Actress Kristin West: “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”
Engage with Empathy: I would like to challenge everyone to ask themselves, “If this situation happened to me, how would I feel about it?” Shocked? Enraged? Violated? Keep asking yourself those questions, then act for justice. Too often we cling to and defend our privilege as a way of reifying our identity. The fact is we are all human, we all hurt and none of us should hurt for unjust, neglectful reasons. Check your privilege with empathy.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristin West.
Kristin West is an award-winning actress, producer, and host. She is making her feature directorial debut this fall with “The Central Authority”, a dystopian horror comedy with strong satire elements. West is also a strong advocate for independent filmmakers and has been tapped as a film festival juror and writing critic for nationally acclaimed film and writing competitions.
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?
I grew up in rural South Texas, about 150 miles from the Texas-Mexico border. San Antonio, Texas, was the largest city near me. I grew up in a cultural melting pot. Even though my grandfather was Caucasian, he spoke Spanish fluently and encouraged me to learn Spanish. One of the greatest gifts my family gave me was knowing my family’s story of immigrating to the United States in the late 1890s. Because of that, thankfully, I do not hold prejudiced beliefs that some factions of body politic espouse.
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?
“The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley is an important book for me. It’s a retelling of Arthurian lore through the eyes of the women in the stories. Too often, we forget that all stories, whether fictional or factual, have a point of view that may be explicit, implicit, and even, tacit. That point of view can uplift a certain person, idea, or group of people, while downplaying, demonizing or silencing others. That is the power of story. Hearing the Arthurian story from a different point of view was illuminating to me.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
In the toughest times, Churchill’s famous quip, “If you’re going through hell, keep going,” rings true. I come back to it again and again. Let’s face it: the COVID-19 pandemic has been hellish on many levels. On June 3rd of this year, I was editing remotely with my co-director Armin Nasseri, which on its own is a tremendous challenge. The City of Los Angeles was enforcing a curfew because of looting and rioting. The Citizen app on my phone was alerting me constantly about civil unrest in my area. Helicopters were circling overhead. Then suddenly, that evening, as Armin and I were cutting one of the most technically challenging vignettes in “The Central Authority”, there was an earthquake. We kept going. We kept editing, even though we were tired and scared. I hope we made Churchill proud.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Leadership is about creating the greatest good for all concerned. For me, as a creative executive, that is about doing what is best for our project and our whole team, despite what I may prefer personally. That may mean cutting a scene, that may mean trimming a budget, or that may mean saying “no” to something that may help me personally but weigh down our team. Leadership is about wielding the power of “yes” and “no” so that all feel valued, heard, and considered.
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?
Meditation is an important part of my process. I also try to make yoga a daily part of my life. I enjoy and have received tremendous benefit from practicing yin and restorative yoga, both of which teach me to yield and accept what is, instead of pushing myself. Sometimes, we must accept what is before we can create or build something new. I credit these practices with helping me find my directorial voice in our new movie, “The Central Authority,” which is a fully socially distanced feature film we shot remotely and safely during the pandemic. Instead of bemoaning what we could not do, I started asking what was possible in making media during this difficult time and from that “The Central Authority” came about. Yin and restorative yoga teach you deep acceptance and I can see how they have influenced my work.
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?
We tend to romanticize and idolize our ancestors and the dead. That needs to stop. Being a woman that grew up in a former Confederate state, Texas, I can tell you the version of history that we got in Texas public schools was qualitatively different than in Union states. If you ever heard the phrase, “The War of Northern Aggression,” you probably lived in an area that taught you a version of history that glorified slavery and oppression. If you were ever taught that the Civil War was just about economics, you probably got a skewed education. At this point, there needs to be a national standard for educating the public about slavery and the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and the Jim Crow era, instead of just leaving it up to the textbook committees of the individual states. Unfortunately, some teachers pass their bias too, and that needs to be addressed as well. Different parts of the country are teaching different narratives and that is why we are literally and figuratively not on the same page. If we are to act and function as a nation, we need to share the same values and importantly, we need to teach our values to our children. Whether you are in Texas or Maine or Hawaii, we need to affirm that treating people differently based on the color of their skin is wrong. I would also strongly support training teachers to identify implicit and explicit bias in public school systems.
