Powerful Women: Let's Talk – 86: Leslie Fields-Cruz
Leslie Fields-Cruz joins Jennifer Moss for this episode of Powerful Women: Let's Talk. Leslie is the executive director of Black Public Media, and the executive producer of the award-winning series AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange.
Leslie Fields-Cruz is the executive director of Black Public Media, and the executive producer of the award-winning series AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange. Leslie serves on the board of directors for New York Women in Film and Television and is an artist, producer and arts administrator who advocates for authentic representations of people of color. In the ’90s, she pursued an acting career, but quickly decided she preferred the director’s chair and working with youth.
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>> Produced by women about women. Powerful Women, Let's Talk is a series of interviews with women who are trailblazers and have helped shape our world, transforming who we are and how we live.
Jennifer Moss: Hello everyone. It is time for Powerful Women, Let's Talk! Thanks so much for joining us today. I'm Jennifer Moss and it is a pleasure to bring you today's powerful woman from the National front out of New York, Leslie Fields- Cruz. She is the executive director of Black Public Media. She's also the executive producer of the award-winning series Afro Pop the ultimate cultural exchange now enjoying its fourteenth season. Afro Pop has garnered several awards and is still the only national public television series focused solely on stories of the Black experience and to that point, Leslie is an artist, a producer, and an arts administrator who advocates for authentic representations of people of color. In the nineties she pursued an acting career but, then decided that she preferred the director's chair and working with youth and so we're glad to welcome you, Leslie to Powerful Women, Let's Talk.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Thank you Jennifer. Wow, as you were talking through that I was like my oh my.
Jennifer Moss: Oh, yeah. But wait, there's more, there's more. I got a little bit more before we get into our conversation. I also want to mention a couple more things. Leslie is also the co-executive producer of the Peabody award winning 180 days inside an American High school and from 2013, she's a Ford Foundation just films Rock with Fellow and was named one of Crain's New York's 2021 Black business leaders. She's also a board member of New York women in film and television. She continues also to direct youth theater at New Era Creative Space. That's a youth community organization serving Peekskill New York and she lives in Cortlandt Manor, New York. She’s got a musician husband and is a mother of 3. So again, welcome Leslie. All of that, I had to get it all in first but, I want to thank you so much for joining us today.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: My pleasure, happy to be here.
Jennifer Moss: So, let's start by talking a little bit more about your role as the executive director of Black public media and the importance of having a national public television series focused on the stories of the Black experience.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Well, I mean, I have been with Black public media, it used to be known as the National Black Programming Consortium. I joined them in 2001 Yeah, it's been that long. Sometimes I have to think like, wow I've been here for 20 years and you know, since I joined. I had been working with independent filmmakers and I had this opportunity to join as you can see and I was like, okay, I’m helping the independent filmmakers and we're trying to get the stories about the Black experience on public television. So I was like this is great, this is going to be the best job ever and so and you know, obviously it has been because I'm still here but, one of the things that I noticed early on was that we would fund projects and then they would come in, we would acquire content and we would try to reach out to the national strands like Independent Lens or POV and say you need to look at this film you know we want it. And then, you know, at one point right around 2008, I was just sort of left with all these different titles from throughout the African diaspora that didn't have a home and I was like, well, we could try to distribute these with American public television individually but, that would take a lot of time. It would just be too much.
Jennifer Moss: It’s cumbersome to try to do each individual piece.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Yes, to try to do each individual one so I said, well, let’s have our own series and so that's how Afro Pop launched. I was the series producer at that point, our executive director was Jackie Jones at the time. She was like Leslie this is great, let’s go for it and so we did it, and now 14 seasons later we're still running with Afro Pop. We have a great slate. You can actually binge everything right now if you go to PBS dot org of if you through your Roku you can watch all five of the titles. We've had stories from the US, from the UK, from throughout the continent, Africa from Brazil, Australia, I mean, you know, we really for us to the series is an opportunity for us to show the breath of the Black experience and that, you know, there's just no one way to be Black, right? There are several and multiple ways and so that is the celebration of that series.
Jennifer Moss: And tell us how Afro Pop came to be. How you kind of spawn that idea and get that idea going?
