…Like any systemic problem, EVENTUALLY it will metastasize and take folks down. The goal, therefore, is to properly understand how to first recognize and adroitly deal with systemic issues. We (unfortunately) must realize Americans have little to no collective wisdom; they simply are not hip to concepts like “cause & effect.” (Just look at Covid!) This is not a criticism of us intellectually. Rather, we are dealing with the inevitable ramifications of an overly arrogant and ignorant culture, instilled and perpetuated by a system designed and jump started by men (and women, too) who originally came here and instantly annihilated the indigenous peoples and then had little to no compunction about buying human beings and forcing them into slavery to achieve their economic goals. This is not news to anyone. It is woven like a virus into the country’s DNA and thus it is vital to recognize as a variable in the equation at hand.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Paul Alan Smith.
Paul Alan Smith is longtime veteran of the entertainment industry, most recently founder of New Deal Mfg. Co, an innovative talent agency which specializes in the representation of directors for film/TV/streaming. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he is also well-known for his extensive activism with much of his professional work informed by the social and political activism he witnessed as a child of the 60s and 70s. The remarkable, timely book PEN PAL: Prison Letters From A Free Spirit on Slow Death Row, a stunning collection of letters from prison activist Tiyo Attallah Salah-El to his close friend Paul Alan Smith, is available at https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/pen-pal/
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
First of all, I sincerely appreciate the assumption that I’ve, indeed, “grown up!” That aside, I was very, very lucky to be raised in a mixed cultural environment: on the one hand, I lived in a VERY safe suburb in the East Bay (Moraga, CA), so I had a paper route (accompanied by a devoted doggy), two parents who were passionate for one another, an older bro & sis to be influenced by, forts to make-out with girls in as a pre-pubescent, buddies to smoke grass with as a young teen, schools to safely walk to, local businesses to score part-time gigs with . . . and it was the 60’s — 70’s; and just over the hill (literally!) were Oakland and Berkeley. I was politicized pretty early on, so I was able to get hip to not just the Panthers and anti-war movement, but also to how ridiculously lucky I was to have what we now refer to as “privilege.”
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One great book can be a significant precursor to another great book, so I am reluctant to state one title. For example, Uris’ Exodus at one time had a PROFOUND impact. However, had I NOT read Exodus prior to Said’s Orientalism, I’d never have developed the necessary cognitive and psychological requisites that substantiate my current ideology and philosophy. (Please don’t ever make me read that last sentence aloud!) Thus, once I discovered how we ALL grew up with myopic religious narratives and/or jingoistic nationalist flags and/or plutocratic justifications for whatever economic theory our inherited government propagandized, it led me to Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, and from there Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. My point is, if I chose only ONE book, it may suggest a disproportionate bias. Hopefully, you get my point. But, for those who don’t, I’ll respectfully answer your question: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There, I said it; and y’know, I don’t really feel as wimpy as I thought I was.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Circa 1986, I was a secretary for one of the partners at a big talent agency. I’d get to the office around 7am, because I had to locate obscure 16 mm films for Bruce Willis per his “Moonlighting” producer’s request. I could concurrently speak with NY based clients, who had already begun their day. Harry Belafonte was one such client. At that point in time, Harry was working with Mandela, so imagine how fortunate I was to periodically divert the subject from some innocuous show-biz concern to the ANC or the recording of “We Are the World.” Harry patiently indulged me. Frankly, Harry tolerated me because I joked around, and often at HIS expense. (For the record, we still riff with each other 35 years later!) One day Harry said something that never left my frontal lobe: “You must NEVER separate your morals from the workplace.”
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Yeah, well, “leadership” is ideally defined by how each individual ACTUALLY & LITERALLY conducts oneself. “Leadership” must CONSTANTLY be applied whenever and wherever possible.
