This is an opinion column.
She’s still that little girl on the couch. On the couch in West End. Kristena Hatcher was an only child. Leonard, her father, and entrepreneur committed to building a legacy for his family with his Automotive Service Center, now open for more than four decades. Patricia, her mother, a corporate accountant, was buttoned up and polished.
Kristena spent a lot of time on that couch. A lot of time watching the world. The world beyond her family and those around her. Beyond her street. Beyond west end. Beyond Birmingham.
Worlds filled with beauties and beasts, with little mermaids. Fantastical worlds filled with color.
Worlds filled with cultures and traditions, with families celebrating holidays, two-parent families, like the Cosbys. “I know it’s controversial now, but it was a Black family unit,” she recalls now (Kristena’s parents divorced when their daughter was young), “solid and working together. The husband and wife loved each other and worked through things together.”
Worlds with young women, young Black women, girlfriends living and aspiring together. “Black career women going through different phases of their lives,” she says, “having a variety of personalities and styles, and working together.”
Worlds beyond. Spain. Jamaica. Beyond. “I traveled to all these tropical places while sitting on my couch,” Hatcher says. “It just made me light up.”
She’s still, today, at 37, the little girl on that couch. Only now, her couch is the world. Hatcher chased the worlds that transfixed her. She entered the entertainment industry right after graduating from the University of Alabama with a criminal justice degree and fully intent on being an entertainment attorney. Something she did not see possible in her home city.
“Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t see a way to pursue opportunities on the business side of entertainment within Birmingham,” she says. “So, I felt: ‘Let’s go try my luck in that in one of the entertainment meccas.’ I moved to LA with $300 to my name. I would not recommend it. But sometimes you have to step out on faith and for me, it’s such a blessing and it paid off.”
Not as she initially planned. After enduring more fruitless interviews than she can remember—“70-plus” is her best guess—Hatcher found herself at Warner Brothers interviewing for an executive assistant position (“Had no idea what I was doing”). “It just so happened the director of recruiting was a Black woman,” she recalls. “I saw myself in her; it clicked for me. I was like, ‘I can have the opportunity to really shape and curate what these companies look like from a people standpoint and provide access to opportunity to my people.’ That changed everything for me.”
Changed the plan. But not the purpose. It altered the trajectory, igniting a journey after Hatcher eschewed being an entertainment attorney and ascended to become Talent Acquisition and People Strategist and Inclusion, Equity, Diversity Advocate at Netflix. She returned to Birmingham this week (not to live, much to Leonard’s and Patricia’s disappointment) in an effort to ensure other young people in her hometown, sitting on their own couches and aspiring to join the entertainment field, don’t have to leave Birmingham to do so.
“What if they didn’t have to leave?” Hatcher asks. “What if they could stay in the city and pursue careers?”
Hatcher and industry colleague Eric Pertilla, senior vice president, television production & development at Endeavor Content, a global film and television firm, have brought Hollywood to the city this week for three days of events designed to expose area youth to opportunities in the entertainment industry with an emphasis on comic books and film.
Coordinating with The Flourish Alabama, a Birmingham-based nonprofit that engages young artists of color throughout the South, they’ll will host a Storytelling Edutainment Conference this afternoon (Thursday 4:45 p.m.-6:45p.m.) at the A.G. Gaston Boys and Girls Club. That event will feature hip-hop artist and writer Seven Rich, musician Derrick Lilly, artist poet Shaun Judah, and writer Tania De’Shawn.
On Saturday, Oscar and Emmy-winning comedian and filmmaker Travon Free, Marvel Toy designer David Vonner, Marvel Black Panther comic book Editor Chris Robinson, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book illustrator Tony Washington, and composer (”Judas and the Black Messiah), rapper and producer and musical artist Quelle Chris will highlight an All-Community Day (10 a.m.-9:30 p.m.) at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
Says Pertilla, an upstate New York native: “This conference provides the opportunity to expose, educate, and engage multicultural students in elementary, middle, high school and college, their families, and the greater community of Birmingham (writers, artists, music creators) who are typically excluded from the endless creative career opportunities present in the entertainment industry.”
“You can start drawing and realize that’s a career and you can ultimately work at a Marvel or Tapas Media or any of these major companies and build a career out of it,” Hatcher says.
Pertilla calls his vision CreateHubs. It’s an anchor where youth can feed their creative passion. “Helping this next generation of leaders grow intersects with what I do from a hiring standpoint,” Hatcher says.
The collaboration in Birmingham began with Hatcher telling Pertilla the idea sounds perfect for her hometown. She called her dad, who connected her to Lisa Cooper, a board member of the Birmingham Executive Resource Center, who almost immediately with Executive Director Bob Dickerson. Hatcher was amazed the city she left behind was suddenly moving at light speed towards a new idea.
Light speed that assures Hatcher and Pertilla that one weekend in Birmingham can be more than a one-shot wonder leaving us wondering what next.
“That’s the norm right?” Hatcher asks. “Somebody from Hollywood or one of these industries comes in, does a big splashy event, then leaves and doesn’t provide any infrastructure to be able to support what they’re doing long-term. For us, that’s sad. It’s cheap, it’s trite.”
“We want to make sure we have sustainability, that we highlight the curriculum, get feedback from educators and to amplify the efforts of organizations already across the city of Birmingham that are doing amazing work,” Hatcher continues.
And families. It took Hatcher and Leonard a few years to repair their relationship after his only daughter went west. It broke his heart, he told her. He missed her.
“Our relationship was strained for probably the first two years,” Hatcher says. “He didn’t understand how I was going to build a career in this space when I very clearly told him why that can’t happen in Alabama. Once he started seeing my progress, we’re much better. There are those moments of discomfort that you push through for the greater good.”
Beyond The Flourish Alabama, Hatcher gives a shoutout to the Greater Birmingham Arts Education Collaborative, which has worked with youth in the city in the arts, including at Ramsay High School. She’s found some groups aren’t even aware of what similar groups are doing,
“They do poetry workshops, just recently released a music video where they taught students the process of doing one,” she said. “They’ve been doing so much great work within the creative realm across the city.
“We’re having conversations with some of our community leaders, and they haven’t heard of The Flourish. So I’m from here, but,yeah, we’re two people coming from LA, having conversations with the community in Birmingham and connecting community leaders together that didn’t necessarily know about each other. That’s what we’re here for. We want to create connectivity amongst people that are already doing amazing work.”
Ultimately, CreateHubs may be based in Birmingham, Pertilla and Hatcher hint.
“I’m still a kid at heart honestly,” Hatcher says. “That’s why the entertainment industry [resonates with me so much and why I feel like that’s what I’m called to do.”
Called to be, for some other Birmingham child, to see themselves in her.
“So relatable,” she says. “I just like love this work so much if I didn’t have to get paid, I would literally just be helping early career talent pursue their dreams and get into the entertainment industry.”
No matter where their couch may sit.
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Roy S. Johnson is a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary and winner of 2021 Edward R. Morrow prize for podcasts: “Unjustifiable”, co-hosted with John Archibald. His column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Press-Register. Reach him at [email protected], follow him at twitter.com/roysj, or on Instagram @roysj.