How the Pop Culture Hero Coalition brings together sci-fi stars to create a more inclusive geekdom

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Jul 23, 2015, 6:36 PM EDT

Geeks are no strangers to bullying. Whether it’s kids or adults, many people who have interests in comic books, science fiction, video games, and other geeky areas have faced bullying due to those passions, and for other reasons. For the last two years, pop culture icons have been coming together to try and raise awareness of these bullying issues in the community as part of the Pop Culture Hero Coalition.

The Coalition was created by actress Chase Masterson, who is well known for playing Leeta on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Carrie Goldman, author of Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear. Goldman’s journey to the Coalition began when her daughter, Katie Goldman, was in first grade and was bullied for liking Star Wars because the kids believed the franchise was only for boys. That event led to Goldman’s initial work and the writing of her book, for which she interviewed Masterson. Once the book was published, she contacted Masterson about San Diego Comic-Con and it was then that Masterson suggested forming a Coalition.

“I created the Pop Culture Hero Coalition because, after years of doing Trek cons, I saw the need for someone to make a stand for fans who have been affected by bullying, cyber-bullying, gender and LGBT-bullying, racism, misogyny, and other forms of hate. The Coalition is the first-ever group to reach out like this at comic-cons. I found that really ironic. We all love superheroes—why not be one IRL?” Masterson said in an email interview. “We love pop culture stories for a reason: because deep down, we hear the call to do heroic things, not just watch them. To stand up for the powerless. To create a platform for the voiceless. To bring justice. And equality. To recognize every human being has the same innate value and rights as any other. That’s what this genre is about.”

Masterson, who was recently asked to serve on the Advisory Board of the United Nations Association for her work against bullying, said that comic-cons are a great escape but that the question is, "Escape from what?”

“So many fans have been mistreated, just for being who they are. The world is finally starting to grow up a little, but obviously there is a huge way to go. The news is full of painful stories—and then, I think of the stories that haven’t even been told. We’re here to hear them, and to bring healing. We’re here to bring an understanding of what hate really is. And to overcome it,” she told Blastr. “Before founding the Coalition, I mentored men and women coming out of rival gangs for 6 years at Homeboy Industries in downtown L.A. We’re talking the Crips and Bloods. I know how strong pain can be. And I know how to break barriers and bring healing. I want to create a culture where hate, prejudice and bullying is unthinkable. Completely unacceptable. Where love and inclusivity—not mere tolerance, but actual cherishing of our differences—is the status quo, our natural state of being.”

The Coalition At Conventions

In 2013, the Coalition held their first anti-bullying panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Since then, Masterson said, the Coalition rotates two panels at conventions, End Bullying: Becoming a Superhero IRL and End Bullying: Responding to Cruelty in Our Culture. Their panels, which have also been presented at conventions like New York Comic Con, WonderCon, and C2E2, often include a mix of celebrities and experts. Panelists have included the founders of the NOH8 Campaign and the president of the United Nations Association San Diego chapter, Bettina Hausmann. The Coalition does more, however, than just host panels.

“Also, in our booth, we’ve created a PositivityZone, where fans write notes to other fans who need a boost. Some of the most amazing wisdom comes from anonymous fans. Carrie gives these notes to kids when she speaks in schools. Sometimes, fans take a note home. We had one girl take a note at C2E2 last year, and she brought it back this year, saying it carried her through, and now she’s doing better. Pretty inspiring stuff,” Masterson said. “We also have the ‘I AM’ Campaign, which we started at NYCC in 2013. Celebrities write a simple phrase about themselves, rallying fans to celebrate exactly who they are.”

Bullying In Geek Culture

According to Goldman, their convention panels try to reach attendees on a few different levels.

“One of the things we like to talk about is the fact that people who come to comic-con have often had an experience with being othered or being bullied or feeling different, and so we know it’s a place to reach people who have had that suffering and are looking for new information, are looking for healing, but the other reason we go to comic-cons is there are a lot of perpetrators of aggression who also attend comic-con,” Goldman said.

Two areas Goldman points to where work needs to be done is the cosplay community and teaching people to accept all cosplayers regardless of things like race, gender, body size, and more, as well as the gaming community.

“As much as we’re there trying to provide a voice for the people who have been victimized, we’re also there trying to provide a voice to get people to question whether or not they’ve been doing this and saying you know ‘when you come to a con are you part of the solution or are you part of the problem?’ Some people never really realize that they are participating in attitudes of misogyny and homophobia so you force them to confront it so we’re there for all those reasons,” she said.

After conventions, Goldman often gets emails from people seeking support and will aid those being bullied in finding helpful resources. She rarely hears from people who realize they have been the ones bullying others after conventions however. To her, having the booth is a way to reach bullies.

“I’ve had them many times come up to me. They see our signs ‘anti-bullying coalition’ and they’ll say ‘don’t you think bullying is a bunch of crap? Don’t you think it’s just about being the strongest and this is just human nature and whoever’s strongest wins?’ They have a more combative approach to begin with, and I love when people come over and say something like that, because, if they’re truly interested in a conversation, they’ll stick around while we talk and it sort of gives me an opportunity to try and talk to someone about the changing nature of bullying and how what they experienced 30 years ago in the school yard is not what people experience today,” she said. “You really need both present. You need the ability to get the walk-bys, the people that think anti-bullying as a concept is just a load of crap and you need the structured panels to reach the people who already know that it’s a real problem and are seeking real help.”

