Ben Whitehair (PolSci, Thtr’08) has been busy.
As executive vice president of the SAG-AFTRA labor union, he has been working on behalf of actors and writers since July. But he upholds a greater goal that he’s championed for since his time as a CU Boulder student: social change.
It all started with an ad campaign 20 years ago.
Creating the Colorado Creed
In 2003, as a student and member of the President’s Leadership Class (PLC) at CU Boulder, he and a group of other students created ads on campus that promoted social accountability among students to help advance the CU community. The campaign was a major success, and Whitehair helped turn the messages into a social responsibility code now known as the Colorado Creed.
“The Colorado Creed is an example that shows the amount of support that we had from administrators and staff for student-led initiatives,” Whitehair said. “We had this idea and the top administrators said, ‘Great, how can we help? What can we do to support you?’ It was incredible.”
Today, the creed lays out goals of acting with honor, integrity and accountability, as well as respecting others while a part of CU Boulder.
“It is incredibly gratifying to see the Colorado Creed, this thing that a group of us were like, ‘Let’s do this,’ still thriving a decade and a half later and making a difference,” Whitehair said. “To me, that is what leadership is. And I learned that at Boulder.”
D.C. or Hollywood?
After graduating, Whitehair couldn’t decide whether he should move to Washington, D.C., to continue in politics — he had interned with Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette in 2007 — or to follow his dreams of acting.
A friend and fellow PLC member, Teju Ravilochan (IntlAf’09), shared a quote with Whitehair from Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go for that. Because what the world needs are people who’ve come alive.”
Whitehair made the move to Los Angeles, California. But acting wasn’t going to be his only calling.
While at CU, Whitehair co-founded his first business with Will Seamans (Econ’06). The entrepreneurial experience stuck with him, and he became co-founder of Working.Actor, an online business academy for actors. He also now serves as COO of TSMA, a consulting firm that helps businesses and individuals manage their Instagram accounts.
“Particularly in the arts, you often learn how to be an artist, but you don’t learn how to be a business person,” Whitehair said. “It’s called show business, not show art. Understanding that business is imperative.”
Getting Involved with SAG-AFTRA
“The entertainment industry adds a massive, financial, social and political value to our country and to the world. ... We would much rather be working.”
In addition to Whitehair’s business successes, he has also worked in more than 100 projects as an actor. He began serving on committees for the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, known as SAG-AFTRA, which represents more than 160,000 media professionals and entertainers. Soon he was serving on the local and national boards for the labor union.
In 2021, he was elected executive vice president of SAG-AFTRA, the number-two elected position for the union. He helps govern the union and acts as a stand-in if the president is absent. He is also part of the negotiating committee that is currently negotiating the contract that covers TV, film and streaming.
In July 2023, SAG-AFTRA went on what became a months-long strike. The union joined the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which began its strike in May. This was the first time both unions had been on strike simultaneously since 1960, according to NPR. With the explosion of streaming services within the past few years, the landscape and business of producing movies, shows and art has changed completely, Whitehair explained.
“SAG-AFTRA members are asking for an update of the contract to match the business model that the corporations changed,” Whitehair said. “Actors have been doing the same things for hundreds of years, but the business model changed. None of the CEOs called us and said, ‘Hey, would it be cool if we switch this entire business model over to streaming?’ So now all we’re saying is, ‘Hey, we need to update the contracts accordingly.’
“The entertainment industry adds a massive, financial, social and political value to our country and to the world. Truly nobody wants to be on strike — a strike is painful. It’s challenging. People are losing work. They’re losing jobs. They’re losing their houses. They’re not able to pay rent. We would much rather be working.”
Negotiating a Future with Artificial Intelligence
The last week of September, the WGA settled a tentative three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), and SAG-AFTRA is planning to meet with the AMPTP Oct. 2 to continue its own negotiations.
The WGA contract reforms residential payments for streaming services and lays out a set of regulations on the use of artificial intelligence in the writing room, and SAG-AFTRA hopes for similar in its negotiations.
“AI is at the heart of a lot of what we’re fighting for,” said Whitehair. “SAG-AFTRA is not saying, ‘You cannot use this technology. We refuse to adapt with the times.’ All we’re saying is [we want] informed consent and compensation. People need to know if we’re being scanned and used to be fed into an AI model or if you’re changing what I’m saying. I need to know, I need to have informed consent and I need to get paid for my work.”
After a challenging summer, Whitehair is optimistic about the future.
“I’m a big believer in the power of organized labor. We’re stronger together,” Whitehair said. “Pretty much all of human history demonstrates that when people band together, they can accomplish more.”
Photos courtesy Ben Whitehair