Karen Harris explains why serving on the WGAW Board was a gift and how the experience made her stronger.
2/20/2024 • Louise Farr
Black writers reflect on the direction of Black art.
When I was approached to write an article for WGAW Connect about my time(s) on the WGAW Board of Directors, my response was: “I should say no, but I can't bring myself to ... which is exactly how I ended up running for the board.” My board service wasn’t out of selflessness as much as being thrilled to be invited. It was like my prom, but without the recycled bridesmaid’s dress.
I became a WGAW member in 1980 and have had the privilege of being a fulltime working television writer over four decades. I supported and survived four strikes: 1981, ’85, ’88 (Strike Captain!) and 2007-’08. One of the reasons for my longevity is that, in order to continue writing, I adapted to the marketplace—from primetime action/adventure, to character-driven series, to MOWs and syndicated international series, and finally to daytime dramas. Then board member Dan Wilcox reached out to me. Dan was and is a champion for underrepresented writers: primarily news writers, older writers and daytime writers. I agreed to be chairperson of the Daytime Writers Committee. And Dan became my mentor in the Guild.
During the 2007-’08 strike, I became involved with the Guild on a more significant level. I was invited by Dan to join the Strike Rules Compliance Committee, probably the least popular group in the WGA. Formed only during strike actions, the SRCC receives reports of strike breaking, picket lines crossed, anything that interfered with or undermined our strength in negotiations. In other words, scabbing. We bent over backwards to make sure our members were treated fairly. In those moments when I questioned if this service would damage my career, I would look across the table at legends Frank Pierson and Larry Gelbart, at Glen Mazzara, Matt Gunn, Nancy de Los Santos (the only other woman on the committee), and the other members and think: Courage. During the strike, I became involved in a number of Guild activities and, of course, I picketed. The Guild, the members, and the times were changing. I felt I was part of that change. It gave me purpose and I loved it.
Shortly after, Dan Wilcox told me that if I’d run for the board I’d have his support and his mentorship on the ins and outs of navigating both the election process and Guild service. I’d met and worked closely with staff, officers, and board members, and had developed a new appreciation of the importance of our Guild for middle-class writers in particular. I wanted to be in this club, and I wanted to be a voice for all writers, but particularly neglected members—daytime, game shows, reality, and animation. I met with the Nominating Committee, I threw my hat in the ring, and I won a seat in 2008, in no small part because I had become passionate about what and who this Guild represents. I helped form a task force to investigate global opportunities for our members (Foreign Employers Task Force), as well as the Jobs Committee, which was looking into organizing areas long out of our reach (industrial films, trailers, advertising, etc.) to see what the appetite was in those fields for professional writers. I continued as Chair of the Daytime Writers. And on the first Monday of every month, I would drive to the Guild, where Nick would welcome me and direct me to “my space” right by the entrance. I had a badge that allowed me to get right to the fourth floor, where I’d join my fellow writers and a staff of excellent people, and we would make plans to improve the lives of writers. And we learned our individual strengths and weaknesses.
After two years, I ran again. And I lost. WHAT?! That made no sense. I had some wonderful people endorsing me, but I had decided I didn’t want to be part of a slate. No regrets, I stuck with my principles, and I continued to serve on some critical committees. I had actually been appointed to chair the WGAW Awards Committee, and I still steer that ship with committee members who have stuck by my side for nine-going-on-ten years. I was also (and still am) on the Waiver Committee.
By 2013, the board was changing. Chris Keyser was the new president. I ran for the board again and won back my seat at the table. I loved being back and helping to navigate the changing world of writers. Unfortunately, the economics of daytime television had meant the rather precipitous decline of the genre. But there were plenty of issues into which I could sink my teeth. And when those two years were up, I ran again—and lost again. (If you’re keeping score: one win, one loss, one win, one loss, and I was pretty devastated.) As I recall, we were coming up to another negotiation, which definitely affects how the members vote. By now, I was once again adapting my career. I had co-written and was producing a Broadway-bound musical, and doing a lot more traveling between NYC and L.A. It was the end of one happy era for me, and the beginning of another.
When I consider the power of Guild service and the impact it has had on me, I have not a single regret. Being on the board was a gift. Arguing for the least among us made me stronger. I still have so much respect for my colleagues who have the courage to run and serve the rest of us, and wish them all the luck in the world.
Karen Harris is a two-time Emmy and four-time Writers Guild Award winner who has spent over three decades in primetime, daytime dramatic television, and syndication. She served on the WGAW’s Board of Directors from 2008-'10 and 2013-'15. She is Chair of the WGAW’s Awards Committee, as well as Co-Chair of the Foreign Employment Task Force, in addition to serving on numerous Guild committees over the years. She considers “the best thing I do” to be mentoring for the Writers Guild Foundation’s Veterans Writing Project since 2013. Her latest project is Part of the Plan, a new Broadway-bound musical featuring the songs of the late singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg, for which she co-wrote the book and is producing. While waiting for theater to re-open, she is researching and writing a book about her family history.
(This article originally appeared in the October 16, 2020 issue of the WGAW Connect newsletter)