Inclusive communities advocate Justin Thomas

Inspiring Diverse and Inclusive Communities: An Interview with Justin Thomas

9 min read

Diversity isn’t a new concept, yet many leaders still struggle to build diverse and inclusive communities. That’s because these two things don’t always come naturally. They require meaningful changes, intentional actions, and thoughtful decisions; all things that can only be achieved through hard work, research, and by reacting to criticism and advice.


This week, we have been lucky enough to catch up with Justin Thomas, founder, and community leader, of the Black Independent Filmmaker group. After experiencing loneliness in his field of work, Justin quickly realized the need for a support network for filmmakers of color. Thus, the Black Independent Filmmaker community was born; offering a supportive community, resource bank, and professional networking platform all in one cohesive space. 


We sat down with Justin to hear his thoughts on building inclusive communities in today’s society. 

Panion: What inspired you to build your community, "Black Independent Filmmaker"?


Justin: I’ve been a part of the independent film community for the last fourteen years. It has been one of the most fulfilling and rewarding experiences of my life to be able to shine a light on the subjects most important to me through the creative lens of filmmaking. Most of my films deal with social justice and activism as they pertain to oppressed and marginalized demographics, as well as a broader thread underscoring the importance of community.


After years of working on set and collaborating with other filmmakers, I discovered that I often felt isolated and alone within my own filmmakers’ community. I have a genuine love and respect for all of the colleagues that I have befriended and collaborated with; at the same time, there was an underlying disconnect where I did not feel truly seen. Mainly because of the disparities in the representation of people of color within the independent film landscape. 


It can be difficult to truly have comradery and connection with your colleagues when, in so many ways, you long for peers who can understand and identify with the references and experiences that you pour into your art. On the one hand, it is beautiful that we all have the opportunity to give each other a glimpse into our respective backgrounds and realities and share our stories collectively to the world – that, in fact, is the essence of being a filmmaker or an artist of any kind. At the same time, it is harrowing to feel that you are under-represented and marginalized in a creative space that is of such value to your core identity.


As it turns out, I was not alone. There are filmmakers of color across spectrums and disciplines who have experienced similar feelings of isolation and disconnect. In recent years, I have had the privilege to find various groups and organizations in my adopted home of New York City that exist solely to provide a forum and space to allow us, as Black and Brown filmmakers, to be seen, and to feel acknowledged. 


What I also learned, however, is that while there were many groups that existed within their own space – whether online or in person, often through separate websites or utilizing third-party platforms such as Facebook or Instagram – there was not a space that harnessed all of these resources collectively into a singular, go-to platform. 


After doing research, I concluded that there was a dire need to have a mobile app that could foster an ecosystem of mutual support and cultivation of collective knowledge, opportunity and collaboration within a standalone template similar to LinkedIn or Facebook. Thus, the concept for The Black Independent Filmmaker App was born. It is the first mobile app created, and curated, specifically for independent filmmakers of color, consolidating resources into a single app and providing a forum for us to build a network of peers and mentors.

Panion: What are the biggest challenges in society that people need to tackle to build more inclusive communities?


Justin: This is a question with many answers, but I will coalesce them into what I feel is the most critical and urgent. Most importantly, there first needs to be an acknowledgement and then an understanding of the hierarchal means by which our societies are constructed, and how this system disproportionately impacts communities and demographics at the bottom of that social ladder.


In order for everyone to have access to a fair and even playing field, by which to realize the fullest of their life’s potential, those at the top of that hierarchy need to own that they have privilege within that system and volunteer to work in solidarity with these marginalized demographics – women, communities of color, the poor and working-class, the LGBTQ community, immigrants and refugees – to dismantle that very system. 


It takes a level of ownership of and responsibility for one’s entitlements to find it within oneself to engage in divesting from the very societal norms that gave you those entitlements. It requires tremendous moral clarity and courage that not everyone possesses. But, hopefully, through meaningful interaction, exposure to people of different backgrounds and social standing, and education on cultures outside of one’s lived experience, it is something that will become more prevalent.


Empathy opens up an opportunity where all of us can live out our life’s mission and purpose and thrive together as one community, while still respecting and celebrating the differences that make us unique from one another. In order for a community to successfully be more inclusive, it must have the ability to empathize, the willingness to learn, and the impetus to encourage equal representation for all of its members. Only then can we move forward as a more balanced and just society. 