Leslie Fields- Cruz: So, I had actually attended a film market in South Africa and had the chance to go watch the South African film called Hip-Hop Revolution and it was the story focused on how hip-hop, which had been imported from the U.S. during the early 1980's a time of apartheid, about the young people and youth at time, which I'm like that was me. They used that as a form of disruption as a way to undermine what was happening with the apartheid and then the South African artists started to create their own hip-hop music and it's sort of flourished and the documentary was the history of its evolution and how they've really created their own form of hip-hop with a very South African flavor and South African stars. So, I saw that and I went wow, I love this story and I'm an African American. I think this story would resonate with other African Americans in the US, so I came back. I contacted the filmmakers. She was interested and I said I'll be back in touch and I’m going to try to bring this film to the states. So, I came back and then I also came across three other films at the market. We had a couple of those that we just acquired from other parts of the world and I said, you know, let's create this series this was like when I was with POV, and Independent Lens they didn’t want it so OK, let's have our own series that way we don't have to try to market each one of these individually we can market the series and that's really how it came about and so now I'm the executive producer because I’m also the executive director of Black Public Media and the series is just doing really, really well. One of last season's films Mama Gloria, was nominated for a GLAAD award.
Jennifer Moss: Oh wonderful. Congratulations.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: We’re excited to be able to bring you stories to public media and to make sure that the public no matter where they are, no matter who they are can engage with this dynamic experience.
Jennifer Moss: That was going to be my next question was looking at the authentic stories and looking at the Black experience but, it's not just for Black people. I mean, the whole idea of getting the story out is for multiple cultures, to learn and dive into and appreciate right?
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Absolutely, absolutely. I mean, I think that one of the things that is exciting here in the United States is that we have all of these different cultures, right? So, we can learn from each other. I grew up in Southern California. I had friends from all walks of life and you go to someone's home, you learn something about them, something about their culture and so you know, I'm sort of feeding into the curiosity that we have as human beings to want to know and understand who our neighbors are because they really are our neighbors. There are South Africans who live here in the states that have had children who are here in the States, there are Nigerian Americans, there are Caribbean Americans. We're all here and so these experiences speak to them and they speak to the broader population of people. Anyone who's interested and just understanding and knowing about another culture you know, people of another culture or the experience of another culture.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. So, Leslie, you have quite the accomplished career on this journey. Are you enjoying the journey? Let's delve into what Leslie is talking about as she delves through and continues on with these award-winning series and being the executive director but, are you enjoying this journey?
Leslie Fields- Cruz: I mean, it's funny. I was talking to my parents the other day and my sister who's out in California with them and she said you got to watch this film is part of the series you know and my parents were like oh we’re so proud of her and then my mother said, she said, yeah, but, you know, if she doesn’t like it, she wouldn’t be doing it. And I think that's sort of been throughout my career, whatever work I wanted to do, whatever job I had, it had to be something that I like. It had to do something that I believed in that there was a mission or something attached to it. I'm one of those types of folks. I really want to make, I want to bring goodness into the world, and light into the world. I want people to be informed and so this type of work feeds that and then of course, because I’m an artist. I like films, I like documentaries, it just sort of coalesced into this like, okay, Black Public Media, this is where you're at and so I really enjoy what I do. And when I stop enjoying it, I will probably retire.
Jennifer Moss: And move onto something else. One of the other things I read that you like to do is that you like working with youth and as we talk about powerful women, how important is that work? Because you do direct a youth theater, is that correct?
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Yes, yes. When I first started and you know, I graduated with a background in psychology but, I always liked to work with young people and when I moved to New York, I was like, I'm going to be an actor and then I quickly figured out like I need more control. You know, but, one of the things that I enjoyed was that I started interning at a youth theater company and I just enjoyed being able to work with young people using theater as a way to teach them how they can work together, what it means to collaborate and how to work through differences with each other when you're actually trying to put something together to share with an audience or with the world. I was also excited because young people come to the stage and they come to theater with just open minds and open hearts and just willing to try anything, you know, sometimes you have to pull them back slightly you know, we're not going to do that.
Jennifer Moss: Right but, they haven't been set in stone at that point so, they're open to the idea of creativity.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Yeah, exactly and I think that's what I enjoy most about working with young people is that they just, you know, at that age, they're malleable and they also bring their own authentic selves. I guess it goes back to me want to ensure that whatever I work on that it’s authentic and so that the youth bring their own authentic selves into the room, into the classroom, onto the stage and into the theater and we create some really powerful work. We just did during the pandemic, we created a project called Melanin Magic and we realized that with the pandemic and with the George Floyd event going on, the young people needed to find a way to talk about it, to speak about it and so we just brought them together all online and we have them write and they created spoken-word pieces. One of my co-teachers had written us short play so we brought it to the children. They reworked it and added things that they thought language, dialogue, that was natural for them. They put their own spin on it and so we put it together and we streamed it. We just sort of did a screen version of it and then we kept working on it and then in June when we were able to when we're able to go outside, we presented it on Juneteenth and it was really fun. The kids had a great time and they felt empowered. They felt empowered because it was their voice and they were sharing it with the world. So it's good work and you know, every year I’m like do I have time for this? I always have time for it.
Jennifer Moss: You’re going to make time it sounds like if you don’t.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Yeah.
