“Following Your Dream Is A Luxury”: Lena Waithe’s Mentorship Program Boosts Marginalized Storytellers

The actor and filmmaker spoke with NowThis about The Hillman Grad Mentorship Lab — a free program she helped start for emerging Hollywood talent.

Actor and filmmaker Lena Waithe, who is best known for her work on "Queen & Slim," "Master Of None," and "The Chi," is helping to boost the voices of marginalized talent in Hollywood through her mentorship lab that launched this year. | Photo Credit: Shayan Asgharnia
Actor and filmmaker Lena Waithe, who is best known for her work on "Queen & Slim," "Master Of None," and "The Chi," is helping to boost the voices of marginalized talent in Hollywood through her mentorship lab that launched this year. | Photo Credit: Shayan Asgharnia

Actor and filmmaker Lena Waithe is giving underrepresented creators the resources and real-life lessons needed to excel in TV and film, an industry that has historically excluded people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.

“Following your dream is a luxury,” Waithe told NowThis. That’s one of the reasons Waithe helped launch a mentorship program for marginalized actors and filmmakers called The Hillman Grad Productions Mentorship Lab.

Waithe, who is known for her work on TV series including “Master of None,” “The Chi,” “Dear White People” and the critically acclaimed movie,“Queen & Slim,” is helping the next generation of storytellers enter into a competitive and tough creative industry that hasn’t catered to diverse groups of people in the past.

“It’s real,” Waithe said. “This really is us building a community... the climate is really changing all around them right now and so we’re just doing the best that we can to prepare them for the industry they’re walking into. And it’s not the easiest one”

This year, the mentorship program welcomed its inaugural class of 25 mentees who can each follow one of the three learning tracks: acting, writing, or executive development. Unlike other workshops and programs that Waithe said charge “top dollar” for training and guidance, the Hillman Grad Mentorship is free — which she said is an important part of their mission.

“That is another way to keep Black and brown and queer people out of the business,” Waithe said of other high-priced programs. “Because if you can’t afford a writing class, if you can’t afford to go here, then you also continue to be shut out.”

The program recently secured $100,000 in funding from ice cream brand Häagen-Dazs as part of the brand’s campaign “That’s Dazs.” The campaign will commit $1.5 million over the next three years to “uplift and support marginalized and underrepresented creators and tastemakers.” The funding will help pay the instructors along with provide resources to mentees and access to essential creative programs.

Waithe tells mentees: “Never let anybody silence you.”

As part of the program’s curriculum, Waithe said mentees will go through workshops and be given access to networking opportunities. The program’s instructors and guest speakers include writers, actors, executives,who are actively working in the business and give mentees “real-time” advice, Waithe said. As far as guest speakers go, Waithe said “they can be people of color and they can be not people of color.”

“If I could call Reese Witherspoon to come and talk to our actors, that’s just as interesting to them as me calling in a Daniel Kaluuya or Jonathan Majors or Cynthia Erivo.”

Waithe also said the program fosters “very big, philosophical conversations” between instructors and mentees, which is designed to prepare them for audiences criticizing their work or other groups trying to dismiss their stories.

“The business is designed — sometimes your audience is designed — to make it so you don’t have a voice,” Waithe continued. “A big thing I’m trying to impart on them is never let anybody silence you. Never let anybody tell you what stories you can and cannot tell. As long as you’re doing something with integrity and with a real sense of understanding why you want to tell the story.”

The film and TV industry has been heavily criticized in recent years for its lack of representation on and off camera. Award shows including the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes have historically sidelined people of color and LGBTQ+ creatives. According to a 2020 study from UCLA about diversity in Hollywood, white men held nearly all CEO and senior executive positions at 11 major and mid-major studios. The study also showed that in 2019, three out of 10 lead actors in films were people of color, and only about 1.5 out of 10 movie directors were people of color or women.

“Everybody’s path isn’t the same, and that’s okay.”

One of the most important pieces of advice Waithe said she gives is: “You have to be in love with the process.”

“I think that so many people are achievement-oriented, and I get that. That’s the society in which we live. That’s what gets applauded,” Waithe continued. “People always go, ‘look at this big thing this person did,’ but they oftentimes forget — nobody wants to read the byline of all the things they went through and had to do and got knocked down, and got back up again, just to get to that… I think it’s just frustrating that people really only celebrate finish line moments.”

She continued: “Everybody’s path isn’t the same, and that’s okay.”

Waithe said she tries to remind mentees to “enjoy this time now” as they’re rising in the creative industry and learning from the program.

“When you finally get all the things you want, that’s when things get difficult,” she said.

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