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?
When we were casting for “The Central Authority”, we asked our actors under consideration what kind of roles they’d like to play and roles that they’ve not had the opportunity to play and we built our movie around our actors’ input.. Unfortunately, many actors get cast based on “type”, which is often limiting and can have racist undertones and assumptions. This movie features a diverse ensemble cast, playing fascinating, nuanced roles. Because we received the actors’ input and did not rely on familiar and simplistic “types”, I believe we benefited from better casting and overall, a better movie.
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?
For me, diversity includes honoring and including people of different races and national origins, sexual orientation, gender identifications, ages, religious affiliation (or lack of), body types, disability statuses and socio-economic backgrounds. Would you make any important life or personal decision with only 10% or less of the information you needed? Probably not. Why make a business decision that could impact greater numbers of people with limited perspective? It takes a great deal of humility and wisdom to admit what you do not know or that your perspective isn’t the only valid one. So, be wise and humble and include others on your team and make it a point to include others that do not have the same lens as you do.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. 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.
- Listen to Hear: Civil unrest happens because groups feel unheard. When people feel unheard, they become rightfully resentful and angry. Create spaces where people feel heard. “The Central Authority” was highly improvised and I made sure our actors knew that if there was something they felt uncomfortable with that they could speak up and feel assured they would be heard.
- Listen to Understand: Too often we are just hearing the sound byte of the hour. We are hearing a discussion or more often a debate between pundits and not engaging deeply enough with the issues at hand. We must commit to listening to understand, rather than just taking our usual sides — red versus blue, black versus white, etc.
- Listen for Agreement and Shared Values: Underneath any disagreement about the “who, what, where or how” of a situation is “why”. The “why” is always a question of what we value. Our backgrounds may differ, but often we share more values than we know and without a discussion of values, without our values anchoring what we do, our actions can be hollow and have a lesser impact.
- Engage with Empathy: I would like to challenge everyone to ask themselves, “If this situation happened to me, how would I feel about it?” Shocked? Enraged? Violated? Keep asking yourself those questions, then act for justice. Too often we cling to and defend our privilege as a way of reifying our identity. The fact is we are all human, we all hurt and none of us should hurt for unjust, neglectful reasons. Check your privilege with empathy.
- Demand More from Our Leadership AND from Ourselves: COVID-19 and the police brutality protests have shown us that there is a leadership crisis in the US. We must expect and demand more from our leaders and ourselves. Sign a petition to advocate for something you care about. Attend a virtual town hall with your Congressional rep. Write letters to the editor of your paper. Ultimately, the leaders we choose to represent and reflect us, so we must demand more of ourselves and our elected officials. Hold yourself and your reps accountable. If your rep does not reflect your or your community vote them out. If your rep has in any way undermined democracy or equal justice under the law, vote them out. It is “We the People”, not “We the Corporations and Special Interests” in the Constitution for a reason. We need to remind ourselves that our reps are public servants and should be serving the interests of everyone — black, white, gay, straight, rich, poor, woman or man — as best they can.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
I do not think “resolution” is a reasonable goal. I think that makes us lazy and complacent. Problems evolve, and therefore, we must evolve. Our goal should be steady, measurable progress in how we relate to each other. We need to allocate time, energy in resources to communities of color, LGTBQ communities, women’s empowerment, and disability rights. There is a myriad of issues. None of them are easily discussed or solved, but we must summon the courage to commit to solving each problem that affects vulnerable communities.
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. :-)
I respect Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and I would love to share a meal with her. She is bold, brave and even though I may not agree with her on every single issue, I admire her thought leadership in many areas. She is disruptive in the best ways and she has brought up salient points that have challenged us all. She has a strong voice and as a woman, I know how daunting it can be to speak up and I would love to compare notes with her.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!