Once Oscar winner Frances McDormand ended her acceptance speech with the two words “inclusion rider,” so many people Googled the phrase that inclusion became the most-searched word of the night on Merriam-Webster’s site.
In the entertainment industry, a rider refers to special provisions of a contract; in this case, the agreement would require producers to involve a certain level of underrepresented groups in the cast and crew in order for a prominent performer to take part.
The concept was proposed by Stacy L. Smith, director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, in the Hollywood Reporter in 2014, as a way to have “women, people of color, people with disabilities, and members of LGBT and marginalized communities who are traditionally underrepresented be depicted on screen in proportion to their representation in the population.” Earlier this month, actor Michael B. Jordan of Black Panther became the first A-list actor to promise he would adopt the inclusion rider in contracts through his company, Outlier Society Productions.
The aims of the inclusion rider, in the context of the film industry, seem straightforward: to incorporate more diversity on screen and behind the scenes, thus promoting employment and capturing more accurately the diversity of human experience.
However, the concept of the inclusion rider has also raised questions of legality, particularly if possible quotas would actually violate certain nondiscrimination laws, like the federal Civil Rights Act, which protects against discrimination in classes such as race, national origin, and sex.
An article in the American Bar Association Journal reports that Kalpana Kotagal, a partner with Cohen Milstein’s civil rights and employment practice group, helped Smith develop the concept of the inclusion rider.
Kotagal rejects the notion that the contract clause amounts to a quota. “We certainly set guideposts and targets, but we definitely don’t dictate an outcome that would do anything but make the film more diverse,” she said. “What we do is to encourage those who are engaged in hiring and casting to in fact hire and cast in a way consistent with a demographic. Do we require that? No. Is there wiggle room or a buffer? Yes.”
Oscars viewers immediately began chatting about the potential for inclusion riders beyond Hollywood, including a few Christian leaders suggesting that prominent speakers similarly push for diverse lineups in their agreements. As certain faith-based organizations, ministries, and churches take the opportunity to engage the national conversation over representation, and perhaps even bring up inclusion riders as vehicles for diversity, a key consideration will be how this pursuit advances their sacred missions.
What Hollywood and the Faith Sector Have in Common
While working in entertainment may seem far from the realm of religion, the two sectors actually have some legal ground in common. A film set and a faith-based organization (such as a congregation, a Christian college, or ministry) both represent atypical workplaces, and due to the nature of their work, each has been granted special exemptions from standard employment nondiscrimination laws.
Casting characters for a film is a unique kind of artistic endeavor. A very narrow legal protection, called the bona fide occupational qualification, helps protect casting directors who seek select actors for specific roles based on categories that are typically protected against discrimination, such as sex.
Religious organizations have their own affirmative legal freedom to take faith into account when hiring. Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 bans employment discrimination based on religion (among others) but includes an exemption protecting religious staffing by religious organizations. The law acknowledges that faith-based organizations cannot fully live out their faith-based missions without the opportunity to hire those who share core beliefs.
Already, many filmmakers and Christian organizations have been able to staff their projects in distinct ways specific to their mission; with the ongoing call for greater representation, some will make greater efforts toward removing barriers to participation as yet another way to further their core purpose.
How Inclusion Relates to a Christian Mission
Many ministries have good reason to proactively pursue new board members, staff, volunteers, and conference speakers who are representative of the communities they serve. Improved diversity can be essential for mission advancement, good for the bottom line, and imperative for achieving the desired impact in their communities.
Inclusiveness shouldn’t be understood as an imperative to have policies or even goals that demand certain demographic representations no matter what. It cannot merely be viewed as demand on a contract that they should work to satisfy. Instead, ministries and other faith-based organizations must examine the ways improved diversity in specific areas would help them better achieve their own mission.
Even when recruiting among fellow believers, there’s a chance for ministries to consider proactively addressing policy and cultural barriers that may lead to unequal opportunities in employment for certain groups. For example, organizations that want to see more women advance into leadership could consider adopting policies such as paid family leave, flexible scheduling, telecommuting options, and breast-pumping areas.
Such shifts often begin with recruiting, and leaders play an important role in encouraging diverse candidates to apply.
“White organizations who want to be more inclusive can build relationships with faith communities of different background,” said Angeloyd Fenrick, founder of a housing ministry in southeast Washington, DC. “It will take extra effort to engage and get candidates to apply from different racial or ethnic backgrounds if they don’t know anything about the context of your organization.”
For example, a faith-based mentoring program that serves predominantly African American youth may opt to recruit staff and volunteers who can relate to the socioeconomic or cultural experiences of their mentees in order to better fulfill its mission. According to a report entitled Youth Mentoring: Do Race and Ethnicity Really Matter?, “Cultural differences do influence the expectations for and experience of mentoring relationships. When youth had the opportunity to choose their own mentors, they preferred mentors from their own racial or ethnic background.”
How Inclusion Efforts Could Impact Faith Representation Too
In the nonprofit sector, funders may also start to adopt preferences resembling inclusion riders in their agreements or at least continue to emphasize the need for projects to involve or benefit more diverse populations. This opens up an opportunity for faith-based organizations to emphasize how inclusion should bring more religious groups to the table.
Inclusion requirements that prohibit funding organizations that hire based on shared faith may actually marginalize many citizens and organizations in the communities these foundations aim to enliven. Though ministries should be wary of seeking money from funders who do not support distinctively religious organizations, they work to educate potential partners about the nature of their work, their mission, and their community impact.
In working with Sacred Sector—a group of about 35 faith-based organizations, many of which are small, minority-led urban ministries—I’ve watched funding go to organizations outside of the local community and context when these ministries are excluded because of their faith. Often, these larger, outside organizations end up relying on the local faith leaders to essentially volunteer their time and efforts to help the outside organization navigate how to serve a community it may not fully understand.
Research has shown the efficacy and sustainability of local ministry. One study found that despite having fewer financial resources, black houses of worship in Philadelphia provided more social programs to their local communities than other congregations, especially health care, early childhood education, and programs for at-risk youth.
How Ministries Might Respond
The inclusion conversation coming out of Hollywood shouldn’t merely blow past us in the church. Christian ministries and others in the faith sector have a chance to carefully consider how a holistic, rather than formulaic, vision of inclusiveness can empower them to advance their missions. For many, this starts with looking within to remove policy and cultural barriers that may make it difficult for women and minorities to apply for jobs or advance into leadership.
But faith-based organizations should also speak up for their place in efforts to make community engagement more inclusive and representative. This means looking to outside partners and working to educate funders and local leaders about the importance of inviting distinctly religious entities to the table.
As we work to improve representation for the sake of our own faith-based missions, we also want to be welcome in the inclusive public square that we are trying, across difference, to create.
Chelsea Langston Bombino is the director of Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. She holds a JD from the University of Michigan School of Law and is licensed by the State Bar of Michigan.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 60+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more