in her shoes podcast

Carri Twigg on the Power of Storytelling in Politics and Entertainment

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Anthony Artis

Barack Obama isn’t the only one going from the White House to Hollywood. Since leaving her political career in 2016, Carri Twigg, former special assistant to President Obama and director of public engagement for Vice-President Joe Biden, has worked as a producer and consultant, combining her passion for political change with storytelling. In 2018, she co-founded Culture House Media, a Black-, brown-, and women-owned production company that focuses on elevating stories from marginalized communities and tackling “urgent cultural questions confronting America and the world.” As head of development there, she helped launch two series this year: Growing Up, a reality series about young adulthood on Disney Plus, and Hair Tales, a documentary on Black women, beauty, and hair, currently airing on Hulu and OWN (yes, as in Oprah). But she hasn’t entirely left the world of politics behind. Twigg was recently appointed by President Biden to the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts and the Kennedy Center Board.

This week on the In Her Shoes podcast, Twigg spoke with Cut editor-in-chief Lindsay Peoples about shifting careers, the similarities between the White House and Hollywood — “politics is a storytelling exercise” — and her own hair journey.

Listen and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Lindsay Peoples: Welcome to In Her Shoes. I’m Lindsay Peoples, and I’m editor-in-chief of the Cut. On this show I get to talk to people that we love and admire, and some that we just find interesting. We explore how they found their path, what maybe have gotten in their way, and how they’ve brought others along now that they’ve arrived.

Carri Twigg understands how storytelling shapes our reality. She’s the co-founder and head of development for Culture House Media, a Black and brown and woman-owned production company that centers the voices of those who are most marginalized in the industry. Culture House is behind the series Growing Up on Disney Plus, which came out earlier this fall. It follows the lives of ten young adults as they navigate their adolescent years. Most recently, Culture House produced Hair Tales, which is an amazing documentary series on Hulu and OWN. It tells the story of Black hair through the decades, and features women like Issa Rae, Oprah, and Ayanna Pressley as they walk us through their own personal hair journeys. We talked to Carri about shifting careers, how she started Culture House, and the importance of telling our own stories.

Every show, I do have to start out by asking our guest: What kind of shoes do you have on? If you don’t, what’s your favorite pair?

Carri Twigg: I’m one hundred percent barefoot. I moved to L.A. in February and just went full hippie, so I wear shoes as infrequently as possible. But my favorite pair … it was only after moving to L.A. that I found boots that I’m obsessed with, despite years of living in New York and constantly being in need of them and having places to wear them. So there’s a pair of Phillip Lim boots that I got recently that I’m obsessed with. It’s ninety degrees, one hundred degrees, and I’m in these heavy, hot boots.

Lindsay: What would you also say it’s like to be in your shoes at this moment in time?

Carri: I’m in this moment in my life where I’m on simultaneous and sort of mirroring professional and personal journeys. I’ve been a TV and film producer for the last several years, but now my first shows are coming out. But it’s my second career, which is a journey in its own right. I’ve been a filmmaker and TV producer for the last four years. People ask you, “What show?” and not having a show to point to, because this industry moves very slowly, is interesting. And then my former life in politics and government. They’re sort of coalescing at this moment, which I think is a fascinating professional place to be in. My old career and my current career are intersecting. But then it also is doing something for me personally, where I’m feeling more integrated as an adult. The varying journeys that we all go through, and the varying people that we are over the arc of our life, feel much more in harmony than they ever have. I don’t feel like I’m running away from anything. I don’t feel like I’m trying to forge my path somewhere new or create a new definition. It’s all sort of coming into some integrity, which is really exciting.

Lindsay: What was that process like, going from working in government and policy to producing and being in such a different space professionally?

Carri: It feels really interesting, but at the same time it’s also really familiar. I think that I am still fundamentally someone who’s animated by the idea that society can and must change. And for so many years I did that through campaigns or through policy or through trying to advance legislation or a particular agenda out of the White House. And now I’m sort of doing the same thing through storytelling. I think that if we reflect different stories, if we share different stories that are more in keeping with who this country actually is at the moment, that’s a way for us to be able to seed in the imagination of people what our actual options are, who we can actually be, what this country actually is. And so to me it feels like it’s part and parcel of the same work, just with really different jargon and really different tactics, but the mission feels the same.

Lindsay: Did you feel like certain skills that you developed though in that work have carried over and helped you in this work in any way?

