Former employees of Level Forward, a production company developed by Abigail Disney in response to outcry over years of Harvey Weinstein’s myriad abuses, say that the company, founded by two white women, was still a racially tone-deaf and culturally insensitive place to work.
Level Forward is responsible for helping bring about Tony Award-winning plays like Diablo Cody’s Jagged Little Pill stage adaptation, What the Constitution Means to Me, and Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play. But the people who helped make those feats happen say that, on the inside, the woman-led company was plagued with many of the same problems as many start-ups: unclear delineations of responsibility meant that employees, particularly women of color, feel overworked and undervalued by comparison to white colleagues, and lack of HR meant there was no one document or formally address these problems. Also, former employees say that co-founder Adrienne Becker was almost willfully obtuse about the challenges non-white women employees face in Hollywood but also in general on a daily basis. Per The Hollywood Reporter:
“Despite the progressive ideals, Becker, who is white, often seemed ill-equipped to handle racial and cultural issues on staff, former employees say. “I know what the Latina experience is, I lived in Miami,” she said during a conversation about Latino issues, according to two people who were present. In the fall of 2019, Level Forward held a three-day anti-racism summit off-site in New York, run by the organization People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. When a facilitator asked white attendees to think about how they may have benefited from being white, Becker said she couldn’t think of one way, according to multiple sources who were at the off-site.”
Another former employee, Tracie Dean Ponder, a Black woman, told the Hollywood Reporter that when she returned to work after being out of town, two white employees had taken over her office and she was offered a windowless conference/storage room instead, to which the company said their open floor plan meant that no one had a designated space. She also says that she was promised equity in the company in exchange for reduced pay as she developed an “online job networking platform for women in entertainment” but was told she would need to work with Level Forward another year to receive that equity upon completion of the project—despite the fact that a white woman who had completed a similar project was given equity. To that allegation, the company responded, “The contractor [Ponder] was paid for all invoiced work, and in anticipation of delivery of the project, was offered a compensation package including a meaningful equity stake.”
While starting a woman-led company with the mission of stopping the all-too-frequent sexual assault and harassment of women subordinates by male executives is a sadly necessary goal, unfortunately, even when sexual assault and harassment is out of the picture, start-up culture is often brutal and exploitative, particularly for employees of color. These problems will continue to persist as long as the privileged few control the employment opportunities of everyone else in a broken system that allows for the shoddy treatment of workers who have little recourse for addressing their issues in the workplace. “Why don’t you just quit?” is a moot question when there is no place better to go.