While Masterson has witnessed bullying in geek culture, she also loves how many ways the culture can be inclusive.

“For the most part, genre fans get it. We don’t have racial issues or LGBT prejudices to the extent that a lot of our culture still does. Starting with the first interracial kiss in Trek, and continuing on with featuring women in positions of authority in science fiction, this genre has always been a leader in ways the world should be. But there’s still a huge way to go,” she said.

She’s seen the misogyny faced by women and also what she says is an “extremely unfortunate geek hierarchy — in general, and in some of the geekerati of Hollywood — where some people are just not seen as cool enough for others.” To Masterson, these people must come to see that their conduct and attitudes are the same as what’s hurt them in the past and have to cut it out.

Pop Culture Stars Trying To Make A Difference

As seen through their panels, Masterson is not the only person in the entertainment industry to feel this is an important cause that needs to be addressed. Writer and producer Jane Espenson was a panelist at that first Coalition panel at comic-con and has appeared on others since. Known for her work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Once Upon a Time, and Husbands, Espenson told Blastr in an email interview that there are a lot of reasons this is an important cause but, in her opinion, it’s important because of how it leaves those being bullied and those who witness it feeling helpless.

“What really struck me was the way the panels give practical options for dealing with bullying. Conventions are a great way to reach groups of people who are already interested in diversity and acceptance, and are looking for practical ways to help,” she said.

She believes entertainment can help this or any cause, “because it can take statistics and remind us that those numbers represent people with their own very personal stories.” In her experience, she’s seen how entertainment can make a difference.

“I’m proud to have written for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which, of all the shows I’ve written for, probably discussed the topic of teenaged alienation the most. In conversation with viewers, I often get to hear how the show helped them survive high school — they drew strength from Buffy,” she said. “I think shows can continue to address this topic, and can do their best to get their facts right by consulting resources like the Coalition.”

Actress Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, has also been a part of the Coalition since that first panel. Eckstein actually first reached out to Goldman when she heard about her daughter being bullied and wanted Katie to know that there are millions of girls out there who like Star Wars and things like sci-fi and comics. She sent a care package of Star Wars items made for girls to Katie. Eckstein was also interviewed for Goldman’s book and then interviewed Goldman about the topic at a Celebration VI  panel.

To Eckstein, this is an important cause to discuss because it happens everywhere, everyday, in every community and she sees a definite problem with bullying in the geek community.

“I think it’s important to have these panels and have these events at conventions to not only spread the word, but also to show fans that are being bullied that they’re not alone,” she told Blastr.

The desire to show bullied fans that they are not alone is why Eckstein has launched initiatives such as the Fangirl of the Day and Ask Ellen through the fangirl fashion brand she founded, Her Universe.

“Unfortunately, some of the girls and some fanboys, too, that come to Her Universe go to school everyday and are alone. I said, ‘You know, I can’t show up to their school or their jobs and see them in person and give them a hug and say you’re not alone, but how can we do that online with our community?’” Eckstein explained. “So, my goal was that they could come home every single day, go onto our website or Facebook page, and meet somebody else that’s just like them and so they know, ‘OK, here’s another person that’s just like me. I’m not alone. I‘m not weird, I’m perfectly normal.’”

How You Can Make A Difference

Eckstein believes making someone feel they are not alone, that you are there for them and listening, can help someone who is being bullied tremendously. Offering support is something Espenson sees as a way to make a difference as well.

“It can sometimes be too difficult to step up and challenge a bully directly — it’s not dumb to fear becoming a target yourself. What I learned is the value in the smaller but very valuable actions like simply reaching out to the bullied individual to express your support — to make them feel seen,” she said.

If you feel that you can step in, that can be helpful to someone being bullied, too.

“I really feel, whenever we see any injustice or feel somebody is not being treated with dignity, we personally have to step in and just really take the courage to not be a bystander,” Hausmann, who has also been involved with the coalition since its first appearance at comic-con, told Blastr.

Masterson also thinks people should become allies for those being bullied. She also said, “It goes beyond simply ending bullying.”

“What I’m going for with the Hero Coalition is to create a culture of inclusivity, one that cherishes everyone for exactly who they are, and works to make other peoples’ lives better. A culture that actually seeks and reaches out to the especially nerdy kid — not the one who’s chic-nerdy, I mean the really awkward one who’s over there in the corner of the room or the Internets, just trying [to] find her or his way and make a friend. It’s not all about being seen and how many followers you have. It’s about seeing other people and letting them know you value exactly who they are.  Isn’t that what we all want? So, let’s give it,” she said.

To help the Coalition, Goldman encourages people to go to the conventions and participate in what they do. You can also contact them if you want to help bring the coalition to a convention they haven’t been to before or volunteer your time if you’re a psychologist or social worker to be a reference they can recommend to someone who might reach out to the Coalition asking for help.

Together, the community can make a difference and the Coalition will continue to share this message throughout the year. They will once again be appearing at conventions, and hosted a panel at San Diego Comic-Con with great panelists, including actor John Barrowman.

“If there’s any way to rock this planet for good, it’s through pop culture. And anybody can join us,” Masterson said. “That’s the whole point, inclusivity.”

Check out some of the celebrities who've joined in the "I AM" movement in the gallery below!