Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

Most of the women I’ve interviewed on this site are very successful in a traditional sense. They’ve worked hard, climbed the corporate ladder (or entrepreneurial jungle gym) and racked up obvious markers of career stature—big titles, material comforts and earning power.

Tamika Lamison illustrates a very different, but intriguing, path—the journey of a woman who hasn’t yet figured out how to make a great (financial) living from her work but has enjoyed her own esoteric brand of success. The actress/writer/director/producer has kept her expenses ruthlessly low in L.A., a city not known for affordability. Committed to following her passions, she gives much of her labor away for free when working as the founder and executive director of the volunteer-run Make A Film Foundation.

She’s been so indifferent to her personal finances that the Los Angeles Times even ran a money makeover story on her with the title, “Free-spirited actress needs to focus on material things.” Four years later, she’s still not completely bought into that logic.  She stays focused on doing what she loves, in particular, connecting children with life-threatening medical conditions with noted actors, directors and writers to create short film legacies. The healing films offer kids hope, excitement and a creative outlet amid tough times.

Her path is not an easy one to walk, but it’s certainly full of lessons for us all.

What advice would you offer people about those early years when you’re pursuing a passion that doesn’t have a clear path? When you’re working in a creative field where there are a lot of different directions you could go in, how do you navigate all those choices?

I was really focused on acting when I was in New York. I still do commercials and stuff out here, but if I were in New York, I might still be pursuing an acting path. It was really fulfilling to me being on the stage doing theater. When I moved to L.A., the landscape was different.

I would say you have to give whatever it is you’re doing 100% focus and check in with yourself. Do a litmus test regarding how passionate you are about it. There came a time where I thought, “What am I doing?”

I’m actually not that interested in pursuing acting out here in L.A. in the way I was in New York. It’s a whole different energy and landscape. I became way more interested in writing and the behind-the-scenes. I didn’t lose my love of acting. I was just really clear that my passion had shifted.

Don’t just keep doing something because you think you need to be doing it. Always do the thing that is really driving you because it requires so much of your spirit, commitment and energy. You have to be all in.

When you’re not, you need to check in with yourself and see if there’s something else that needs to happen, or if you need to do something different to support what you want to do and reignite the passion. It doesn’t mean it’s gone away, but maybe there’s something different you need to do to reignite that passion.

How would you say you defined success when you were 25?

I certainly defined it differently. At 25, I defined success as accomplishing whatever specific goals I had set for myself. At that time it was acting. If I was actually working and making a living as an actor, I defined that as success.

Then there were a lot of little bitty successes in between. I would say to people, “Every time anything happens that is a move toward your goal, like if you get a job or book a commercial, celebrate those little successes.”

Sometimes they can be considered really big successes. If you book a commercial, it could feed you for a year and allow you to do all the things you want to do. That’s success. Success is being able to do what you love and make a living at it.

Even at 25, I understood that to be success on a macro level. Then on an egotistic level, you want all the big prizes. You want to be on a TV show that’s successful or in a film. Maybe you want to win an Oscar. Those are huge things you look at. On a macro spiritual level, I define success as being able to make a great living doing what you love. To me, your success is just completely intertwined with your purpose in life. That’s how I feel.

Do you think you’re more aware of different paths to success than you were 20 years ago?

I’m definitely more aware. They say, “If I had known then what I know now, I would have done a whole bunch of different things differently.” That’s certainly the case. There are opportunities I would have negotiated in a different way because I know how to do that now. I know exactly what I could do to make some other things happen.

You know what you know when you know it. That’s just part of the journey. Even now, I learn a new path every day. I think I understand, more than I did back then, that it’s all about me, what I want to create, and how much energy I want to put into something. When I first got to L.A. and I was acting, I had tunnel vision about creating that stuff. That’s where my head was 100%.

The only way I can talk about it is mortality. There are people in my family who have passed away. My parents are dealing with the loss of their brothers and sister. I have friends who are losing people, like their spouses, at a young age.

I just have a different perspective about where I want to put my energies. I’m really committed to the things I feel are important, like spending time with my family, finding someone to share my life with in mutual love and joy, and using my talents and gifts in service because I think that’s what I’m here for. I’m really hoping I can generate financial success and whatever other kind of success there is through service.

Can you tell me a little bit about how you’re using your talent to serve through Make a Film Foundation?

I sold a screenplay for six figures. The check was bad, and it made me reevaluate where I was focusing all of my energies. It was a devastating hit because it was the perfect scenario. I was going to direct and produce it. I was getting a check for it. It was crazy. It was the perfect scenario that ended up not happening.

As I meditated on that, I realized that I wanted to put my energies in some areas that would be of service but still use my talents, so I started to mentor and teach kids filmmaking, screenwriting and production in nonprofits, as well as after school. I worked for this organization called Star Education in different places around the city.

One in particular, Inner-City Filmmakers, I totally fell in love with. I got so inspired. I was so passionate being around the kids and watching the light bulb go off when they discovered a passion for telling their stories and seeing their stories on film.

