In 2011, Dean Teri Schwartz pledged $4,000 annually from the UCLA TFT coffers to support Elevate, a student-led organization that promotes diversity among students and faculty members.
The group aims to give “voice and visibility to the diverse contributions of multicultural filmmakers, theater practitioners and scholars” by sponsoring film screenings, lectures, social gatherings and alumni networking opportunities, according to its mission statement. Open to all UCLA TFT students, Elevate offers members grants of up to $275 a year for research or screenings of work that advances the organization’s mission. Membership is free.
“Although UCLA TFT has a long history of admitting students and employing faculty members from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, we are always looking for ways to further our goal of cultivating diversity,” Schwartz says. “We hope that Elevate will serve as a template for the kind of diversity we want to encourage not only at UCLA but also throughout the film and theater industries.”
Elevate co-chair Sam Sheppard, a Ph.D. student in film and television, says the idea for a group that addresses school diversity was sparked at Dean Schwartz’s first Town Hall meeting in 2010.
“I raised my hand and said ‘As a woman of color, there are a lot of issues within the program that I would love to be able to discuss with you,’ and she was so open to it,” Sheppard says. “The second I raised my hand, other women of color in the room were like, ‘Oh, hey, let’s talk.’ So we set up a lunch with the dean and started talking.”
The students raised several concerns at that lunch, including their perception that the faculty appears less diverse than the student population. They also wanted more networking events that would include alumni of color.
“Even though we have great scholars here who do interesting work, at times there is not as much spotlighting of non-Hollywood produced work or non-Western academics and filmmakers,” Sheppard says. “You want to see all these different kinds of people and that was not happening in certain respects.”
Dean Schwartz challenged the students to create a task force that would identify problem areas and come up with proposed solutions. In a series of monthly meetings that included minority women from every department within the school, the task force outlined five areas where diversity could be improved: faculty hires, course offerings, diversity training for professors, student recruitment and alumni networking.
When the task force also proposed starting a student group that would encourage diversity, members were happily surprised when Dean Schwartz not only endorsed the idea but also agreed to fund it with the annual $4,000 grant.
“It really showed her full level of commitment,” Sheppard says. “If you really want global diversity, if you really want the students to feel like UCLA is about them and you want to create a really great research, production and theater and film industry, then you have to support that. And she has fully done that beyond our expectations.”
Sheppard and fellow student Mila Zuo, who is also a Ph.D. film student, are Elevate’s co-chairs. Zuo came up with the name “Elevate” to represent what the group is trying to achieve.
“A lot of creative labor coming from people of color is, unfortunately, invisible, or just not as visible as other sorts of mainstream, white-dominated cinemas,” Zuo says. “We’re really trying to raise the level of visibility.”
Unlike some previous student organizations that sequestered minority filmmakers into their own separate groups, Elevate’s mission to include students of all backgrounds and ethnicities reflects the realities of today’s world, says Associate Professor Allyson Field, Elevate’s faculty advisor.
“Students today are very much about working across different cultures and experiences and backgrounds and thinking in a more multicultural context,” says Field, who is herself a white woman who studies African-American cinema. “And Elevate really reflects that idea.”
Each division of the school will be allowed to elect a representative to the board, but all members have the right to vote. “We want to make sure we create something that will sustain itself long after we’re gone,” says Sheppard, who expects to earn her Ph.D. by 2014. “Part of the by-laws is that the group can change to serve the community it creates.”