As Gerardo Reyes was working as a grip on a Honda Accord shoot for RPA in Valencia, Calif., in December 2011, he actually pinched his arm to ensure he wasn't dreaming. He was finally completing the remaining eligibility hours of his required 30-day union apprenticeship.
"I couldn't believe this was really happening to me," says Reyes, 28. "For long as I can remember, I've been fascinated at how movies and TV shows were made. The guys I hung out with growing up might be quick to trash a movie or a commercial, but I was always saying, 'Yeah, but how did they get that shot?'"
Armed only with a pipedream of breaking into the entertainment industry, Reyes in 2010 stumbled across a pamphlet from Streetlights, a Hollywood nonprofit that offers free, comprehensive training and job placement for minorities to enter the business as production assistants and work their way up.
"I signed up for the class because I had nothing to lose," he says.
In 2011, RPA, Honda and Acura joined other agencies and advertisers in the Streetlights Commercial Diversity Initiative (CDI), providing contributions to the organization as well as opportunities for Streetlights PAs and union apprentices to work on commercial shoots.
"For us, it's seamless," says Jack Epsteen, VP, executive producer at RPA. "We constantly need PAs, and we always budget for a union apprentice. Meanwhile, the Streetlights graduates follow a path to break into the business, so it's a very effective way for RPA to get more minorities involved in the process. Some of my favorite production assistants and union apprentices have come from Streetlights; they tend to distinguish themselves with their good attitudes and work ethic."
The Streetlights program rose out of the ashes of the fiery '92 Los Angeles riots. After wrapping a long day on set on April 30, 1992, veteran freelance TV-commercial producer Dorothy Thompson was planning to unwind with the local news before heading off to bed. The shocking images of the riots jarred her awake to her life's true calling.
"As I was watching the long lines of African-Americans waiting for water and supplies because the stores in their area had been burned to the ground, I wondered at their fear, their hopelessness," she recalls. "Then it hit me that I'd never worked with a single African-American or Latino on any of my shoots."
Inspired to make a difference, Thompson established Streetlights, an organization whose mission is to increase diversity in the entertainment industry workforce while creating careers for economically and socially disadvantaged young ethnic minorities.
Initially, the tricky part for Streetlights was overcoming the Catch-22 situation of their graduates meeting the requirements to become members of the unions, which are typically difficult to join.
Thompson eventually discovered a section in a union contract that stated due to the special nature of commercial production, advertisers and their ad agencies can appoint to a crew someone who might not otherwise be eligible, enabling them to work their required 30 days for membership.
That opened the door for the Streetlights CDI, in which advertisers and their agencies can hire graduates of the program, while also providing support to ensure the ongoing training of future minorities seeking a career in the industry.
For Streetlights students, it's about making their dreams a reality. Since 1992, more than 1,100 of the program's graduates have transitioned from PAs to such positions as 2nd assistant director, grip, 1st camera assistant, and editor.
"I can't express how much my Streetlights training and the experience of working on a shoot like Honda have helped me," Reyes says. "Today, I'm comfortable when I walk onto a set because I feel prepared to handle anything."