Freeform Summit Touts Network's Diversity, Inclusion Efforts

Stars and creators of 'Grown-ish,' 'The Bold Type,' 'Good Trouble' and more discussed the cabler's latest push to elevate the voices of its young stars and viewers.
Freeform/Image Group LA

The second annual Freeform Summit, an influencer-focused event featuring panels about inclusivity and representation — and plenty of photo ops — brought most of the network's current and future stars to Hollywood on Wednesday night for conversations and an "UnPageant."

Touting "a stage for everyone to have a voice and be ambassadors of change," the five-hour-plus event at Goya Studios began with a cocktail hour at 4 p.m. before musical performances and talks began. The mid-rush-hour time meant attendees arriving closer to the 5 p.m. hour had to wait 20-plus minutes at a dead stop while the valet staff rushed to make sure cars weren't blocking busy Cauhenga Boulevard.

Once inside, the main stage was deemed nearly full by the fire marshal, so late arrivals were sent to an overflow space across the courtyard where a full bar, appetizers and couches were situated with a screen simulcasting the event. The main stage area held different seating areas for castmembers from each of the network's current shows — Cloak & Dagger, Grown-ish, Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists, Good Trouble, The Bold Type and Siren — couches in the front of the stage for VIPs and space in the middle for press and other attendees.

The festivities kicked off with a performance from Perfectionists star Sofia Carson and opening remarks from Freeform president Tom Ascheim, who said the summit began as "a way to connect the stories we tell and the youth culture we serve," and the dialogue inspired the network to tell "braver and deeper stories." The second iteration, deemed an "UnPageant," was meant to "celebrate the power and possibility of youth culture" and honor young people who are speaking out about injustices in the world.

The panels were broken up by videos promoting the network's "A Little Forward" messaging, encouraging viewers to "be whoever the FF you want to be." (Food and bar stations encouraged people to "eat whatever the FF you want" and "drink whatever the FF you want.")

Panel: Young Adults Keep Ruining Everything

Kenya Barris and his Grown-ish star Luka Sabbat, a fashion influencer himself before being cast on the Black-ish spinoff, stole the show on the first panel, which also included Freeform stars Katie Stevens and Maia Mitchell; Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors; YouTuber Gigi Gorgeous; Betches Media co-founder and COO Samantha Fishbein; and Clique Media co-founder and COO Hillary Kerr.

"I look at AOC [Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] ... the changing of the guard is needed in a bad way," Barris said. And while he praised millennials for their courage to speak out and fight for things they want and believe in, "there is a little bit of unearned confidence in millennial culture to me," he said.

Interestingly, no one on the panel noted that the college students in Grown-ish are not millennials (who are all in their early 20s through late 30s now).

Panel: Be Whoever The FF You Want

After a performance by Grown-ish star Diggy Simmons, the next panel focused on people finding confidence to be themselves, whether it pertains to body image, race or any other factors that had held them back from pursuing their dreams in the past. Freeform stars Francia Raisa, Aisha Dee, Aubrey Joseph, Sherry Cola and Emma Hunton were joined by Pretty Little Liars: The Perfectionists showrunner I. Marlene King, model/actor/dancer Leyna Bloom and model/actor Nyle DiMarco to discuss how Hollywood can help encourage representation.

King lamented the fact that social media causes anxiety in her kids, who feel an intense pressure to be "perfect" (which is why she wants to take back the word in her new series, like PLL did with "bitch"). The rest of the panelists stressed that representation would have helped them as kids.

Cloak & Dagger star Joseph said he hopes executives are realizing how showing different types of people onscreen allows for a better societal understanding of other groups.

"As much as we're different, a lot that we go through is similar and that's what I want to see more of [in media]," he said.

DiMarco stressed the importance of representation behind the scenes, too, and the importance that everyone should be trying to educate themselves about how all types of people can be represented. "My job is to educate people, and I'm tired of teaching sometimes," he said.

Panel: Why Won't You Date Me? Attraction vs. Implicit Bias, On and Off Screen

The third panel of the night was promised to be the "spiciest," and it delivered — focusing on the struggles people of color and LGBTQ people face in addition to the normal dating woes. Freeform stars Zuri Adele, Diggy Simmons and Dhruv Uday Singh were joined by influencers, TV hosts, models, actors and YouTubers including Patrick Starr, EJ Johnson, Billie Lee, Shaun Ross and Lala Milan for a discussion about not seeing people who look like them have full lives onscreen — including sexual lives. They encouraged people to use their platforms to highlight different types of people, different types of bodies and different sexualities. It's as simple as highlighting a trans woman for a WCW social media post, or casting people above a size 6.

Johnson and Ross stressed the importance of showing different types of homosexual relationships onscreen, while Starr discussed why he features his parents in his YouTube videos — because while his Filipino mother would bug him about getting married and finding a wife, she didn't bug him about marriage after he came out because she didn't know how to discuss it. By showing his parents in his videos, he provides other parents of gay children a glimpse at how to relate to their children and a model for gay children that shows supportive parents.

"I'm just in awe when I see parents come to my meet-and-greets in a full beat face supporting their 10-year-old son," he said.

Lee discussed the fact that while she's found success and is featured on television, she still experiences a huge amount of rejection from men she dates.

"I go on dates all the time and guys are so attracted to me and my feminine energy, and they still won't date me in public," she said.

Singh, who made a short film about the portrayal of South Asians in media, discussed how most Indian characters he sees are non-sexual, and the fact that his Good Trouble character has a sex drive is almost revolutionary for him.

"Historically, Asian characters and South Asian characters are very un-sexual, I would say. It's usually very funny … or a character with no sex drive, so it's kind of quietly radical to get to play a character with any kind of sexual energy," he said.

Panel: A Stage for Everyone — What ‘The UnPageant’ Means to the Future of Representation

After a performance from Grown-ish star Trevor Jackson, the last panel of the night focused on portraying a more inclusive world through fashion, storytelling and activism. Freeform stars Josh Thomas, Kayla Cromer and Sasha Pieterse were joined by Good Trouble exec producer Joanna Johnson; the creator of new series Motherland: Fort Salem, Eliot Laurence; and influencers and models Geena Rocero, Avie Acosta and Dexter Mayfield.

Like the panels before, the stars discussed the importance of inclusion and representation, though each group of the night's diverse panelists had thoughtful (if maybe not all that different) ideas on how to achieve that.

Cromer discussed how she plays a character on the autism spectrum — and was cast with no agent to play her character on the upcoming Everything's Gonna Be Okay, who is also autistic.

Following the last panel, guests mingled in the courtyard before snagging a gift bag full of influencer-friendly products — hair products, face masks, CBD chocolate — plus, randomly, a recipe for poached pears.