BE THE CHANGE. If you are in a position of power, encourage or promote those who will amplify minorities’ voices straight from their perspective, and if you can’t fathom yourself doing this you can always step down. This is an immediate action which doesn’t have much discussion. If you believe in it, then prove it.
Aspart of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Carmen Aiello.
Carmen Aiello has been a casting director and producer of film and television and involved in the arts for over 20 years. His projects have been on the big and small screens all over the world. Carmen is most proud of his continuous efforts to discover new artists while redefining standard casting practices by integrating his method of creative meetings.
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?
Iwas raised in Littleton, Colorado by my mom after my dad passed away. She took on both roles of parenting and focused on teaching me to be an individual and to think for myself. I always felt a leaning towards the performing arts and being an artist but was never pressured by family. School and socializing was extremely difficult on my family as I was aggressively bullied for years about being gay. With my mom’s support and strength, I kept pursuing the performing arts in dance, singing and theatre. All said and done, I grew up with a handful of amazing friends that I still have to this day. I value people and have used my experiences as a platform to be a better person to myself and other people. I have very thick skin. My Mom is my hero.
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?
True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet. I was given this book by an actor when I was performing at Arvada Center for the Performing Arts as a featured tap dancer and a couple other small and fun speaking roles. I read it once and launched my interpretation to my own life. I felt he was writing to me and I owned so much of his advice. I applied it to my work, moved to Chicago and broke into theatre and kept experiencing my art. It just was a sponge. I put down the book and decided to live it.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
Good enough isn’t and God is good. I repeat this often. My professor in community college always reminded us that good enough isn’t. My Mom stood by my side and through every obstacle she never preached religion but reminded me that there is a path and it’s up to me to decide what is best suited for my life. God is good.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Personally, I don’t think leadership is a result of achieved successes but rather finding a way to rise to the occasion when obstacles are presented in front of you. A leader is someone who can be objective and put their personal opinions to the side in order to satisfy a greater good. I define a leader by how they are able to bring people together. In my opinion, leader isn’t a hero… they are an advocate.
A personal example of leadership I can find in my own artistic journey. How I lead my own career defines my influence on others. I can easily make decisions and offer advice to artists knowing that my words will be taken in serious consideration. As a leader, I am not gaining anything but ego if I don’t apply my own advice in my life. For years, I have felt as a person who has mentored and curated artists from all backgrounds. Every artist is different and not all advice is suited for every individual. There isn’t one answer that generates results. My goal is to earn the trust of the individual in order to achieve a stronger self of community. I value the individual and I feel that is a strength of a leader.
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?
All positions within the artistic community are all high stress. Stress comes because we depend on answers from others in order to validate our ideas. A “no” is the set standard and we are constantly trying to defy the odds in order to receive acceptance that our artistic visions and integrity are accepted by others. In my own career, the stress or weight is within the results. If there are no results, the journey there doesn’t matter and I’m often held responsible for results. A dancer, inluencer, painter, poet, singer, writer, director, stunt coordinator, casting director, producer, actor (enter title here) are valued based on completion of their work garnering some sort of press, audience or monetary gain. The journey of the artist isn’t followed during the curation of a project and isn’t valued unless there is monetary gain or investment. It doesn’t matter how you get there. It matters in the result. The “stress” is felt during development, pre production, production, post production and distribution and so on. I always start with a “no”. It’s the easiest answer I can get. Being realistic that a “no” is the base answer keeps me from getting stressed out. Over time I have found that I was very impatient early in my career and always fighting against people telling me “no”. It’s not negative energy because I have more power knowing that a “no” is an answer. I fought early in my life and for so many years to please other people in order to be accepted. When people see that you have accepted yourself, even if they reject your ideas, I try to leave a door open instead of walk away feeling dejected. I have had several meetings and artistic pitches that are ALL and always high “stress”. For me, I just walk in as myself with confidence. I don’t think that I made a mistake if there is a rejection. Projects come to me without talent attached and it’s my job to take everything I have regarding the project and artist and bring name talent. Realistically, I try to leave doors open with everyone so there is a future instead of a closed door. This relieves a lot of stress because I’m just looking for a connection. I build on relationships and that gives me movement to create further conversations. When there is a “no” I find less stress knowing that I let things go in the moment. People in the performing arts and entertainment industry can tell that you are stressed or nervous. I just really don’t care about that stuff. I can’t be stressed about myself so it takes a lot off my shoulder and allows more doors to open. I sleep pretty well at night knowing I did my best.
