Taylor Jett: Bold like this
Taylor Jett doesn’t like the term ‘diversity’. In her words, “it makes it sound like we’re asking for something ridiculous or unnatural.”
That might just seem like a tiny thing she doesn’t really approve of. It’s important to point out, though, that Taylor has spent a great deal of time and energy working to improve diversity and cultural competency, most recently at her alma mater, Emerson College in Boston.
“A lot of students of color at Emerson were frustrated by the lack of inclusiveness of syllabi,” she said. “We’re a media and arts school, and yet we’re teaching history of media and the arts without bringing up a single filmmaker of color. We’re watching films and every single one of them is about and created by white men.”
While Taylor’s professors tried to justify only showing a whitewashed collection of ‘classics,’ students in other departments started coming to her with similar complaints: journalism students who were told their hair wasn’t appropriate for TV; theatre students of color being told to challenge themselves with white roles, but never seeing white students have to do the same.
As she came to learn more about these microaggressions and systemic inequities, Taylor found herself in meetings with administrators and faculty working to change the academic culture. After negotiating changes in the curriculum, helping to implement a bias reporting system and pointing out the “strong structural changes” that still need to be made, Taylor’s senior spring took a major turn.
She’d missed so much class time attending these meetings that, even after being asked to give the commencement address at her graduation, she was told she would not graduate on time.
“I sort of became a mouthpiece for something that I was happy to be a mouthpiece for,” she recalled, “but then realized that I should’ve also focused more on myself and my own work, and what they were actually going to need from me, for me to get what I needed from them. I just needed my degree.”
Keep it pushing
Even with this unimaginable level of exhaustion, Taylor hasn’t taken a break from challenging inequities and trying to uplift minority voices. In fact, it’s the reason she’s decided to pursue a career in television and film.
“I could be a show runner. I could be a television writer. I could be a producer. I could be a casting director.” Taylor’s job possibilities may be endless, but her purpose is clear: “I just want to be able to position myself, put myself in a place where I can be responsible to produce more stories with minorities, either in front of the camera or behind the camera, telling stories of minorities to larger audiences.”
At the moment, she works in the mailroom of a talent agency in Los Angeles. More precisely, the mailroom at Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which is considered a dominant company in its field. She’s literally starting at the bottom, in a job that doesn’t require the degree she fought so hard for, but she’s thinking multiple years and promotions in the future.
“I’d like to be an assistant for one of the television literary or television scripted agents. At CAA, that’s my end goal,” she said. “From there, I would honestly leave. And I’ve been very open with them about that as well. I have no real desire to be on the selling side of things. It doesn’t fit my personality.” Her next move after CAA? Switch to the opposite end of the business, producing shows and selecting talent. She’s at CAA to learn how the selling side of the business works — it will make her a better buyer.
Planning for the long run
Taylor is familiar with making major decisions that don’t bring instant gratification, but put her on the path to future success. She originally attended George Washington University in D.C. as a business student. After a semester of boring classes and an even more boring internship, she knew she had to transfer. She didn’t have a real backup plan, but she’d always enjoyed film, camera work and theatre, so she started there.
“I remember my friends and I would make a bunch of iMovies over a bunch of stupid stuff in high school,” she recalled. “And then the TV club started my senior year of high school and I was one of the first people to sign up for that.” But it wasn’t until she went to Emerson that she got a better sense of her passion.
“I think Emerson really helped me sort of narrow down my interests and focus more,” she said. “I got a lot of different opportunities to produce side projects or be involved in certain projects and learn from that to decide where I wanted to be in the industry.”
But as a student of color and a transfer, she saw that her options for production opportunities were more limited. In true Taylor form, she found a way to make space for herself and others. She created Flawless Brown Pictures, a group for women of color on film sets. That’s how she got connected with her first major producing opportunity.
“I just started this organization because I didn’t get a chance to produce something at Emerson to the level that I wanted to and so I thought it would be a shame for other women of color to not be able to get that opportunity,” she said. “Through that, Chris realized that I was the person who had created it.”
Enter Christopher Lewis Dawkins, an Emerson cinematography major and director of Loved Like This, a short film that gave Taylor her first chance to lead the production of an independent project. It also got her a trip to New York and a public screening of the film — where it placed in the top three of the Revolt Young Filmmakers Showcase at the Urbanworld Film Festival. Out of thousands of films, she, Chris and young artists from two other projects were selected to attend a second festival in Miami.
The film is currently seeking funding to apply for and attend additional festivals. Beyond the film itself, these events offer opportunities to network with professionals in the business, which Taylor has a chance to do more often since she moved to L.A. over the summer.
“Figuring out how to fundraise cash as an independent 20-something-year-old on the streets of California is going to be fun,” she said. “ But I do think being here is important and having access to so many great people that are here trying to do the same thing — actors, crew members — I think that’s going to help a lot.”
Measuring uncharted territory
As she works to build her network and move through her career, Taylor’s biggest challenge is not comparing herself to others. “Because there are so few other women of color [in this field], I often find it hard to measure where I am or where I should be,” she said. “I always think I should be further. It’s so hard for me to be proud of things because I know what level I want to be at, I just don’t know how to get there.”
While this keeps her humble and hungry, her outlook is also a product of her upbringing: Taylor has spent most of her life in schools and communities where she was the minority. It has been a burden — and a bit of a gift — going through life thinking she has to work twice as hard to get half as much.
“I find it upsetting, belittling, and degrading, and that motivates me,” she said, “but I don’t find the concept itself motivating. I think I’m fueled by the challenge of needing to work twice as hard, but I shouldn’t have to do that.”
Even with mixed feelings on navigating unequal systems, Taylor still hopes to be a role model for young women of color, especially for her younger sister, Sydni. Is there pressure that comes with that? She thinks so. But it doesn’t stop her from aiming to uplift others in everything she does.
“I think it’s a little intimidating, but not in a bad way; I think it’s motivating more than anything,” she said. “I’m probably going to work in a mailroom for a year because I know that the stuff that I’m taking [away] is a lot bigger than myself. The more help I can be to other people, the more people of color will be able to step up into whatever industry they want to be in.”