Jennifer Moss: So looking at kind of your personal life as you've traveled your careers path, kind of your journey, we often talk about barriers that women face. What maybe some of the barriers that you perhaps have encountered and how did you then move forward from that?
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Well, I mean, as a Black woman, I have faced various barriers and one of the ways I overcome it is one, that I don't explode. That's not how I respond to things. When I sense that I'm being discriminated against. I stop and I say I got to figure it out, I got to talk to this person, we need to have a side conversation because this is how you made me feel and I'm not going to tolerate it and if you don't know that, that's what you did, to me, I’m informing you so you don’t do it to another person. So that's some of the ways in which I've been able to handle some of the adversity as a Black woman that I have faced and then there were other there were other instances, one a youth theater that I was the artistic director for. I would direct the director and I thought that they were having issues. They were racist. I'll just put it out there, they were racist, but they didn't realize it and there were things that they said. We were interviewing this young Black man and he was talking about his work in some of the New York City jails. He was doing some theater with the inmates and she said they didn’t mistake you for an inmate did they? And I was like ok Leslie you can’t explode the young man was so excellent, you know. He laughed and was like absolutely not you know and I knew right away we gotta hire this man, he’s going to be great working with the kids and going into their schools and after the interview I talked to the executive director and I said, do you understand what you said? And she really didn't get it and I knew right then and there I was probably going to have to leave and a few months later I left because the board wasn’t going to hear me. They loved her but, I said, well, I don't know if I can work with her and the teachers that were there were excellent and the work that they did that the kids was wonderful but, I knew that if I stayed it would just become too difficult and so I was like, OK, let me leave and I left. I ended up going and working at Creative Capital, which was a better fit for me.
Jennifer Moss: Handwriting kind of was on the wall on that one. So, as you deal with those types of barriers though, how then over time did you find that inner voice? You know, how do you get comfortable in your own skin so that you can say that you don't explode and that kind of thing? So women often have to find that that inner strength which would be their voice and in speaking out their truth or whatever that might be to journey forward. So how did you find your inner voice? Get comfortable in your own skin. You know, how did you get comfortable in your own skin?
Leslie Fields- Cruz: You know, part of it is just aging.
Jennifer Moss: That’s true.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Experience. You know, I like to laugh a lot. I try to take people for where they are you know, and if I can learn something. I always look for people and I can always learn something from them, they can learn something from me and then just taking chances and deciding, okay, I'm going to speak up, I'm going to say something and sometimes when I say something, sometimes it's written. It's not always a verbal conversation, sometimes it's a letter that I need to write because I have to express myself because I'm so upset, I'm so frustrated. Writing a letter allows me to take time to make sure that I'm choosing the right words to get across my point.
Jennifer Moss: Do you have the 24-hour rule?
Leslie Fields- Cruz: I do have 24-hour rule usually when I'm out speaking, I'm like, wait 24 hours before you contact the program officer to find out why you didn't get *inaudible* you know but, yeah, I give myself that 24 hours because you really need to think it through and
Jennifer Moss: Mull over at a little bit.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: And so I think the older that I’ve become and understanding who I’m speaking to and the people that I'm surrounded by, I know I could have a conversation with and I know who I need to write a letter to and I think that's what has come with experience like when you have to address what for some people, you know, they might have their blinders on. They don't get it but, for me it's a delicate conversation, but it's an important conversation.
Jennifer Moss: So, with all your work at Black Public Media and beyond, I know you work with and encounter a lot of people. What type of leadership traits do you look for as you work with people? Especially being the executive director there.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: I look for people who want, you know, this might be cliche but, go-getter attitude. I look for people who aren’t afraid to pull up their sleeves to get the work done. People who have better ideas than I do. Right? To me those are parts of leadership that they're willing to go up, take a risk and try something new. Those are some of the things that I look for and I also like to look for people who like to laugh you know?
Jennifer Moss: That’s key, that’s so key to me.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Laughter is so important and also being able to laugh at yourself because we're going to make mistakes. People who are too hard on themselves are always constantly striving to be perfect. Being perfect is fine but, it's not the end all be all and we're going to make mistakes. It’s whether or not you learn from those mistakes. Those are the things that I look for when hiring at Black Public Media and right now I have just the best team at Black Public media and we are a force to be reckoned with I could not be happier with the people that I work with.