It was just amazing to me that filmmaking and being able to share their stories was being demystified for them in a way that was 100% accessible. Watching the transformation that happened with them and the confidence when they were able to create something like that really fulfilled me.

Someone asked me, if I could do anything, what would it be? I said, “I’ve always been inspired by organizations like Inner-City Filmmakers and Make-A-Wish Foundation. Aside from filmmaking, I’d probably grant wishes to kids in the Make-A-Wish Foundation.”

I figured I would combine my passion for youth and filmmaking in that particular population of kids and create a new organization where I could literally be of service and make and create films.

How many films has the foundation produced so far?

We’ve produced over 100 documentaries and three short narratives. Those are a little more challenging to produce because they’re Hollywood quality. We require a lot more money to make those. It requires more time to put them together, and we’re using celebrities, major directors and things like that. It takes more time. Sometimes the kids we choose to create those are really sick, so we have to work around whatever is going on with them healthwise.

Our second kid, who did the short narrative “Deep Blue Breath,” was in and out of the hospital the whole time. Literally right after we premiered his film, the next day he flew to the hospital and had a major surgery. He was there for several months.

Those are a little more challenging. They are what I would call our pièce de résistance. Making those short films is the thing we’re known for because they are so popular. They have stars in them and things like that.

The documentary program has really taken off. That’s become extremely popular because we can make so many more films. It’s really why we created it. We needed to create a program that’s a little easier to facilitate so we can make more films and reach more kids and offer them this opportunity.

How many people work on your team? I’m sure it varies from project to project, but what about the core of the foundation?

On a daily basis, it’s anywhere from one to three people. I know that sounds crazy, but it’s a really small operation. I work out of my home, and I’m the man behind the curtain.

We’re trying to generate a different dynamic, because for the last six or seven years, we’ve basically been 100% volunteers, which is unsustainable in a nonprofit doing what we’re doing.

We’re reaching out to different avenues so we can get a financial revenue stream that supports having an actual administration and having some people working on a daily basis. There are people who want this program and we can’t even afford to bring it to them.

There are international people. We are actually taking it to Mexico this year, but they’re funding it. That’s why we’re able to do that. There are other places that have wanted us to bring the program, but unless they’re funding it, we can’t right now because we don’t have the manpower or money.

On a daily basis, it’s really just two or three people working in the organization. Then when we have projects, it’s anywhere from 50 to 150 people, depending on where we are and how many films we’re making.

Are all of those people donating their skills, whether they’re behind the camera, directors or actors?

They’re all donating their time and talent. We get a lot of in-kind donations. We basically exist on in-kind goods and services and people donating their time and talent. Our budget is shockingly small. No one believes me when I tell them what our budget is. Everyone is volunteering. That makes it challenging. I have definitely burned out a few of my friends and family and some people in the industry a little bit.

What advice would you give to people who have a vision for addressing a community need like you’ve done but don’t necessarily have a lot of funding or experience? How do they take that first step?

I actually did this self-empowerment workshop called Landmark. They helped me develop and focus my vision on what I wanted to create and gave me some tools to keep me on track when I was getting scared or not knowing what I was doing. They gave me a lot of technology to keep me on track and motivated.

I would say, find something like that or a community of people. Ultimately, get a strong team around you. When I started, I did have three or four people who were super supportive and helped me do research. You have to be unashamed to ask for help.

Upon reflection, I wish I had done a little more research about the specifics needed to build a nonprofit because there are certain things that are so important when you’re starting out. If you get those things in place, it will save you so much grief in the future.

It’s things like making sure you have some way to manage your database, a solid board of directors who know what a board of directors is supposed to do, and somebody who can guide you through the specific things about setting up a nonprofit.

There are all kinds of legal things you have to do just to get yourself set up. Do a lot of research and be open to creating lists and enrolling good people who love you and support your cause.

Is the nonprofit your primary thing or do you continue to act, direct and produce?

I’m a volunteer. When I said 100%, I really meant that. We’re reaching out to different people in different segments to see how we can create this in the model of a traditional nonprofit that can remain sustainable. The only way we can do that is if we get a budget that makes sense for us to do all the programming we’re creating.

I would consider this nonprofit successful when I become unnecessary. If I stop right now, it will die. It’s not successful to me until it’s not about me anymore. Somebody else could come in and run it. They could hire another executive director. That’s when it’s actually successful.

In order to do that, we’re creating a plan where we can have the financial sustainability to pay core people, have administration, create new programming, and sustain programming that we’ve generated. We’ve created amazing things, but we are at the tipping point.

It’s important to know what your vision is and what you want. Some people may want to always be attached to their nonprofit, but that’s not really where my brain is. I want this baby to be able to go off on its own and fly.

In answer to your question, I’m still writing, directing, producing and anything else that I can do to sustain my nonprofit and myself.

