How Barack Obama, the Jonas Brothers and More Got Involved in Live ‘Graduate Together’

Nicole Sexton is president and CEO
Tommaso Bboddi

The Big Four broadcasters will televise a live commencement ceremony May 16 for the nation’s high school graduates, who, due to the coronavirus pandemic, are stuck at home and unable to celebrate with their classmates what should be a landmark moment. “Graduate Together” will feature a commencement address by former President Obama, speeches and appearances by activist Malala Yousafzai, the Jonas Brothers, actor Yara Shahidi and more — and is being produced by the Entertainment Industry Foundation along with the XQ Institute and the LeBron James Family Foundation.

Nicole Sexton, who joined EIF as president and CEO in 2017, spoke with Variety about the ceremony and how the organization is working with the industry to respond to the pandemic.

How did “Graduate Together” come together? We have a long-standing relationship with XQ Institute, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to challenging traditional education platforms and ways of teaching. This period of time has taken that to a whole other level. But through XQ’s networks, there were a number of students and educators and families across the country who expressed sadness about the missed opportunity to experience the wonderful rites of passage tied to high school graduation. XQ came to us and said, “Let’s talk through what we could do with a telecast,” and we took that to our board. 

The roadblock telecast has a long history as a tool that the industry uses to respond to crises. How did you get the networks to come together for it? The roadblock has been the easiest part. We have 11 board members, four of whom are executives for the four major networks. It was instantaneous. They all got so excited. There were a lot of people recognizing that there are going to be seniors who will miss these wonderful rites of passage and asking, “How do we fill that void in a way that really celebrates them?” So our networks at the national level had been exploring different ideas. And then when that opportunity came to them with a formidable partner like XQ, it was literally a no-brainer for them. Within an hour, they came back and said, “Yeah, we want to do this as a roadblock.” And within 24 hours, I had the date.

What has been the most challenging aspect of this? The short period of time and figuring out how to make this event dynamic and celebratory of the class, while understanding that we have constraints around our ability to gather. So how do you create content that feels very unifying?

How did you get President Obama involved? There was an online petition that was started by a student here in California, suggesting that his dream commencement speaker would be Barack Obama, and hundreds of thousands of kids across the country signed this petition. So with that, the XQ team started some gentle outreach. Their CEO, Russlynn Ali, worked for him [as assistant secretary for civil rights in the Department of Education].

 What else are you doing with the organizations you partner with to respond to the crisis? We have 13 philanthropic funds that range in size from several million dollars to near seven figures. And each one of them is led by an individual in the entertainment space, or a group of individuals. Charlize Theron, for instance, has the Africa Outreach Project. She’s focused all of her philanthropy over the last 12 years in her home country of South Africa. During this crisis, she really saw a further marginalization and a deeper divide between those who were forced to live in shelters and those who could isolate in safer environments, and with that she also has a deep, deep compassion for women who have gone through a domestic violence experience. So she asked for other women in the entertainment space to join her and started an effort called Together for Her. 

[NBA player] Kevin Love understands the extraordinary pressure of isolation during this time on people, and he’s partnered with Headspace to provide resources for people who are really suffering with depression and who will be suffering for a long time in the future.

What do you feel the industry has done particularly well in terms of disaster response during the pandemic? I’m not from the entertainment industry, but I have been really impressed with the extraordinary empathy from those in the creative space, and the tools that they have initiated during this very scary and unknown time in order to bring comfort.