The University of California was named in a lawsuit filed by one of its Black alumnae, who alleges that her former professor used her songs, stories and likeness in a children’s books series without her permission.
Ashanti McMillon, a 2013 graduate of the University of California Riverside, co-founded an educational media company with her one-time mentor Setsu Shigematsu.
Shigematsu is a media and cultural studies professor at UCR who developed a business partnership with McMillon.
McMillon said she devoted nearly two years to writing and marketing for The Guardian Princesses, a collection of children’s books about racially and culturally diverse princess superheroines who defend the planet from greedy villains. But Shigematsu forced her out of the business in 2015 and failed to adequately compensate her, McMillon contends in her claim.
“The professor took advantage of my trust,” the 29-year-old Los Angeles native told Atlanta Black Star during an Oct. 20 phone interview. “To be exploited like this, to be treated like a slave is wrong. And this should not happen at all, especially when you’re investing that time, money, hopes and dreams to better yourself.”
McMillon’s attorneys filed a lawsuit on her behalf Aug. 13 in the Superior Court of California, seeking punitive damages, medical and professional expenses, and compensation for lost earnings.
On Oct. 1, the suit was moved from the state court to the U.S. District Court in California’s Central District.
A hearing in a Riverside courtroom is slated for Dec. 4 before Judge John W. Holcomb, court records show.
Dominique Banos, one of McMillon’s attorneys, said copyright infringement, one of the claims included the lawsuit, warranted the transfer because it’s an offense that falls under federal jurisdiction.
The civil complaint also alleges breach of contract, negligence, emotional distress, labor code violations and misappropriation of McMillon’s likeness.
Shigematsu’s husband Dylan Rodriguez is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit along with the couple’s nonprofit organization S.T.R.O.N.G. Edutainment.
The Regents of the University of California, the governing board that oversees California’s network of public universities, is another defendant named in the suit.
In an Oct. 20 email, Shigematsu declined to comment on the complaint until she conferred with her attorney. A spokeswoman from Board of Regents President Michael Drake’s office also declined to comment, directing media questions to University of California’s Riverside campus.
But attorneys for both defendants have filed motions to dismiss McMillon’s lawsuit, arguing that it was filed past the statute of limitations, according to federal court documents. They intend to argue for the respective dismissals during the Dec. 4 hearing.
Brian Hafter, the Board of Regents’ attorney, described McMillon’s complaint as the epitome of “too little, too late,” in an Oct. 20 court filing.
Likewise, Sacha Emanuel, an attorney representing Shigematsu, Rodriguez and their nonprofit organization, argued that McMillon’s allegations are time-barred. Emanuel also wrote that McMillon’s claims are “devoid of facts sufficient to state a claim against the defendants” in her Oct. 20 motion.
Shigematsu developed the idea for The Guardian Princesses books after writing the first installment for her daughter’s fifth birthday.
She taught a Special Studies class intended for students to work on their own thesis projects. But according to McMillon’s lawsuit, the professor collaborated with students enrolled in her class to flesh out stories for her book series.
McMillon said Setsu Shigetmatsu recruited her for the class in March 2013 when she was a 21-year-old undergraduate. During the 11-week course, McMillon said she wrote stories that became a main catalyst for the series.
“During that class, I created intellectual property that has become the heart and soul and full embodiment of what came to be the Guardian Princesses brand,” she said.
McMillon’s lawsuit alleges Shigematsu promised students royalties, lucrative top-level positions with her company and “used course credits as leverage to exploit, harass and bully” her classmates. But the professor never delivered on those promises.
The complaint goes on to claim that the Shigematsu “grossly misused” the course for her own benefit to “obtain free student labor” and mine content for her company.
McMillon alleged that when the class was over, Shigematsu convinced her to go into business with her, promising her a full stake in the company.
They partnered to build Guardian Princess Alliance, a limited liability for-profit company that has since dissolved and been rebranded under a new name. The new version of the company operates today as a division of S.T.R.O.N.G. Edutainment.
But two books that McMillon wrote during her collaboration with Shigematsu continue to be sold on Amazon as well as The Guardian Princesses website.
McMillon said she spent at least 80 hours a week devising fundraising campaigns, developing marketing strategies, editing, writing and finalizing stories for publishing. She said she had to drop out of a master’s program and sacrifice her dream of becoming a certified teacher to focus on building up the brand.
In addition to the two books, McMillon also wrote a theme song for the book series and appeared as one of the fictional princesses in a music video for the song.
But it was all for naught. The business partnership ended in 2015 after Shigematsu muscled McMillon out of the company, according to her attorneys.
“She pretty much ousted her at some point when she was done using whatever she needed from Ashanti’s work,” Banos said.
McMillon’s lawsuit alleges that UCR campus administrators and faculty members were aware of the exploitative practices Shigematsu used in her class and did nothing to stop it. That included her husband, Dylan Rodriguez, a fellow media and cultural studies professor. Rodriguez was chair of the Riverside campus’ Academic Senate at the time and knew what Shigematsu was doing, the suit indicates.
McMillon said she also filed a complaint with the university in 2018, putting the school on notice after Shigematsu’s behavior persisted. Yet officials decided to take no disciplinary action against the professor following an investigation. That’s when McMillon said she made the decision to take her grievances to court.
“As an educator, this is not what you do at all,” she said. “You uplift students. You help them become better and reach their potential and help them fly. You don’t take them down, put them in a cage and make them fear you.”