This year’s Walter Kaitz Foundation fundraising dinner on October 12 will be the first in-person celebration since 2019 due to the pandemic. It's also the last will be presided over by the foundation's executive director, Michelle Ray, who is leaving the organization in December.
During her 15 years as head of the foundation, Ray, a former NCTA–The Broadband & Television Asssociation staffer who joined Kaitz in 2006 as senior program director, has overseen the annual fundraising dinner, which overall has raised more than $23 million in grants toward cable industry diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. She also helped launch Kaitz’s annual Hollywood Creative Forum, which champions culturally accurate representation across the entertainment industry.
Ray provided her thoughts on the resumption of the Kaitz dinner and reflected on her accomplishments and legacy at the organization in a recent interview with Multichannel News, an edited version of which appears below.
MCN: Why have you decided to leave the Walter Kaitz Foundation at this point in time?
Michelle Ray: The truth is, over the last year I’ve been dealing with a lot of personal family health issues along with going through the whole COVID environment. I realized that I needed time for me to be the best me. It’s not even about the work. I believe in what we’re doing and I want to be able to give all of my energy to the work that we’re doing.
MCN: Looking back, have you accomplished the goals that you set for the organization as executive director?
MR: I would love to say of course I did, but the truth is we’re not just trying to solve DEI for an industry, for an organization or even for our companies. We’re trying to make societal shifts, because that’s where the real work lies. I think there’s always going to be more to do. We’re not even close to solving all of the diversity, equity and inclusion issues that are part of society as a whole. The death of George Floyd really brought the issues of DEI front and center from a broad perspective as we thought about social justice movements and what we’re really doing as companies and individuals attacking these issues around DEI.
MCN: Having said that, do you think that the industry has at least taken the right steps forward toward dealing with DEI issues within its own ranks?
MR: Again, I don't want to say that we’re all doing great. The truth is we have to do more, and I think there’s a clear call for us to do more. What I have noticed is that I see a lot of companies really leaning in on social justice, especially on the content side. Those companies were focused on making sure that stories of marginalized and disparate people were being told by hiring people who could ideally tell those stories and then they brought those stories to life on our screens. Also, I saw broadband companies trying to deliver broadband to diverse communities who are largely rural. The issues around broadband deployments continue to be an ongoing effort, but I saw everyone picking themselves up and leaning more into addressing a lot of these issues, whether as a broadband company, technology company or content curator.
MCN: Diversity Week is fast approaching, and the industry is gathering in-person for the first time in two years. What effect does being in-person have on the diversity discussion across the various events?
MR: I think being in-person and talking about these issues is more important than ever before. I think it will signal to our industry that as leaders, we all should be joining together for the discussion of diversity, equity and inclusion, particularly since it’s a gathering that’s so specifically curated for our industry. No other industry does this, so if you think about it, we just need to continue to do more of it. I think being around each other is an important aspect of what we’re trying to achieve. What I've realized within the COVID environment when we were largely at home and away from each other is that we needed that human touch. From an interpersonal standpoint, when you’re in a room with somebody, it’s so markedly different from being on a Zoom call or a telephone call.
MCN: What are you personally hoping to accomplish with this year’s Walter Kaitz Foundation fundraising dinner?
MR: As we approached this year’s dinner, I thought because we hadn’t seen each other in years that we wouldn’t do the same things and show up in the same way that we showed up in previous years. My thought was, how do we come back to something that's different? So one of the things we’ve done is we’ve largely retired our Diversity Champion and Diversity Advocate Awards and created a new ChangeMakers Award. It’s really reimagining what we do in acknowledging someone for the seminal work that they’re doing.
One of the honorees is an organization called Human-I-T, which focuses on social justice and works with a lot of companies within our industry to make sure that sustainability is at the forefront of the work that they do. They work closely with Cox, Charter and Comcast. The second honor we had was an individual, Daisy Auger-Dominguez, who is chief people officer at Vice Media Group. She’s an executive and game-changer that thinks about inclusive workplaces and what that should look like. So that was part of the reframing of the awards, if you will, and that will continue to evolve and change.
MCN: The Kaitz Foundation is working with WICT and NAMIC to present the AIM/PAR Diversity Employment Study next week. What should the industry take away from the results of that study as it pertains to its diversity efforts?
MR: It’s the only way that we’re going to be able to benchmark how we’re doing as industry. If we were to walk away from that, it would be a disservice to all of us because I think metrics are an important aspect of the work that we do. If we can’t measure something then we can’t see or understand it. That’s why the study continues to be relevant and important. It requires a lot of support and commitment from the industry and the industry has been very supportive of it.
MCN: Have you considered what your legacy will be at the Walter Kaitz Foundation?
MR: It’s something I haven’t really thought about. I’m in the people business, whether it’s at work or personally, so for me legacy is about making sure that we make connections with people regardless of what aspect of work you’re involved in. So I hope to maintain those connections, and whatever I decide to do after this I hope it still involves touching people. ■
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.