See Jane Spotlight

Chris Nee and Kerri Grant Bring Invisible Communities and Careers to Life in Ada Twist, Scientist, Coming to Netflix

Image: © Netflix

By Mary Ellen Holden

Ada Twist, Scientist, based on the best-selling books, is coming to Netflix as an animated preschool series on September 28th. It follows the adventures of eight-year-old Ada Twist, a pint-sized black female scientist with a giant-sized curiosity who aspires to discover the truth about absolutely everything with the help of her two best friends. But solving the mystery is only the beginning. After all, science is not just about learning how and why and what; it is about putting that knowledge into action to make the world a better place.

The series is from an inspirational dream team, including the award-winning champion of diversity and long-time partner of the Institute, Chris Nee, Higher Ground and Wonder Worldwide. Packed with #SeeItBeIt moments, the series empowers audiences to stretch their imaginations, embrace science and see characters onscreen that represent the full spectrum of humanity.

I had the pleasure of interviewing executive producer Chris Nee and showrunner Kerri Grant to get an inside look at how they empowered inclusive voices onscreen and behind-the-scenes. I also learned why the production speaks to kids who do not feel seen in children’s television programming.

Meet Chris Nee and Kerri Grant

Chris Nee and Ada Twist, Scientist, Photos: © Netflix Kerri Grant. Photo: janet e. dandridge

Mary Ellen Holden: You are widely known for bringing inclusion to children’s programming. How does Ada Twist, Scientist build on this tradition of inclusion and “SeeItBeIt” both on and off-screen?

Chris Nee: This project fits all of the things that I love. It has a particular point of view and a kid-focused sense of joy, which is most important to me. I’m always looking for places to highlight diversity and ensure that everything onscreen is matched behind the camera. And, I’m so excited that you’re also talking to Kerri. I’ve had the pleasure of watching her career over the years, and it’s a privilege to get to see her chosen to lead. It is deeply important to have her perspective on this show.

Mary Ellen: How did your experience with Chris on Doc McStuffins prepare you to be the showrunner on Ada Twist?

Kerri Grant: It helped me tremendously. I learned a lot from watching Chris run Doc McStuffins. I always admired how confident she was in her abilities as a storyteller. I watched her command the ship while always caring for the staff. I learned that as captain you are, the eyes of the sky, so you touch everything, but it also takes consistent attention and course correction by the showrunner. It’s a tremendous responsibility because you’re managing people and the product. In addition to modeling her strong leadership and storytelling expertise, Chris taught me that you would find happy staff behind great shows. And I think you can feel it onscreen; it’s all part of a holistic approach.

Mary Ellen: Can you explain what you meant when you said to the New York Times: I am not writing for the kids; I am writing to my own experience as a kid.

Chris: Kids like the power of seeing themselves. However, it is also extremely powerful when you do not see yourself onscreen. It is the negative impact that resonates. I grew up not seeing myself in kids’ content, which affected me and started a narrative in my brain. It’s tough to create your personal path against what you see. But, as content creators, there is a unique impact on what we do. And, the more we bring in voices that don’t have uniformity, the greater the chance that we will talk to and empower someone who does not feel seen.

Mary Ellen: What was it about the story and Ada Twist’s character that excited you the most?

Kerri: Not seeing yourself is also damaging because you become invisible to yourself. I grew up in Jamaica, and we didn’t have a TV until I was nine years old. When I watched, I rarely saw images that were representative of me. I disappeared myself. I’m not saying that images on television alone shape a person, but media portrayals are hugely impactful and influential. I just wanted to fit in, and instead, I learned how to make myself invisible from a very early age.

That connects to what excites me the most about the series: it features this bright, shining, intelligent, and curious little Black girl at the center of this story. It’s not what I saw growing up, so seeing the little Black girl running around asking questions was inspiring to me. I connected to her.

It excites me to show a world full of possibilities, where the leader can come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. I can’t wait for audiences to see this bright light at the epicenter, taking the world by storm with her friends and the support of her parents.

