Alma Har’el’s ‘Free the Work’​ Makes It Easy to Find Diverse Talent in the Entertainment Industry

So, filmmaker Alma Har’el has created a new tool to promote diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry. Free the Work is a searchable database for women and minority creatives, or what she calls “a sexy version of Spotify meets IMDb.”

I like it for two reasons. One, it puts the onus firmly where it belongs – directly in the hands of those with the power to make hiring decisions. If diversity and inclusion is important to those powers that be, now there is no reasonable excuse why there is no minority talent on a TV or film set, in front of and behind the camera. There can be no whining about not being able to identify and source available talent when there’s an entire database of diverse candidates to choose from.

Two, it removes the bad taste in the mouth that inclusion riders could leave. Inclusion riders are basically “legal language actors can bake into their contracts to ensure more diverse representation on their projects. Actor Frances McDormand first put the practice in the spotlight during her 2018 Oscars acceptance speech.” These riders remind me of Affirmative Action, and I’m not the only one. We all know what a basket full of angry cats AA can be to the wrong people.

Not so long ago, I might have written differently. Affirmative Action in its various forms was – and in some industries still is – absolutely necessary to clear blocked paths and get women and minorities or the underrepresented into closed doors and seats at all white tables. But now I think things have shifted a bit, and the media fueled general public is an equally powerful motivator to prompt organizations and brands to be more diversity friendly and open to inclusion.

Think about it. One word or viral hashtag from the right celebrity or influencer with a large platform can have a company spinning on its metaphoric heel quick, fast and in a big old hurry to make changes that will negate bad publicity. Very few want to be labeled racist, gender biased or exclusionary. Competition is too fierce. It’s too easy for consumers to click away, and find what they need somewhere else that aligns with their beliefs as well as their needs.

Not that legal sanctions don’t have their place. Unfortunately, punitive measures are still important to break through to the more stubborn holdouts who may be fearful, thus are clinging to dated perceptions of greatness that lead them to break or flirt badly with the brim of the law. Fear is a many splendored thing, after all. There’s fear of change, fear of the loss of power, fear one won’t be able to compete, fear of not knowing the answers to a diverse new slate of questions, take your pick.

I agree with popular actress Viola Davis. In May, Davis and her husband spoke at the Variety Inclusion Summit. She said the reason top Hollywood executives and casting agents don’t pay as much attention to projects about people of color as those toplined by non-POC is, you guessed it, fear. 

If that fear bit doesn’t make logical sense to you, you likely understand the value of diversity in a business as well as a creative sense. You probably believe the deluge of varied data out there that clearly shows the profitability associated with diverse products, services, projects, etc. You are probably even supportive of new voices and perspectives in storytelling because you, and I, want to see, touch and represent more of the various human minds and hearts that make up this world we all live in. 

But diversity related fear is not logical. It’s subjective. It’s ingrained, and it’s wrapped around a host of feelings, emotions, experiences, media and many other nebulous things that are altogether scary because they create discomfort. 

Many people, whether they’re at the top of their respective industry or the bottom, disdain discomfort. They avoid feeling uncomfortable at all cost. That’s why the familiar is so appealing. There are no waves. No one’s rocking the boat. It’s easy.

The type of person who doesn’t understand the value of diversity and inclusion likely also has a long memory. Meaning, even if the talent he or she is “forced” to hire due to inclusion rider, for instance, turns out to be absolutely fabulous, pique and ego could easily prompt that person to go right back to their old, non-diverse hiring ways with the next production. Forget about discovering new talent. Now it’s about checking a box and avoiding legal trouble.

Being a minority in the workplace is stressful enough when it comes to unnecessary energy spent dealing with the constant curiosity, questioning and doubts your “otherness” inadvertently bring to a white, male environment. Add in a hint of Affirmative Action to explain your presence and wham! You’re looking at a high quotient of instant BS that will likely compromise creativity, endanger schedules, budgets, aggravate nerves, create bad feelings, misunderstandings and on and on and on. 

At that Variety Summit Davis also said: “I don’t want to be a part of any piece of paper that has to force people to see me.” I say, preach. There’s too much going on in the world to beg the unwilling for an opportunity. It’s a waste of time anyway. It makes more sense to seek out those who are likeminded, which is why Har’el’s database is genius.

It’s like my friend Kim Nugent. Kim is an experienced HR, OD and talent management consultant whose varied client roster includes well known organizations like Cigna and Stanford. On the surface you could easily mistake her for a deliberately oblivious white suburban soccer mom. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. She is passionate about social justice and exposing herself to all manner of diverse content and people so that she can learn. 

Kim doesn’t want to avoid discomfort at the expense of enriching her mind, heart and learning anything she can about why people treat each other the way they do, and how she can be better herself. She’s actively looking for ways to embrace it in her work and in her personal life. Everything from how she’s raising her son, to the charity projects she takes on, to her reaching out to me years ago for insight into my diversity work, it’s all voluntary. Sometimes I still shake my head in gratitude that what was essentially a cold call developed into a mutually educational and inspirational friendship that’s still going strong. 

Har’el’s Free the Work database removes the initial discomfort diversity hires could bring because using the tool is easy and can be self-powered. That’s great. Because you know what? Hiring diverse talent was never that hard to begin with – for those who really wanted to.

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