Meet Four Hidden Figures of TV Who Are Kicking Ass Behind The Scenes

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Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.

Hollywood has a diversity problem. This, we know. But while the media has been lamenting about how we need more people of color in the entertainment world, there are some women of color who have been quietly toiling behind the scenes to make change actually happen.

Introducing just a handful: Erica Shelton Kodish, who started out on cop shows like CSI and Cold Case before becoming the current showrunner of BET's Being Mary Jane; Janine Sherman Barrois, who's worked on shows like Criminal Minds and ER and is now showrunner of the upcoming TNT, Niecy Nash-starring series Claws; Gloria Calderon Kellett, veteran of shows like How I Met Your Mother and Devious Maids, now showrunner of Netflix's latest hit, One Day At A Time; and Tanya Saracho, newbie showrunner of the upcoming Starz dramedy Pour Vida who has previously worked as a writer on Girls and How to Get Away With Murder.

In the middle of awards season one rainy L.A. morning in early February, I sat down with the four women for a discussion about the challenges they've encountered in the industry as women of color, their advice for aspiring writers and showrunners, and what, from their experience, are some actual actionable steps Hollywood can take to finally be as inclusive as its audience, both in front of and behind the lens.

Check out our conversation (condensed and edited for clarity), or watch the full video of the panel below.

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Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.

Janine Sherman Barrois, showrunner of TNT's Claws.

Let's jump right into the heavy stuff. Do you guys feel like you’ve encountered specific obstacles working in the world of TV because you are Black or Latina? Do you feel like that is something that has held you back — or even helped you?

GCK: “Oh man.”

We're going deep, guys.

TS: “I just got here, so only like four or five years ago, I had never encountered the 'diversity hire' thing, and on the first hour of the first day of my job, one of my coworkers turns around and goes ‘You do know you’re the diversity hire, right?’ and I’d never heard what that meant. I didn’t understand that. How can I only answer things in the room that have to do with my identity? Can I not contribute to the story? It messed with my mind. I had to call my agent and be like ‘Umm, what is a diversity hire?’ and he’s like, ‘I didn’t want to tell you, but yeah, you know you don’t cost that...’ and that just put a tint on everything for me that first year. It was like a way to marginalize, you know? Yet, I wouldn’t have gotten in if it wasn’t for that...so it’s complicated.”

GCK: “I knew I was a diversity hire, and it’s a weird thing where you’re hired for your diverse voice, but also, you need to assimilate...I got in and I was like ‘I’m going to show these boys from Harvard that I’m just like them,’ but I’m not. I’m obviously not and that’s what makes me interesting, but when you first get there, you’re so different. I mean, the first shows I was on, it was all white boys from Harvard or like fifty-year-old guys. I already had like a, ‘Oh my god, I’m not the smartest there, their word choices were different word choices then my word choices,’ and there was no one there to tell me, ‘This is okay, this is not okay.’ So, it’s a dance and a balance and it’s a lot of going into bathroom stalls and crying.” (Laughter across the panel.)

JSB: “It’s funny because I got my break from Yvette Lee Bowser who did Living Single, she had a show called Lush Life, so I started on a show that was integrated. I say this because diversity has become a subject that is really something that you tell white people who only hire white people, like you need diversity. If you have people of color, people of color are thinking 'How many white people do I need on my staff to make everybody comfortable,' you know what I’m saying? Because we will hire people of color, so the truth of the matter is that I kind of came up on these integrated shows... So when I had the opportunity to hire, I made sure it was integrated. On the show that I have now it’s split 50/50, it’s completely integrated. I really think if people start talking about it in terms of segregation and integration, then people will go ‘Oh, I want an integrated staff,’ because nobody wants to be called a segregationist. (Laughter) The truth is that...a lot of people that are white do not hire outside of their race, and they think 'Oh, we were just making waffles at Roscoe’s and then we wanted to be a writer.' No, we actually were writing and we just wanted to get in [the door], but because we didn’t look like you, a position had to be made for us.”

GCK: “We don’t have the same resources, and we didn’t learn the same things. I think some schools are now so much better at getting people ready to go out into the workforce. Like Harvard does do an incredible job. They put them through TV writing courses, they just come out ready at 22. So for us, I learned how to write for TV by going to the Paley Center and watching stuff and taking notes. Thank God that was available to me.”

Once you start climbing up the ladder, you have to deal with being silenced in a room or ignored. A white male has to say it, and then they'll be like 'Oh, that's a great idea!'

—Erica Shelton Kodish

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Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.

Tanya Saracho, showrunner of Starz's Pour Vida.