My mind gravitates to the heroes of the Selma March in ’65, as well as the heroes of the Haymarket Affair in ’86 (1886!); So ofter we attribute collective actions to the leadership of one, but that shouldn’t negate the leadership displayed by the participants themselves. This individual character and sacrifice it took each and every one of those marchers and protesters must NEVER be ignored. These examples can (and should) be applied to the heroics of countless everyday leaders most of us have never heard of, individuals all.
We are witnessing this right now with BLM, as well as from the many athletes who have proven their leadership in record numbers. I am inspired by them all!
Illustrating further, I’m gonna shift to my own life and there is ZERO false modesty when I write that I am truly reluctant to do so. Words are so easily misconstrued. I never feel I live up to the level of leadership for which I’m capable. Nevertheless, I relentlessly strive to be a leader (as defined here) by CONSTANTLY doing that which I can, whenever I can, for whomever I can. My hope is that said “leadership” is witnessed by friends, family, co-workers and the community at large, so that they are empowered in their own form of leadership, spreading our collective leadership organically.
-In the mid-80’s, whilst a young agent, I saw how much paper was being wasted at the firm. I researched recycling programs and discovered none ever even existed in Hollywood. Ultimately, we not only implemented one, but were paid for our trashed paper!
-In the early 90’s, as a Vice President at Warner Bros, I saw how (and why) there was minimal diversity, so I began reaching out to various communities, offering my assistance and accessibility. For the record, there was blow-back. So much so, it culminated with my leaving the country for Africa and India in a kind of self-exile as it became clear that profiteering trumped social responsibility.
-In the late 90’s and early aughts, I began throwing Speaker Soirees, as it was obvious the Hollywood community was quite limited in its understanding of the cultural, religious and historical perspectives of many of the socio-political issues of the day — issues that often impacted the very people whom we produced shows for. Speakers of intellectual notoriety explained circumstances with experience and nuance in a non-threatening, congenial environment. (Basically, that means there was always plenty of food and booze within reach.)
– In the late aughts, I created ‘The Weekly Revolution’ at a big agency I worked for. I would pay any employee, be they owners or assistants, 50 dollars the first week, 40 dollars the 2nd week, 30 dollars the 3rd week, and 20 dollars every week thereafter if they rode their bike to work, walked, or took public transportation on Friday. The objective was to prove rectifying Climate Disruption was about behavioral modification first (good leadership!) and then creating collective, communal actions for non-participants to witness and eventually be shamed into participating. (This was actually done with smoking in public.) It was also an illustration of how monies can be properly utilized to help jump start new and healthier habits for citizens. (A shout out to the leaders at ICM Partners for allowing me to do this.)
-In 2013, I went a step farther and created the first for-profit company in Hollywood that was designed to prioritize both Mother Nature and Democracy’s requisites. It was essential for folks to witness first-hand how to palatably and pragmatically transition out of the crass capitalist instincts we ALL blindly contribute, which in turn contributes to the demise of the planet’s health. There was not a decision made that didn’t prioritize things accordingly. And, yeah, we are still around today!
-Between 2018–2020, I took the 568 letters I received from my incarcerated good buddy/Pen Pal, whilst he was on Slow Death Row, and created a book from 92 of them in order to uniquely expose the immoral penitentiary system that thrives in America, as well as to illustrate how one man can have such a profound impact on many, many lives from his 5 X 8 “cage.” (Shameless infomercial: https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/pen-pal/)
Again, I share these examples of what the leader within ALL of us CAN do. If I can do this, ANYONE can! What’s more, I have NO idea what, if any, impact these varied projects ultimately had or have. Frankly, I would say not much, especially given where we find ourselves today. Fortunately, however, Howard Zinn would drive into my pea-brain time and time again, “Pablo, you possibly won’t ever see the fruits of your labor; but that is not the point. We must lay down the seeds, with the faith that after we’ve moved on, they will blossom.” Well, it went something like that; my guess is he said it far better. Whatever, you get my point.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
I’m gonna answer this, but the technique may appear a tad whack, so beware! It comes down to this: stress is there to remind you that preparation and discipline are the keys to your success. So while yoga is always a wonderful addition, you still MUST practice, practice, practice!
