CAA Amplify Summit Provides Overview of DEIA in the US: ‘It’s Giving Crisis’

Thought leaders gathered at the invite-only event to explore the progress that’s been made and point to dangers ahead

Ego Nwodim, Roy Wood Jr., Mo Amer at the 2024 CAA Amplify Summit (CAA)
Ego Nwodim, Roy Wood Jr., Mo Amer at the 2024 CAA Amplify Summit (CAA)

Thought leaders gathered in Ojai this week to discuss the current state of DEIA in the U.S. at CAA’s 2024 Amplify Summit, where a mix of crisis and hopeful progress seemed to be the theme.

The summit — which was attended by A-listers like Colin Kaepernick and Storm Reid and included a fireside chat with First Lady Michelle Obama — zeroed in on key issues impacting or assisting marginalized communities today, including online misinformation/disinformation and voting rights, while assessing the overall state of diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility in the country at this point in time.

CAA’s Maha Dakhil opened up the event by greeting the diverse participants and highlighting the purpose of the summit, while also acknowledging the “crisis” many feel DEIA is in as Hollywood sheds roles dedicated to inclusivity.

“Amplify began at CAA with the idea of convening multicultural leaders and innovators to dismantle systemic racism and discrimination, including within our own organization,” Dakhil said. “And this year feels particularly crucial. I’m having déjà vu because I think I stood up here last year and said, ‘I think this year feels particularly crucial.’ But I think we can agree that this year is giving trauma, it is giving chaos, it’s giving crisis.”

Dakhil added that everyone at the event was “representing the unrepresented” as discussions got underway with a little over 100 attendees among the mountains at Ojai’s Valley Inn hotel. In four sessions and 16 events, thought leaders, C-suite-level executives, celebs and industry tastemakers came together to discuss the status of DEIA in the midst of what appears to be a war against its efforts in Hollywood, while also calling for environmental change and more awareness.

During a panel on what’s at stake for our democracy, American Civil Liberties director Anthony Romero pointed to the Dobbs v. Jackson ruling, which held that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion, as an example of how freedom in the U.S. depends on where you live.

“I’ve been a public interest lawyer for now 35 years, and I’ve worked on all sorts of cases from voting rights, marriage equality, affirmative action and reproduction. Dobbs [v. Jackson court case ruling] was kind of, ‘Oh my God, because what’s going on here?’” Romero questioned, adding that Black, Brown, AAPI and Indigenous folks are often strategically boxed out from receiving regular privileges based on their home’s location or the demographic they fit into.

He continued: “Your rights and liberties are determined by your zip code. Depending on where you live, you have fuller freedoms and than where you don’t. And part of what this is all about is about creating the base for these basic freedoms and basic rights all across the country.”

Christy Haubegger, Fatima Goss Graves and Anthony Romero at the 2024 CAA Summit (CAA)
Christy Haubegger, Fatima Goss Graves and Anthony Romero at the 2024 CAA Summit (Randy Shropshire)

Romero went on to say that he’s working with a team of people of color from different organizations who are assisting him in his preparation for a potential Trump reelection to counter new angles that could shred any other human, fundamental or civil rights.

“We’ve got to be thinking about what’s on the horizon. We’ve got to anticipate where the opportunities are, where the battles are. We are spending a lot of our time right now… We are planning on [Donald] Trump in a way that we have 13 different memos that I’m driving like a train, an excel spreadsheet I’ve got in my office with all the different threats, with red, yellow, green…and I’m just like, ‘We are going to get this ready because we’re not going to wait until November to figure it out.’”

Human Rights Campaign president Kelley Robinson followed up that panel by addressing the state of LGBTQIA+ rights.

“Everyone in this room is talking about not only how we can restore democracy, but how we can reimagine it in the way that looks like us. That for once, ensures that America’s promise lives up to people who look and love like we do. That is incredible progress to make. So to me, you can’t tell me that progress isn’t happening. You can’t tell me that change isn’t possible because we are living proof of it,” Robinson said, adding that LGBTQIA+ people have been at the center of progress throughout the history of the United States.

Kelley Robinson at the 2024 CAA Summit (CAA)
Kelley Robinson at the 2024 CAA Summit (CAA)

“Look, there would not be a Pride Month celebration if it weren’t for Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. There would not be a Civil Rights movement without Bayard Rustin. There would not be no ‘Fast Car’ without Tracy Chapman, y’all. And we certainly would not have these boots or Beyoncé’s “Renaissance” without Kevin Aviance or Uncle Johnny. We have been always part of the story, an integral part.”

But Robinson also cautioned that LGBTQIA+ rights are in grave danger.

“But what I’m also very clear about now right now is that all of this progress that we’ve fought for and more, it is at risk. Like they said in the last panel, they’re not just coming for the progress made in the last 10 years or 20 years or 50 years, they’re coming for the progress of the last 400,” she said. “Last year, the Human Rights Campaign declared a national state of emergency for LGBTQIA+ people, the first time we’ve ever done that in our history.”

