When ruminating about new age activism that seeks to challenge the status quo with verve and promises a surefire follow-up for the people, April reigns. Her crafty command of social media to highlight pertinent issues of injustice and the lack of racial diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry is helping to revolutionize the way in which social media platforms are used. Instead of waiting for permission to make her voice heard, she championed a movement with #OscarsSoWhite and continues to fight the good fight. She took a brief respite from this commitment to speak with us about the impact of her work, her social media sensibility, and those that inspire her.
"There are a lot of hashtags out there that have made a difference. I am happy to play a small role in that."
Since its inception in January 2015, what has been your personal reaction to the buzz and impact of #OscarsSoWhite over the past 2 years?
I’m gratified by the amount of support the issue has received. From January 15th (the day that I first tweeted “Oscars So White”) to the Academy Awards telecast on February 22nd less than six weeks later, the hashtag was used over 600,000 times on Twitter. That’s important because it says that people understand the issue and are concerned about the the lack of diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry. We’ve seen tangible results. For example, the Academy has committed to doubling the number of women of color and people of color in its membership by 2020. The BAFTA’s now have two specific award categories in which potential nominees must have shown a commitment to diversity. We’ve seen incremental change with studios and producers not only with casting of actors and actresses, but also with those that tell the stories behind the camera. If you would have told me five years ago that I’d be traveling internationally because of a hashtag I created on the Internet, I wouldn’t have believed it.
Recently, you’ve championed the call to get the attention of HBO to halt the production of the announced series Confederate with the hashtag #NoConfederate. Tell us about your motivation behind starting this campaign. What do hope to come from it?
The motivation for #NoConfederate is that the commodification of black pain for the enjoyment of others must stop. That’s really what this show would be. Supposedly, it’s described as an “alternate history” but it will really be slavery fan fiction. Even under its best auspices, proponents of the show say “This will teach us how bad the Confederacy was and how bad enslavement of Africans and African Americans was…” as if there haven’t been scores of films, books, and TV shows through the years that have shown this. So clearly this show is being made for white people because people of color are already quite aware. Not only do we know how bad enslavement was back then, many of us are still living under the vestiges of slavery today with respect to inequitable housing, employment opportunites, and so on. The goal is to galvanize people on social media to tell HBO that they shouldn’t waste any more time, energy, and resources on this project. There were over 125,000 tweets in the first three days of #NoConfederate. This particular idea [Confederate series] is wholly without merit but there are alternatives that we can support.
At what point did you discover social media as a tool for engendering social awareness and change?
I’ve been on Twitter since 2010. In 2014, I created the Stop The Fight campaign that was aimed at stopping the boxing match between Travyon Martin’s killer and rapper DMX. It was branded as a “celebrity boxing match” and the money was supposed to go to charity. I thought it was a bad idea for many reasons, especially because the Martin family wanted absolutely nothing to do with it or the money. #StopTheFight gained so much traction that the boxing promoter called me and we had a conversation. A couple of days later he stopped the fight and it never happened. That’s probably one of my earliest personal experiences with social media activism. But #BlackLivesMatter was probably the first time I became aware of the power of social media to galvanize individuals from around the world to make substantive change. There are a lot of hashtags out there that have made a difference. I am happy to play a small role in that.
Aside from the impact of social media, can you speak to the power and importance of all types of media in influencing and informing culture, specifically black culture?
Entertainment, in all forms really drives a narrative. All media that we consume have an effect on us in some way or another. We have to be incredibly diligent in ensuring that accurate information is broadcast, to make sure that we’re not succumbing to “fake news,” but also to ensure that we are driving the narrative. We have the ability to do that. Black Twitter is the most powerful sub-section of Twitter. College courses are literally being taught about Black Twitter. Books are being written about it. I can have a conversation with folks on my timeline about whatever the issue may be and 90 minutes later there’s an article referencing the issue or Twitter conversation. It’s important that we take responsibility for the content that’s out there and that we also hold those producing the content accountable for what they show us. As it relates to film, marginalized communities need to see themselves on screen. Not just during awards season, but all year long. If we don’t see it, we need to demand it.
