How Lena Waithe Is Making An Impact & Giving Others A Platform To Share Their Interpretation Of Luxury

  1. Lena WaithePhoto Credit: Shayan Asgharnia

Lena Waithe is enjoying some pretty sweet success. Today, the multi-hyphenate creator, alongside Häagen-Dazs ice cream, announced  a $1.5M commitment over the next three years to uplift a new generation of diverse tastemakers and creator through the #ThatsDazs campaign, which ensures these new voices have a platform where their passion, art and definition of luxury can be experienced by many. Waithe’s Hillman Grad Productions is the first organization to receive a donation from the brand.

The new campaign is inspired by the creativity and passion of the Häagen-Dazs brand founders who emigrated from Poland to the Bronx, and building upon this heritage of bringing luxury to the many, asking creators, tastemakers and consumers to share their own interpretation — because whatever luxury means to you — #ThatsDazs.

Waithe will not only serve as a creator for the campaign, but will also help the brand identify and cultivate additional partners, including up-and-coming content creators and organizations to support. As part of the $1.5M commitment, the Häagen-Dazs brand is starting with a $100,000 donation to Hillman Grad Productions to support its Mentorship Lab, which Waithe started this year. The Lab provides opportunities for marginalized storytellers to connect, grow, and accelerate their careers in television and film. The tuition-free, 10-month program grants fellows the unique opportunity to enhance their creative skillset through personalized instruction from industry professionals, creating additional pathways to bring more people from diverse backgrounds into the entertainment industry. The donation will aid all facets of the program including classroom needs, curriculum development, lessons and teacher support.

We spoke to Waithe, the creator of Showtime drama series The Chi (2018–present), Boomerang (2019–present), and Twenties (2020–present), who will soon debut the limited Amazon anthology series Them, which explores terror in America, about the campaign, why she’s intent on creating equal opportunities for all and why the truest luxury in life is something you really can’t buy.

Lena WaithePhoto Credit: Lena Waithe

I’ve got you today to talk about the “That Dazs Campaign.” Maybe you could speak to why you signed on, what it stands for and why it’s important to you?

I’m really grateful because Häagen-Dazs really wanted to walk the walk in terms of supporting communities that have been marginalized and don’t have access to certain luxuries everybody else does. And, a big luxury that we found at Hillman Grad for a lot of people, they’re not able to aren’t able to just drop everything and go take a writing class or go take an acting class or learn how to be an exec. That is something that can be very expensive. I think it speaks to why our industry is still predominantly filled with white people and white young men, because they have the luxury of being able to have a bunch of money in the bank, be able to go work somewhere for free. It’s become an issue that I think we’re finally starting to look at and realize that there’s a reason why a lot of black and brown people are like, ‘Hey, I can’t just drop everything and start following my dreams.’ And so, we are really grateful to have Häagen-Dazs donate, to have $100,000 to our Hillman Grad Productions lab and $1.5 million to many other organizations over the next three years. What we specialize in is helping people learn their craft and, so, we are going to be doing that 10 months all the way up until Thanksgiving teaching 10 actors. We’re having to work with two amazing acting teachers to help them learn their craft and to get better at it. And then we have 10 writers, fie in comedy, five in drama, who are learning under the same man that helped form my first writers group in Los Angeles. So, these are all people that I know, people that I have a relationship with. We are locked in. We really are trying to prepare them, give them the education they need, specifically the resources they need to be successful. This campaign is really all about how do we make luxuries accessible and how do we make it possible for everyone to experience them. And, that’s really, I think, a great way of approaching this because it’s not about a handout, you know? It’s about giving people what is their birth right and it’s their right to be able to walk in their dreams, rather than just thinking about them.

How did the partnership come about in the first place?

Well, they reached out. And, I think for us, when it comes to big brands, we’re not always looking to get in bed with the big companies or organizations. [But with Haagen Dazs], we got on the phone with them, we had a conversation, and we really felt that they were already very much in line with what we were already trying to do. I pay for a lot of the stuff for mentees out of my own pocket, so it was nice that they were saying, like, “Hey! We want to help. We want to help you do what you are already doing.’ And, so it was really helpful because the thing that people often forget is that these things do cost money. You can’t just have teachers come take time out of their day and not have them compensated. So, to make sure they’re paid, make sure that the students don’t pay for a single thing, is such a huge luxury for them and they deserve it, you know? They deserve to be able to be in class, stress free, and to be able to focus on the work. And, that’s what we have been able to do with this program.

Are you going to be able to make this more accessible to more people? Or, are you going to be able to do more things with the program now that you have additional funding? Or both?

I think it’s more so re-focusing on the program. And, again, it’s all the way up until Thanksgiving. We also help the people with whatever they need. If they need, you know, who knows – they may need a new laptop. They may need all kinds of things. All kinds of things come into play when you have 25 people who are in a program and you don’t want them to pay for anything. You want to make sure they aren’t stressed about anything else distracting them from their work. So, those are usually things we often cover, but now that we have that little extra padding it just makes it easier for everyone to get what they need and we are very grateful for that.

Did you create the mentorship lab in the first place because you were given opportunities or because you weren’t?

