Tony Weaver Jr. ’16 tells stories that defy stereotypes and encourage young readers to be themselves.
During his first gathering with fellow acting students at Elon, Tony Weaver Jr. ’16 was asked a seemingly straightforward question: What is your dream role? But Weaver found he didn’t have an answer. He didn’t think many substantial roles for black men existed, much less a part he would consider his dream role.
Fast forward to his volunteer work with a local elementary school, where he mentored a young student who, like Weaver, loved superheroes. Weaver asked him if he was going to dress up as his favorite superhero for Halloween. The boy replied he couldn’t because he didn’t look like his favorite superhero. Instead he went as a character from “Grand Theft Auto,” a crime-focused video game series.
Those experiences were just two of the sparks that motivated Weaver to use the power of storytelling to create change, crafting his own diverse stories with positive representation for young readers. Weaver is the founder and CEO of Weird Enough Productions, a media company that gives a voice to underrepresented groups and encourages kids and teens to “embrace their quirks and get hype about being themselves.” The company’s Get Media L.I.T. program pairs its flagship comics series, “The UnCommons,” with lesson plans and curricula focused on media literacy, digital citizenship and social-emotional learning.
“At Weird Enough, we use comics for social good,” Weaver says. “I believe stories are the most powerful tool for change in the history of mankind. We partner those stories with cutting-edge curricula and learning tools so we can drive impact for young people around the world.”
Weaver founded Weird Enough Productions as a junior at Elon, and in the few years since he graduated, the company has soared to national acclaim for its innovative approach to education. He has garnered a host of fellowships from organizations like Echoing Green, which supports emerging social entrepreneurs; Peace First, which empowers young people to create a just and peaceful world; and Camelback Ventures, which identifies, develops and promotes underrepresented entrepreneurs.
He was included in the Forbes “30 Under 30 Education 2018” list and was honored as Young Alumnus of the Year at Elon’s Distinguished Alumni Awards the same year. Earlier this year, he was featured in a Coca-Cola ad titled “History Shakers” recognizing six black leaders for their roles in shaping modern history. “It makes me feel like my feelings were valid and like the difficulties and deficits I saw are also ones that other people see,” Weaver says. “It makes me feel like I’m helping people like me.”
The origin story
Weaver grew up in Atlanta and was an avid reader of comics and anime from a young age. He was particularly drawn to shounen, an anime genre in which the protagonist faces a daunting challenge but feels profoundly unequipped to achieve their goals. “Growing up, stuff like that always resonated with me, not necessarily from the perspective of I always root for the underdog, but rooted in a realistic idea that the goals we have are not always intuitive,” Weaver says.
He learned about Elon from one of his mother’s co-workers, and he knew when he visited campus for his acting audition that it was the right place for him. His mother told him he should pick a second field of study if he wanted to pursue an acting degree, so he double majored in strategic communications. Weaver’s work in the School of Communications was the beginning of a different path for him. It fostered his interest in media representation, and early on he started researching how media misrepresentation and underrepresentation affect how people view themselves.
Weaver applied for the Lumen Prize, Elon’s premier award in support of exceptional undergraduate scholarship and artistic endeavors. He was disappointed when he didn’t get it, but he quickly pivoted. A couple of months later, the university announced the creation of the Leadership Prize, which provides funding for students to research a problem and use their leadership skills to develop potential solutions. It felt more closely aligned with his goals, and he was one of the three inaugural recipients.
“I think the Leadership Prize was the shot in the arm he needed,” says Naeemah Clark, professor of cinema and television arts and Weaver’s research mentor, “because then he took over the world.”
Weaver analyzed the representation of African Americans in media content on non-linear channels, like social media and other online platforms versus traditional distribution channels like film and television. He examined the types of messages being shared on those platforms, and how they shape the way people perceive the world. His findings and other opportunities through the Leadership Prize paved the way for his success in launching Weird Enough Productions.
“I’m generally known for my ability to pitch, and I think I got so good at it because the Leadership Prize kind of threw me into the fire,” Weaver says. “I ended up at a lot of conferences and events, and I learned how to pitch myself and how to properly explain my idea in a short period of time. Those are things I still carry and use.”
