It’s just a chance encounter with a clerk in a hardware store: On Tuesday’s episode of “This Is Us,” Randall (Sterling K. Brown) — still in his 20s, recovering from his nervous breakdown, and nervously anticipating the birth of his first daughter — goes shopping for a ceiling fan for the nursery. But the conversation turns from professional advice to personal, as the clerk ends up offering Randall life-changing insight.
What makes the moment noteworthy is that the clerk is Sikh. And there’s no reference to his ethnicity. “It’s a moment of unexpected connection between two very different yet very similar men and both actors play it so beautifully,” says “This Is Us” co-showrunners Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger.
That casting was born from a meeting back in June with NBC’s showrunners, spearheaded by NBC entertainment president Jennifer Salke and America Ferrera, who stars in and executive produces NBC’s “Superstore,” and one of the founders of Harness, an activist group launched in the wake of the election. The purpose was to encourage the network’s writers to weave characters from underrepresented communities into their storytelling.
“Storytelling is, for so many of us, a matter of protecting our communities and creating a larger understanding of who we are and grounding people’s perceptions of certain communities in basic humanity and shared experience,” says Ferrera. “It was a very empowering and positive conversation about the possibility and the potential that lies within storytelling, how storytelling narrative in our culture is absolutely a tool for creating understanding. It’s how we come to know each other in a country that is so large and where people are often very isolated from one another, and sometimes their only experience with a homeless person, or a gay person, or a black person, or an undocumented person is their exposure to them on the news or on a TV show.”
Among the speakers at the meeting were Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented immigrant and founder of Define American; Native American film producer Heather Rae; Heather McGhee, president of Demos; and Sikh activist Valarie Kaur, who’s made it her mission since Sept. 11 to advocate for better representation.
“We find ourselves in a moment when hate crimes against Sikh and Muslim-Americans are the highest they’ve been since 9/11,” says Kaur. “The stereotype of the Muslim terrorist on network news and in entertainment has helped fuel this climate.”
Aptaker and Berger say they left the meeting inspired to take action, and quickly formulated the plotline on their immensely popular hit.
“When you have that sort of platform, there’s a good sort of pressure to make the most of it, to do everything you possibly can with it,” say the producers. “And we felt that we could so easily include someone from an underrepresented group of people on our show.”
Salke reports that she had similar responses from other producers in the room, including Jason Katims (“Rise”) and Martin Gero (“Blindspot”).
The mission may have started with NBC, but it’s not ending there: With Salke’s help, Ferrera has already booked similar meetings with other networks, as well as film studios.
“I don’t want to keep them as our secret weapon,” says Salke. “They should be everywhere. We saw first-hand how it changed the narrative.”
Given television’s reach — “it’s the primary way Americans come to know one another,” says Kaur — she welcome the chance to talk directly to creators about the power literally at their fingertips. “It’s become so clear to me that telling our stories on TV and film is a civil rights priority — and also a moral imperative.”