ART TO DEFEND RIGHTS

Interview with Nzinga Christine Blake, Executive Producer, Race and Culture
at Walt Disney Television

by Candace Amarante*

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

– Well, the blessed event happened in January, the year was 1981 and I was born…just kidding.   I was born in Maryland, but spent a majority of my childhood living overseas in Tokyo, Japan and Nairobi, Kenya.  I attended international schools while living abroad, which is probably why I am so passionate about multicultural storytelling.  When I came back to the United States, we moved to a town called Munster, Indiana, which was a culture shock for me.  I was the only black student in my class, and I had some pretty racist encounters. Because of this, I paid more attention to the media as I noticed that the kids in my class had very stereotypical views of black people.  What saddened me most about television was that it was so segregated: we had predominantly white shows and a few predominantly black shows.  None of those shows reflected my reality.  Living overseas, we were so lucky to be surrounded by people from different countries, cultures and religious backgrounds, which our international schools made sure we embraced and celebrated.  That wasn’t the case in the United States.  As I watched television, I made a promise to myself that I would pursue a career as a storyteller in the medium of film and television, so I could create projects that would reflect my experience.  

 How did you get into this line of work?

– I studied at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Film, Television and Digital Media, where I specialized in scripted and unscripted television production.  When I was working on my senior thesis project, I had to cast the characters for a show I created.   In the process of trying to find an actress for the show, I ended up meeting a manager who saw my potential of being in front of the camera instead of behind as a director and producer. After graduating from UCLA, my manager helped me land my first job as a co-host on “Fridays,” a show on Cartoon Network.  That’s how I started in the business.
After my stint at Cartoon Network, I got a job as a host, script writer and producer at Current TV, a channel co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore.  As a host, I told stories that were of interest to me. Current TV also amplified the voices of our audience by giving them an opportunity to submit news worthy stories from various communities around the world. After this experience, I understood I wanted to pursue a career as a social impact storyteller.   

What is social media impact entertainment

– Social impact entertainment is a genre that uses different media formats to address social issues with the aim of creating awareness and inspiring positive social action and change. 

Tell us about your role as an Executive Producer at Tribune Media for which you received an Emmy Award?

– As an Executive Producer at Tribune Media, I was responsible for creating a storytelling platform that focused on underrepresented and marginalized communities for Tribune Media stations across the nation. We highlighted stories that usually went unnoticed in stylized, short documentary formats for multiple platforms, which we called VOICES. Under VOICES I created and launched 3 series (Allies, Mental State and TRANSFORNATION) in partnership with the Google News Initiative. This work was nominated for 4 Emmys by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and an episode from the Mental State series received an Emmy Award.

How do you select the stories you decide to tell/showcase?

– I worked with producers from various stations across the country, and we identified social issues that were affecting underrepresented and marginalized groups in their communities.   We solicited individuals, nonprofits and community leaders, who would then refer us to people interested in telling their stories.  

 Can you tell us about the shows for which you received Emmy nominations and an award?

We received Emmy nominations for 2 episodes of my Allies series and 2 episodes of my Mental State series.  The goal of the Allies series was to bring media attention to individuals who exemplify what it means to be an ally to groups facing systemic discrimination and other societal challenges.  For example, the two Allies episodes for which we received Emmy nominations focused on a group of individuals working to address disparities in maternal healthcare for black mothers, who account for a higher percentage of pregnancy related deaths in the state of California. The second (episode featured a Los Angeles comedian who used her comedy as a way to create change in how maternal mental health, specifically postpartum depression, is perceived in society. Mental State explored the state of mental health and challenges facing American communities in efforts to normalize the conversation around mental wellness.  We also received a nomination for the Mental State episode that focused on the mental state of children who were aging out of the foster care system.  I won an Emmy Award for Mental State: Separated, which raised awareness about the mental state of families torn apart by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deportations and the trauma children face when their parents were taken away.  

What plans do you have for your future work in social impact entertainment?

– I have a few scripted projects that I would love to executive produce that center around issues such as human rights, mental health, social justice and women’s rights.  I feel like the time is right for these kinds of projects that can, on the one hand, entertain and inform, and on the other hand, encourage audiences to take action.  I love that art and storytelling has the power to do so. 

What do you think is your highest achievement in your career so far?

– Definitely the Emmy award!  I honestly did not think that I would win one so soon.  I don’t know why.  Just goes to show you that anything is possible when you work hard on things that you are passionate about!  

Do you have any advice for young and aspiring storytellers?

– I always tell aspiring storytellers to use their social media as their channels. With YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and Facebook, there is no reason for you not to create and build a following.  Use those platforms to represent what you stand for as a storyteller.  More importantly, stay informed, read and care about other people’s plight – especially if you are in the position and have the platform to make a difference. 

 If there was one thing you could have changed during your journey as a creative person, what would it be and why? 

-It would have been my mindset.  I wish I had not been so afraid of sharing my work earlier in my career.  I was so unaware of my potential because of fear.  

You can follow Nzinga Blake on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. For more info, check her:
Website: https://www.nzingablake.com/
Instagram: https://instagram.com/nzingablake?igshid=m81qmk3oqkp8
Twitter: @nzingablake
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nzinga.c.blake

<strong>CANDACE AMARANTE</strong>
CANDACE AMARANTE

*Candace Amarante is an artist-researcher specializing in writing children’s stories and plays in which she pursues two main objectives: to raise awareness of children’s rights through the arts and to incorporate, in her works, the voice of children with chronic diseases. She is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the Canadian Coalition for the Rights of Children.