Gratitude will change your life. The entertainment industry is not easy. A lot of people compare their success and their self-worth based on the success of their friends or peers. That is not good for your mental health, and it can prevent you from focusing on your own path. When you focus on what you have and the achievements you have made it puts you in a positive mental space to continue working towards your goals in a positive light.
As a part of our series about Inspirational Women In Hollywood, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Nzinga Blake.
Nzinga is an Emmy Award winning Executive Producer at the intersection of entertainment, social impact, and cause marketing with a specialty in capturing multicultural & underrepresented voices. As the daughter of a Sierra Leonean former UN official, cabinet minister, and international scholar, she spent a majority of her childhood in Japan, Kenya, and the US. Nzinga attended the University of California Los Angeles, where she graduated with highest honors from the prestigious school of Film, Television and Digital Media.
Nzinga is an award-winning talent, producer/ storyteller with over 10 years of experience creating content on multimedia platforms. Her unique professional experience stems from years of working with several production companies, networks, global organizations and social impact companies including: Tribune Media, ABC, CW, Cartoon Network, Current TV, Showtime, BET, CBS Affiliate Network 10 in Australia, TV Guide, For Good Entertainment, Causecast, Emergency USA, the United Nations International Labour Organization and Tribune Media.
After graduating from UCLA, Nzinga became one of the first live humans to be seen on Cartoon Network, where she co-hosted the popular show “Fridays.” She would go onto becoming a host, writer, producer and voice-over talent on Al Gore’s former Emmy award-winning network Current TV. She also worked as a correspondent for BET, TV Guide and the Australian primetime talk show “The 7pm Project,” on Network 10. In 2012 Nzinga hosted a show entitled “Culture Click” on ABC, which won the 2012 Telly Award for Outstanding Cultural Television Program.
Because of Nzinga’s international background, she has a unique ability to create storylines and content that appeal to a diverse, global audience. She has built her brand around inspiring social change through entertainment and the arts. During the Ebola pandemic Nzinga wrote, directed and produced a PSA entitled “End Ebola Now,” which is a campaign she founded. The PSA was distributed virally and now airs on a new satellite television channel, in West Africa. The team also launched the viral campaign #ShakeEbolaOff, which received recognition and featured in Forbes Magazine, Entertainment Tonight, The Telegraph, RYOT, Voice of America and many more domestic and international news outlets, reaching 1.5 billion media impressions worldwide and about $1 million in earned media. Nzinga then co-directed and produced the United Nations ILO World AIDS Day PSA, featuring four time Olympic Gold Medalist Greg Louganis.
Thank you so much for doing this interview with us Nzinga! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?
I was born in Maryland but spent most of my childhood living overseas in Tokyo, Japan and Nairobi, Kenya. I attended international schools while living abroad, which is probably why I am so passionate about multicultural storytelling.
When I came back to the United States, we moved to a town called Munster, Indiana, which was a culture shock for me. I was the only black student in my class, and I had some racist encounters. Because of this, I paid more attention to the media as I noticed that the kids in my class had very stereotypical views of black people. What saddened me most about television was that it was so segregated: we had predominantly white shows and a few predominantly black shows. None of those shows reflected my reality. Living overseas, we were surrounded by people from different countries, cultures and religious backgrounds, which our international schools made sure we embraced and celebrated. That wasn’t the case in the United States. As I watched television, I made a promise to myself that I would pursue a career as a storyteller in the medium of film and television, so I could create projects that would reflect my experience.
I studied at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Film, Television and Digital Media, where I specialized in scripted and unscripted television production. Living in LA there are so many opportunities and one of those landed me the opportunity as a co-host on “Fridays,” a show on Cartoon Network. I guess you could say that was my entry point into “the business.”
After my stint at Cartoon Network, I got a job as a host, writer and producer at Current TV, a channel co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore. It was that experience that further solidified my passion to pursue a career as a social impact storyteller.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?
An interesting event that happened during my career was when I had to cover what was then called the “Annual Redneck Games,” I’m not sure if that’s still their title. My colleagues and senior leadership at Current TV were nervous that I volunteered to cover the event — due to the preconceived notion that the community may not be so welcoming of a Black woman. But I told them that was the problem with America — we are so quick to judge people that we are not familiar with. I met with group leading the Redneck Games in East Dublin, Georgia and it was a profound learning experience. They were happy that I stepped outside of my world to learn more about them. Being open to taking this trip was confirmation of how important exposure and the willingness to learn about other communities can bring about a level of understanding and change. This took place in the early 2000s, I’m not sure how things are now.
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
Ady Barkan is one of THE most interesting and inspirational people I have interacted with. He is a lawyer and an activist, who has been fighting for the rights of historically underrepresented and marginalized communities in the United States. He was diagnosed with ALS in 2016 and has been working to raise more awareness about the bill to expand Medicaid home and community-based services which will help disabled people receive affordable home care and community services which will improve their quality of life.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
The people in history who inspire me the most are women in history who represent tenacity and the resolve to fight for what is right.
· Queen Nzinga — She was a warrior Queen of Ndongo, which is now present-day Angola. She fought against the Portuguese slave traders to keep her people free from the slave trade. She was known for her intelligence and strength, because she took over the Angolan army. I was named after her so I do my best to channel that spirit of tenacity, fierceness and strength on a daily basis to do what’s right for humanity.
· Maya Angelou — One of the most prolific and inspirational laureates of our time, who stopped speaking at the age of 8 and became mute for almost 5 years. She became one of the most vocal people who called for change and social justice through her incredible gift as a storyteller.
