Don’t Have Your Family’s Support? Fight on Like Pamala Buzick Kim

Pamala Buzick Kim, currently the executive director of Free the Work, was surrounded by diversity growing up in Los Angeles in the 1980s and ’90s. A “white-passing” Korean American, she recalls being in the minority at school. That era directly followed the school desegregation and busing of the 1970s, and was itself defined, in part, by the Rodney King riots: It was a “heated” period of change, Buzick Kim says, planting the seeds that caused her to grow into a staunch advocate of human rights.

Damien Noble Andrews

Buzick Kim’s family wasn’t supportive of her passion. They accused her of wearing rose-colored glasses and encouraged her to assimilate as much as possible. Her father was proud of her ability to pass as white, she says, and her mother didn’t want her to stick out either, concerned her daughter would be bullied. But none of that deterred Buzick Kim from choosing her own path — then or now.

“I don’t have that kind of hate,” Buzick Kim says, “and I actually will do everything in my power to try to reframe things for people and get them to understand differences, but I also do not accept bullshit like that — because not only do I fight it every day at work, but I also fight it every day with my family.”

“The more chances you have to bid, the more chances you have to be awarded.”

Buzick Kim’s career began in talent management; for 17 years, she worked on the commercial side, serving as an agent for editors and directors, and even had her own business. During that time, Buzick Kim says she saw “the same conversations happening over and over again” when it came to the lack of diversity across the industry — with little meaningful progress being made. She and her then-business partner decided to part ways while they were “still young enough to have other careers.” Buzick Kim says that the industry’s focus on relationship-building via drinking culture ultimately boxes older women out of the business, noting the cliff-like “drop-off” that so often comes with having children too.

So Buzick Kim pivoted to tech, where she spent four years building her expertise in two-way marketplaces around creatives and creative people. That’s when a headhunter saw Buzick Kim’s potential to helm Free the Work, the global nonprofit that’s leveling the playing field for underrepresented creators behind the camera. Free the Work succeeded Free the Bid, an initiative founded by film director Alma Ha’rel in 2016 that challenged the advertising industry to hire more women directors by considering at least one woman director for every triple commercial bid.

“The more chances you have to bid, the more chances you have to get awarded, which is very much like a baseball analogy,” Buzick Kim explains. “The more chances you get up to bat, the more you get to learn the pitcher, understand the crowd, get rid of your nerves. So you start to get more experience, and then you have that opportunity to get better at your own pitch, your own style, and what clients are looking for. It pushes all of that to the forefront.”

At the time, “the media flashpoint of #MeToo had hit,” Buzick Kim says, which helped bolster Free the Bid’s mission, with hundreds of brands and companies pledging to the one in every triple bid. Ultimately, Free the Bid began to look beyond women directors in advertising. In 2019, Har’el’s initiative evolved into Free the Work, a talent-discovery platform that supports underrepresented creators across advertising, TV, film and other mediums by connecting them with companies that are hiring.

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“We will step up in any way that we can to bring in as many underrepresented creators as possible.”

As a global organization, Free the Work uses the term “underrepresented” with the acknowledgment that those who are underrepresented in the U.S. might be different from those who are underrepresented in other countries. In the U.S., Free the Work’s underrepresented creators include people of color, military veterans, creators living with disabilities, LGBTQ+ people and non-binary individuals.

Buzick Kim says Free the Work has bottom-up and top-down strategies when it comes to reaching its goals. “It sounds really corporate-y, but our bottom-up approach with our creators is getting them a community,” she explains. “Being a creative person can be really lonely. So giving them a community, trying to demystify the process. Because if you don’t have an uncle or a neighbor [in the business], you don’t know how to get in. It’s still such a relationship-based business, regardless of if you’re a PA or a screenwriter.”

Free the Work’s top-down approach involves the work itself. “When people get mad at Nike, they’re not getting mad at their ad agency,” Buzick Kim says. “They’re getting mad at Nike. So it’s really important that the fountainhead understands the assignment, the charge, what they’re going to be doing and what they want to see from their productions, and that diversity is across the board, not just the flashpoint in media at this moment, the flavor-of-the-month trauma.”

As much as Buzick Kim would like to “burn down” the inequitable system and “start over,” she admits that’s not going to happen anytime soon in a capitalist society. Instead, she and Free the Work are focused on making small changes over time that will lead to long-term impact.

“We will step up in any way that we can to bring in as many underrepresented creators as possible. We feel that storytelling can change the world, and the more types of stories you have out there, the more conscious, empathetic world you might be able to make it,” she says.