Step 1: Write down and memorize just the key points of the objective at hand.
Step 2: Whilst in the shower (you were warned!) begin improvising OUT LOUD the speech/presentation. Yes, I find the sound of the water helps hide the embarrassment of the rehearsal, cause you will certainly sound lame, ridiculous and like the utter failure you presently are. Tough luck. Keep practicing out loud. Oh, and make sure the water pressure is turned low, so you don’t waste TOO much water.
Step 3: Record the audio version of your speech/presentation. Listen to what feels right and what doesn’t.
Step 4: Begin writing out your speech/presentation.
Step 5: Film and record yourself delivering your speech on your computer. This, too, is utterly painful, to the point of causing profound and permanent psychological issues. But, if you wanna crush it, you gotta do it. Sorry.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
“Briefly??” Whomever has gotten this far in the article is saying to themselves, “Even Castro could be briefer than this guy!”
Like any systemic problem, EVENTUALLY it will metastasize and take folks down. The goal, therefore, is to properly understand how to first recognize and adroitly deal with systemic issues. We (unfortunately) must realize Americans have little to no collective wisdom; they simply are not hip to concepts like “cause & effect.” (Just look at Covid!) This is not a criticism of us intellectually. Rather, we are dealing with the inevitable ramifications of an overly arrogant and ignorant culture, instilled and perpetuated by a system designed and jump started by men (and women, too) who originally came here and instantly annihilated the indigenous peoples and then had little to no compunction about buying human beings and forcing them into slavery to achieve their economic goals. This is not news to anyone. It is woven like a virus into the country’s DNA and thus it is vital to recognize as a variable in the equation at hand.
We have had many great leaders who speak of systemic problems elegantly, so much so they seem clairvoyant in retrospect, but there has been alarmingly little collective takeaway. Judge Brandeis warned of the negative ramifications of making corporations“persons.” Martin Luther King did this with Capitalism and the Military with his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, among countless other speeches, of course. Vandana Shiva does this with biodiversity. Noam Chomsky points them out with more precision than a super computer. Ralph Nader does this. NASA scientists did this early on about the ozone. Hell, even Dwight Eisenhower went there! The list goes on and on. What’s my point? Well, after they have been proven correct, do you see new versions of these types of brains celebrated on newscasts? Not a chance. In fact, time and again, they are called treasonous, anti-American, Communists, blah blah blah. Most of our information has been, and continues to be, commodified; I venture to posit 99% of the info we are exposed to is distributed by For-Profit Enterprises, all of whom have a FIDUCIARY responsibility to their shareholders to make max profit, regardless of social or environmental ramifications. Combine this with the nefarious symbiosis between Washington, financial institutions and our military . . . Consequently, it seems obvious the concept of respecting and responding to systemic issues is institutionally/culturally/economically discouraged. Hmmmmmm. Again, you probably know this already, but stay with me. Remember, we gotta dissect the problem piece by piece, agreeing what indisputably contributes to the rectification of actual systemic problems.
Next, once we get past this road block, accepting the fact that we will not make long lasting, institutional change until we come to terms with our own complex (often unrealized) complicity with the very systemic issues we have unearthed becomes our next step. That. Ain’t. Easy! America must first come to terms with its past. Not easy, but imperative. Then America must look at its present with this in mind. Not easy, but imperative. And thennnnnnn, we must concurrently repay our brothers and sisters for this awful trajectory, as we responsibly redefine and contribute to a new & improved culture that acknowledges and morally responds to dire systemic problems. Oh, and in case you forgot: Not easy, but imperative! BUT ABSOLUTELY DOABLE!