This is true both for physical community spaces as well as digital ones. It’s precisely why it is imperative for anyone who takes it upon themselves to launch and host a mobile app community to be completely invested not only in its overall collective mission but the distinctive goals of its inter-communal demographics as well.

Panion: What are your top 5 recommendations for community managers that want to create an inspiring and diverse community?


Justin: 1) You should be experienced and knowledgeable of the purpose that unites your community in a shared commitment and mission. When you are the host of a community, its members will often look to you for mentorship and guidance. It should go without saying that you need to be both passionate and well informed of the subject matter that unifies and drives the app collective.


2) You should always be open to critiques (and even criticism). None of us are perfect, and therefore the communities we build will not be either. Taking that into account, you are going to make mistakes along your journey to creating a successful and thriving community. Do not take the criticism personally, but consider the validity of people’s feedback and be open to stepping outside of yourself and assessing where you can improve. Building a sustainable community is an ongoing process, and it requires consistent tweaking and refinement.


3) Do not get discouraged if the level of participation within your community is not initially where you would like it to be. It takes time to build a loyal user base, and it will not develop overnight. Encourage interaction and activity within your community by cultivating interactive Q&A’s, member competitions, virtual classes and workshops, and other means that drive user engagement. It is also important to build a routine within the community so that members can look forward to their favorite posts or events within the app from week to week, month to month. Once the user has established a habit of checking their notifications on a regular basis, this inevitably will drive activity on the platform.


4) Be open to partnership and collaboration with other communities and organizations, particularly those that focus on a similar purpose and target demographic. Do not feel intimidated or threatened; you should look beyond seeing them solely as competition. They are potential brand ambassadors for your business. What I have learned in my first six months as an app community host is that there are so many entrepreneurs and start-ups out there who are willing and ready to work with you to pursue a common goal and reach a shared audience. Do not be afraid to reach out, introduce yourself and what your community’s mission is, and offer to partner on events/projects. You’d be surprised how open and receptive they will be to your proposition.


5) There is a saying that any successful individual – whether in business, in the arts, in sports, in politics, or virtually any other aspect in life – is only as good as the team behind them. This is absolutely true, particularly for the host of an app community. There are multiple moving parts to launching a sustaining app, and as your start-up grows and becomes more successful, the level of tasks and responsibilities can get overwhelming for any one individual to handle. I am myself at a point where I am being forced to consider hiring at least one other person in the coming months to assist with the daily and monthly functions of running the business. 


Assembling the right team is absolutely essential to the success of your start-up. If you find yourself in the same boat, I would advise looking for people who share your vision and are committed to working for not great pay in the beginning but are willing to build with you from the ground up because they believe in it. These people will not be easy to find, but they are out there. The two most important character traits that one must possess to launch a start-up community are tenacity and patience. There will be moments of great progress and accomplishment, but there will also be setbacks. You need to ride with the setbacks as much as you celebrate your achievements. It is what I am still learning for myself, and it is the best advice I can give.

Panion: How can Panion, as a community management platform, be an ally for diverse and inclusive communities? What excites you about what we are building? 

Justin: Panion has already made the critical first step in positioning itself as an ally for diverse and inclusive communities by taking on the challenge of acknowledging that there is a lack of diversity within the entrepreneurial community space. 


As I mentioned earlier, there needs to first be recognition and understanding that there is a problem before there can be any meaningful action to change it. Now that this necessary first step has been established, Panion can make it a priority to seek out, champion and offer support for entrepreneurs from under-represented communities. By providing them with a space of inclusivity, encouragement, and access to vital resources, this will begin to level the playing field for people from diverse backgrounds to have equal opportunities to share their voice and build meaningful relationships. I am eternally grateful to the Panion team for offering such support to myself and my app. 


With first-hand experience building a diverse community, Justin Thomas has built a network that continues to bring together and support filmmakers of color. Here at Panion, we understand the importance of diversity and inclusion when it comes to building a community. Everybody needs a safe space where they feel safe, respected and comfortable expressing their identity. Ultimately, that responsibility lies with the community leader; the person that will influence members to welcome everybody into the community with open arms, encourage cultural integrity and celebrate each other’s differences.

headshot of blogger Lily Jones
Lily Jones
As a contributor at Panion, Lily waves the flag for communities across the globe. You'll find her here most weeks, chatting with influential community managers, sharing tips on how to build a community and helping users to find their own corner of the community world.