KOREATOWN, Calif. - The combination of working through a pandemic and living during a time of massive social change compelled Ashley Soto Paniagua to reflect on how she - as a woman of color - was able to break into the predominantly white world of television writers. “Literally every single job that I've gotten, that has been TV writing-related, has always come through someone giving me their time in the form of a coffee,” she said.
From those coffee meetings, Paniagua is now a writer for the Disney+ series The Proud Family, and she came up with the idea of a virtual coffee meet and greet between aspiring Black writers and established TV writers. She reached out to her friend Jesse B. Evans, who is the founder of Hollywood Here, which provides resources for people of color, and pitched her idea.“You don't get a lot of people often who, when you send them an idea, they're like, 'yes, when do we start?' And that's exactly what he did. I was like, oh, okay, we're doing this!”
Together, Paniagua and Evans decided to start with a week-long campaign of virtual coffees between a writer mentor and a mentee called Raise the Percentage. “Building a network is as important as the writing itself,” Paniagua said. Raise the Percentage refers to the percentage of Black writers on television shows, which according to a recent report from the Writers Guild of America, is only 16 percent. The same reports found that 65 percent of TV writers are white.
“If 65 percent of them are going to be potentially making decisions, then I want to make sure that, in their sphere of influence, black writers are included in that," Paniagua added.
The pair caught get the attention of 319 high level TV writers and executive producers to jump on board, including Pose co-creator Steven Canals, Insecure Executive Producer Amy Aniobi, Better Call Saul showrunner Peter Gold, Broad City co-creator Abbi Jacobson, Power co-creator Courtney Kemp, Dear White People showrunner Jack Moore, and Greys Anatomy and Station 19 showrunner Krista Vernoff and co-executive producer Kylie Donovan.
Nearly 2,000 emerging Black writers signed up to meet them for a virtual coffee via Zoom. “We get to kind of learn from experts about how we can get better," said Mike Forbs, one Black writer who joined the initiative. "And another thing is we get a chance to network. You may mess around and have something so good that they may go ahead and hire you.”
The first Raise the Percentage coffee week was a big success, with more than 1,200 virtual meetings taking place between writers. Many of the established writers really committed to the campaign and did multiple virtual meetings with aspiring writers.
Paniagua was blown away by the response and level of participation they got. “For me, it's important to ensure that people are getting access to the industry, because the people that are getting access to that are getting permission to tell their stories. Let's give more people permission to do that,” she said. Solving the lack of diversity by raising awareness is a step on the road to raising the percentage.
Similar programs are starting to pop up around Hollywood. CBS announced this week it is committing 25 percent of its script development budget to projects from creators who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color. They are also mandating that writer’s rooms for CBS shows be staffed with a minimum of 40 percent of people of color for the 2021-22 development season. This is part of a broad initiative for its programming to more accurately reflect diversity both on-screen and behind the camera.