From the time he started laying the foundation for Weird Enough Productions in 2014 in tandem with his Leadership Prize work, Weaver dedicated all of his free time and energy to making that vision a reality. “He knew what he wanted to do from the beginning and he was very focused,” Clark says. “He was very clear that he wanted to create content that was informative and entertaining and talked about race and ethnicity through the lens of media. It was clear to him that he wanted to educate young people.”
Weaver engaged in experiential learning opportunities like studying abroad in Japan and an internship with NBC. He and a team of friends won the $500 first-place prize at the School of Business’ Triple Impact Challenge with their pitch for Weird Enough Productions. They created multimedia content, and Weaver researched funding opportunities. Two days before graduation, he learned he received the Echoing Green fellowship, complete with an $80,000 investment. “I think what allowed me to transition it to a full-time career was that from the beginning, I knew that was what it was going to be,” Weaver says. “I wasn’t entirely clear on what the path would be, but I was a junior looking at what’s this funding strategy? What sector do these people invest in?”
The next chapter
Today, Weird Enough Productions has two primary facets: content and curricula. “The UnCommons” comic series follows Iris, a West African teen with the gift of Second Sight. When she has a vision of the world ending, she joins forces with a group of unlikely outsiders who have to defeat demons from their pasts to stand any chance of saving humanity. “Our characters have these abilities, but there are deeper, underlying things about them that make them relatable and make them human,” Weaver says. “As a writer, I have a lot of fun exploring what those intersections are and what commentary we can make about the world with our characters.”
“The UnCommons” is available at weirdenoughcomics.com, in print and via Webtoon, a comic-reading app. Weaver is the primary writer, and he partners with an editor and two artists to bring the series to life. The company currently has 12 employees across its operations, communications, technology and content divisions. Staff are based around the world, including the U.S., Canada, the Philippines and West Africa.
Get Media L.I.T. is the company’s education technology platform, which pairs the comics with lesson plans and curricula that foster greater self-awareness, social responsibility and agency while strengthening readership and vocabulary. Weird Enough works directly with schools and afterschool programs, or educators can connect with the company at getmedialit.com. L.I.T. is an acronym for the program’s three lesson categories — learn, inquire and transform.
“Learn” introduces concepts like modeling healthy emotional expression, enhancing vocabulary and developing social media savvy. “Inquire” promotes critical thinking about ideas like how social media affects emotional wellness, media’s impact on popular beliefs and detecting falsehoods online. “Transform” encourages students to apply their knowledge with self-expression, media creation and civic engagement.
I believe stories are the most powerful tool for change in the history of mankind. We partner those stories with cutting-edge curricula and learning tools so we can drive impact for young people around the world.
“We take these amazing stories and partner them with pedagogies that allow you to walk away from it with a better understanding of yourself and the world,” Weaver says. “You can take the sequence where Iris’ parents tell her she doesn’t know what she’s talking about and pair that with a lesson plan about communicating with people who don’t understand your perspective. That would be a huge tool for young people who are coming to grips with their sexuality or gender identity.”
To date, Weird Enough has reached about 40,000 students in schools across the country and just began working with a group of schools in South Africa. And in response to schools suspending in-person instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Weaver made the Get Media L.I.T. platform free for teachers, students and parents through the end of the academic year. The Weird Enough team also volunteered for digital classroom visits to support teachers hosting remote classes.
Weaver says he wanted to use Weird Enough’s educational resources to help students and teachers navigate a difficult and uncertain situation. “Schools provide a lot of resources that kids don’t have access to at home, and one of those key things is literacy tools,” Weaver says. “With two-thirds of students in the U.S. not being able to read on grade level, when you remove them from the only place where they have defined and pure access to literacy materials, it can create a sticky situation for them.”
This summer, Weaver signed a book deal for “Weirdo,” his first full-length graphic novel that tells a story of self-acceptance. Next, he wants to engage with more students by expanding Get Media L.I.T. to an additional 100 schools by the end of 2020. He also wants to develop an “UnCommons” animated series. But above all, he hopes Weird Enough Productions inspires young people to create stories and characters of their own.
“If your dream role lives in my universe, that’s cool. I’m humbled. But I would also really love it if your dream role was a character you created,” Weaver says. “We don’t have to rely on anyone else to tell our stories. I think creating a media landscape where students are not only able to see characters that look like them but also engage directly with the characters that are in their own heads, that kind of stuff is what gets me really excited.”