Meet Trey Ellis: ‘The Tuskegee Airmen’ Screenwriter and Educator

Emmy-nominated screenwriter and multi-genre author, Trey Ellis, has penned some of black America’s most-loved films, such as The Inkwell (1994), Good Fences (1993), and HBO’s The Tuskegee Airmen (1995), which starred Laurence Fishburne and was based on the true story of a group of African American pilots in World War II.

The Stanford University alum is the recipient of a Peabody Award, multiple NAACP Awards, and is also a novelist, journalist and playwright; having written the novel Platitudes, a play titled Fly, among others, as well as articles for The Huffington Post and The New York Times.

But Trey Ellis is more than just a multi-talented writer; he’s also an educator, having taught in the film program at Columbia University School of the Arts for eight years.

Tell me more about your role as an educator and your strategies for balancing your multiple interests.

Ellis:  I always wanted to be a writer since elementary school. About eight years ago, the opportunity came to teach screenwriting at Columbia University. I don’t think it’s so much a challenge, but a privilege. I can make a living writing all of the different things I like to write.

The balancing act is more: if I have something to express I decide, ‘Is this a book? Is this a novel? If it’s a book—is it fiction or nonfiction? Is it journalism? Is it a screenplay, a play or a television show?

I teach [my students] that storytelling is storytelling, [it’s] expressing human behavior in some sort of way that’s interesting. What I’m trying to do is ‘pull’ out from my students what’s already inside of them. I like to talk to them and guide them to tell the stories they want to tell, the way they want to tell them.

What are your thoughts on the exceptionally high costs of M.F.A. programs and the increase in their popularity?

That certainly is the number one issue that we at the school wrestle with—working to bring the cost down and [bring in] more financial aid for everybody who needs it; which is most people.

There’s been an explosion of arts M.F.A. programs but I think, in general, graduate school is much more the norm.

During the recession they’re weren’t any jobs and a lot of people went into M.F.A. programs. There is this kind of culture these days that says everything can be taught. In the past, a lot of things just worked under, sort of, an apprentice [like] program.

As a writer who has written in multiple genres, what most inspires you?

To have an audience respond. The idea that I can express something and hold their attention; especially these days when there’s so many different choices, feels really good.

To learn more about Trey Ellis, click here.

 Written by Rebecca Nichloson. Originally appeared on

Women of Color Are Ready to Lead. Xerox CEO, Ursula Burns, Shows Us How It’s Done.

Black women are infamously known for strength, admirable audaciousness, and a seemingly unending capacity for love and personal sacrifice. But in addition to this, we also dream big.

According to Black Women Ready to Lead, published by the Center for Talent Innovation, a private-sector consortium that helps organizations leverage their talent across the divides of gender, generation, geography, and culture, African American women are 2.8 times as likely as white women to aspire to powerful positions with prestigious titles.

The study also showed that black women who hold positions that enable them to exhibit strong leadership skills and a certain level of authority are more likely to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in their professional lives. In other words: power matters, and black women are intrinsically attracted to it.

But what steps are necessary for uncovering your inner ‘Woman of Power?’ Is it merely receiving a promotion, salary upgrade, or extended responsibilities?

Dynamic leaders develop and sustain environments that encourage high-performance. They don’t just ambiguously hold power, they use it to inspire others to achieve greatness. Here’s a wisdom-jewel from Ursula Burns,Chairman and CEO of Xerox: Leaders empower.

“Greatness is growing a customer base. Greatness is distinguishing ourselves by innovation. Greatness is hitting a certain EPS or revenue growth target or cash target. But there’s a whole bunch of other stuff around it that helps you do that,” said Burns in a 2012 interview with Triple Crown Leadership

Effective leaders ‘empower.’ After selecting correctly, they have to empower [their team] to actually do the job.”

So, as we ascend to positions of authority and obtain more responsibilities in our professional lives, let’s remember that at the heart of strong leadership is the ability to inspire those around us: to lead is to empower.

Written by Rebecca Nichloson. Originally appeared on

ABC ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ Creator, Shonda Rhimes, Says “Yes” to All Things Awesome.

Late last year, at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, Shonda Rhimes, creator of ABC mega-hits Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, talked about her new book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand In the Sun, and Be Your Own Person. The interview was held with New York Times best-selling author and journalist, Jake Tapper.

Year of Yes, published by Simon & Schuster, documents a year in which Rhimes, a notorious introvert, decided to say ‘yes’ to people and activities she would normally say ‘no’ to—this included speaking engagements, parties, and other social events, which Rhimes says were out of her comfort zone.

She even went as far as to describe herself as a ‘wall hugger’ at social events, telling NPR, “I’ve always been an introverted person,” and that fame and success were, to her, “daunting.”

But for an entire year, whenever she wanted to decline an invitation or new experience, she made the choice to say ‘yes,’ and the results, she says, were phenomenal.
During the panel, Rhimes talked about her childhood growing up in a highly-intellectual home where her parents encouraged her to read and write and envision her own reality. She also talked about being the only African American girl in her school and being lonely because off this. Her imaginary world, ‘Shondaland,’ served as a creative refuge.

Rhimes discussed her disdain for the term “diversity” when describing her shows, she feels she’s simply normalizing television by creating roles for actors of color, women, the LGBTQ community, and other underrepresented groups; not revolutionizing it. She also rejects the notion that she alone is responsible for breaking “the glass ceiling” by being, arguably, the only black woman to definitively own an entire evening of network television. Instead, she stated, breaking the glass ceiling is a collective effort.

During the Q&A session audience members were invited to ask questions. To my delight, my question was the first one answered by Rhimes.

I asked her if, when she first started writing, she was ever afraid of her own voice—afraid of the depth of her talent and where it might lead. Her response: “As a writer, write as if you are the only person who will read your work.” In other words, create from honesty, not the need for approval or validation.

So what can we learn from this phenomenal African American pioneer?

  • Truthful representations can lead to success. Just like the saying goes, ‘sex sales,’ in today’s competitive entertainment arena, so does the truth.
  • Stay open to new things and allow yourself to be surprised. Sometimes not knowing is a gift.
  • Build a strong support system of people who respect and inspire you.

Although my question was specific to writing, Rhimes’s advice to create from a place of truth or, at the very least, adhere to your own standards of excellence, is invaluable.

Written by Rebecca Nichloson. Originally appeared in Black Enterprise.