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?
To recap, I have answered questions regarding my personal upbringing as well as literature, quotes, leadership, stress and the journey of an individual and artist. This is, indeed, a huge topic and there isn’t one answer. I can’t answer for any community specifically or for any individual except for myself. I can say that my life has been, at times, in crisis mode regarding my own adversity and challenges within my artistic life and the “system”. I’m not a politician or a historian and I don’t have the education, to be very honest, in order to have the best examples of how things evolved to this point. I can only see how things are during my lifetime. I have every reason disagree with other people who don’t match my own ideas. To me, I have experienced almost a viral mentality that carries people within their own ideas. A homophobic person sees themselves as minorities who are threatened by a group of people who challenge their way of life. The sensation of their safety is exacerbated when equality is given a majority of coverage in mainstream media. We have to fight for our equality. Their anger that they are being antagonized are driven to extreme violence and hate speech. Instead of resolving the issues by these communities coming together to find some sort of middle ground, it is put in a public arena and tensions continue to mount. We have to fight in public in order to protect our rights. I will not speak for any race or ethnicity except for my experiences as a gay male. Within the LGBTQIA community there is so much divide between people that needs to be worked out. LGBTQIA is all one cluster of letters and separate communities that still have much divide on a basic social level. I like to think of myself as someone who encourages anyone to talk to me in order to find some common ground. I think we have to step up to fight at this point but also really truly understand “hate”. I ask for acceptance but I need to accept why people hate me. Yes it’s easy to say that it shouldn’t exist but… it does. I ask for acceptance and I will step up for any minority and put myself at risk or danger in order to help someone. I have done it and I will do it again. I think we fight with words and we are constantly trying to change the minds of people who are literally stuck and set in their ways. This country will never be a country without homophobia. How can I live my life to fight for my rights without listening to the opposition. I am not at all giving anyone a reason to hate and I condone any hate group and act of violence. But I think that it starts with the individuals of our community showing strength in the community and the ability to understand what fuels their anger. It’s hard to say this and apply it but I am someone who finds acceptance in other people who are not on my side. It’s very hard. We ask for acceptance and it just goes without saying. America will continue to grow and evolve as a country rich in diversity. It’s never to late to teach someone acceptance even if they won’t accept you.
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?
I am the initiative. My personal method in my work and artistic approach is in the process of becoming a movement. Promoting diversity isn’t checking off boxes and satisfying the status quo. Period pieces sometimes need to have historical accuracy pending the creators vision. Hamilton would be an exemption to the rule as it breaks genre stereotypes. I don’t like to satisfy diversity by checking off a box in order to please the viewers. I want to bring diversity to the forefront without a backstory that validates why a minority is cast. Breaking stereotypes is different from diversity casting. Diversity casting is an excuse to validate that everyone is represented. Inclusion is promoting diversity without subjecting minorities to further explain why they are represented. I often hear that diversity casting and representation of minorities within arts and entertainment is becoming more visible and that, to me, is just the beginning of a bigger problem. Because you are representing more minorities doesn’t mean that you can consider yourself promoting diversity. Promoting diversity to me is not just checking off a box. I want to be able to consider everyone and make sure that their voices are heard. It’s all words on a page or an idea until the project/installation is completed. A conversation with one sentence, “I want diversity casting”, does not absolve you from the problem. “Diversity” is not a one worded answer to a problem. Inclusion is a state of mind and diversity is the path to creating a conversation that is not just solved in order to shut people up. The statement, “I want diversity and inclusion in my project”, should not be accepted as an answer to make a problem go away. It doesn’t bring a smile to my face and is not a one sentence answer. HOW will you do this? WHAT will we do to effectively make this change? It’s a large question and needs to be met head on. My story is that I am active in asking these questions today and I have lived my life never accepting one word answers. My story is that I challenge people’s perception of diversity. Diversity is not an excel spreadsheet that qualifies your inability to make appropriate creative choices. People are not boxes and learning to be inclusive is real life; not a marketing tool.