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
Well, as a reminder, I’ve been working in showbiz since ’84. Throughout that time, especially in the early years, I concluded it was on me to step up on these issues. Back then, if a woman, person of color or the like said anything pertaining to either overt or covert institutional racism and/or sexism to their boss, they’d be immediately considered “uppity,” “having an agenda,” or “not a team player.” This is an absolute and important fact. As a result, the level of self-censorship amongst most employees was off-the-charts, and not just for the few minorities and women who were invited to the head of the table; all white guys weren’t oblivious to the issue at hand, but they shut their mouths for the same reasons. Even gay men had to be in the closet. Nevertheless, as a straight white male Jew (sidebar: at this point in time, the zeitgeist within Hollywood was still entrenched in what you can learn about in Neal Gabler’s amazing book An Empire of Their Own — How the Jews Invented Hollywood. Please interpret my use of “Jew” here in this appropriate context. In other words, back then, the Hollywood culture was MY turf; nobody could ever accuse ME of having an agenda, other than simply trying to be MY version of a righteous Jew.) I had a moral obligation to speak out on other’s behalf. I realize this can be misunderstood by today’s standards as yet another white guy thinking only HE can speak for the others. Well, I respect that point, but the ramifications for employees back then were imbalanced and unfair, and I was simply cocky enough, privileged enough, to dare them to come after me. This has NOT benefited my career, quite the opposite, but it obviously has NOT had the dire consequences I argue others would have had. This is what I learned from Belafonte, and what my childhood in the 60’s & 70’s prepped me for; there were MANY before me who risked wayyyyyy more than I did; they empower me to this day. So there are NO misunderstandings, I similarly believe today that I have a moral obligation to speak in favor of Palestinian rights, and I don’t think that suggests “they” can’t speak for themselves. I think you all can do the math here.
As I indicated previously, in order to bring in new voices to the studio system, I reached out to amazing local talent, like José Luis Valenzuela, Josefina López and Culture Clash, all of whom were doing fantastic theatre for LATC. Similarly, after reading “Reel Bad Arabs,” I tracked down and befriended the extraordinary author Jack Shaheen — may he rest in peace — who opened my eyes to the dearth of Arab-American voices, let alone the vilification of most Middle Easterners. I tried to be as accessible as possible to ALL communities. However, and this is important to keep in mind, my objective was only partially rooted in the context of “affirmative action.” What REALLY drove me was how I felt these wickedly talented Americans could provide great stories, intoxicating TV series for the country. I simply felt their perspectives were integral to TV (the most powerful communication system ever invented) as a reflection of the true fabric of our country, in the spirit of plurality and Democracy. I have a degree in Theatre, so I am relatively experienced with how great playwrights illuminate us; I simply was hoping to replicate that with TV series. It was mystifying why the studios and networks had NOT AN OUNCE of interest in exploring so many untapped universes.
When I began rebuilding my agenting career in the mid-90s, I represented a far higher percentage of women, particularly women of color that all the others — probably twice the number of my closest competition. Important to know, this has NOTHING to do with their gender or racial identification. It was 100% predicated on my openness to good directors from ALL backgrounds. End of story.
Let’s jump-cut to the present. I am blown away by our growing diversity. It exceeds my wildest expectations. Nevertheless, I still remain circumspect and a tad cynical. (Yup, I’m still Jewish!!!) These days, while we have extraordinary new voices and important new stories coming our way, is it fair to assume these talented and diverse artists will naturally, organically reflect upon the systemic issues of the day, and particularly how these same issues contributed to their own brutal history? Or will they do what Hollywood tends to do with uncomfortable subjects: give the impression that America has moved on and learned from its sordid history. Let’s start with the proposition that we are all human beings, and therefore vulnerable to same challenges that power and wealth bring. Will these new voices bite the hand that feeds them, or will we simply have a greater diversity of Hollywood boneheads in our future? Once again, when the extraordinary Martin Luther King gave his “Beyond Vietnam” speech, things didn’t exactly go his way; he was ostracized and demonized by many, including a sizable portion of Black people. But Dr. King stood firm in his morality. Similarly, when the ’96 Telecommunications Act was being shoved down the throats of Americans by the “liberal” Mr. Clinton, how did the most powerful “progressives” in Hollywood react to this blatant anti-Democracy legislation? Here’s a hint: crickets. Hopefully, as this new era of diversity gains power, the new players will forever follow the lead of MLK and fight back against the egregious, blatantly pro-corporate legislation that supports systemic concepts that contribute to racism, sexism, classism, let alone the destruction of our planet.
