Highlighting our DNEG Black Voices group
Juneteenth acknowledges and celebrates the end of the Civil War, and the emancipation of Black Americans in the United States on 19 June 1865. Similar to Juneteenth, Emancipation Day is celebrated in Canada on 1 August and marks the actual day in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect across the British Empire.
We met with Ashante Spence (Team Assistant), Cynthia Louissaint (Show Production Manager), and Kirk Cunningham (Production Coordinator) at DNEG in Montréal, who are all members of the DNEG Black Voices group, to find out more about Juneteenth and Emancipation Day, and the vision behind the Black Voices group:
Hi everyone, thank you for being with us today! Could you start by telling us what days like Juneteenth (US) and Emancipation Day (Canada) mean to you, and how you celebrate them?
Cynthia – Hi! Celebrating a day like Juneteenth is important because we remember the emancipation of slaves – ancestors who made our lives of freedom here possible. But we also remember that this freedom came at a price. We usually celebrate with cookouts in the park, and spending time with friends and family.
Ashante – To be honest with you I have never celebrated Juneteenth or Emancipation Day. I knew of Juneteenth but I had never heard of the Canadian Emancipation Day until being a part of the DNEG Black Voices group. My experience with these days have been pretty limited until now, but this year I plan on seeing my family, celebrating together and raising awareness around me about these two days.
Kirk – Juneteenth and Emancipation Day celebrate my ancestry’s freedom. Although the Canadian House of Commons voted in March 2021 to officially designate August 1 Emancipation Day, and recognise that Black and Indigenous Peoples were once enslaved in Canada, I have been celebrating Emancipation Day for years! It’s also the lead-up to a weekend celebration called Caribana (Toronto Caribbean Carnival) that recognises the Caribbean and African community with music, art, food, and parades. It is a time when we get to highlight and share our culture with other communities, illustrate the contribution that the black community makes to society and show that we exist.
As active members of the DNEG Black Voices group, can you tell us a bit about yourself, your background, and what made you want to start or join the group?
Ashante – I started at DNEG Montréal as a receptionist in October 2021 and I’ve moved up to a Team Assistant position since then. I wanted to start DNEG Black Voices to create a safe place for black employees, providing them with support and resources. We also discuss issues that black people are facing, and educate everyone willing to join us around these issues.
Cynthia – I’m a Show Production Manager here at DNEG Montréal having worked in various roles across VFX production; from a department manager in Advertising to freelance producing all over Manhattan & Brooklyn. As a Haitian-American fairly new to Canada, my culture and being part of a close community is important to me which is why I appreciate a group like Black Voices here.
Kirk – I started at DNEG Montréal as a Runner in January 2019 and I am currently a Department Production Coordinator. Overall, black representation in the industry is still an issue and, depending on the department you are part of, the number of black employees fluctuates – it can create anxiety when you are ‘the only one’. I joined DNEG Black Voices because I was looking for a place to share my experience and hear from others in the company. It is important to me to be part of a support group.
Can you talk about the group’s mission/purpose, and your vision for it?
All – Our vision is to create an environment where everyone feels welcome, a space where black people can get support if needed or wanted. We want to use this group to influence and also inspire black youth who want to get into VFX, essentially showing them that they have a place here at DNEG and in the industry. It’s about holding the door that has been opened by black pioneers in this industry, and make it a little bit easier for the black community to walk through.
We have a wide variety of employees who are in the group. From VFX Supes to Tech Runners, black employees and people who would like to learn about the black experience here at DNEG and in general.
Why is it important to have a group like DNEG Black Voices within our studio?
Ashante – It is important to have a group such as the Black Voices at DNEG, and at any studio, because it is crucial for black people to feel safe and heard. It gives us a voice in a predominantly white industry.
Cynthia – Over the last several years, in the wake of so many attacks and tragedies targeted at the black community in North America, I’ve found it harder and harder to partition the emotions but also the calls to action between work and life. Having a group available to the community here at DNEG no longer forces people to ignore or suppress such a big part of their identity and gives space to grapple, heal and celebrate the complexities of what it looks like to be black in this part of the world.
Kirk – DNEG Black Voices is inclusive of all people wanting to learn and hear about the Black experience. It is a safe space to understand, empathise, support, and even act to positively impact the lives of black people. Some conversations are more challenging than others, yet necessary.
What is it like to be a part of the Black community while also working in the VFX industry? Do you feel that the community is supported by the industry as a whole?
Ashante – As it has just been a few months since I’ve joined this industry, I don’t really have much of a statement on what it is like to be a part of the black community in VFX. It is part of the reason why I wanted to make this group. I definitely feel as though there was a hole that needed to be filled and I think this group is a great step in filling it.
Cynthia – What I do love about the VFX industry is how consciously inclusive I have found it to be, at least in the last ten years with the teams I’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with. The relative newness of the industry as well as its global reach, makes it a great space to foster and support various people groups, including but not stopping with the black community.
What is your vision for the future of the VFX industry’s Black community?
Ashante – My wish is for black people within the VFX community to get recognition for all of the hard work they have done.
Kirk – As much as we have made great achievements in front of the camera, we need more black people behind the camera! I’d like to see more community outreach happening, tutoring, and investments in black organisations and programmes that introduce the industry to black youth. For instance, Career Education and Empowerment – Centre for Young Black Professionals (CEE) offers a 6-month VFX course in Toronto. Oftentimes the traditional approach to learning is to go to a private institution or post-secondary school but those tend to be very expensive or one needs to have previous experience in the industry to apply to the program with a professional portfolio. Programmes like the CEE are really important as they offer people an alternative opportunity for success, and the ability to learn without worrying about the financial burden because the programmes are free.
As an art form, do you feel that film and television has a particular power or role when it comes to supporting the Black community? Do you have any recommendations?
Ashante – I definitely believe that film and TV have a huge role when it comes to supporting the black community. I think that because as viewers we need to see stories that talk about the black experience as well as just leading black stars, not to say that there isn’t any in current media but I believe there could be more.
Cynthia – I completely agree with Ashante. Black representation matters in the media we consume. To commemorate Juneteenth, I highly recommend the film “Harriet” (2019) directed by Kasi Lemmons. It’s an incredibly moving film about the fight and sacrifice for African-American freedom from slavery in the U.S. (Streaming on Netflix).
Kirk – “Roots” and “Amistad”!
A last word?
Ashante – I’d like to thank DNEG for supporting this resource group and for allowing us to be heard.
Cynthia – Agreed, a huge thank you. Supporting groups like these, especially in these remote-working times, bridges the space between the brilliant people we work alongside each day.
To find out more about Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at DNEG, our employee-led groups, programmes and partners, click here. And if you are interested in joining our team and building your career at DNEG, check out our open positions.