You’ve lived a very bare-bones, no-frill life in the service of this creative, artistic pursuit. You’ve kept expenses low so you could ride through the times when work was scarce. Do you feel that you’re in a more sustainable place? Do you have any advice for people about financially managing the ups and downs?

The truth is I am not in a financially sustainable place at all. I’m actually still living a very similar life.

Perspective-wise, I’m really clear about what’s important to me. I am still looking for all the ways to have balance.

Being rich and all that is wonderful. I would love to have endless money. Money is energy. The more money that I have, the more energy I can put out there to do the things I want to do. That includes service and running my nonprofit and all of that stuff.

In the midst of creating all of the financial abundance that I want to do the things I want to do personally, professionally and service-oriented, I still have a low overhead. I do a lot of the things I want to do, but I manage to have a really low overhead. I’ve never really been someone who has been all that interested in specific material things.

I love that I’m able to have time for my family. A few years ago, my mom was in the hospital. She came out and couldn’t bathe or do anything. Because of my independent employment — and I’m a writer mostly, so I can write anywhere — I was able to go home and take care of her for an entire summer. I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

There are all kinds of compromises. Choose and be happy with your choice because there are pros and cons to everything.

I appreciate you being so frank in your answer. Often people email me and say, “Can you profile someone who’s like me? Can you profile someone who hasn’t made a lot of money from their dream yet? Can you profile someone who’s a single mom?” Everyone’s situation and story is different, so I think it’s helpful for people to hear that you can choose to follow your dream even before you get all the financial rewards. It is a choice, and you can adjust your spending habits, lifestyle or whatever it is to make your dream possible.

I’ll say something else. It’s not always about money. Don’t get me wrong. You need money, but it’s not always about money. You can manifest things. I’ll tell you a story that supports me doing this.

People do not understand how I do what I do. I don’t even understand it. I stated a couple of years ago that I was going to go to Africa. I said, “I’m going to Africa. I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I’d love to bring Make A Film Foundation to Africa, but whatever the case, I’m going to Africa because that’s one of my dreams.”

I started talking about it. I told all my friends. All these different possibilities have emerged. There were three different possibilities. I went down all of the roads. None of them ended up being the road that I was going to go down, but I was thinking, “I am going.”

Then my friend sent me an email and said, they’re looking for someone to be a speech and drama juror at this speech and drama festival in Zimbabwe. You had to fill out all of this stuff like essays and paperwork. There were three different rounds. Then you had to Skype with them.

I got it and went to Africa on someone else’s dime for almost two months. I ended up going to Zimbabwe, South Africa and all over. It was like the universe opened up and gave me the dream in a way I never could have imagined for myself. I was serving, which is something I love to do. I got to watch these incredible performances of poetry, Shakespeare, mime and all of this stuff for two months. It was crazy.

I had no money really, but I didn’t really need it because they took care of everything. It was insane. I just say that you can manifest whatever it is that you want. It doesn’t always come in the form of money necessarily. Sometimes it does.

I’ve had so many amazing successes. When I think about my life, I consider myself a success. My family and the people who know me do as well. Make a Film Foundation was created out of nothing.

One of the things that made me feel like I could do that is that someone told me once, “If you want to serve, you can’t wait until you have money.” You can, but why wait until you have money or are comfortable? Do what you can do right now. You can do it now. You don’t have to be Bono or Oprah.

It doesn’t have to necessarily be some huge thing either. Start right now if that’s something that you want to do. I took that to heart and said, “That’s true. I don’t have to be rich and famous in order to create. I’m going to work with what I have right now. I have a lot of connections in the business. I know how to make film. I can do this. I know how to produce. I know a lot of famous people and amazing directors. I’m going to use all of this to do something that I know how to do and start right now.”

Just doing that, it made me believe that I can do anything. I can do whatever I want. I also know that if I really focused on making money, I would be making a lot of money. I have not yet crossed over into that. I have friends who say, “Tamika, make money. I get your thing, but make money.” I haven’t crossed over completely into that field yet because I need to have the balance. I have to be making money and doing the stuff that fulfills me as well. Again, we come back to balance.

Do you see the path where you can make money and find joy in your work?

I do. I think Make A Film Foundation is that path to one degree. Of course, if I stay with Make A Film Foundation, I’m also focused on getting the money in the organization to sustain it. I would probably stay on as the executive director for as long as that made sense. That could sustain the basics in one area. Still, I’m going to be creating my own career path. I have films that I want to make and things that I want to do in that area as well, but I’m always going to be serving.

So, what’s next for you–a combination of helping the organization to be sustainable but then also pursuing your own creative directing and producing projects?

Yes. I was able to produce my first feature last year. It’s a project called “Sex and Violence Or: A Brief Review of Simple Physics.”

Again, a lot of things are not necessarily measured in money, but they’re personal successes. I really believe in that because that’s the stuff that ultimately matters.


Here’s Tamika’s TEDx talk on her belief that nothing’s impossible.