Carri: I do. I think that when you’re working on policy issues or you’re running a campaign, you’re thinking about huge numbers of people. Politics is a storytelling exercise. And so when you’re running a presidential campaign, you’re thinking about the 250 million people that are going to vote. And then you start figuring out what things motivate which group to participate, to care, to listen, to organize, to mobilize, to vote. And it’s not actually that different than when you’re serving an audience with a television show. The Hair Tales is about Black women and our hair and our journeys. If I’m interested in making a show on that topic, I need to think about how that will be received and how I can serve the audience, and who is the audience, and what do they want to see? What do they want to hear from us? What will be emotional and resonant and impactful and inspiring to them? And so in many ways, those skills really translate. Instead of doing them on behalf of a political candidate, I’m doing them on behalf of a television series.

Lindsay: I want to talk about Hair Tales a little bit later, because I have some questions on that too. But I want to start with Culture House and Growing Up for Disney Plus. Tell me a bit about, why that specific project, and what were the highs and lows of working on a show that’s really about young adulthood?

Carri: Yeah. That’s one of my favorite origin stories of anything we’ve worked on. Brie Larson, the actress, director, and executive producer of this series, we met her and she came to us and basically said, “I want to do a show about shame. I’m going through this period in my life where I’m really reflecting on the ways that shame shows up in my life and limits me, or creates barriers or obstacles that don’t need to be there. And I think we should have a more robust conversation about shame. And if there were someone who could have told me at 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, all the way up to 35, that these aren’t things I had to be ashamed of, I might have been freer, I might have been more daring, I might have backed myself or bet on myself earlier in my life.”

And so we really started with that premise, and the group of producers went around and we all talked about the things that we learned, whether explicitly or implicitly, that we should be ashamed of, or things that made us feel unlovable as we were growing up, even sometimes that we’re still working through and still struggling with today.

And it’s like, what would I have loved to free 13-, 16-, 18-year-old Carri from? And let’s talk about that, and how do you make a show around that? And how do you start modeling some best practices around mental health and around care, and not just self-care but also community care. One of the things that we’re really proud of about that show is that it’s all centered around a peer-to-peer conversation. And it’s about them each taking turns taking care of one another. It’s not always enough just to take care of ourselves. We all need to be taken care of by the people who are around us as well.

And so we thought through how we could model that in a show without it feeling like something that they put on VHS and showed you in seventh grade gym class. How can you also make it cool and make people actually want to watch it? It’s entertainment, it’s not an educational device specifically. And so that’s how that show came to be. And I think one of the great lessons of that show is that while we made it with young people in mind, it was healing for all of us as individuals. And I think the response we’ve gotten from so many people from 16 to 35 and above are just like, “Wow, I needed that today. I needed that 10 years ago.” But it’s still right on time. We’re really proud of that.

Lindsay: When I think about work like that, I often think about the fact that people that have come before us didn’t even really have the space to be that retrospective, or just to be able to really think about what things they would want to change, or what things they would want a younger version of themselves to know. Have you been able to reflect on just the idea that you had the opportunity to do that? Because I think that’s also just a privilege that our generation has experienced for the first time in a long time.

Carri: Absolutely. I think we’ve felt privileged at every turn making this series. And for us it was not only about how to recognize and hold onto that privilege and understand that positionality, but also still push for more, and to be like, “This is so great, We’re so grateful that you’re doing this, Disney. We are so grateful for your support, and we would also like this to happen. We would also like that, and we also want to push the envelope and we also want you to approve this person to participate at a position that you think might be a little bit more senior than them, but we disagree.”

So it was still very much how do we recognize and honor and sit and be present with the opportunity that we were being given, but also be really clear eyed, that we were given that opportunity because other people pushed for it? And so then what do we do in that moment to push for whoever comes next?

Lindsay: Speaking of what comes next, we have to talk about The Hair Tales, because I’m obsessed. I’ve been very excited for it to come out for a long time. Tell us about just the project from the beginning. How did Culture House get involved, and what was your thinking around wanting to be on a project like that?

