Equity for Black Artists in the Entertainment Industry


Acting Secretary Julie Su giving a speech at a podium with a sign that says "making equity real" in the background.

In celebration of this year’s national Black History Month theme, "African Americans and the Arts," the Department of Labor hosted an event titled "Making Equity Real: Creating Career Pathways and Good Jobs in the Arts." Through a series of live performances and a panel discussion hosted by Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su, we highlighted the contributions of Black artists and workers while addressing equity issues in the arts and entertainment industry.

Our panel featured a group of talented and diverse dancers, labor leaders, theater workers, actors, performers, senior officials from the Biden-Harris administration and elected officials. Each of these panelists discussed the importance of the arts and the integral role that unions play in achieving equity for Black workers, and other workers of color, in the arts and entertainment industry. 

We were joined by Maria Rosario Jackson, Ph.D., Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), who gave opening remarks that detailed the work that NEA does to implement Executive Order 14084 Promoting the Arts, the Humanities, and Museum and Library Services. This executive order, signed by President Biden in September 2022, aims to unlock new opportunities, and ensure that artists and arts workers are trained and fairly compensated for their work. Jackson, who is the first African American and Mexican American woman to serve as NEA Chair, discussed her collaboration with union leaders to combat historical challenges faced by Black workers and marginalized communities. Through collaboration with HBCUs, minority serving institutions, and union partners, NEA is committed to setting industry standards for worker protections to ensure all artists and art workers thrive, including through prevailing wage requirements attached to all federal funding issued by the NEA. 

Acting Secretary Su delivered a powerful speech, emphasizing the necessity of creating good jobs – jobs that allow people to live full lives to do the things that they love – particularly in the arts, for Black Americans and the economy and country. She brought attention to the challenges that Black workers face, the need for racial justice, and the importance of closing the racial wealth gap. Our event shined a light on just how crucial unions are to achieving equity for underserved communities. 

The numbers are clear. The data shows us that unions help ensure more equitable outcomes for all workers, especially for Black workers. According to a report issued by the Economic Policy Institute, Black union members see a 14.6% increase in wages from being covered by collective bargaining agreements, which is above the 13.5% average wage increase for unionized workers overall. 

Throughout the panel, speakers shared their personal experiences as Black artists and union members, discussing union benefits, mentorship and the transformative impact of art on their lives:

  •  Actor-performer Ezra Knight, who serves the SAG-AFTRA New York Local president, applauded recent contract wins that led to improved lighting for darker skin tones, and hair technicians skilled in working with diverse hair textures.
  •  IATSE Local 22 member and Kennedy Center Production Shop Steward Frank Brown emphasized the role of unions in creating opportunities, offering training, providing health and pension benefits and ensuring fair pay for arts workers. 
  • AGMA Dancers Vice President Antuan Byers and American Federation of Musicians Legislative-Political Director Alfonso Pollard discussed how mentorship within the arts is not limited to the art itself, but also encompasses teaching others about organizing and collective action to ensure fair pay and benefits.
  •  Actor, director and playwright Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who serves at the Executive Board first vice president of Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, discussed how education and exposure are fundamental to allow artists to know what opportunities and spaces exist and for institutions to know and value diversity on and behind the stage. 
  • Congressman Maxwell Frost spoke to the importance of how designing talent pipelines that provide diverse artists to explore and develop their craft is key to training the next generation of arts workers. 

To close out the event, Calandra Hackney, assistant executive director for the Eastern Region at the Actors’ Equity Association shared how vital unions are in the fight for change, diversity, and equitable wages. She encouraged continued activism to amplify the voices of Black art professionals by demanding access to decision making positions and standing in solidarity with union colleagues in other industries. In closing, “Making Equity Real: Creating Career Pathways and Good Jobs in the Arts” celebrated the work of unions in supporting Black workers and underserved communities, showcased the leadership and advocacy of arts workers working toward lasting and sustainable improvements for all in the entertainment industry, and illustrated the need for continued partnership amongst all of us to ensure equitable career opportunities for all workers including artists. 

Nicole Jackson Mansch is the Chief of Staff in the Office of the Chief Diversity and Equity Officer. Alaysia Black Hackett is the Chief Diversity and Equity Officer in the Office of the Secretary.