NBPC Executive Director, Leslie Fields-Cruz, Discusses Her Mission for Black Programming

At the time we reached out to Leslie Fields-Cruz, the long-time executive director of the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), the unfathomable tragedy that is now unfolding with the vile arrest and mysterious death of Sandra Bland hadn’t transpired.

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Bland, 28, was pulled over by a Texas trooper for a traffic violation and ended up being brutally questioned by the officer before being tossed in jail. She was found hanging in her cell by a jailer and her death is still being investigated despite officials insisting it was a suicide.

Unfortunately the theme of race has sadly remained crucially embedded in the fabric of a country that was practically founded on the premise of robbing the dignity of natives in order to dominate and secure economic independence and power.

The trend continues today, and the lives at stake are increasing by the minute as one by one, people of color are targeted and massacred by law enforcement and citizens who feel inspired to be lone rangers by terrorizing those they deem worthy.

2015 is turning out to be another Bloody Summer and a continuation of the Chilly Winter of 2014 that preceded it which forced the formation of the now reverent #BlackLivesMatter – an anthem borne from the bloated testimony of lives that have been unjustifiably extinguished because of the cowardly tendency of racial injustice.

As we approach the middle of summer, racial relations haven’t improved as images of victims who have been cut down in the prime of their lives keep piling up and media outlets are scrambling to keep up with the urgency of being the first to break the heart wrenching details of yet another senseless murder.

Leslie Fields-Cruz, who heads the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC) is in an enviable position of being able to wield her influence in ways that can efficiently convey the black experience without distortion or needless censorship. In response to the racial unrest that continues to the grip the nation, Fields-Cruz has strategically designed a programming schedule that will aim to educate and enlighten viewers with explicit knowledge of what it means to be “Black in America”.

In her statement announcing the films that have been added to the roster, Fields-Cruz proudly reiterated the illustrious tradition that has allowed the organization she heads to be able to remain steadfast in its quest to engage all Americans in constructive dialogue brought on by the documentary programs they have been funding for more 35 years.

Fields-Cruz took it a step further this time by collaborating with the National Minority Consortia, Center for Asian American Media, Latino Programming Broadcasting, Pacific Islanders in Communication, and Vision Maker Media, in an effort to create a more comprehensive compilation that will encompass more than just the black-white conflict. The discussion is being expanded to include other races of various religious and sexual orientations in order to propel the authentic American experience.

Aside from encouraging people to make the time to watch as many of the titles on the list as they can accommodate, Fields-Cruz also recommends giving kids the opportunity to join in the discussion through public screenings at schools or even watching with parents who are ready to answer any questions that pop up.

It’s a valiant endeavor and especially poignant now more than ever, and we were lucky to be able to find out more from Fields-Cruz about this latest project that will hopefully help lesson the ugly spell of intolerance directed at groups of people that are deemed vulnerable to these specific attacks.

MTB: How does your current position in a medium that has the power to alter lives dictate your overall mission?

LFC: That depends on what you mean by “power to alter lives.” If by “lives” you mean those who work in the medium as producers, directors and production personnel, I believe that the National Black Programming Consortium’s (NBPC) programs are crucial to the professional and career development of Black media makers and media makers of color. NBPC’s programs can alter the life of a media maker by serving as the first funds in on project, connecting a younger producer with a seasoned producer for mentoring, hosting a webinar about producing serial content for broadcast or the web, creating access to decision makers or acquiring an emerging maker’s first major documentary for our AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange series. NBPC’s programs and services are designed to help media makers move up from one level to the next.    

If, on the other hand the phrase is directed at audiences or viewers, then I prefer to use the word “influence” rather than “alter.” The medium has the power to influence our behaviors and opinions, but it can’t alter them. NBPC has distributed a variety of programs that explore the history and culture of African Americans and Africans of the diaspora—stories about civil rights activists, poets, musicians, dancers, artists, political movements, human rights, slavery, colonialism, race, social justice and education. We intentionally seek to support programs that define blackness as not just one way of being, but as many ways of being. Could any of the NBPC-funded films alter the racist attitude of Dylan Roof? That’s hard to say. But, it is possible that the films we have funded may have had some influence on the opinions of scores of Americans who now see the confederate flag in a different light.

