While Don Imus made his public onslaught against black women, and reality television and music videos were at an all time low, four women were planning to speak out against the images portrayed in media. Valeisha Butterfield, Sabrina Thompson, Kristi Henderson and Lauren Lake are the executive board behind the Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network (WEEN)—an advocacy and networking group that provides young women with information to make better decisions about their futures. Each armed with an extensive background in the entertainment and business sector, these ladies are taking a stand against destructive messaging and creating a space for young women to reclaim their image. We sat down with Valeisha and Sabrina to talk about the organization, their movement, and why strength in numbers is the key to positive change.
Clutch: How did you come up with the idea to create a network for women in entertainment?
VB: For me, I think it started a long time ago. I think there’s never been a true coalition of women in the entertainment industry, who could come together to do a lot of social good. For us, it was something that was a long time in the making, but when Don Imus made his comments several months ago not only toward African American people, but toward women of color, but the dialogue national dialogue turned toward women and how we’re portrayed in the entertainment industry, I knew it was time for us to come together and really take a leadership role. It started as an idea, and I sent out an email to about twenty women, all executives in the entertainment industry, and I was shocked by the responses. The email was a call to action and I wanted everyone to come and meet at my apartment to have a think tank discussion about what was going on, what the images were, what the media was saying about the industry we worked in and how we could be more involved. And that email to 20 people turned into 120 RSVPs. I couldn’t even fit everyone into my apartment. We had to move it to another location. To see 120 women come together who all work in the entertainment business, we go on with our daily lives, but we rarely talk and come together for one common reason, but I think everyone was so motivated and excited, and we’ve received lots of support and momentum, which is evident that we’re moving into the right direction.
Clutch: What are some of the causes or societal issues WEEN advocates?
ST: One thing we really want to target are the images that are promoted in society. There just not balanced enough. We see too much of one thing but not enough of the other. And we’re all about allowing people to have their first amendment freedom of speech, and we’re not trying to judge anyone. But we want to allow our young women to know, look…for every one person that may be shaking their butt in the video, there are several doctors, lawyers, publicists, agents out there that aren’t being seen. So we want to be able to provide society with a balanced image so that our young women will have a chance to pick and say, I want to mimic my life like them . . . I want to go down this path instead of that path. One way in which we know we have to target in order to help that is self-esteem. We want to start at the bottom as well as the top. We want these young ladies to know that they’re more than just their bodies. They encompass their mind, spirit, all of the above. Another thing, we want to target things on an executive level. It’s important for us to have the membership in numbers so that the women who are in executive roles and positions in a male dominated industry can be able to go into the board room wand make a decision with some backing. It’s very hard for a female exec to go in knowing she really wants to change things, but it may jeopardize her job. Knowing that she has X amount of women behind her saying, ‘You know what, we prefer this over that,’ and saying that we have a million women backing us, it’s going to cause the male execs to take a different look at it. If she can go in there with a lot more confidence without thinking, ‘Oh my God, if I say this or stand up for this, it’s going to jeopardize my job.’ We want to target the executive level all the way down to the self-esteem level—different career opportunities these women will have, how to cherish your body, nutrition, all of the above.
Clutch: There are four of you that make up the executive board of the organization, and you all have vast, impressive backgrounds. How did it come about that the four of you would get together and create what we see?
VB: When the idea first came about, it again, was just a kernel or an idea of this big picture. I knew it required a core team of people who were competent; who were passionate, excited, but most important had the experience. Instantly, I thought of Sabrina first. Not only because she has a vast background in television, being a producer, controlling and deciding what some of the images that you see on TV are, she made a decision recently to withdraw from the television industry and become a public school teacher. So she, more than anyone, really understood both sides and knew what it means to work directly in television and be responsible for those of decisions, and see what type of impact it has in the classroom, and see on a grassroots level what young kids feel when they see those images, how they sometimes emulate those images and the long term and short term effects it can have. Kristi Henderson is a publicist for a major PR firm, before that she worked for Vibe magazine and several other publications in entertainment, so for me it was important to have her influence because she’s a bit part of the images we see as well, and how those images are communicated to the masses. So we knew that when we create Ween and the way it would be packaged and branded and promoted to a wider audience, we knew it was important to make sure that we had somebody on board who truly knew how to communicate those messages. And finally, of course, Lauren Lake, who is not only a renowned attorney and counselor, but she’s been on TV, she’s the face of Dr. Phil and Court TV and just a strong, prominent of African American woman, and such a positive example for young women. So it was important for them to see someone that they can relate to, but someone that you could also look up to, as part of the executive team. It’s just a great balance, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the people who have supported since day one. Kimora Lee Simmons is also our first national spokeswoman. Kimora came on board on the ground level and was very excited and supportive of the cause. Sylvia Rhone and Cathy Hughes were at the launch event; Kevin Lyles, the names go on and on. But we’ve been blessed to have the type of support we’ve had from the beginning.
ST: That and we’re friends. At least me, Kristi and Valeshia, we’ve known each other for years, my goodness, decades! And Lauren, we’ve known her for a couple years now, but we click on a communication level, as far was we’re able to be brutally honest with each other. We’re able to call each other saying, ‘I don’t think this is going to work,’ and no one gets offended. We keep it moving. Sometimes I think there’s an image of a bunch of women can’t work together without being catty, but that’s so not true of us. We say what we have to say but we know that at the end of the day it’s for the common good of trying to help out young people.