Carri: Yeah, so the concept is really by Michaela angela Davis, who for a long time had been working in hair and beauty and style and fashion, to really synthesize and bring together the scholarship, the artistry, the fashion, the pop culture, and put them all in dialogue together. And so building off of that concept, we worked with Michaela and Tara Duncan, who is now the president of Onyx Collective, to develop a show. How do you actually build a 40-minute episode off of that kind of conceptual work that Michaela had been doing? Once that started to take shape, we were able to take it to Tracee, initially to see if she wanted to participate as an executive producer. And as that conversation developed, Tracee, who at the time had also just launched Pattern, who has obviously been in this space and lived it from every angle over the course of her life, she very graciously wanted to participate as an EP, wanted to participate as a host, and then also really gave us our thesis, which is, for many Black women, you can track their journey of self-acceptance alongside their journey with their hair. Once Tracee brought that to the table, it gave a real shape and clarity of vision to the project, and we were able to really think about, okay, so what does that actually mean? How do we put in dialogue various elements of the ecosystem that are Black women and our hair with that guiding north star? We came up with the show and the concept, pitched it to a bunch of the buyers around town. Were able to broker the first -ver relationship between OWN and Hulu, that it would be simulcast on both of their networks. Miss Winfrey, Oprah, obviously, came on as an EP as well — bought the series, came on as an EP, and agreed to be in an episode.

Lindsay: Casual.

Carri: Oh, I mean, the moves of her, and the casualness of them. It’s the most subtle flex in the entire world. It really felt like … I don’t know sports. I was going to go for a sports analogy, but whatever the best basketball team of all time, like the Dream Team, ’98 Olympics was.

Lindsay: Yeah, I’m a lifelong Bucks fan, so we can say the Bucks. That’s just because I’m from Wisconsin, though.

Carri: There you go. I love this. Mid-Westerners. I’m from Ohio. It just really felt like the Dream Team. And then you have Mickalene Thomas working as a consultant, bringing some of her visual aesthetics to the show, Meshell Ndegeocello being the composer and really helping score the series, all of our guests who are able to participate. My own sister was the production designer.

Lindsay: I love that.

Carri: It was just a full kiki. It was wild.

Lindsay: There’s obviously been a handful of Black hair documentaries. What was it about this that you felt was different?

Carri: I think there were a couple things. I think there’s some documentaries that have been very well done, and then there’s some that have been done from an outsider’s perspective. And so we were really cognizant about whose gaze this is all coming from. It is not an anthropological exercise. We’re not looking from the outside in at Black women and the choices we make around our hair as some anthropological sort of like “why would they do that?” kind of mystery. It was from the very heart of it, and it was a celebration, and I don’t think there should be one show about Black women and our hair. There should be 50.

And for us, it was about adding to the canon of storytelling around Black folks, Black women particularly, and of the extraordinary intersection that our hair can be a representation of. Of our political lives, of our aesthetic lives, of our community and family lives. And that’s what made it so exciting for us. It was an opportunity to work with some of the most fascinating minds and creators that are working right now, on a topic that we all at Culture House could talk about for years on end, which you have to actually do, because it takes years to make these things. And an opportunity to do it in a way that we felt hadn’t quite been done, which for us as makers and creatives is an artistic exercise.

Lindsay: As you said, it was made from the heart and from women of color who have readily experienced it. Why was it so important for you to include the really vulnerable stories of people like Oprah and Issa, and Black women in Hollywood? I’m assuming it’s because it’s a universal experience regardless of who you are, but I’m also curious why that was an important part for you guys to include in the docuseries.

Carri: You said it. There is a common shared experience amongst so many of us as it relates to our hair, as it relates to how we grew up and where, and just girlhood or womanhood, or coming of age, or whatever you have. And hair is as much a part of that as anything else. And so by tracking the journeys of Oprah and Ayanna Pressley, and Chica and Issa, and all of these incredible extraordinary individuals, we also get to remember and see who they were, and see what their lives were like, and what their struggles were before they were at the vaunted place that they are today.

Doesn’t mean that they don’t belong on their pedestals or that they shouldn’t be held in this high esteem, but it’s also really fascinating to hear Oprah talk about rolling down her windows, sticking her head out of it to dry her hair on her way to her little job in Baltimore. I think we all relate to that. And so that experience made her who she is as much as anything else. And so wanting to show that 360, a fully comprehensive and holistic view of these women as people, is really important. It’s not just about the magazine covers, it’s not just about the end of the journey, or the highest moments of their accomplishments. It’s about all the ups and downs that led to the place they are today.

Lindsay: Totally. And then, I was curious also for you, is there a personal time where you felt you had a very defining hair tale for you growing up? Is there something that sparked a lot of interest in you personally in your own life that you felt like you really wanted to make sure that you guys capture on the screen?

Carri: I resonate with all of the stories. There are moments in every single episode that feel like they are talking directly to me, but I think I felt particularly aligned with Representative Ayanna Pressley, having spent so much of my life in politics. The vast majority of Black people who are in elected office are in the Democratic party. And so I very rarely was in all-white spaces. I very rarely was in predominantly male, predominantly white environments. That just wasn’t a part of my career very, very frequently.

