Between the Internet’s Barbenheimer phenomenon, heatwave headlines, and the recent Trump indictment, you might have missed that six Black women left their prominent film and TV jobs this summer. The senior leaders ran diversity initiatives at Netflix, Disney, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and Warner Bros. Discovery. With rumors swirling that more BIPOC leaders are expected to announce their exits, Jessica Abo sat down with two Black powerhouses in television – GMA3: What You Need to Know’s Catherine McKenzie and Tamron Hall’s Quiana Burns to discuss being the ‘first and only’ Black woman throughout their careers and what they’re doing to foster an inclusive environment on their respective teams.
Behind Catherine McKenzie’s Kindness Revolution
Looking back at her childhood, Catherine McKenzie lights up when she talks about her parents and her hometown. “My parents are Panamanian immigrants. I grew up in Saint Paul and it was great. We would go to the orchestra or to the ballet or the theater, and my dad would be like, ‘we’re the only polka dots here!’”
Her family attended an all-Black church, where she was surrounded by prominent people. Among them were trailblazers like the first Black police chief of Saint Paul, the first Black lawyer, and the first Black judge in Minneapolis. All of whom were just as quick to compliment her on her clarinet skills as they were to praise her reading of the lessons during the service.
McKenzie says both of her parents made it clear that education serves as the great equalizer in life, so they sent her to a prestigious school. Race wasn’t really on her radar until she showed up to a figure skating lesson when she was 10 years old.
“I started doing private lessons, which meant you had to buy private ice time. Just before I went out for my time, my mom overheard a parent say she didn’t want her daughter on the ice with a Black person.”
Being a fast-thinker, her mom approached the woman and asked if she had a dollar in her purse. When she said “yes” McKenzie’s mom pulled out a dollar from her own purse and said, “‘these dollars are the same. We paid the same amount to have our daughters on the ice,’ and she looked at me and said, ‘Catherine, go out and skate.’”
For McKenzie, this early lesson shaped her understanding of what it means to embrace your identity, while modeling how to deal with people.
Over the past 25 years, McKenzie has worked in different news markets, with all types of temperaments, and says she’s used kindness as her compass through it all.
“Everyone who works for me knows my number one rule is no jerks.”
Bringing Together Kindness and Diversity
Kindness is such a strong core value of hers that she launched a whole new series called “It’s Cool to Be Kind” to bring more kindness to our country. As part of her efforts to launch a kindness revolution, she dedicated a one-hour episode of GMA3 to the topic, created a pop-up picnic, and has more installments for the series in the works.
While she’s focused on kindness on the air and behind the scenes, she’s equally driven to champion diversity, given the TV industry’s scarcity of Black leaders in the C-Suite. According to a McKinsey & Company report, “Black women are more likely to face isolation as an ‘only’ and more likely to lack role models who share their identity.” McKenzie hopes being the first Black woman to executive produce a primetime special for ABC News, and holding an EP title at the network level, not only shows people what’s possible for them, but also inspires other leaders to see that diversity goes beyond the color of our skin. “Diversity is not only about race, it’s about what part of the world you are from, it’s about economic diversity, educational diversity – there are many ways to be diverse and we have to embrace all of them,” she explains.
McKenzie believes having so many diverse voices on her team makes it strong and enables GMA3 to create content that makes their viewers feel seen and understood.
Her Advice For Other Women Leaders
While the companies that lost their diversity chiefs move forward with new hires and brand announcements, McKenzie is aware of the expectations that come with this moment in time and shared one final piece of advice for women leaders. “You’ve got to take time to recharge,” she stresses. Whether you’re the ‘first and only’, one of many, a small business owner, entrepreneur, or have a corner office, she says the pressure that comes with being in charge is real; but, you can’t be effective if you put yourself last. “When we were in the pandemic and we were doing zooms, my sign-off was always ‘take care of yourself so you can take care of each other.’”
From News to Daytime, How Quiana Burns Is Putting Diversity Front And Center
Over at Tamron Hall, McKenzie’s close friend, Quiana Burns, is one of two Black executive producers running the daytime program, the other being Hall herself. She first discovered the thrill of working in TV news when she was 15 years old and ran into her parents’ friend at a concert. He had access backstage because of the teen talk show he ran at their local ABC affiliate, and encouraged her to join the program. Little did Burns know at the time, she’d be one of a handful of Black female executives working at ABC News at the national level decades later.
Burns made stops along the way at the University of Missouri, where she majored in broadcast journalism, NBC, CBS, ABC News, MSNBC, and Good Morning America before accepting the Tamron Hall job.
During our Zoom conversation, she shared there have been lots of twists and turns in her life that led her to where she is today. “I grew up across the street from housing projects. I’ve had friends that have died due to violence. I didn’t grow up dreaming about this career.”
For years, Burns said she felt conflicted. “I almost got out of the business early in my career because I was seeing people who were getting promoted or people who were seemingly thriving who were not nice. And I thought, do I have to be that way to be successful in this business? Do I have to start screaming in the control room? Do I have to treat junior members of my team in a certain way?”
After much prayer, and talking with some of her friends and mentors, she found her answers. “I was like, you know what? I don’t have to change who I am. I can still be soft spoken, but still have a strong hand.”
The Influence of the Midwest
Like McKenzie, Burns grew up in the Midwest (Wisconsin). “When I walked into national newsrooms, most people working around me, and in the C-suites, were from the East Coast or the West Coast. They were from Ivy League schools. There weren’t a lot of people who brought a Midwestern mindset and there was a lot of groupthink.”
While she acknowledges there’s been a shift in the right direction, she knows that more has to be done in the diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging space, which is why she was eager to be part of ABC News’ historic launch of its Culture Council. “For a little over a year, we’ve listened to our colleagues and identified things in the areas of retention, leadership, talent development, and workplace culture as far as people being kind to each other.”
The first time she addressed Tamron Hall’s team, she stressed that workplace culture is extremely important to her. Every day, she works hard to create an environment where having an open door policy, taking ideas from everyone, and recognizing staffers’ contributions is the norm. She also makes it clear when bringing someone new onto the team that there is no room for anyone who is unkind.
Throughout her life, Burns says she saw the way her parents and grandparents treated people and she wants to bring that same kindness into the workplace. “I actually think it’s just so ingrained in me that I don’t think I would be able to function if I weren’t respectful of people and kind.”
Burns shared she feels a tremendous sense of pride that Tamron Hall is run by two Black executive producers and she’s overwhelmed by the impact the show is having on its audience. “I think this news cycle for the past three years has been brutal. From the racial reckoning stories, the pandemic, war, it was a lot,” she explains. “Sometimes people just want to turn on something that’s going to make them laugh or dance.” When it comes to the hard subjects, Burns believes people tune into Tamron because they want to feel like they’re getting the news from a friend.
Like Tamron Hall has developed a strong sense of connection and trust with its audience, which the show affectionately calls the TamFam, Burns is trying to change the narrative in the industry at large. “Many times in this business people mistake kindness for weakness. I view it as one of my strengths. My hope is that one day more leaders will truly believe the same about themselves.”