Pursuing a creative career is a privilege that’s most often afforded to people from a certain demographic.
Lack of representation in the creative industries means most of the content created in the U.S. is coming from a very narrow perspective. Shannon Castleman, founder and director of Church Hill’s Oakwood Arts, sees this as a disservice to all and something everyone should want to change. “To become a truly equitable society, our media landscape needs to reflect the rich diversity of our country’s entire population,” Castleman says.
Having lived, taught, and made art all around the world from Singapore to Saudi Arabia, Castleman was shocked to discover how segregated Richmond still was when she returned after a 20-year absence. What she’d learned from her time away was that Richmond is full of innovative creators and art seemed to her a possible vehicle for much needed change.
“My contribution has been to work with others to create a space where professionals working in the fields of film production, and art and design can provide mentorship, and access to creative opportunities for those who are currently underrepresented in those industries,” Castleman explains. “Making room and holding space for those voices has the power to change us all for the better.”
Launched two years ago, the Oakwood Arts Job Education Training (JET) is a training and job placement program that creates access to positions in film and television for emerging creatives who have an interest in, but not necessarily the opportunity, to work in these industries. Demonstrating the soundness of the program, to date OA JET participants have worked for productions from AMC, Apple TV+, Hulu, Netflix, and Showtime. Since the beginning of 2021, 31 program participants have worked more than 1,685 paid days on film sets, filled 57 positions on union productions, and earned more than $323,000 combined.
- Courtesy of Oakwood Arts
- Cecilia Nguyen, graduate from Oakwood Arts JET’s second cohort working in the camera department on the set of OA JET production’s short film “On The Night Wind.”
First registered apprenticeship in Virginia
Now Oakwood Arts has partnered with the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry’s Registered Apprenticeship program to establish the first registered apprenticeship in Virginia offering career pathways in the field of motion picture and video production.
As part of the Virginia Registered Apprenticeship program, Oakwood Arts has registered the occupation of multimedia producer. Although the multimedia producer apprenticeship program is the first occupation to be offered through Oakwood Arts, it has plans to add more apprenticeships in fields such as lighting technicians, still photographers, costumers, and video editors.
Andy Edmunds, director of the Virginia Film Office, sees the Oakwood Arts JET program as not only teaching transferable and marketable skills to otherwise undeveloped pools of talent, but also changing lives in a positive way. “We’ve been successful in providing employment opportunities on significant recent productions in Virginia,” Edmunds says. “A registered apprenticeship program is a great step towards developing a benchmark of industry skills to get people in the door.”
Under the new program, apprentices will receive technical training from Oakwood Arts in their chosen field; work with industry-standard software and industry-specific equipment; and receive an hourly wage working for Oakwood Arts and industry partners’ productions. In exchange, they’ll commit to a 12 to 18-month program, meeting requirements set by VDOLI and taking several supplemental courses through the Virginia Community College system.
That’s a long way from 2017 when Oakwood Arts hosted their first program, a film industry career panel at Armstrong High School, where industry professionals shared their experiences working on film and television productions. “Creating a pathway through our state’s registered apprenticeship program creates access for those who haven’t had the means to pursue the traditional paths … which is arts education at university followed by several unpaid internships,” Castleman explains. “Becoming a registered apprentice means that participants will receive a salary for on-the-job training and related technical instruction at little to no cost.”
- Courtesy of Oakwood Arts
- OA JET participant Jasmine Elmore mentoring program participants, Aasia and Laniyah, on how to use sound recording equipment during the 2022 spring break sound design camp.
Alliannah Hamilton got involved with OA's JET program when they were offering opportunities to work on season two of “The Walking Dead: World Beyond” in Richmond.
“This was the perfect opportunity for me to work a dream job of mine that seemed impossible to obtain before learning about Oakwood Arts,” Hamilton says, adding that it helped her develop skills, gain knowledge, and meet people who helped advance her career. “This experience changed me by breaking me into an industry that I feel was perfect for someone like me: a neurodivergent creative who had trouble finding paid creative opportunities.”
She’s since worked in the set decorating department as a set dresser on the Apple TV series "Lady in the Lake," as the location coordinator on Netflix's original film "Rustin," and as a production assistant in the art department and health and safety department on “The Walking Dead's World Beyond,” season two. Hamilton has also worked as a production designer and director on several music videos for local artists, as well as directing her own short films.
Before joining the JET program, Hamilton was determined to make a living doing what she loved, keeping faith that she’d find a creative role because she was a hard worker with a natural talent and a wide range of creative expertise. “It was a dream come true, but it took a long time before an opportunity presented itself that actually excited me,” she recalls. “With the JET program growing and expanding, it will offer more people like me life changing opportunities.”
At the end of the day, Oakwood Arts is creating career opportunities and building skills that bridge the gaps caused by structural racism and inequities in the educational system.
Castleman is justifiably proud. And not just because the program helps aspiring artists find jobs they wouldn’t have normally had.
“[They] also find mentors they can relate to and look up to so they, too, can picture a future for themselves as creators.”
To learn more, visit Oakwodarts.org