· Diane Warren — One of the most prolific songwriters in history and the most successful female-owned and operated business in the music industry. I have had the pleasure of working with Diane on social impact campaigns for over seven years and what inspires me about her is her tenacity. We are currently developing a project with her that I cannot talk about now, but I look forward to further shining a light on her brilliance and strength!
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?
Winning an Emmy for producing stories that uplift historically underrepresented communities has been life changing. I continue to do this work in my current role as a Race and Culture Executive Producer for ABC Owned Television Stations. I am so honored to be in a position where we can amplify the voices of historically underrepresented and marginalized communities that are often overlooked and ignored by mainstream media. This is what we have done with a new initiative that we just launched entitled “The Storytellers Spotlight,” a conversation series that features the work of underrepresented diverse storytellers in television, film, theater, and music through our entertainment brand, “On the Red Carpet.” We kicked off the series in collaboration with the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF) and its co-founder Academy ️Award-nominated actor Edward James Olmos. This premiere series is called, “On the Red Carpet Presents Latino Storytellers Spotlight on LALIFF,” which shares the backstory of diverse storytellers, what inspires them, issues they face in the entertainment industry, social issues they are passionate about, and spotlights their film projects.
What makes this extra special is that I was able to work with my friend Rafael Augustín, who is the CEO of LALIFF. We both attended UCLA’s school of Theater, Film, Television and Digital Media. It was wonderful to connect with him on this project to amplify the voices of the Latino community and their brilliance in filmmaking.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and take action for this cause? What was that final trigger?
The Aha Moment for me came during a painful time when I was going through a divorce, becoming a single parent, and trying to convince decision makers that I was a producer, writer and director. I knew my true passion was storytelling in efforts to raise awareness about critical issues around the world and encouraging people to act. Figuring out how to do this was a challenge. During this time, the Ebola crisis hit West Africa really hard. I was heartbroken by the number of deaths partially due to egregious misinformation. I wrote, directed, and produced a PSA (Public Service Announcement) campaign “End Ebola Now,” with Sierra Leoneans in the entertainment industry. The PSA aired on a satellite television channel SES Networks in West Africa. I also created and launched a viral challenge entitled #ShakeEbolaOff with celebrities including Kevin Bacon, Naturi Naughton, Edi Gathegi, Sam Underwood, Gavin Houston and much more; in efforts to raise awareness and funds for the only fully functioning hospital in Sierra Leone at the time. The campaign raised money for the hospital, received a great amount of domestic and international press and was featured in Forbes Magazine, Entertainment Tonight, The Telegraph, RYOT, Voice of America, which generated at least 1.5 billion media impressions worldwide. The campaign was an enormous success.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Recently, I executive produced, an eight-episode short documentary series called “Who I’m Meant to be” for ABC Owned Television Stations. The documentary was dedicated to amplifying the voices of transgender communities across America. Individuals featured in the documentaries reached out to me to let me know that having them tell their stories in first person narrative changed their lives and gave them a voice.
Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?
· We want all communities in our markets of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, Raliegh-Durham, Fresno to watch “On the Red Carpet Presents Latino Storytellers Spotlight on LALIFF.,” and also the documentaries and news specials that we’ve been producing that focus on diverse cultures. You can find the Our America series streaming on Hulu!
· I think we can only ask that everyone remembers to listen to understand and learn how to be more empathetic and inclusive of others.
· Don’t be afraid to engage in healthy and respectful conversations about topics and or communities that you have not been exposed to learn more about their experience.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Don’t let fear stop you from sharing your talent with executives who are interested in reviewing your work.
2. Put yourself out there — I always tell aspiring storytellers to use their social media as their channels. With YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and Facebook, there is no reason for you not to create and build a following. Use those platforms to represent what you stand for as a storyteller. More importantly, stay informed, read and care about other people’s plight — especially if you are in the position and have the platform to make a difference.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. To me it’s a sign of strength and leadership because leaders have to learn when to delegate.
4. Don’t resist change. Embrace it. When you are going through hard times that bring about changes to the course of your career that you didn’t anticipate, try asking yourself “what can I learn from this situation?” My dream was to pursue a path in scripted television, and I resisted every other opportunity that came my way. My path kept leading me to news and when I finally embraced it, that was the path that led me to win my first Emmy.
5. Gratitude will change your life. The entertainment industry is not easy. A lot of people compare their success and their self-worth based on the success of their friends or peers. That is not good for your mental health, and it can prevent you from focusing on your own path. When you focus on what you have and the achievements you have made it puts you in a positive mental space to continue working towards your goals in a positive light.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Working to ensure that everyone can live a just, equitable, dignified life will only improve the quality of life for all groups of people, every living creature and environment on this planet.
We are very blessed that many other Social Impact Heroes read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would like to collaborate with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
I would LOVE to work on a project with Michelle Obama. Why? Well, because she is MICHELLE OBAMA!! I love everything she stands for. She is intelligent, beautiful, and graceful.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love sharing one of my favorite quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson, which I believe is a wonderful life lesson — “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” When it comes to the world of impact storytelling there is no set rule or path. We all have to be innovative in this space and that’s the beauty of the work because that path we create comes from our passion for uplifting humanity.
How can our readers follow you online?
Please feel free to follow me @nzingablake on Instagram and Twitter!
Thank you Nzinga for these fantastic insights
Thanks so much for taking the time to get to know me!