ESK: “One of the other things too is that even once you start climbing up the ladder, you run into some issues where it’s like you are now supervising producer, or even co-executive producer, but you have to deal with being silenced in a room, or...only speak when being spoken to kind of thing, or ignored, or you have to have someone else, like you’ll pitch it, but it has to come from a guy.”

JSB: “A white male has to say it.”

ESK: “A white male has to say it, and they’ll be like ‘Oh that’s a great idea!’”

JSB: “And you’re like ‘I said this ten minutes ago!’”

ESK: “Right, exactly, so I think that’s one of the other things that makes it continuously challenging in that you feel like ‘Ok, I’ve gotten to a certain place, I have a certain amount of experience and all of that, and then still having to deal with those things is, can be difficult.”

JSB: “A lot of times there are not enough of you on staff, so the issue that you’re dealing with is that you don’t have someone to talk to about it, because you can’t explain it because it’s very, very unconscious. Like I was on a show where two white people looked at each other and said ‘Is this racist?’ but they wouldn’t look at the people of color on the show and ask!”

"It’s a dance and a balance and it’s a lot of going into bathroom stalls and crying.”

Gloria Calderon Kellett

I know that feeling! So, you touched on this a little bit earlier, Gloria, but I think many brown women feel like they may not have the resources to try to break into this business, so they think Hollywood isn't for them. What's your advice for them?

GCK: "We need you now more than ever. Please, please write, and please continue crafting. The first things are going to be terrible, but you gotta work through the terrible. But now there are online courses, if you don't have money....My mom took me to the library twice a week, I would get plays because it's dialogue. If you can strengthen that muscle and just go home and then write out with a pen and paper dialogue....Sometimes I have writers go to coffee shops and transcribe the conversation at the next table. There are things you can do that don't require money. Also Hulu and Youtube, there are ways for you to watch old television shows and teach yourself...there are programs you can submit to and those can be incredible because they'll pay for you to take a class. My first official writing class was because I got into the Fox program and I went through a writing bootcamp."

JSB: "Right now the most powerful person in Hollywood and television is an African-American woman, Shonda Rhimes. There has never been a time where there have been more showrunners of color, more creatives of color, we can only think it's going to get better, so hopefully by the time whoever's watching this gets here...on every network you'll see a myriad of people telling stories."

TS: "So many people are telling stories through web series. 20 years ago, you didn't have access to this equipment, but now you do! Just get really good at being a storyteller. Especially right now...marginzliaed communities need to put their stories out there because their stories are worth it."

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Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.

Erica Shelton Kodish, showrunner of BET's Being Mary Jane.

ESK: "I was someone who went to graduate school and film school at USC, and I felt that that was the way that you're supposed to do it. And I think especially now you don't need to go to film school and spend thousands of dollars.... Sorry! It's just not necessary....Now you can read dozen and dozens of scripts and educate yourself that way. And there are really some great writing groups, or even forming your own groups in whatever city you may happen to be in. All the material is out there for you to educate yourself and hone your craft."

JSB: "That's the key. Writers write, in order to get better you just have to keep doing it. People think you just write one thing a year; you write all the time. If you don't wanna write all the time, don't do this. Because that's what you'll end up doing."

One of the things that struck me when you guys arrived here was that a few of you knew each other, and those that didn't immediately embraced one another. Do you feel like there's a support system amongst brown women in Hollywood?

GCK: "You hear about each other, because there's so few of us."

JSB: "I think you hear about each other and you all link up when you see each other, you're like, oh my God, you're doing this? But the reality is that you're so busy working that you rely on people as mentors through e-mail, like, This happened to me today, do you have any advice? But it's hard at this level to hook up all the time socially."

TS: “But it's good to have that mentor, because Gloria was that to me. Any time there's a new deal, I'm like, Glo, is this ok? Is this normal? I do feel like you do have to hold on to, or be on the shoulders of somebody else and hold on to each other. I've found that women have been there for me in this industry.”

I think there’s a responsibility you feel whenever you’re a person of color at the top job...you feel like the weight is on your shoulders. But I also think you’ve got to let that go and just tell the story.

—Janine Sherman Barrois


That’s great to hear. Since there are so few brown showrunners, do you individually feel like a pressure or responsibility to accurately represent your culture?

