Karen Toliver’s journey with Rare

At Rare's November 2023 event hosted at Netflix in NYC, Karen Toliver — Rare Trustee, Vice President of Animation Film at Netflix, and an Academy Award-winning producer — shares her inspiring personal story of taking action for nature and partnering with Rare on her journey.
November 29, 2023

Full transcript

With that, I want to tell you a little bit about myself. I’ll start with who I was as a child. It’s two words. I was a guinea pig and I was a daydreamer. I was a guinea pig because my father, who I’m very much a daddy’s girl, was a scientist. He taught neurology and did research in early childhood hearing. He was instrumental in looking at infants’ early detection to see if they had hearing loss, which was really important. He was a workaholic, and he was super passionate about his work, and I definitely took that from him.

He was so passionate about his research that in the late ’60s, he moved from DC to Dallas, Texas, which is where I was raised. That was rough for me. I was very inspired by him, although literally, I had electrodes on my head all the time. He was doing hearing tests on me. I was the only Black kid in my school for many many years, and so the sense of identity wasn’t there. I felt like I couldn’t see myself and it was really hard so I took to daydreaming and telling stories, and that’s really where I found my inspiration. That’s like a lot of people in entertainment, that they use the storytelling really to kind of escape. That was really important for me.

He never said it, but maybe my father was disappointed that I didn’t follow in his scientific footsteps. Instead, I came out to LA, and I became a storyteller and worked in animation back when it wasn’t that cool. I worked on many big movies. I worked on Ice Age. I worked on Rio, Ferdinand, and was really pleased to really find a way to connect within those stories. Like my dad, I was a workaholic.

I was spending time doing my thing, and then got married, had two kids, and then was just trying to juggle the work-life balance, right? Meantime, I knew the climate change disaster was coming, but like a lot of people, I just put my head in the sand and was like, “That’s not for me. I can’t do anything. Boy, I hope they figure it out.” That was how I lived my life until, ironically, I needed to do research for a project. May surprise you, but in animation, we do research with projects, even though we’re doing animation and fantasies, trying to get it as authentic as possible. We had a project set in South Africa.

It was about this magical girl who could make rain when there was no rain. We didn’t know anything about rain, and we needed to find scientists who knew about rain, and someone told me about Rare. They came in under the auspices. Brett always has an agenda. Oh sure, I’ll help you research this movie. He did. He also said something that changed me. He told me what I did not know at that time, that it’s like if individuals actually may change, it could actually move. It could actually change the whole narrative. I had never thought of that.

Instead of putting my head in the sand, it really switched me from being fearful to actually having hope for the first time. I finally realized, okay, I should probably look into this and get data and really understand what he’s saying about behavior change. Then, furthermore, he said, what I’m already doing, telling stories, was one of the biggest ways that we could make change. That blew my mind, and it shouldn’t have. I knew that really what we do in storytelling is moving hearts and minds. That’s the whole purpose of us. Then that was about three years ago, and I’m forever connected to Rare and to Brett.

Whatever he says, I do, basically [laughs], including flying on a jet– Be jet-lagged and flying in today. At Netflix and everywhere, we know that there’s a lot of competition for stories, right? Everybody’s from movies, television, TikTok. There’s all this competition. There’s a lot of choices. I think the behavioral scientists in here have a word for choice chaos or something. You have to really figure out– They’re like, “You’re wrong, Karen. That was not the right word.” We have to figure out how to tell stories that make a difference, right? Because if we tell something that is just disposable, it’s just not going to matter.

We have to tell something that starts conversation. I had a little experience with that. I had a chance to produce a short called Hair Love. It came out about three years ago. It’s funny because at Netflix, we talk about how do you make people watch things that they just can’t turn away? Hair Love is on YouTube right now. It’s had 102 million views. It seems to be about a Black dad and his daughter doing his daughter’s hair for the first time. That seems like that’s not a big deal. For us, it really spoke to the childhood that I spoke to, that I needed to be seen in narrative. It talked about just– Loving your hair is loving yourself, basically.

The short came out when all sorts of things were going on in the world. It was terrible, and I was worried about my children, my two Black teenagers out in the world. It was very powerful. I already knew that if you told the right story, people would come because it said something. Now it’s trying to take the climate change conversation, figuring out with Rare, what do people need to know? If we say the right message, then we can connect and move mountains. I know this to be true. I feel like in the entertainment industry, it’s starting to be a tip on the iceberg because I’ve seen it in diversity and equity.

In D&I work before, it used to be a nice to have, but now every single company, every single entertainment industry knows that that’s a must-have. I know we’re in a moment that at some point climate change is going to be a must-have as well. That’s my story, and I’m glad to be a part of this organization. Thank you.