In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we get to meet writers, animators, producers, and sisters Shawnee´ and Shawnelle Gibbs. They release many of their projects through their production company, Reel Republic.
Shawnee´Gibbs and Shawnelle Gibbs (The Gibbs Sisters) are writers and television producers based out of Los Angeles, California, who also work collaboratively on independent comics and animation.
When you were in your 20s…
What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?
Shawnee´: I definitely had awesome expectations for my twenties before I entered them. In my pre-twenties vision, I’d be married with a home and two kids by the time I was twenty-seven. I’d be a journalist for Essence Magazine and would be off traveling the world and experiencing fabulous things. Of course, none of that has happened, so my 18-year old self would probably be quite disappointed in not getting all that checked off by twenty-seven.
I’d just get my teenage self a real estate guide with how much it costs to buy a home in Los Angeles these days and she’d probably cool her jets a bit. Though my life hasn’t been exactly what my early expectations were, I’m pretty happy with where I am at this point in my journey.
Shawnelle: Oh, Shawnee and I would always joke that we would “take the world by storm by 25,” so expectations were pretty high out of the gate, haha. Those expectations involved breaking into Hollywood, walking onto a film set, and becoming a baby Spike Lee weeks after leaving home in Oakland, California, for Los Angeles. Needless to say, those expectations have had to be reassessed over the years. I feel more mature and grounded for it.
In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?
Shawnee´: I think as a kid in the 1990s, with phrases like “nineties kind of girl” being thrown around (thanks, Living Single!), there was almost a sort of expectation from society that we should try and achieve as much as we could. With so much groundwork having been laid by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the feminist struggle of the 1970s, and the push for women to succeed in the workplace in the 80s and 90s, by the 2000s I think we wanted to have our cake and eat it, too, but it’s definitely a big balancing act that this generation is still trying to figure out how to manage.
Shawnelle: Oh, the ‘90’s taught a lot of young women of our generation and background to be confident, fearless, independent, etc. There was a lot of focus on being “strong,” I believe to the detriment of a lot of young women during that time. Especially towards the end of my 20’s, I’m glad that I got to experience the strength in actually acknowledging my weakness. It gets exhausting trying to knock down walls all the time.
What was your first job like?
Shawnee´: I’ve been working since I was about 12 years old, (which is probably why I feel like I’m almost ready to retire). Shawnelle and I both used to work for a program called Project Y.E.S. (Youth Engaged in Service) in Oakland, California, where we did lots of community outreach and city beautification work. I then went on to employment with the Mayor’s Summer Job program, a great program that placed Oakland teens in jobs around the city during the summer months. I’d done everything from clerical work to removing graffiti around the city of Berkeley, to selling newspapers door to door, to folding and selling denim at Old Navy. Shawnelle and I were our mom’s only two children, and she was a single mother, so learning how to get out and make a living early was an important part of our development. It’s one of the reasons I have a hard time sitting down today.
Shawnelle: We both had been working since we were 12 years old, primarily with city-initiated youth jobs, which involved lots of physical labor like community beautification and graffiti abatement. Haha. Which later evolved into summer job gigs with places like the housing Authority and Children’s Hospital. But my very first official grown up job where I got to dress up (I couldn’t wait!) in A-line skirts and pumps was Bank of America as a teller during college. It was terrifying because I was (for all intents and purposes) a poor girl counting hundreds and thousands of dollars that, at the wage I was earning, would never be mine. So frustrating! I did surprisingly well at it, though. But I knew, without a doubt, that my calling was in the arts.
What was your first apartment like?
Shawnelle: A one bedroom in Berkeley that I moved into during college with my first official boyfriend (now an old ex). The place confirmed all my inklings that I had a superior knack for decorating as everybody marveled about the living room and bathroom space I took charge of putting together. Haha. I spent a lot of time in the apartment alone because the BF worked nights at a hospital. I invested in an easel that took up the space that should’ve been a dining area in the kitchen and experimented with acrylics. The paintings live on in my mother’s home and maybe one or two other places. I learned a lot about solitude there.
Shawnee´: My first apartment was in Winnetka, California, just outside of Los Angeles. It was a place shared by four girls and two cats, Jimmy and Hendrix. It was an affordable space about 20 minutes from my first television production job at Bunim Murray in Van Nuys, and contained a pool I never swam in. Your first apartment feels like the sink or swim moment before you’re thrown into a pool–it’s like your first big test in the adult world. Once I got out on my own, I knew I’d have to make it work because I didn’t want to ever have to go crawling back to my mom’s couch—even though I knew it was always there if I needed it. There’s something about keeping up your own place in the world that finally makes you feel like a real adult person.
Did you experience any big life changes?
Shawnelle: If you call moving a 6- hour drive away to Los Angeles big. It definitely was at the time a little over 10 years ago. Losing my grandmother and aunt definitely changed my perspective on how important it is to have and build a family, which I’m still figuring out how to do myself. Work in progress!
In what ways did your friendships change?
Shawnee´: I think in my twenties and before I sort of ended up with friends. It was always people who I just happened to be around but now I find that I like to seek more meaningful relationships out, and try to surround myself with people who support, inspire and encourage me and share similar goals or life outlooks. It’s still a work in progress, but in my estimation, you end up with a stronger network of friends when you seek out those people who have value for themselves and can in turn add value to your life.
Shawnelle: I definitely learned that to have a good friend, you have to be a good friend. It informs all of my relationships and helps me to reach out to my girls even when I don’t necessarily feel like it. I became a bit isolated focusing on work in my early and mid-20’s and missed out on some very good foundational friendship years. Since then, I’ve actively built and rebuilt some quality friendships with particularly women (something I was missing for a while) and am a better, more well-rounded person for it, I feel.
