Lion Forge’s David Steward II, Big Bad Boo’s Shabnam Rezaei and Safi Ideas’ Wa’qaar Mirza took part in a frank discussion on how far the kids’ business still has to go to fully engage with diversity and inclusion at the TV Kids Summer Festival.
The in-depth conversation, moderated by TV Kids’ Chelsea Regan, saw the panelists discussing how they’ve put diverse content front and center in their own companies, and shared their perspectives on what the wider industry still needs to do to make sure that kids’ content speaks to audiences of all backgrounds and abilities.
Lion Forge has delivered content driven by diverse characters since its inception, said Steward, founder of the studio. He cited as an example the Oscar-winning Hair Love, which features a Black family and “socializes elements of Black culture to the wider audience.”
At Safi Ideas, the philosophy is led by the idea “that you can’t do diversity just for the sake of diversity,” said Mirza, co-founder and CEO. “There has to be something more around it. We have a basket of values on top of diversity,” including empathy, mindfulness, caring for the planet and creativity. One of the studio’s projects is Zayn & Zayna’s Little Farm, about a Muslim family living on a farm in England.
Rezaei, too, has put diversity front and center at her outfit, Big Bad Boo Studios—which she co-founded and serves as president of—with the company’s flagship properties, including 1001 Nights. The Big Bad Boo roster also includes 16 Hudson, on TVOKids, with four kids from different backgrounds in a typical big city. “We want to tell our stories as we see them and expose kids to normal, everyday lives and also expose those kids who don’t live in big cities to the types of cultures that exist in big cities.”
Asked how kids’ shows can help young ones cope with critical social issues at play today, Mirza noted, “Racism starts at a very early age, when kids are 3 or 4 years old, at home with family members making derogatory remarks, some intentional, some unintentional. The kids pick this up. The problem we have is there’s no counterargument to say that racism, hate, isn’t right in any form. Parents are left with no tools, kids are sponging up what they’re learning. I think broadcasters, content providers, have a moral responsibility to give kids and parents the counterargument. For me, it’s a critical role that animators play, particularly at the preschool age, to give an argument: [that] racism is pointless.”
Steward picked up on that theme, adding, “Being able to see other cultures, other family lifestyles, other environments outside of your own, is critically important. It’s not just having a character that looks a certain way. It’s really about all of the authenticity that goes with that. Understanding what it is to be in someone else’s shoes. That creates empathy. It’s understanding the nuances. Everyone has a sense of some common core values we all want. Our work needs to be centered around those ideals, looking at a global world.”
For Rezaei, “it’s about normalizing different types of families, different situations for children. TV has enormous power in bringing that into the living room. Traditionally, we’re used to seeing cis, white male heroes in most of what we watch. TV has so much power to balance and normalize a small, white boy watching a Black girl main character and identifying with her on the screen. For me, it’s really about balancing those things in society that have been out of balance historically, based on the way the people with the pen have had the power. Now we’re passing the pen onto other people and asking them to write their stories; it gives us all a chance to have a voice.”
Representation is critical, Steward noted, especially in the animation business. “We’re kind of just starting, whether that’s along racial lines, sexual identity, religion or anything else. What we’ve defaulted to in the past is a white-led show, and we’ll sprinkle in some other characters. Behind the scenes, it was white-led, white-run. They didn’t have any real authenticity points to bringing these characters in. You can tell nowadays if something is coming from a place of authenticity. That has been one of our big things. It’s a powerful experience to have a connection to what we’re watching on the screen.”
Mirza added, “Those from diverse backgrounds have incredibly rich stories to tell, whether it’s their heritage, their faith, their culture, their food, their music. On the other side, you have kids who want to engage with all those wonderful things. So you have people who want to know everything, they’re interested in the world, and you have fabulous stories. What it’s about is bringing those together and delivering. That’s where I think we’re missing the trick at the moment. We’re not showing the richness of what diversity brings to people’s lives. That’s where I think a lot of work needs to be done.”
Asked if broadcasters and platforms are doing enough to fully embrace inclusive storytelling, Mirza, who is U.K.-based, said, “There’s a lot of lip service. We’ve seen the big names say, We have $100 million here, $50 million here. You can’t even find who to contact at them. There is nothing really concrete you can say they are doing. There isn’t enough being done. It’s all very cosmetic. I’m disappointed, to be honest.”
Steward said it’s a “mixed bag” in the U.S. “There are some programs that are just lip service. There are some broadcasters picking up more diverse products now. There have been a lot of role changes and role additions to various [teams]. It will be telling to see how those people in those positions start to change things. Are they empowered? Will the paradigm change of how content is looked at or edited? What’s often happened in the past is you may have a diverse show, but it’s being run and filtered from a studio perspective to a white executive. They may or may not understand the cultural cues and start stripping out the things that make the product unique and authentic. Having these new executives in those roles, that shouldn’t occur going forward if they are empowered. And all this stuff is all new. Those hires happened six to eight months ago. I’m in a wait-and-see mode to see how it pans out.”
Rezaei noted that in Canada, “there have been a lot of funds diverted to the cause, and there are rules and regulations in place for DNI in terms of your crew, your cast, how you are setting up your company behind the scenes and in front of the camera. All of that is very methodically approached in Canada. Oftentimes in productions, they find they can’t fill those roles, given the mandates. So what needs to happen from the broadcasters’ perspective is more commitment toward training younger creatives and allowing for more seats at the table. That’s where I think there isn’t enough happening.”
Rezaei went on to note this is a generational task, and change won’t happen overnight. “No, we haven’t done enough, and we probably won’t do enough for another three or four generations because it will take time. But it has to be at the forefront of our minds every time we go into producing a show. We have to look at things with that lens. If we do that, then we will slowly change things.”
“We see diversity as a creative tool,” Mirza said. “We don’t take on diversity for the sake of it. Diversity in people behind the camera brings incredible creativity. That’s where our creative strength comes from. We value diversity as a tool for our success.”
Steward is also ensuring that opportunities are given to diverse talent at Lion Forge. “African-American participation in the animation industry is very low. We’ve been very intentional as we’ve been putting together projects, making sure we have the authenticity factor. It’s also how you empower people and bring on their ideas, and knowing when to step back from a leadership perspective and let that voice shine. The industry itself has been lacking in terms of making sure they are elevating those diverse voices. We want to give those opportunities so we can send out more Black directors, more Latinx directors and so on.”
“Change starts in your own house,” Rezaei added. “I have reflected on our own teams, our own practices internally.” Big Bad Boo started a workshop series this year for BIPOC creatives, focused on creative writing, animation and storyboarding. “Three of those participants are now working on three of my development projects in the studio. If everyone paid it forward and did just one thing that year and committed to helping one individual, or put a program in place to allow for extra seats at the table so these younger creatives can come and have experience and get a credit they can put on their resume or something they can show at their next interview, that’s very helpful. I’d like to see the bigger companies do more of that as well.”
Mirza added that it’s crucial to “define the value of diversity. If you don’t value it, both from an emotional point of view and a commercial point of view—that diverse content can make money, there’s a demand for it, that kids want it, parents it; but the broadcasters and commissioners don’t want it because they don’t want to rock the boat. Until you identify the commercial value and its emotional value, there’s no point because you’re not doing it for the right reasons.”
Rezaei pointed out that many major media companies in the U.S. still have “majority white heads of programming, content acquisition directors, managers at all levels. We need to grow from within and make sure we’re giving people the right skills. There should be more initiatives toward building the bottom, the middle and the top. It needs to be an overhaul.”