Well, I took part in a few writing programs. I had really good years working for shows like Girlfriends. So, I’ve had amazing opportunities. I think it’s super important to make sure that the next class gets those opportunities as well. But, the only tricky thing for me about some of the mentorship programs I’ve experienced is that you’re not getting, you know, first-hand accounts of people that are in the actual business. You’re learning and you’re growing and everything, but I think what’s important for us is to make sure they get real time mentorship. As businesses are always growing and evolving and changing. We can talk to them. We can walk them through certain things, but social media is something that’s very new that a lot of writers, artists, and up-and-coming people are intimidated by. Some of them are afraid of it and they don’t know what to make of it. They’re like ‘Do I join? Do I not? How do I? What’s up?’ I always tell them, ‘Be mindful of what you write and tweet because it can always come back to burn you. ‘So, that’s a new thing that I don’t know if any mentorship programs are getting into. Because as a public person that’s on social media, I know what it’s like to step in it, for people to misinterpret something you said. And, you get dragged for a week and then people are moving. And, so these are new things that I think the mentees unfortunately do have to learn about because it’s something that they may experience as unfortunate as that may be. But, you know, it’s just a real thing. And, also the work that they put out – well, not everyone is going to welcome it with a round of applause. ‘We don’t like this! Don’t tell that story!’ So, for these new writers, actors coming in, they don’t know what to make of it. Some artists now don’t know what to make of it. And, so it’s a new world order and I think that’s what we need to do as well. We kind of get to mentor them about things outside of this. So, we always try to remind them, ‘If you’re good at what you do, you can be around forever, regardless of social media and this ever-changing personality.’ So, that’s what we always tell them, ‘Like yeah be aware of it, know what not to do, and be careful, but, ultimately if your work is good, you ain’t going anywhere. No matter how much people don’t like their work, if it touches somebody, it’ll reach. And, if it doesn’t and you can’t make it work for yourself, eventually, you know, it may not reach anyone.’

Is that the best advice that you would offer to somebody that is up and coming and if not, what would it be?

To really commit to the craft and fall in love with the process, because everything else you can’t control. Everything else comes out of nowhere. You don’t know what’s coming. So, the biggest thing is so if you just focus on the work and you’re kind and respectful to everyone around you that you can be, even though they aren’t always kind and respectful to you sometimes – that always all you can do. Do the work and do it really, really well and to the best of your ability and, do it with people you respect and like. And, that’s really it.

I’m going to ask you to fill in a blank right now and kind of playing into the Häagen-Dazs ethos. Success is sweetest when____?

When you’re happy with yourself, I think that’s when it’s the best. When you feel good about who you are as a person and where you are in your life because, otherwise, if you have success and all the things that come with it and you’re not happy, it’s not as enjoyable. So, as a person that is content with who they are and where they are, they’ll enjoy any type of success – no matter how big or small and that’s what I also impart on the mentees. You’ve got to find your own joy and your own happiness and do whatever you can to protect it, because the world is intent on trying to take it away.

You have Them coming out, so as an artist, as a creator, do you want all of your projects to say something and to mean something and to make an impact?

I think that’s sort of a very lofty goal. I think, for me, I want the work to last. And, that doesn’t always mean it has to be political. One of our favorite things that we produced is theThe Forty-Year-Old Version, which just won a NAACP Image Award. That movie, because it’s a comedy, you know, it’s in black and white and it centers around a black woman who’s a playwright that’s got to find her voice in hip-hop. But I think [writer, director and producer Radha Blank] got nervous when the movie came out [thinking it might incite marching and more]. I was like, ‘No, I think you’re fine’ and of course people loved the movie. But, the thing was this movie is a form of protest. Even though it was a funny movie and you never see a woman that looks like her in the center of a movie like that. So, everything doesn’t have to necessarily be the black power fist. To me, a great piece of work is one that is timeless and is one that is a long time coming. We’re doing stuff with Jacqueline Woodson who is a beautiful author and a genius award winner and she’s doing her first screenplay with us. The thing about it is, we just want work that lasts that you can re-visit in 10 years from now. To me, a successful film is when you can watch it today, re-visit it again 10 years from now, and still enjoy it, and still go ‘Wow, that movie still really hits me in all the right places.’ That’s what we are trying to do because everything isn’t necessarily for the audience you put it in front of, you know? Sometimes it takes art a little while to find an audience. Sometimes art needs time to marinate and I’m always open to that because sometimes you can get a piece of art that comes out and people like ‘Fuck that. I hate this. I don’t want that.’ And, 10 years from now, it’s deemed best thing since sliced bread. Good art often, I think, ages well. Even if people hate a thing today, I’m willing to wait 10 years to see what they say then.

My last question for you is what to you is the greatest luxury in life and why?

Oh man, I’ll be a little mushy and cheesy: I think having unconditional love from the people you care about. That really is it for me. I think for me at this point in my life it’s just having people that I can always lean on, that would never judge, that would never believe something about me that isn’t true. Like, that is most valuable thing that you can have in this life, having people that say, ‘I’m rocking with you. I know your heart and I got your back no matter what.’ And, that’s what I try to be to the people in my life that I really love. And, the people that I have in my life that are that way are more precious than gold.