GCK: “Yes and no. Yes in that there are so few shows or comedies about Latinos right now that I want to do right by the community as a whole, but also, I can only tell my specific point of view. I’m a west coast Cuban. It’s different than coming from Miami. It’s different than if you were a Cuban whose parents were placed in Nebraska. So, I’m being really specific about my point of view and I feel like the specificity is what actually makes it more universal, weirdly. Aziz Ansari’s parents episode of Master of None, that resonated with me so much, and I’m not an Asian man or Indian man. I watched that episode and it really made me feel what my parents had gone through. [For One Day At A Time], I wanted to hire a Latino writers' room; my room is not just Cuban writers. We have El Salvadorian writers, we have Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican, and we have white guys too and we have German guys and Jewish guys, because I want my show to land with them too. If I’m pitching something in Spanish and the three white guys are laughing, that means that joke can go in my show, because it’s not alienating—not that I need to write for them. Because I also don’t translate, which a lot of people wanted me to talk about. They’re like ‘Why aren’t you doing subtitles when there’s Spanish?’ And I’m like, ‘Because when I was a kid watching [English shows], I didn’t have no subtitles.’ TV wasn’t made for me, and people can Google! People can learn a little Spanish! It’s a beautiful language! (Laughter)”

JSB: “I think there’s a responsibility you feel whenever you’re a person of color at the top job, you feel like the weight is on your shoulders. But I also think you’ve got to let that go and just tell the story because you can carry that like ‘Oh, I’m doing this for every person and if I mess up, nobody else will get in.’ I think you have to let go of that and just do the job and tell the stories. Niecy Nash is the lead of my show and she’s this strong bad-ass woman, so I do feel like this responsibility to make sure she’s layered, but more so than being an African American woman, I just want to make sure we tell a great story with her, you know?”

ESK: “One of the things that we’re constantly asking ourselves in my writers' room, whereas maybe in other rooms that I’ve been in it’s not necessarily the case, is ‘Am I perpetuating stereotypes? Am I actually just trying to show a layered character? Am I humanizing this person?’ So, at times you sort of feel encumbered in some ways....But then on that same notion, you don’t want to make it not that just because you know that stereotype exists. It’s constantly a balancing act, but I think being a woman of color, you are constantly thinking about that in the back of your mind, you know, I do have this responsibility. We recognize how important that is and that not everyone has this opportunity.”

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Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.

Gloria Calderon Kellett, showrunner of Netflix's One Day At A Time.

So, my last question for you guys is that obviously, the world is a crazy place right now; there’s a lot going on politically and culturally that's sparking a lot of interesting conversations. Can you talk about the impact you hope your shows will have during this current climate?

JSB: “On our show we’re writing about badass women who want a piece of the pie, who are clawing their way up to the top, and I don’t think that they’re waiting for men to give them a seat at the table, they’re taking the seat at the table. So, it’s interesting to me during this time where we’ve seen a lot of things discussed about women, to see powerful women embrace their power and not listen to the static of male naysayers. That’s exciting to me.”

TS: “I’m not a citizen. Right now I’m like so scared, but thinking about the medium that we work in, I think we can affect perception, because it has the most reach. Theater doesn’t have the reach, film doesn’t have the reach anymore, but TV, because for $7.99 a month you can get Netflix, we have a great power in our hands where we can affect perception. And that’s not saying that it has to be neat and clean. Complicate it, layer it, because that is when people who maybe don’t like someone like me coming from Mexico, the country I come from, they will say ‘Oh wait, she’s just like me,’ or ‘she’s not a threat,’ whatever it is. So, I think we have a great power with this medium.”

GCK: “I definitely feel like when all of this stuff was going on, there’s a lot of misperception about who Latinos are and I always have felt that if I could invite people into my living room, that I could change hearts and minds, because Latinos are lovely beautiful people. My parents were immigrants. They came here not speaking the language and in one generation their daughter writes for TV, which they watched to learn English. So it’s really emotional because I didn’t start political. Tanya can tell you, I wasn’t that political when I met her and —”

JSB: “I’m too political (Laughter). He woke us all up.”

GCK: “I do feel like there’s a commonality if you allow us to tell our stories, it will make us all seem less scary, because we’re not scary."

JSB: “We’re all the human experience, we’re all similar, that’s what’s insane about it.”

ESK: “I think on Being Mary Jane, some of the things we do want to answer and talk about, but then we also want to provide an escape as well. So we are trying to walk that tightrope of being entertaining and also allow you to forget about some of the things that are going on. But then there are things that happen in the news where for us it’s like ‘Wow, that was our story idea!’ Like Tamron Hall leaving the Today Show and Megyn Kelly moving in, we literally had just sort of outlined a storyline that was very similar. Life is imitating art and vice versa. So it’s like we have to in some way comment on some of these things, because they are happening, and because we are telling the story about a professional woman in this world.”

TS: “We’re the troubadours. I mean, from the beginning of history, artists have retold what is going on, and that is why history lives on, like the Greeks....That’s what you’re doing right now. You’re sort of processing what’s happening now, so we’re the troubadours.”

JSB: “I love it. We’re the troubadours.”

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Watch the full video version of this discussion — with some extras, like more on each showrunner's career path, and each explaining what being a showrunner really means — below.

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Photographed by Stephanie Gonot.

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