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 believe diversity in those spaces is extremely important, but even more so, respecting their voice/vision and valuing their capability is the key to true inclusion. Having a diverse executive team does not gurantee minorities receive equal treatment. Is that “inclusion” just an H.R. requirement to be met? What are the standards to having a diversity team and what positions are given in order to be heard? Who has the final say here? Is the diversity also considered equal when making final decisions? I consider myself diverse and would not allow myself to be put on a team in order to please the need for a gay executive if, in the end, my voice has no value. I’m not going to represent anyone’s excuse to make them feel better for satisfying their brand. I am not there to better anyone’s appearance. Does having a diverse team mean that there are certain sacrifices I have to take in order to be thankful for being considered? Is this diverse team equal or I am there and should be thankful for finally being given consideration? Prove to me that I’m there to be a voice and give me a reason to want to be there. Otherwise, I think people need to start their own executive teams. Why can’t we do it ourselves instead of begging for this only to be turned away when it comes down to decision making. Don’t nod your head like you understand and turn your back on me in the end. We need to build stronger communities by tearing it down and building it from the ground up. If they had a problem in the first place and the resolve is to have more diversity in order to excuse their past actions; it’s best to form an executive force of your own instead of becoming someone elses apology.
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.
- BE THE CHANGE. If you are in a position of power, encourage or promote those who will amplify minorities’ voices straight from their perspective, and if you can’t fathom yourself doing this you can always step down. This is an immediate action which doesn’t have much discussion. If you believe in it, then prove it.
- RESPECT AND TOLERANCE. Immediate action within the structure of the company policies to train tolerance and equality across the board. Not just industrial videos and an elementary quiz questionnaire. I think these tolerance training sessions and harassment/equality training videos are just an opportunity to get out of work. Make this a department conversation on an frequent basis. This should not be a once a year opportunity to pretend to value your employees. We need this standard frequently and often to ensure that tolerance isn’t just a legal policy to protect the organization. Protect equality year round and promote tolerance with consistency for every employee.
- SELF EDUCATION. Reconsider and unlearn eurocentric history, especially when depicting historical events and stereotypes in story-telling which is problematic and could be harmful to minorities. Stop whitewashing stories, period.
- ACCOUNTABILITY. Acknowledge and reset. How to create a society that has equal opportunities for everyone?… the fact that this is a question is hard to swallow. We need to admit inequality is a real problem instead of looking the other way.
- BE CONFRONTATIONAL. A business leader can talk all day long. When you are discussing ways to solve a problem it’s one thing to talk about it and another thing to walk out the door and create change. Why are these issues constantly discussed over and over with no resolve? Because it’s easy to talk about and go home at night feeling that you did enough to bring up an issue. You should be losing sleep over this every day. If you are afraid to lose your job because of challenging these ideals and you don’t do anything, then you are part of the problem. Confrontation, to me, is the first form of action.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I’m not optimistic in the immediate sense so “eventually” is always the conversation and it has been for more than a few decades. If people were not so intimidated of their job stability, I think more progress can be made. We talk and talk and talk so much and it’s really about action. Do something now because tomorrow is too late.
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. 🙂
Ava DuVernay because she inspiring and a person who doesn’t ask for change — but insists on it.
How can our readers follow you online?
My social media presence online is not as effective as what I do in my work. Don’t just follow me — be a leader with me.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!