Another danger impeding progress is misinformation, and Center for Countering Digital Hate CEO and founder Imran Ahmed pointed out the ways in which on and offline misinformation and disinformation disproportionally impacts people of color — specifically how anti-vaxxers targeted Black people during the pandemic.

“Telling them that African blood is different to white blood and so therefore don’t give vaccines to Black boys because it will damage them more than white boys, which is appalling given that African American communities have a disproportionate brunt of the harm that was being done by the pandemic,” Ahmed said before talking about election disinformation.

“You’ve got elections where you’ve got specific disinformation targeting in Spanish language to Hispanic voters, telling them that they shouldn’t go to the elections on a specific day. We’ve been testing AI platforms and found that they will generate convincing audio of Trump or Biden or politicians around the world telling people not to go to the polls that day, and that’s being targeted specifically in minority communities.”

Cindy Uh, Erinn Haines, Imran Ahmed and Laura Coates at the 2024 CAA Amplify Summit (CAA)
Cindy Uh, Erinn Haines, Imran Ahmed and Laura Coates at the 2024 CAA Amplify Summit (Randy Shropshire)

On a brighter note, TikTok phenomenon Tareasa “Reesa Teesa” Johnson — who CAA signed after she released her 50-part TikTok series “Who TF Did I Marry? — shared a speech about the importance of finding community in the places least expected. The influencer opened up about how negative comments about her online story eventually turned into people supporting and uplifting her.

“I learned that my community is not the people who I see every single day. My community is actually made up of all shapes, colors, genders, ethnicities,” Teesa said, referring to the millions of followers and fans she acquired from her TikTok video over the span of just three weeks. “I have learned that the people who will ride with you and the people who support you and the people who will stand by you may not even be people you’ve ever met, but they identify with your story.”

Teesa said she’s grateful to “pay it forward” by continuing to share her stories, saying, “You never know who you’re helping.”

Tareasa "Reesa Teesa" Johnson at the 2024 CAA Amplify Summit (CAA)
Tareasa “Reesa Teesa” Johnson at the 2024 CAA Amplify Summit (Randy Shropshire)

There’s also progress being made inside the industry as Lionsgate announced Story Spark, “a new tool for creatives to help them spark discussions about the inclusivity of their work,” the company said in a statement announcing the tool that asks simple, multiple-choice questions about a project’s characters—their diversity and intersectionality, the role they play in the story, and the way they play into or subvert tropes and stereotypes. It’s not AI or a greenlight tool, but instead is meant to get a conversation going.

“Story Spark is a simple, friendly, easy-to-use partner in content development that feels more like a Buzzfeed quiz than a checklist,” Kamala Avila-Salmon, head of Inclusive Content for Lionsgate’s Motion Picture Group, said. “It’s a tool to start discussion, a dialogue prompt and a step in the right direction for constructive collaboration.”

Developed by Lionsgate, the tool has been tested internally and externally on over 300 projects and aims to put inclusivity in the creative’s hands.

Other highlights included a conversation between former First Lady Michelle Obama and multiple award-winning actress and producer Regina King. During their chat, Obama touched on how television and cinema can help promote the country-wide discussions about issues that matter.

“What’s the format that people come together and learn? It’s movies, it’s short films, it’s stories,” Obama said.This is where America is and you’ve got to meet people where they are. If Hollywood is where they are, as Barack and I think, well then how can we be a part of changing this, helping to be a part of this landscape and broadening the types of stories that get told.”

Regina King and Michelle Obama at the CAA Amplify Summit (CAA)
Regina King and Michelle Obama at the CAA Amplify Summit (Randy Shropshire)

Finally, “Saturday Night Live” star Ego Nwodim, former “The Daily Show” correspondent Roy Wood Jr. and “Mo” star and comedian Mo Amer closed the event out with a panel on how comedians are navigating telling jokes in a more politically sensitive world. CAA’s Erica Lancaster moderated the conversation.

“I’m still wrapping my head around the job that I have now, and this audience that I am performing for that I don’t necessarily feel always connected to, so I think viewers of the show that I’m on tend to be … I mean, it’s a spectrum of people,” Nwodim said of her time on “SNL.”

“There are conservative people, there are very liberal people watching the show. Everything I try to do, I try to write from my perspective and know that someone in our audience is going to enjoy it,” she continued. “And anytime you’re doing comedy, in my opinion, you’re also going to piss somebody off. But you’re trying to make your people laugh, and that’s certainly what really matters.

Chiming in, Wood said that most good comedy will prompt a conversation the world should be having.

“Because the line keeps moving, and the line continue to move as we evolve as a culture. I know where my heart lies. I think the issue we have now as a populace is that we assumed intent with mistake,” Wood said. “I think that intent matters. If I wasn’t trying to make you feel a particular way, then that has to count for something. But I think if you’re always thinking about how something’s going to be taken, you’re never going to live at the line, which is where I think most meaningful and change-making comedy making comedy exists. You have to challenge people to think a different way about something. It’s always going to be something that evolves.”

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