February 10, 2020

No, Kalpana Kotagal didn’t make it through the Oscars. Again.

Like any other exhausted mom chasing around two little boys, she crashed around the time editing and sound awards were being handed out Sunday night.

Even though, on that glamorous stage 3,000 miles away, some of her life’s work would be up for discussion.

This happened two years ago, when Frances McDormand said two words that sent Google ablaze — and upended Kotagal’s life — during her Oscar acceptance speech: inclusion rider.

It’s a way to legally guarantee that a film production crew — from off-leads and extras to grippers and makeup artists — reflects the diversity of America.

Kotagal is the D.C. attorney who helped write the rider. And she slept through all that and woke up that Monday morning to a bazillion messages — including one from me — asking her about it.

I caught up with her two years later, after McDormand’s two words rocked Hollywood, to see how much has changed. And to ask the question — could a civil rights and employment attorney in D.C. change Hollywood with a very D.C. solution?

. . .

Kotagal created [the inclusion rider] with Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni, a development executive at Pearl Street, and Stacy L. Smith, executive director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the University of Southern California. 

Kotagal, an employment and civil rights attorney who is a partner at Cohen Milstein in the District, had worked on workplace issues her entire career. From pregnancy discrimination lawsuits to a high-profile sex bias cases — the one against Sterling Jewelers is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court — it became clear that a lot of these places could avoid the messes they are in if they had something similar to the inclusion rider, too.

But how many companies have the budget to hire a white shoe law firm to write it up for them?

So Kotagal and her partners decided to Jonas Salk their legal work, to make it public, free and available to anyone, the way Salk made the polio vaccine available.
And now there are theater companies, arts festivals and even JAMS, the global arbitrations and mediation services provider, working with the rider.

“We made the template public, and we made it flexible,” Kotagal said, so that a variety of companies and institutions can tailor it to their needs.

It’s a start. And it’s a long arc of change that Kotagal said is exhausting, but possible. With faith, persistence and a good night’s sleep.

The complete article can be viewed here.