In 2011, former UCLA TFT Dean Teri Schwartz pledged an annual grant of $4,000 from the UCLA TFT coffers to support the work of Elevate.
“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 said at the time. “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.”
Founding co-chair Sam Sheppard, a Ph.D. student in film and television in 2011 (she graduated in 2014), says the idea for a group that addresses school diversity was sparked at 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 recalls. “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 appeared less diverse than the student population. They also wanted more networking events that would include alumni of color.
“Even though we had great scholars here who did interesting work, at times there wasn't 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.”
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 Schwartz not only endorsed the idea but also agreed to fund it with the annual 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.”
Mila Zuo, Ph.D. ’15, was Elevate’s founding co-chair alongside Sheppard. 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, according to Allyson Field, a former assistant professor at UCLA TFT who was previously 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 and Elevate really reflects that idea,” she says.
Each division of the school will be allowed to elect a representative to the Elevate board, but all members have the right to vote. “We wanted to make sure we created something that would sustain itself long after we’re gone,” says Sheppard. “Part of the by-laws is that the group can change to serve the community it creates.”