grant who goes to work for the summer with her father, who is a ghost hunter,” Shawnelle said. “He uses DIY tactics to identify the presence of the supernatural, while Chelsea can actually see them. It’s a coming-of-age story. I love this book so much. This will be my proudest moment.”
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.