Combatting Media Misrepresentation One Comic at a Time

Kravis Lab for Social Impact’s “Korner Office” is a spinoff of David Gelles’ “Corner Office” column in the New York Times’s Sunday Business section. The Korner Office includes snippets of conversations with changemakers and social entrepreneurs. This column was written by Kravis Lab for Social Impact’s Media & Marketing Team Lead, Abby Parrish ‘23.

For Black History Month, the Korner Office is featuring Black changemakers and entrepreneurs who have turned small investments into big businesses.

While volunteering at a local elementary school, Tony Weaver mentored a young Black boy named Nazir. When Halloween was just around the corner, Weaver remembers asking Nazir if he was going to dress up as his favorite superhero. In response, Nazir said that he couldn’t because he didn’t look like him and was going to dress up as CJ from Grand Theft Auto instead. This experience highlighted how widespread misrepresentation of African American males in the media, which resonated with Weaver. So, at just 20-years-old, Weaver founded Weird Enough Productions, a media company that uses comic books and media literacy to combat media misrepresentation of Black men and other minority groups.

Tony Weaver is the founder and CEO of Weird Enough Productions. There, Weaver “developed The UnCommons, an award winning webcomic with over 800,000 readers. In 2018, Tony made history as the first comic writer to ever be selected for the Forbes “30 Under 30.” He was named a History Shaker by Coca Cola, a Global Barrier Breaker by Marriott International, and a Champion for Change by CNN.”

Besides your experience with Nazir, were there any other experiences that led you down this path?

I would say that the experience that I had with Nazir was the conclusion of my origin story. I would say that Weird Enough Productions is something that I’ve been working towards for my entire life. Throughout my entire life, I was told that Black people were a minority. However, I was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, so I felt the complete opposite. There was a monolithic idea of what it meant to be a Black man in Atlanta and I was expected to be things that I wasn’t. I never felt like I fit into the mold that was set for me. Working with Nazir opened my eyes to the reality that there’s an entire generation of kids that are dealing with exactly what I had to deal with, and I wanted to help them.

What is your purpose?

When we look at representation, the majority of the time, we say, “Representation is important because it changes the way people see themselves.” While that’s true, we can’t just plop a person of color at the front of a storyline, consume it, go home, and call it good. And that’s what happens in a lot of media. Media is so powerful, so if we can repurpose it, especially for educational purposes, we have something very special. I want to build the next Disney, but instead of building it on the backs of people, I want to build it with the support of people.

How has Weird Enough Productions changed since it was founded?

When I founded Weird Enough Productions, it was 2014. This was in the wake of the Ferguson unrest. After Michael Brown was shot, the media portrayed Brown as a thug. And I asked myself, what if we told stories that showed a different perspective on minority groups that were constantly being misrepresented? So that’s what we did. We started with a web series called Weird Enough to Work, which centered upon the experiences of students of color on predominantly-white campuses. However, I realized that while we were creating positive images, we weren’t doing anything to combat the negative ones. And I told myself that if I showed a fourth grader a lot of positive images, but he still saw a negative image, there was a deficit there. And that’s when we pivoted and started teaching kids media literacy. We started a short film series called Shades and Hues: A 21st Century Black Experience, which was very in-your-face about issues surrounding biased news reporting, police brutality, and toxic gender norms. Ever since, Weird Enough Productions has used media literacy to create systemic change.

How did you land on comic books?

When everything started to take off, I had to figure out how I was going to scale the business. I thought about entering the film industry, but I knew that films were expensive and that we had a lot of stories to share. I knew I needed a different medium, so I thought about comic books. This would allow us to tell stories that had educational lessons, but weren’t educational in nature. I wanted the comic to be able to stand by itself outside of the classroom. So, I took the idea of media literacy, distilled it down into five core competencies, turned each of those competencies into superheroes, and removed media literacy from the equation. My goal was to write the stories with enough depth that it could be tied back to something educational if they were presented in an academic setting.

Did you ever consider a more traditional job outside of entrepreneurship?

During the 2016 presidential election, my phone kept ringing off the hook because people knew me as the guy who taught kids about how to combat fake news. It got to a point where I was about to graduate from college and couldn’t keep up with the demand. I had a job offer from NBC, but I got an $80,000 grant through a fellowship from the Echoing Green Foundation and I wanted to pursue it. And I remember my mom thinking, “You went to college, graduated with a degree in communications, and now one of the largest media companies in the world is offering you a job, and you haven’t accepted it?” She thought I was crazy, but I wanted to see what I could do as an entrepreneur at a time when our work was needed more than ever. Everything took off from there.

Were you ever intimidated by the risky nature of entrepreneurship?

I grew up with very little and I remember having a conversation with my parents and telling them that I wasn’t afraid of anything. Upward mobility is hard in this country, but I came from two people who managed to make it happen. To my mom, excellence is not something that we aspire to achieve. It’s not something that we reach for. It’s something that we inherently have and we just need to draw it out. I try to embody that idea.

What advice would you give to someone who is trying to figure out what they’re interested in and want to pursue as a career?

Everyone’s path needs to be rooted in the question of what makes them happy. When you’re honest with yourself, you can look at that institution and kind of figure out how it works. My high school teacher had an exercise called The Bridge to Reality where he said to look at yourself 20 years in the future and imagine yourself as happy as you can be. Now work backwards from there and that’s the path that you’re supposed to follow. I always tell kids to start now because they have time to fail.

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