You practiced law for nearly 20 years and transitioned into journalism digital media. How was that transition?
I started in digital media as an avocation because I was not feeling the ability to be creative in my nine-to-five job. I began writing for Broadway Black which is an online platform that highlights the successes and achievements of African Americans on and off the Broadway stage. I initially followed them on Twitter, became friends with the founder Andrew Shade and found out he was looking for writers. Once I started writing and seeing what was going on behind the scenes, I realized he was doing so much and I decided to step up a bit. I became managing editor which allowed me to, hopefully, make the other writers better writers. Then #OscarsSoWhite happened. I decided that I wanted to work on issues of inclusion in the entertainment industry and it took me quite a while to find my passion and step out on faith. I walked away from a very cushy, well-paying job. I needed to have that conversation with my husband because we have kids and I was going to be traveling more and making less. My husband has been incredibly supportive. The logistics part was hard but finding the thing that doesn’t make you dread Mondays is worth it. It took me until my 40’s; I suggest people find it and start working on it much earlier.
Can you talk a little about the many career options and transitioning into them in such a tech-driven world?
The wonderful thing about the world now, which was not available to me when I was in my 20’s, is that you create your own job now. When I was in high school and you wanted to be a professional of some kind it was: doctor, lawyer, or engineer. There wasn’t any Internet back then. But now you can be a digital media journalist, social media influencer, whatever. What I love about the younger generation is that they have the ability to create their own destinies in ways that I could not.
Where do you find your personal power and strength to continue to your work when challenged or presented with opposition?
I find my strength from my family. I want my kids to have a myriad of images both on-screen and on-stage in which they can identify with the characters and storylines. And that extends to my nephews and nieces and all the kids in the world. Everybody should be able to see themselves. I lean on my community on Twitter. The folks that I follow and interact with everyday—that’s my tribe. They lift me up, support me. The incremental change that I see encourages me. People say “Oh well Moonlight won ‘Best Picture’ so I guess we’re done with Oscars So White.” We’ve got years to go before this issue is irrelevant. My goal is to talk my way out of a job—to the point where there’s full inclusion in the entertainment industry, so there’s no more #OscarsSoWhite. I was at an amazing event and a woman came up to me and said, “Thank you for what you’re doing. Three of my friends are now Academy members and wouldn’t have been had it not been for #OscarsSoWhite.” It’s those little anecdotes that keep me energized.
Who are some of your past and current heroes from which you find inspiration?
My parents, first and foremost, who are thankfully still alive and able to see what I’m doing. My mother is still my biggest fan. You can find her on Facebook oversharing, saying “Look at my baby!” My parents have taught me so much and they are still teaching me. Their support has been 100% amazing. Other heroes? Malcolm X. He spoke about self-sufficiency for our people, about knowing who you are and being unapologetic in who you are. Audre Lorde is another. She taught me so much about being a woman, being a black woman and the power that I hold. I find a lot of inspiration in the millennial generation. People that I meet on Twitter and those that I’ve yet to meet that are so inspiring that make me want to do better.
What makes the work that you do worthwhile?
Seeing tangible change. It’s really not about me. It’s about making the world a more inclusive place. Being one step closer makes it all worthwhile.
What are some of the next steps for April Reign?
I am going to continue to consult with television networks and movie studios on issues about diversity and inclusion. I’m also doing quite a bit of media and marketing strategy for various organizations. I also have some concrete ideas about making it easier for studios and network to find qualified talent. “Diversity” and “inclusion” are the buzzwords right now and networks and studios claim they don’t know where to find diverse talent. That’s shortsighted and illogical. The world is more brown than it is white. I’ll also be presenting at SXSW in 2018. I’ve also been approached about writing a book. So all of that should keep me busy for the foreseeable future.