What did you learn through your romantic relationships?
Shawnee´: I think I learned how to run for the hills sooner. I also learned to be more open and giving in relationships. In my twenties, the world revolved around me, now in relationships it’s important that it revolve around us.
Shawnelle: Men are people, too, (laughter) and it takes a surprising amount of courage to love someone the way they deserve to be loved.
How do you feel society viewed you?
Shawnee´: Shawnelle and I have always been expressing ourselves creatively, from screenplays and animation to television and comics. Film, comics and animation have been primarily a boys club, so Shawnelle and I have probably always been viewed as a little different by some of our peers but that’s totally fine with me. Being women, and African American, (and short to boot!) in television, I think we have had to prove to people who aren’t familiar with working with young people from diverse backgrounds that we really do rock as television producers, comic book writers, etc. I think we’ve learned to break down the walls of old ideologies without being jaded by it. It’s definitely important not to let other people’s opinions define you.
Shawnelle: Coming where we came from, I feel society viewed people like us as women who would eventually become a burden on the country’s resources. However, we were taught a very strong work ethic from our mom at an early age. This has helped us time and time again both when times are lean and plentiful. Early on in film school, I was very concerned that it would be a difficult journey to survive from my art alone, and several people over the years confirmed that fear. But through faith, hard work and determination, things have continued to come together. Sometimes I still can’t believe I’ve been able to sustain a creative career for over 10 years now. I am extremely thankful for it.
How do you feel you changed emotionally?
Shawnee´: Getting older, I’ve mellowed out a ton. I certainly don’t drive as fast as I used to and I’m not as concerned about what people think of me. I think that’s the best part about transitioning from teens, (where what everybody thinks matter), to your twenties, (where you realize it actually doesn’t) to your thirties (where you’re able to start being a bit more comfortable in your skin and wearing it a bit more proudly). I think with each decade you learn a new life lesson, so I’m really looking forward to finding out more about myself in the next thirty years.
In what ways do you feel your identity changed?
Shawnelle: There’s something about slowly inching your way up a tax bracket that forces you to appreciate everything you achieve a bit more. In my 20’s I felt at times ashamed of humble beginnings, now it inspires me to do more and be more.
How did you change intellectually?
Shawnee´: In the last 5 years or so, I’ve become extremely interested in science and wish that I’d paid more attention to math as a kid. There’s a pseudo-scientist living in me these days that I try to nurture as much as I can. I find that in my twenties, I used to turn up the latest and greatest music album. Now I’m more apt to turn up an NPR broadcast while driving or learn about a cool subject from a podcast.
How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?
Shawnelle: Getting a couple stamps on the passport has certainly helped. I’m a lot more socially and politically aware than I was in my 20’s. Freelancing, traveling, reading, absorbing, and coming into contact with people from everywhere has certainly helped with that. In one of my jobs as a producer, I get to meet and talk for hours with people from across the world with completely different backgrounds and life experiences. It helps with understanding the complexities of the human condition on a more real level.
What was the most embarrassing moment?
Shawnelle: When I was starting out in television…I made the mistake of trying to impress some pretty important people in a certain circle with an embellished story about my life that I nearly got called out on. I couldn’t sleep for days worrying about the consequences. I learned then it is just easier to be myself and let the chips fall where they may.
Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?
Shawnee´: Say what you will about President Obama, but there was something very decade-defining about him coming into his first presidency in 2008. I think that youth-fueled campaign really helped young people feel like they had a voice in this country and gave hope to people all across the U.S. Obama’s presidency was the first time I actively contributed money to any politician’s campaign and I think it did a lot to help bridge several divides in America. Obama’s 2008 inauguration was also the first inauguration I ventured to Washington, DC to attend. I’m gonna miss the Obama family in the White House. Like the Kennedy’s, there was something indescribably cool about them and I’m happy I was able to witness such a game-changing presidency in my lifetime.
Who was your biggest influence and why?
Shawnelle: The life of my late grandmother was and is something I continue to reference for inspiration. She was full of great quotes that are on repeat in my head to this day. Like, “You don’t believe fat meat is greasy,” which she always used to highlight something you’d have to figure out through trial and error. I certainly did find a few cuts of some of the greasiest slabs in life.
Shawnee´: We definitely had great women in our family to be inspired by. From my mom, who always supported our dreams and was a great inspiration in seeing hers through to become a RN while we were in high school, to my aunt Iris, who would talk to anyone and everyone she came across. In lots of social situations, I ask myself, “What would Auntie Iris do?” and will usually find myself talking to someone when my first instinct was to be a wallflower. My aunt Saida, who is the family’s resident artist and photographer, was also a great inspiration for how to be an artist while holding down a day job. We had so many awesome and different women to look up to growing up who I continue to be inspired by to this day, that thinking about it makes me realize how lucky we were in life.
Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?
Shawnee´: I’ve got no regrets about life. There’s still enough time left to cross things off my bucket list and accomplish things I’ve yet to try. I think with enough good living and experience under my wing, any challenge that seems insurmountable today, might be able to be solved once I devise a plan for it tomorrow.
Shawnelle: I’ve worked very hard on accepting the things I cannot change about myself and the decisions I have made in life. Post-20’s have definitely been about being completely comfortable BEFORE making decisions and asking myself, “Can I live with this?” Or, “Should I say that?” If the answer is yes, onward and upward!