Jennifer Moss: Well, good for you So, let's talk about your work life balance. I know you have you have 3 kids. I don't know their ages but, how do you manage? Because it sounds like you're very busy. Your work-life balance there.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Well, they're much older now. My youngest is 16, I have 2 adult children. So I don’t have to worry about them. They're working on their own, which is good but, I will say for those women who have younger children. I was fortunate to have a husband and at one point he was a stay-at-home dad and that was very helpful for me. It wasn't always the case he’s a musician so, sometimes he's on the road but, we really tried to work together to coordinate, you know, our childcare and everything else and then, you know, I mean, the one thing is that was I was lucky and fortunate enough at Black Public Media when I was hired, I was hired by the founder , Mable Haddock, and I told her, I said, listen, I have to be out of here by 4:45 because I got to pick up my child from daycare. She was a mom, she went, I got you. No problem. You know when Jackie Jones took over, she was a new mom and I just had my last child and I said listen when I come back from maternity leave, I want to work from home 2 days a week and she said, oh, I get you because my daughter is a year older than yours. We can make that work and so we did. So, I think if you're in a workplace that is flexible as a parent, you should use it because it was important for me to be home as much as I could when they were young, but at the same time it was important for me to do the work that I do. I'm not going to say there were things that I just didn't go to. I wasn't going to lot of the conference's and when you’re in New York city there’s like a film festival and industry this and industry that. There was a period of time where I just wasn’t there.
Jennifer Moss: Yeah, there's a sacrifice involved, but it's worth it. It’s worth it.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: It was worth it and now I went to an event last night. I brought my 23 year-old.
Jennifer Moss: Absolutely. That's the fun of it all how it turns around. You know, it kind of goes full circle. You have a different relationship, but it's just as much fun or more sometimes.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Exactly, exactly.
Jennifer Moss: So what are some of the ways near New York City or you're on the outskirts, it sounds like you're on the outskirts a little bit but, what are some of the ways you guys relax and have fun with your family and friends?
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Well, I like to go walking. So, I live in Cortlandt Manor. It is near this small town called Peekskill. It's right along the river and so I go I walk my little dog. So that's a way for me to relax. I re-discovered roller skating so now the whole family has roller skates. So now we drive an hour up the way to go to the roller rink to go roller skating. I read and I watch other films that aren’t documentaries.
Jennifer Moss: So you can enjoy another realm of that.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Absolutely. I’m a sci-fi buff. I watch a lot of sci-fi and my family they’re DC and Marvel comic folks so we watch a lot of those when we want to relax and I do have a rule and I make sure my staff follow the rule as much as they can and it is that the weekend, is sacred. You know, don't call, don’t email unless it is absolutely necessary.
Jennifer Moss: Yeah. Something has to be really major to interrupt the weekend.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: And after a certain hour, you know, and like when we're working on a big project. We know that there's going to be late nights and so, yes, there will be things that happen but, when we're not. You know, 6 o'clock is 6 o'clock. Stop working.
Jennifer Moss: You set some boundaries. That's a good deal. My favorite question, what makes you laugh? Because you've already mentioned laughter a couple of times, which I think it's just key and it truly is I believe good for the soul. So what makes you laugh?
Leslie Fields- Cruz: A lot. I laugh all the time as you can see. I make myself laugh, I you know, I think human beings are funny.
Jennifer Moss: On the day-to-day.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: On the day-to-day. You know so I don’t know if I can pinpoint one thing that makes me laugh, I just enjoy life.
Jennifer Moss: And that's a good thing. It doesn’t have to be specific.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: You know, I try to find happy news in whatever I'm doing and joy even when I'm struggling, even when I’m frustrated, or something, or someone has made me upset. I try to find that cloud where I can just like, you know what, one day I'm going to be laughing at this and so that's my joy. And then of course working with young people. I do that when I when I'm teaching, it's on a Saturday and I don't think I've ever left a session when I haven't laughed.
Jennifer Moss: Yeah. kids will do it. Absolutely. The kids will do it. So Leslie, so much happening in our world these days. Do you have a kind of a standby or favorite quote, or thought or saying that you kind of rely on to encourage yourself or others even?
Leslie Fields- Cruz: I do. I actually I come across quotes but, I don't always remember them. This one, my friend mentioned and I said I’m going to have to keep this one for myself and it is a Zora Neal Hurston quote and I love Zora Neal Hurston, and it says sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry it merely astonishes me. How can anyone deny themselves the pleasure of my company is beyond me.
Jennifer Moss: Haha. That's a good one.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: And you know that was when I was talking about discrimination and sexism like how could you do that?
Jennifer Moss: Yes, like you don’t even know me. You want to get to know me and then you won’t feel that way.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Right and when you think about it in the broader sense of Blackness and being a woman it’s like how could you not want to know who we are? I don’t understand that. It’s beyond me.
Jennifer Moss: It’s beyond me and you let it rest with that. Leslie Fields- Cruz, thank you so much. I very much enjoyed this conversation. I want to thank you so much for joining us today on Powerful Women, Let's Talk. I also want to thank all of you for joining us for another edition of Powerful Women, Let's Talk. Do you enjoy the day.
Leslie Fields- Cruz: Thank you Jennifer.
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