Related: What Is Empathy, and Why Is It So Important for Great Leaders?

“You’re going to have more authentic storytelling if you find people who have these lived experiences, and have these conversations.”

A belief in storytelling’s capacity to change the world for the better fuels Free the Work’s commitment to getting more underrepresented creators behind the camera. Representation in front of the lens isn’t enough, Buzick Kim emphasizes, because it doesn’t necessarily equate to true feelings of belonging and inclusion. Oftentimes, people can “feel like they’re being tokenized and representing a checkbox,” she says.

When creators don’t feel comfortable making their voices heard, the narratives put out into the world can ring offensive and false: Buzick Kim cites the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad debacle, described as “tone-deaf” by multiple outlets, wherein the model stops a protest by handing a police officer a can of the soda, and Burger King’s recent snafu, which featured the fast-food chain’s signature whopper with “two equal buns” in a misguided attempt to celebrate Pride Month. And even award-winning campaigns aren’t immune to oversights that, on closer inspection, appear somewhat glaring.

Buzick Kim points to health and hygiene company Libresse’s Blood Normal campaign, which won the Glass Lion for Change Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity in 2018. Directed by Daniel Wolfe, the film depicts period products in use with the color red, rather than the widely accepted blue, in a bid to draw attention to the stigma of menstruation in advertising and everyday life.

“It makes sense that it was directed by a man,” Buzick Kim says. “Because women don’t have a stigma about their periods. Stigma comes from society and the male gaze.” In 2021, Libresse’s #WombPainStories campaign won the coveted Titanium Grand Prix, along with several other awards. Directed by Nisha Ganatra, the film provides an unflinching look at life with a uterus, including experiences of endometriosis and miscarriage.

“When you’re telling stories about women’s experience having their period, that should be directed by a woman,” Buzick Kim says. “We’re not monolithic in saying, ‘Oh, that’s a woman’s hygiene product that should only be done by women.’ We’re saying, ‘Look at the story. If you’re trying to tell a story about the Bronx, it would probably serve you to look for people who are from the Bronx, or who have been there for a long time.’ We’re not saying, ‘Oh, just go get a Black person or an Italian person, because that’s how we stereotype the Bronx.’ We’re just asking, ‘What is the message you’re trying to get across?’ You’re going to have more authentic storytelling if you find people who have these lived experiences, and have these conversations.”

Related: Why Storytelling Is a Skill that Every Entrepreneur Should Practice

“Is it performative?”

But Buzick Kim also acknowledges that even what seem like compelling, innovative campaigns can sometimes enter “good-washing” territory, where most — if not all — of their value is derived from their perceived “goodness,” rather than actual positive impact.

“Everybody looks to us and says, ‘Oh, look at all this stuff that’s all based on good. And because it’s based on good, it’s an organization that tries to put good out in the world,'” Buzick Kim says. “You would imagine that we’re quite thrilled and happy with that — but there’s just something off about it. Is it performative?”

It was an issue that came up when Buzick Kim was a judge for The One Show Fusion Pencil, an award recognizing great work that includes underrepresented groups and DEI issues, both behind the scenes and in the work itself. When people asked Buzick Kim how she was judging the entries, they were surprised to learn that she was using four strict pieces of criteria — leaving her to wonder what, exactly, their own parameters were.

“That’s where the confusion and heartache come in,” Buzick Kim explains. “People don’t know what those criteria should be; they don’t know what the effectiveness should be — just media grabs or a one-time offer of, ‘Oh, we made hockey stick tape that said “Stop Hate,” and it sold out.’ First of all, how many rolls did you have for sale? Secondly, if it sold out, are you going to do it again? Three, what were the other components that you were trying to bring along with this message?” It’s a complex issue to navigate: Buzick Kim doesn’t want people to feel completely discouraged, or like they can’t do anything right, but it’s an important dialogue to start.

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Buzick Kim isn’t afraid to have those hard conversations — whether in her professional or personal life. She recently received the Marie C. Wilson Emerging Leader Award from the Ms. Foundation for Women, an organization co-founded by Gloria Steinem, and when she attempted to explain what that meant to her parents, she was met with confusion and hostility.

“They literally were like, ‘How do you even earn a living?'” Buzick Kim says. “‘Are you just suckering people out of money for this?’ ‘What do you do on a daily basis?'”

But Buzick Kim, used to standing her ground and up for what she believes in, has an unapologetically self-assured response: “I fight for fucking human rights.”

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