And yet I felt very much the pressures around respectability politics and my hair, and whether or not it would be considered professional, and there would be commentary about it. So hearing her talk about her journey with Senegalese twists, hearing her talk about whether or not she was going to wear a wig — I don’t have alopecia, I’ve never been bald — but the underlying emotional arc of that story I think was really deep and resonant to me, and tracked alongside a lot of experiences that I have.

The first few weeks before working at the White House, the number of people who asked me when — not if, when — I was getting my hair relaxed to go work for Black people, it was both heartbreaking and shocking, but also not at all. The particular intersection of respectability politics and Black political life really, really struck a chord with me.

Lindsay: In watching, I was so surprised at just how many intersections there are in the hair journeys of so many different kinds of women of color, and us not even working in the same industry are doing the same thing. And I always felt like it was odd and ironic. I started mostly in fashion publications, and you would think that there was so much creativity, and just that fashion is always supposed to be the most forward thinking and free thinking, but it felt very strict and narrow as far as what were the beauty standards still.

And I remember very clearly when I wanted to start to wear braids, because I liked them and I was obsessed with Moesha and I wanted to try hers specifically, that it was such a big deal to other Black women that I was wearing braids in the workplace. And I think that was something that I really also identified with when I thought about it in the sense of that if you were working around an environment and a space that wasn’t maybe as diverse, that you would experience that. But I think it’s also the same when you are still working with a diverse environment, that there are just beauty standards from the outside world that are inflicted upon us.

Carri: Yeah, absolutely. I had a job in D.C. before the White House, and I’d straightened my hair. I didn’t relax it, I just had a blowout. And I walk into an office, and an older senior Black man on the team looks at me and goes, “Oh, thank God. You look so much better.” And he was like, “I’ve been waiting for you to do that. Thank you.” And I was like, “Oh, I’m going to go wet my hair in the sink right now.” I don’t even know how to … And it wasn’t a 70-year-old uncle, it was like a 40-year-old man.

Lindsay: That’s why Hair Tales is such an important body of work for people to consume and understand and bring into conversations. So I’m very excited for people to continue to see it.

Carri: Thank you.

Lindsay: I want to talk a little bit more about Culture House, because you guys do consultant work with a lot of different entertainment companies, and obviously we’ve talked about specific projects that you’ve worked on, but as a whole, you really do work on establishing a cultural lens in a lot of the work that you’re trying to create. What is that work like at large in the industry? Have companies been open and receptive? Do you find that there is a lot of pushback? Do you find that people are on the surface wanting to make inclusive work and then not really? What is it actually like in the industry overall?

Carri: We started the company in 2018, and really pre-COVID and pre-George Floyd’s murder, people would look at us like we were aliens. They were just like, “What on earth are you talking about?” And then they all fell over themselves and scrambled to work with us, because there is such a dearth of production companies specifically that run production services. There’s a lot of Black women that have production companies in Hollywood. Very few of them actually run from development to edit and delivery the way that we do. So that was interesting and welcome, but also sort of sad in its own right, as you can imagine, and as I’m sure you’ve experienced, right?

Lindsay: One hundred percent.

Carri: And then we’re watching that ebb a little bit. And I think there was a big piece in the New York Times this week about how the push towards diversifying Hollywood has once again started to quietly die a slow death in the background. And while I think to a certain extent that’s true, in terms of the more kind of transactional attempts at inclusion, I do think that there’s just a fundamental reality that has become clear, that the demographics of the country have changed. If you’re under 18, the odds are that you are a person of color. The odds are that you are not only accepting of the idea of a spectrum of sexuality and gender, but that you find that you can locate yourself on that spectrum and talk about it.

And so there are just fundamental realities that you cannot escape if you are someone who is running a business in this country, about where your market share is going, where your audience is already, and the types of things that they want to see. And so even if there is less of a fervor for diverse content, whatever “diverse” means per se, it’s not as though the pendulum is swinging fully back. It can only go so far, because the country is changing and it is who we are. And I think for us at Culture House, we really attempt, through our consultancy and through just the community that we’re trying to build, to support as many people’s projects as we possibly can, whether we’re producing it or not, because the healthier and more equitable and inclusive the ecosystem of storytelling is within the context of Hollywood, the better we’ll do. Right?

Lindsay: Yeah.

Carri: The better you do, the better I do, the better a Hillman Grad does, the better Culture House does. It’s just the reality. And so we really try to make sure that we’re centering abundance and centering community and trying to lift all boats as much as we possibly can.