Mary Ellen: Who is the target audience?

Chris: The content is preschool. But, one of my goals is to make shows that parents actually want to keep on! The best version of television encourages conversation between generations and families, so we are always working to ensure that our shows are solidly for young kids, but the parents will hopefully enjoy being around.

Mary Ellen: What inspired you to bring live-action, real scientists into the series?

Chris: I’ve worked with the Geena Davis Institute several times, and I was on a panel hosted in partnership with Lyda Hill Foundations IF/THEN initiative. I was very struck by several people on that panel talking about the perception of scientists wearing white lab coats and working in a very sterile environment. Jess Cramp was a shark researcher on the panel, which opened our eyes to bringing real-world scientists into this series for kids. We wanted to show that there are all kinds of people who are scientists.

Kerri: We decided early on that our featured scientists would represent the full spectrum of women, men, people with disabilities, different interests, and identities. We open the series with Episode 101, featuring Black female scientists, as we want that to be one of the first images that kids see when they watch the show. We have one episode which highlights a character with autism, and one of our live scientists in that episode also has autism. As you will see, we showcase a variety of backyard scientists – out of the white lab coat environments to make them exciting and accessible to children.

Mary Ellen: How does the series make the world a better place?

Chris: I hope my work always hits the bar, building the world I want to see. Currently, I believe we’ve lost the sense of the importance of science. In Ada Twist, we celebrate science, which feels like a great thing that is much needed. Absolutely. Period.

Kerri: We wanted to show kids that science is all around us and in everything. This counters popular belief that science is this other, mysterious thing that is not attainable unless you are a particular type of person. Instead, we believe science is putting knowledge into action to make the world a better place. Anyone can become a scientist as it is the process of profoundly engaging with something you love. So we are making science accessible and eliminating fear to encourage people to do more.

Mary Ellen: Has children’s programming changed over the past five years, and what is its future?

Chris: I am cautiously optimistic that we turned a corner in the past year; but, not the past five years. I’ll be honest; it’s getting to the end of the line for many people who felt like they had a voice and a space to say “enough.” Good people want and are doing good things, but that doesn’t move the ball fast enough. I need to be a conscious advocate and make bold choices in everything I do. It’s the only way we’re going to get things moving. This can’t be another “year of the woman” where nothing changes. I hope this last year, which I really think has been about more what’s happened in the world, is a true game-changer that will stay at last. I certainly feel like things are different within studios, staff, and all of that.

Kerri: I have seen a lot more inclusion happening now, both onscreen and off. A more significant turning point is happening. What is this opening going to produce? I think that visibility across many spectra, race and ethnicity, ability, identity, and socioeconomic levels are being examined. I am excited to see what changes will occur down the road. I think it will be more diverse and inclusive because different people are entering the field and becoming part of the process.

Mary Ellen: Do you have advice for the next generation of diverse women storytellers entering the industry?

Kerri: People in our industry want to help because many of them received support along the way. This business is in high demand. It takes talent but also boldness and drive. Declaring what you want is a huge first step; once you do, you’ll see opportunities available to you and people willing to help you. Strike when the breaks present themselves. Prepare – I took inexpensive classes at Gotham Writers Workshop that led me to my internship at Nickelodeon. Seek out and maintain relationships while you navigate your path.

Mary Ellen: Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like our audience to know?

Chris: I’ve been in this business for just over 25 years, and I am at a different point in my career. I encourage people to think about how they can be of service with their talents beyond the job itself. It is weird to say, but lawyers inspire me. I like the idea that part of your practice should be pro bono. Some portion of what you’re doing should be about making sure that the industry as a whole is better than when you started.

Kerri: Think about the importance of your intention and its connection to your larger purpose and mission. Dedicate a portion of your work to a larger vision for your life. I think what we’re putting into the world is already going to have an impact in places we didn’t foresee. Look out for the enormous ripple effect.

IF SHE CAN SEE IT, SHE CAN BE IT