Aymar Jean Christian, Ph.D., has dedicated his life to communicating with meaning. Now the scholar, producer, founder and writer/director is being recognized for his work with the first Leaders for a New Chicago award, courtesy of The Field Foundation.
Christian grew up in Bergen County, New Jersey. The child of Caribbean immigrants, he was raised to work hard in school.
"It was a context in which my parents sort of knew I was going to be one of the few Black kids in class and wanted me to understand the barriers behind me," said Christian. "But on a day-to-day basis it wasn't like I was ever teased or harassed or called the 'N' word or anything like that, so I was able, I think, to develop a sense of self and, you know, very slowly a sense of confidence in my own abilities in that particular space."
While attending public schools, he was a straight-A student. He then went on to attend the University of Michigan on a full scholarship. It was his first experience of the Midwest and where he realized in an American culture class that writing was something he liked and a skill he had. During his undergraduate years, he was a reporter for the university's newspaper, covering campus and state politics.
"I realized I had a knack for talking to people that I disagreed with, but fairly representing their views and really hearing them and [I] loved it," said Christian.
Christian went on to study communication at University of Pennsylvania where he earned his Master's degree and Ph.D.
"That was about the time that YouTube was starting, so I [thought] maybe I could do video blogs, so I wrote a couple papers on that and it was through video blogs that I discovered people making scripted shows for the web," recalled Christian, eventually deciding to study new media and how people express their identities online in grad school.
Christian is currently a tenured professor of communication at Northwestern University. He and his partner also celebrated 12 years together. When he is not working, the social Christian enjoys Chicago summer activities, music and dancing, watching TV and going out to local events, especially performance art, theater, dance, live music, poetry readings or variety showcases in support of local organizations.
His writing can be seen in his blog Televisual, academic journals, scholarly publications and his first book, Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television, which examines how the internet transformed television. He is also now working on his second book.
"The internet changed how TV could be developed, opening it up to independent producers without any connection to major stakeholders in Hollywood and making it more culturally sincere and flexible in the ways stories are told, produced and distributed," said Christian. "Open TV charts the democratization of television, especially after the advent of streaming video, a moment when it seemed possible to have TV by and for the people."
"I hope to open people's eyes to the richness of America's creative landscape by introducing them to a ton of new creators, stories, companies, and innovators," said Christian of what he hopes readers take away from Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television.
Christian said he is driven to come up with new ways of understanding culture broadly.
"The way I do that is by working with artists and communities, which is something I think scholars have done throughout the years, but I really wanted to do it to the max, and my hunch was by maybe being in it with artists and communities as we try to create equity in culture would lead me to a deeper understanding of the value of culture, specifically the value of cultures that have historically been undervalued."
Christian founded Open Television ( OTV ) in 2014 and serves as its head of research and development. With research and development as its mission, OTV is an online platform for various intersectional pilots and series that supports and showcases the work of Chicago artists.
For this project, Christian said he was inspired by Chicago and the many spaces for intersectional artists to perform and exhibit their talents. What he was seeing in Chicago in his own life, was not depicted on television.
"In 2014 there was no 'Pose,' there was no 'Empire,'" Christian recalled. "There were really no shows about Black, queer people, which is what I identify with. … It really was after 2015 that television started to catch this wave and I don't think it was until after the election that people really started to buy into the avant-garde, innovative, intersectional shows. We were very much ahead of the curve and for me I was just following my instinct and noticing these troubling dynamics of 'there's so much TV, but so many people are still underrepresented.'"
While a large percentage and even the majority of the works on OTV are LGBTQ, Christian confirms the platform is really about intersectionality.
"People can see America on OTV, through the lens of Chicago artists," Christian explained. "Most of the country are women, people of color, queer and trans folks, disabled or undocumented. Chicago artists are skillfully representing the diversity of the American experience, and through that lens we see a global, culturally specific yet universally relatable type of TV platform we've never yet seen."
Christian said OTV is expanding and preparing for even more things. He explained that when people watch OTV, he wants to see their minds expanded and for them to "yearn for more representation and the possibility of seeing all of America on screen."
He enthusiastically named a few shows that appear on OTV that he wants people to tune into, including: Kissing Walls, a show about being young, Black and queer in Chicago; Just Call Me Ripley, OTV's first scripted series from trans, masculine-identified creator Shannon Noll who uses they/them pronouns; and others.
"I want people to watch OTV and ask themselves why doesn't all the rest of my TV look like this," said Christian. "Why are there now 500, almost 600, shows released every year across all these platforms, many of us are now paying to get these shows, and while it's wonderful that we have "Pose," that's been renewed for season three and we have "Special" on Netflix, intersectionality on TV is still the exception rather than the rule and for the fraction of the budget of television, you go on OTV, you have 62 programs from all different kinds of people who, generally speaking, are not really represented on TV."
"I love showcasing emerging artists and believe that any true platform provides an opportunity for new voices to emerge," Christian added. "I use my research and development skills to show people the beauty and necessity of cultivating talent at the local, small scale level, because it's critical to the health and sustainability of the culture as a whole."
In June, the Field Foundation named Christian as one of 14 recipients of the inaugural Leaders for a New Chicago award. The award is supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to grow the definition of leadership in Chicago.
The Leaders for a New Chicago award acknowledges a range of established and emerging leaders who work across boundaries to create a Chicago that is responsive and more racially equitable.
"I think it's so great that the Field Foundation and the McArthur Foundation recognizes that local leaders in Chicago do a lot of unpaid labor and give a lot of themselves to work for their communities," Christian said of the award. "What's so great about this award is it awards both the leader and the organization."
"It feels very validating and feels like the work that I've put into this project was not in vain," he added.
To learn more about Aymar Jean Christian, visit ajchristian.org .