Lindsay: There’s always conversations around who has the right to tell our stories, who should be telling our stories, and that point of view. Has your perspective on that shifted? Does it matter, or does it just matter if they have the right tools or bring it to the right people?

Carri: I think it absolutely still matters who is making something. I was reading a script today actually, and I didn’t even need to see who wrote it to know that it was a white person writing Black characters. And it was just like, “Oh, well, let me go and Google this person’s name.” Well, yeah, of course. Exactly. So it’s still really evident. And not because they were using the wrong words, it wasn’t as simple as that. It was just like, who would say that? Who would think that? That doesn’t make any sense. It was just this gut feeling. And so I think it absolutely does matter.

I think what’s also really important and that we talk to a lot of our consultancy partners about, is making sure that they’re giving the same resources to BIPOC creators that they are to white creators. And so they’re giving white writers and directors all these consultants, and all these script reads, and all this extra help to make sure that they nail this community, or they do it authentically, or that they represent this character well. And they need to make sure that they’re giving those same resources to Black and brown folks, or queer folks, what have you.

It is not enough to have a certain amount of melanin in your skin. If you haven’t read a newspaper in the last 20 years, then maybe you’re going to miss something. But it shouldn’t be your job. Black people shouldn’t have to be political. BIPOC people shouldn’t have to be political. They shouldn’t have to also wear the dual hat of knowing how to represent a particular group — even if they’re a member of that group — with authenticity or with a particular fluency around a set of circumstances, or around a political or policy issue, in a way that we wouldn’t expect white folks to be able to. And so, how many scripts are they getting? What are their consultants? How many writers are they getting, and researchers? We’re adamant that those resources are shared equitably and equally, and we don’t make assumptions that just because someone looks a particular way that they have the either inclination or lived experience to solve for whatever a potential pitfall is.

Lindsay: Is there a dream project that you would like to work on or that you’re looking for as you’re going through scripts now, or something that you haven’t done yet that you’re like, I’m looking for this right thing and I just haven’t found it yet?

Carri: Not really. Nothing particular. I think if I had a really clear dream project, I would just go make it. I think me, Rae, and Nicole, all three of us, the founders of Culture House, we each have a pet project, and I have a pet project about reparations that I’m working on and thinking about constantly.

Lindsay: I love to bring up reparations in random regular conversations. So I would love to talk about this. I bring it up all the time.

Carri: I can make anything about reparations. If that were a game, I could win it. So my project: reparations, reparations, reparations. But really when I come across concepts and when I come across ideas, I’m always looking to feel challenged. What’s my edge of a concept or an idea? What’s a way to talk about race, or a way to talk about gender, or a way to talk about identity of any kind? How do I feel challenged? I’m always looking for that. I want to feel challenged.

I’m always looking for what feels like the next generation of a conversation. We’ve been talking about race in the same way, as we’ve been talking about feminism and gender in the same way. So I’m always looking for what’s next. Who’s challenging our conventional thinking around these ideas? And doing so in an artful, cultural forward, entertainment forward way that won’t make audiences feel like they are at a sermon or at a lecture. People know where to go if they want a sermon, and we should leave that to that.

Lindsay: And are there any projects that you guys are working on that are coming out, or things that you’re working on right now that you’re excited about that you can share?

Carri: We are doing a three-part documentary with Prentice Penny about a people’s history of Black Twitter, which is super exciting.

Lindsay: Ooh, that’s cool.

Carri: It’s going to be fun. That’s coming out next year.

Lindsay: That’s fun.

Carri: And we’re doing something — I don’t think I can say a ton about it yet — but we are doing something for the 50th anniversary of hip hop, about women in hip hop, exclusively about women in hip hop. That’ll come out next year also. It’s going to be great.

Lindsay: Very cool. I’m so excited for you, and I’m so appreciative to be able to chat with you. Love all the work you’re doing, and thank you so much. This is fun.

Carri: Yeah. Thank you for having me, Lindsay. I really appreciate it. I’m a big admirer of your work.

Lindsay: Same.

Carri: It’s a real joy to be here.

Lindsay: In Her Shoes is hosted by me, Lindsay Peoples. Our producer and editor for this episode is Tarkor Zehn, our engineer is Brandon McFarland, and our executive producer is Hanna Rosin. The Cut is made possible by the excellent team at New York Magazine. Subscribe today at the I’m Lindsay Peoples, and thank you so much for listening.

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