Debbie Allen Says She Has Made It a Personal 'Mandate' to Diversify Grey's Anatomy's Directors

"I know that when I started directing, there was nobody that looked like me," Debbie Allen tells PEOPLE in this week's issue

debbie allen directing grey's anatomy
Photo: Eric Maccandless/walt disney television/getty

Debbie Allen knows firsthand about the significance of inclusion.

In this week's issue of PEOPLE, the Grey's Anatomy actress and producer, 70, opens up about the importance of diversifying the entertainment industry, creating equal opportunity for others, and furthering her beliefs and legacy through the Debbie Allen Dance Academy.

"I know that when I started directing, there was nobody that looked like me," says Allen, who found success on the movie and the subsequent TV show Fame in the '80s. "Black, white, there were no women that I could see. And I knew it was a matter of opportunity. Opportunity is everything. Giving someone a chance. When I started executive-producing Grey's Anatomy, I made that mandate up for myself for more diversity. And I didn't even proclaim it to the world. I recognized what needed to happen."

"And so I started looking, and making calls, and looking in film festivals," she continues. "And I found some incredible women to direct, including the first transgender director in network television and also getting Ellen Pompeo to direct. I could see it in her in the way she could analyze a script and knew what she needed."

  • For more from Debbie Allen, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

She adds, "I have mentored many women and also young men, because I know that at the same time I'm very focused on women, I also have sons. I introduced the first Black male director to Grey's Anatomy. There hadn't been any."

As she continues to help create opportunities for others, Allen — who is currently starring in and executive-producing Grey's Anatomy, as well as directing and choreographing Netflix's Christmas on the Square — is gearing up to celebrate the 20th anniversary of her true passion: The Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA).

"I was always talking about [how] I got to open a school," says Allen. "These kids, they don't know enough. They don't know things, where they come from. We didn't have non-profit status. We didn't have support. But there was belief. And we needed it to happen. Sometimes you've got to go with the spirit of what it is, the movement. We did it."

Now, Allen, who is the subject of a Shondaland documentary for Netflix, Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker — a film that shines a light on the work of Allen and her re-imagining of the classic ballet performed annually by the gifted students of DADA — is proud of her journey and the message she continues to instill in her students and those who look up to her for guidance.

Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker
Courtesy of Netflix ©2020
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker
Courtesy of Netflix ©2020

"That's what the Hot Chocolate Nutcracker documentary is about: young people seeing an image of themselves that propels them to want and go further," Allen says. "When I'm training these young people, I expect them to get out in the world the way my mother expected me and [my siblings]. All of us get out here and do something and be productive. That is the character education that instills the creativity."

Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. Courtesy of Netflix ©2020

Former Scandal producing-director Oliver Bokelberg directed Dance Dreams, marking his feature documentary directorial debut.

Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker. Netflix

Allen continues, "We have to have an incubation for creativity. A space that's open so people can think of something that they're not just getting from the internet or from television, that they're actually ingesting something that's now ready to come out in their way of doing it: creativity, confidence, being able to take criticism, deal with pain, and also to understand the freedom and the unlimited journey of your energy. How far it can really go."

Grey's Anatomy returns Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC, and Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker premieres Nov. 27 on Netflix.

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