Cathleen Young didn’t know anything about accounting, fundraising, human resources or running a nonprofit organization when she joined the Humanitas Prize as executive director in 2007. She was a film and TV writer who had been involved with the organization ever since she won a Humanitas kudo for her 1994 Hallmark Hall of Fame telepic “A Place for Annie.”
Fifteen years later, Young is stepping down now that she has found a new home for Humanitas at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television.
The West Los Angeles university is expected to take over the administration of the Humanitas Prize awards, designed to recognize writers of movies and TV shows that illuminate the human condition.
“I dated a few colleges, but nothing really worked out until I got to LMU,” Young tells Variety. The boards of LMU and Humanitas are set to vote to formally approve the partnership next month.
Humanitas has a $5 million endowment, but it lacks the infrastructure to expand the scope of its activity even at a time when content production is off the charts. Young found in Peggy Rajski, dean of LMU’s film school, a kindred spirit who shares her enthusiasm for nurturing promising talent and opening doors in Hollywood for scribes from underrepresented backgrounds.
“This is the most important work that we do, and Peggy’s vision is the same as my vision,” Young says. LMU’s resources will help Humanitas avoid having its endowment eaten away by rent, insurance and other costs that a stand-alone organization must bear.
Young will head later this year to Ireland to serve as a writing fellow for the Dublin-based nonprofit Fighting Words. She will also teach at Queen’s University Belfast. She intends to move to Ireland full-time next year after her twin daughters, Shaelee and Gemma DeCarolis, head off to college.
On Young’s watch, Humanitas significantly expanded its activity to include a TV development initiative for up-and-coming writers supported by major networks and studios. She recruited studios and other sponsors to help expand and underwrite the annual Humanitas prizes, which traditionally came with a five-figure stipend for winners. Four years ago, at Young’s urging, Humanitas winners began donating those stipends to charities engaged with arts and pressing social issues.
Humanitas was founded as a secular organization in 1974 by Father Ellwood “Bud” Kieser, a prominent Jesuit priest who saw celebrating screenwriters as a way to encourage Hollywood to tackle meaningful subjects. By the time Young came on board in 2007, the organization was nearly dormant. John Wells, a longtime Humanitas trustee and mentor to Young, says expectations were low.
“She stepped up and made it relevant at a time when people thought the organization was just going to disappear. She reinvigorated everything,” Wells says. “Cathleen has been an extremely effective executive director who has guaranteed the future of the organization.”
Young’s decision to move on was in part influenced by the success of her most recent children’s book, 2019’s “The Pumpkin War,” which has been optioned for TV development and earned the prestigious Christopher Award for children’s literature. She has inked a two-book deal with Penguin Random House.
Filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who has been recognized by the Humanitas org, gave credit to Young for keeping writers at the center of the organization.
“Cathleen’s empathy and affection for writers permeated every decision and move she made at Humanitas,” DuVernay told Variety. “Her love for storytellers was deeply felt, deeply appreciated and will be deeply missed. Her next adventure is fitting for a woman with such a beautiful imagination and capacity for community-building and connection.”
With her fellowship at Fighting Words, Young will be following her dream to focus on teaching young people how to harness the power of creative writing.
“This is what I’m passionate about,” Young says. As she reflects on her work with Humanitas, she adds: “It feels good to be able to in a tiny way make the world a better place.”