As Election Day approaches, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the past. It’s especially notable in the wake of the recent deaths of Stanley Sheinbaum and Tom Hayden, two lions of political and social activism with deep ties to Hollywood who personally inspired me to serve our community and make a difference in the lives of others.
Here’s a note from a Gen-X’er to you 20-somethings: While you were busy starting your lives, a group of young entertainment professionals was busy trying to better the world.
Early in my career, I was on set talking with the actress Alexandra Paul about how, one day, “when we were rich and famous,” we would use our power to change the world. I was 20.
Not long after that conversation, I thought, “Why wait?” I met again with Alexandra and shared my plan to launch a non-profit, non-partisan organization of young show-business professionals. She shared in the vision and said, “Let’s do this.”
We sat in her dining room, ripping through the pages of the Academy Players Directory, and mailed 100 form letters to the most well known “under-30” actors and actresses in town, inviting them to the first meeting of Young Artists United. Sixty of them showed up Feb. 9, 1986, at the Hyatt Hotel on Sunset Boulevard.
The YAU board members, trustees, and active members —many of whom attended that first meeting — included Sarah Jessica Parker, Meg Ryan, Helen Hunt, Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Laura Dern, Rob Lowe, Chad Lowe, Esai Morales, Michelle Manning, Douglas Ross, Cassian Elwes, Jeff Rose, Tracy Gray, Kyle MacLachlan, Leslie Bracker, Heather Locklear, Jay Polstein, Patrick Lippert, Nanci Ryder, Loree Rodkin, Donovan Leitch, Ione Skye, Val Van Galder, Maria Calleia, Lisa Bellomo, Eric Stoltz, Bruce Toms, Patti D’Arbanville, Marcia Landsdown, Fisher Stevens, Anne-Marie Johnson, Suzan Bymel, Erwin More, Brian Medavoy, Anthony Edwards, Willie Garson, Mary McDonough, Mark Gill, Marlee Matlin, Jason Patric, Eve Plumb, Virginia Madsen, Daphne Zuniga, Sam Harris and Jonathan Silverman.
We focused our attention on issues affecting our generation: education, teen depression, suicide, drunk driving, drug abuse, AIDS education, homelessness, socially responsible filmmaking, eating disorders, LGBT and human rights. Our educational forums featured legendary speakers such as Tony Bill, Norman Lear, Jane Fonda, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Ed Asner and Dr. Helen Caldicott, and, yes, Stanley Sheinbaum and Tom Hayden. Our speaking tours crisscrossed the country. Our PSAs won awards. The internet didn’t exist, and cell phone use was costly; everything we achieved was coordinated by phone calls and mail.
One of YAU’s most empowering accomplishments was our 1988 voter registration tour and campaign. We produced a PSA starring Alexandra and Sarah Jessica Parker that premiered on MTV: “Vote Nov. 8,” it said (Election Day fell on Nov. 8 that year, too), “because it’s cool to care.”
Our group lasted six years. We all had active careers at the time, and we never had a paid staff or offices. Thirty years later, many YAU members are industry leaders, others are community activists, and many remain close friends. I continue to run into people from those days, and most volunteer to me descriptions of the impact YAU had on their lives, personally and professionally, usually followed by, “Why isn’t there a group like YAU today?”
So here’s my challenge to industry 20-somethings. If you can’t find an outlet for your activism, create one. Lead. I understand that posting and tweeting is how it’s done now, but I also know that doing so isn’t nearly as exciting or powerful as getting together with others, face to face, to effect change. By doing so, you’ll make lifelong friends, and years from now, when you are “running the town,” you’ll look back with fondness and appreciation at your time spent invested in causes that matter. Most of all, have fun. We sure did.
The first step to being an activist is easy: Vote Nov. 8, because it’s (still) cool to care.
Lifelong activist, Emmy and PGA Award nominated executive producer Daniel Sladek (“Prayers for Bobby”) is the co-founder and former president of Young Artists United.