MTB: Can you give us a comprehensive summary of your background and how it positioned you for your present requirements.

LFC: While a grad student in the cinema studies department of New York University, I started working part-time at Media Access New York and at the NYU Television Center. Media Access offered insight into media rights activism and advocacy, while the television center introduced me to the practical side of media production. I was also involved in a number of small student productions, produced a music video for a local band and joined a collective of media artists of color who pooled their resources to produce two short independent films.

Later, I served as the membership director at the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. Much of my work at AIVF was centered around identifying a variety of resources to help independent producers in all aspects of production—funding, producing, distribution and training. It’s been more than 15 years since I worked at AIVF, yet the demand for resources remains the same! 

My experience in philanthropic giving came from a nine-month gig at the Creative Capital Foundation, coordinating the Multi-Arts Production Fund (MAP). The role of philanthropic giving is important in the arts, particularly for independent artists with projects that may not be seen as commercially viable by the mainstream media. Unfortunately, some documentaries about the “unconventional” black experience fall into this category. 

I joined NBPC in December of 2001 to oversee the organization’s program development fund, coordinating the grant-giving process and working with producers to ensure they meet their contractual obligations to NBPC. After a few years, I began to oversee the distribution of NBPC’s funded programs to PBS. I moved into the position of Director of Programming in 2007, and shortly thereafter launched our signature series, AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange. In 2012, I was promoted to VP of Operations and Programs, where I continued managing distribution and the Program Development Fund and oversaw the operations of the New York City office.     

MTB: The current climate forces us to recognize the racial strife permeating through every facet of the nation, how do you hope to use your position to
help educate and facilitate progress?

LFC: As Executive Director of NBPC, I want to position NBPC in such a way that it will always be able to support filmmakers who want to tell stories about the black experience, particularly stories that will have an impactful effect on its viewers. In order to do this, NBPC must continue to invest in talented producers, connecting them to resources and funding that allow them to compete in a very difficult industry; we must continue to feed the multimedia pipeline with content that challenges simplistic notions of the black experience; and we must continue to support outreach campaigns that effectively use media as a tool for change.

MTB: Tell us what your latest venture is and how it will provide meaningful impact?

LFC: NBPC 360, our program fund and professional development incubator for TV, Web and multimedia projects, was launched last fall to bring innovative stories about Black life, whether nonfiction or fiction, to fruition. Sixteen talented producers spent six weeks incubating their project ideas. Each team was paired with a mentor, attended weekly professional development seminars and participated in weekly pitch sessions to hone their pitches. Four producing teams—two broadcast and two web projects—won between $50,000 to $100,000 to produce their pilot projects. Each of the projects has a social justice aspect. The broadcast series My Africa Is is bringing new stories about contemporary Africa to the fore, challenging the prevailing narrative of pain and suffering and instead showcasing the innovation of young people across the continent. POPS web series shows the challenges and triumphs of black fathers and will have a robust outreach and engagement component. The Pixie Dust web series takes up mental health in the black community. Street Cred, a broadcast series, is working to empowering our youth.

In partnership with Silicon Harlem, we are planning a Hackathon this fall. The Hackathon will bring together technology developers and filmmakers, who will, over a 48-hour period, develop a prototype for a game that allows users to interact more fully with the broadcast and web stories. All NBPC 360 Fellows will be invited to participate in the hackathon.

Additionally, our funding priorities over the next two years will focus on funding documentary and web content that explores issues of race and social justice, with an emphasis on black male achievement, the international black woman, the environment and economic inequity.

The selected films and many others can be found in your local library, at museums and online, as well as on VOD, PBS.org and PBS.