Probably not the answer you were expecting. Now you know why my longest relationship was with a cat.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
I am gonna come across as contrarian and insensitive, but I promise you that is NOT the case. I just wanna give alternative perspectives, alternative reflections, cause I sincerely want a fairer planet!
I’ve mentioned self-censorship, and it is a VERY important concept to integrate into the reality of how companies are run. You can have all the diversity in the world, but if the company’s culture turns everyone into crass capitalists, I reserve the right to judge everyone’s actions with the same moral compass.
As such, if a company allows and encourages our First Amendment rights to exist (remember, they do NOT on “private, company property”), then it is FANTASTIC, especially if those diverse employees are encouraged to contribute to the rectification of longstanding racism, sexism and all those other rotten “isms!” Additionally, if the company is willing to sacrifice profit margins in exchange for a more equitable community, that is also FANTASTIC! If those on the top floor of the building are going to do what we did when we built our company, commit to nobody ever earning more than nine (9) times the lowest paid employee (I think we never earned more than three times since opening in ’13), then we are well on the way to learning from a righteous diverse team.
It’s a good start for diversity; it’s a better thing to have diversity and then to encourage those employees to integrate their social observations with the objective of making a profit for the firm, healing systemic problems all the while. And not JUST in the workplace. This needs to be applied in all relative dynamics. The two, ideally, must go hand in hand. And not just in the workplace.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
Frankly, this is why I built my own company — to begin to show how the economics and institutionalization of this transition could look. I wanted it to be a petri dish, of sorts. Yet, this is only half of it. The other half is my being able to learn from (to use the modern vernacular) #metoo and #BLM. This is not the place to get into detail about my shortcomings (although I think there is more than enough evidence for your readers here), but to give proper credence to my recent schooling from primary resources has ranged from eye-opening to downright crippling!
So here are my 5 Steps:
1) Be morally consistent.
2) Learn to take a punch, including a sucker punch.
3) Have access to righteous, dependable compadres who lift you up when you are down.
4) Use humor to ruthlessly handle bullies.
5) Keep vulnerable and humble, so you can always evolve.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Well, optimistic for whom? The environment has been going through rough times. The Iraqis, since we brought them “Democracy,” have been going through some super rough times. Poor people have been going through rough times for like EVER! Kashmiris, Palestinians, Tibetans, Black Americans, females, brown American immigrants . . . just to name a few.
Can all this be resolved, you ask? Yup, totally. Will it be resolved? Let’s first go back to what a real leader is. Let’s go back to reflecting on what systemic problems being constructively dealt with looks like. What is the subset of these issues? Again, Covid provides an incredible mirror. Do you feel like there has been collective sacrifice? Well, without that, no, things won’t change. Is collective sacrifice obtainable? You bet! Waiting for your government to have admiral, reliable, courageous leadership ain’t ever gonna happen! It starts with each of us FIRST manifesting it, unabashedly, in front of our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers. It’s the least we can do to show respect for the myriad of leaders who have chipped in as heroically as they have.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
His Holiness the Dali Lama. And from what I hear, he ONLY digs Tik Tok Mashups, so good luck taggin’!
How can our readers follow you online?
“Luddites R Us” have a site? Honestly, I’m not on social media; hell, I’m not even on anti-social media!