Clutch: Does WEEN offer some sort of interactive component of networking like, say, MySpace or Facebook?
ST: We are just starting, so of course our membership definitely is not like the MySpace or the Facebook. When we started building the website, that was a big component. We did want an interactive part of the site. It is for networking, and it’s about dialogue. We want our members to talk freely and network. You know, so if there’s a group of women in Texas who want to come together and feed the homeless without the beurocracy of the exec board, they can do that. So it’s very important that they come together on an interactive basis. Our thing is that we want to have people reach out to each other, and we want to reach out to our members, so we’re going to have things on a national level, and we’re planning things in 2008 to do things collectively with thousands of people, but we also want our member to do things on a local level. That’s really where it starts. We can’t have these big venues without starting locally.
VB: From the beginning, we were able to garner a lot of national and global support. So, it was important for use to not only have physical events, which we will have, but obviously we can’t travel and be everywhere at once. So although we may travel to three or four cities next year, it is important that we have some sort of outreach and mechanism for young people as Sabrina said to communicate reach out to us, we can respond to them on an ongoing basis. So, it’s a combination of both physical events and real programs, real outreach to young women, but also having that type of community feel like a MySpace or like a Facebook where young women can feel like they’re a part of something. I think so often a young girl feels alone, and she feels like she can’t relate to her parents, and her parents can’t relate to her. She might be an outcast at school; she might not have a lot of friends. But WEEN is not an exclusive group, it’s inclusive. So it’s important that all young women can feel like they’re apart of something, and they’re welcome here. And we can provide some type of mentorship and leadership examples for young girls who might not have hope, can look within themselves and find their own hope because of this type of network of women who support them.
Clutch: What are some of the benefits for women joining the organization?
VB: For me, when I was younger, Sabrina and I were both from a small town in N.C. But you know you have the traditional career track, where you’re a doctor, a lawyer, or a teacher, limited options. For me, it was important to give young girls a vehicle in a way to receive information and knowledge and a better way to receive information and a better understanding of what career options are out there, so I would say first and foremost, education is a benefit. By coming to our website, by reading the bios, we post interviews monthly of not only celebrities, but also of women executives who are behind the scenes in the business doing their thing. So a young girl can educate herself. When I was trying to find my way, we didn’t have the Internet. We had to call people, find mentors, it was more difficult. But now you can research, and sort of understand the type of path that I chose or Sabrina chose and the obstacles we encountered along the way. I think most important for us is to be honest, keep it real and not just show them the glamorous life and the easy, quick way to get there, but the struggles we encountered, and hopefully, they can learn from some of our lessons. That’s the first benefit. I think the second benefit is knowing that there’s a group of people in the business you love so much. I think its time for the entertainment industry to give back to a community that has been so good to it. I can say that as a part of it; young people buy the album, and support the music and watch BET and 106 & Park all day long. And it’s important for us to give back to them, and give them more options, give them more balance, and support what they do and support them as people.
ST: I think also as far as support, through the networking interaction, a lot of things can come about the interacting with the people who are on the network. It can be internships provided, things of that nature, maybe a young girl doesn’t know how to write a resume that is more entertainment based. That communication, it’s just a wide range of things you can garner through the interactive part. I know when I was in college, I had no idea how to go about an internship, and there are girls who are emailing me straight from the site, and I’m saying, make it simple—this is what I did. And at least three of the girls have gotten their foot in the door and one has actually landed something, within the last three weeks. And probably without that, who knows what they would’ve done to get their foot in the door. So just by my experience and my communication with them on the site (www.weenonline.org), that’s something they can use as a resume builder. They can say, ‘Hey, I was an intern for The View on ABC,’ or whatever that internship is. And it just reinforces the educational part of it completely.
Clutch: What are some of your outlined goals for the upcoming year? Anything we should be looking out for?
VB: I think it’s important to point out that we’re not a social service organization; we’re a social change organization. So we want to provide tools for young women to help themselves. And I think it’s so important that we not give handouts, because obviously we’re not even in a position to do that. But to give them the tools and advice, education and the programs necessary for them to make better choices and for them to be able to get further in life.
ST: Our first goal is to get membership up. Our main goal when we launched in September, we want to have by next year that time, we want it to be one million strong. So it’s very important for us to have a strong branding, and let everyone know who we are so we’re able to beef our membership up.
VB: Our main goals are like Sabrina said, having one million women as members of WEEN, it’s free, we don’t charge—we invite everybody to join us. The second is the women’s empowerment tour. Getting on the road, rolling up our sleeves and getting into those communities that are part of WEEN already. And getting the women executives, and the celebrities, too, but having a good balance of people who work in the business on the panel to talk to young kids and young women and mentor them and provide advice. Those are the main two goals for the next year.
ST: For the first year we don’t want to over promise and under deliver. Those two goals are very big; they’re very broad. It seems overwhelming at first, but you know, we take it week-by-week and day-by-day. For the first year we just want to get our face out there and say this is who we are, this is what we do, and this is how we are going about trying to provide a vehicle for social change, not only nationwide, but worldwide.
To learn more about WEEN or to join the network, visit www.weenonline.org.