Ebony Muhammad (EM): Okay, I have about four questions but first, let me thank you for your time to do this interview. Please give a brief history of Women’s Entertainment Empowerment Network, how it was founded, the location, and the mission.
Valeisha Butterfield (VB): Sure, no problem. So basically I’ll give you the snapshot of my life and career…I’m 32 years old, and I say that to say that I’ve spent twelve years now working in the nonprofit sector and the entertainment business so, if you do the math, you’ll see that I started very early as a student at Clark Atlanta University. And, even at Clark — I came from a very small town in North Carolina and went directly from that small town, which is called Wilson, North Carolina, to Atlanta which was an entertainment hub. From a freshman in college, I knew right away that I wanted to have some sort of hybrid between the entertainment business and community service and giving back. So, every internship that I had, every job that I had in my college career, was either with a nonprofit organization that dealt with community programs or with the entertainment industry. However, I could never figure out how to combine the two.
So, after graduating from college, I moved to New York and interned, again with many entertainment companies. One day when I was working at HBO Sports, I saw Russell Simmons on CNN talking about the need for young adults, especially minority young adults, to get involved in the voting process and to become civically engaged. And then, the light bulb went off. I was like, okay, that’s the blueprint. That’s exactly what I want. He has, somehow, managed to do both, the entertainment balanced with civic engagement, community service, and giving back. So, then I reached out to Russell Simmons, who I did not know and he didn’t know me. I introduced myself by email and within 5 minutes, he offered me an unpaid internship with his organization. When I got the response from Russell, I was obviously, you know, shocked and I went in to meet with him. What I know now is that he gets thousands of emails like this a day and for him to even respond, I felt like, was a blessing. When he responded within 5 minutes, he said I could come in for a meeting, and I did. Now, I’m 25 years old at the time. I have a degree, experience on my resume, and he brought me on board as an unpaid intern, at 25. So, obviously, that was a very humbling experience and it made me really question how bad I really wanted this and how much I was willing to sacrifice. So, I did, and in New York, as you can imagine, it’s very tough to work unpaid, so it involved sleeping on a friends couch and it was very humbling. And nobody understood it at the time, especially my parents.
So, for a year almost, I work unpaid. And, after that year, I went, within a two year period, from being an unpaid intern to being the Executive Director and the head of his foundation, the nonprofit division and there I spent a little over 6 years working as the head of the Hip Hop Summit Action Network alongside Dr. Ben Chavis. Dr. Ben and I worked hand in hand together for many years and created programs that dealt with voter education, voter registration and financial literacy for minorities 18 -35 years old. So again, I did that for 6 years and back in 2007, while I was still working there the national dialogue became women and the way we are portrayed in music videos, and the way we are portrayed in the entertainment industry. And although it had been a discussion for many years, back in 2007 it really hit the fan, because Russell was on Oprah and it was a very heated debate on the show about the entertainment industry and the way women are portrayed. The whole situation happened and it went from being a controversy to the entertainment industry and at that time, the voice was so loud that I knew that I had to do my part, because I worked in the entertainment industry. I had to work from the inside out to help create change. How can I be a woman in this business and not give these young women without a voice, a voice? I just felt that responsibility, and so I went to Russell one day, this was after he had gone on Oprah, and I told him that I had a vision for creating a program at the time that would mobilize women who worked in the entertainment industry to help create more balance and the way we are portrayed and right away, he gave me the green light. He was just like “Go. Just do it, I’ll fully support it.”
We had a launch event in 2007 and everybody you could imagine who was an influence in the business came out to support and they were fully on board. Since that time, we are now a nonprofit organization and in three years, we now have registered over 43,000 members worldwide and we create programs year round and our deal with four issues: financial literacy, career workforce development, personal advancement (that’s the fun part, we talk about relationships between men and women) and health education where we talk about everything from HIV awareness to obesity. So, that’s the long and short of it.
EM: Wow. And you answered quite a few of the questions that I had and I’m glad that you went into that kind of detail in regards to the different issues because I look on the website and you see scholarships and more so the entertainment part of it and the awards but to know that you delve into obesity and other factors that affect our community, like HIV and AIDS especially amongst black women, that’s phenomenal. I really commend you for that and for having that vision and moving out on it because it’s one thing to think about it, when you hear those kinds of issues and see how we are portrayed in entertainment but it’s a whole other ballgame when you actually move out on it and you have the support that you do.
VB: Well, let me tell you. While we have the fabulous, fancy events and all that, we are in the trenches too. We had an event in New York City and it was one of our major events…..all of our events for the community free of charge to the public and we had over 3,000 girls at this one event in New York and we did free HIV testing on site. We had psychiatrists on hand, medical professionals and subject matter experts on hand and you’d be surprised at some of the results that were coming back because it was an instant test.
VB: Yea…. And I’m still getting chills just to think about it because then we realized how critical our work was because these young ladies had never had the courage, in many cases, to even get tested or to even seek information because they were never in an environment where they felt comfortable enough without being judged. It’s always important for us to never be judgmental and make sure we have a welcoming environment where the girls feel like they are among peers and not people talking down or at them so, we try to provide that environment.
EM: And I can only imagine too, with the results being instant, and immediately given to them……because, usually, it takes around a couple of weeks or something like that to give you an opportunity to get your mind set for a positive or negative……. So to have it instantly it’s good to hear that you all were prepared with psychologists and therapists there to be a buffer or cushion for that. I wanted to ask you, with that being said, what kind of opposition did you all face, with it being so controversial on Oprah or just the idea of women being portrayed as we are in entertainment? Did you have opposition from either those in entertainment or those outside of entertainment in what you were seeking to do?
VB: You know, I won’t say it’s been rosy but we have not had much opposition, and I think it’s because of our approach. We spent a lot of time planning and strategizing before we even launched, just to be sure that our approach was appropriate given the fact, of course, that we do work in the business. We wanted to make sure that we always had a collaborative approach. We’re not condemning anyone, we are collaborating and partnering with people who are either like minded or who we want to understand these issues and make a difference. So, we always took that collaborative, partnership approach, whether it be with young women or with partners or with the entertainment industry and I think that has been helpful. We always try to avoid going the ’shame’ route. We have a lot of meetings behind the scenes that you will never hear about publicly because it’s important for us to have dialogue and really get to the root of the problem like I think, sometimes issues among our community and you can define ‘our community’ however you want, but I think, sometimes dialogue should happen behind closed doors to make a real difference and make a real impact.
So, it’s important for us to have those closed door meetings where we are laying out the issues, not letting people off the hook but making sure that they know that we do want to collaborate with you and not just shame you into doing what we want you to do. Then, I think the final thing is balance. We’re not trying to change the industry overnight. We believe in freedom of expression and all of those rights. So, instead of trying to change people and change things instead we’re trying to create more balance. So, we want to create more programming that portrays women in a positive light. We are empowering young women to become the video directors and to become the choreographers and to get in those leadership roles so that they can say not only do we demand respect, but now we are in leadership positions where we can create that respect. We are trying to raise up a whole new generation of women who are in the position to create change too.
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