(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
I left the Diversity and Inclusion Institute completely exhausted, but in the most exhilarating and inspiring way. I was excited for the day ahead and could hardly wait to share what I had experienced in my learning sessions and homerooms.
Young Leaders of Color Check-In with Teresa Eyring, Emilya Cachapero and Dafina McMillan
I spent the morning writing about the Diversity and Inclusion Institute and then headed to lunch with my fellow TCG Young Leaders of Color. This year was a reunion of sorts, because new leaders had not been added owing to a lack of financial support for the program. As disheartening as that sounds, TCG is smart about how they are using this time. They are assessing on the initial goals of the program, celebrating the extraordinary efforts and achievements of the more than 70 members and working to grow the program in a new and exciting way.
More on all of this as it develops, but essentially the program will be shifting from a nomination and spotlight at the conference to a year round program that offers mentorship opportunities and professional development training programs. No doubt, the enthusiasm around this idea was felt throughout the entire state of Texas! For some time, the Young Leaders of Color have wanted to be seen as a resource. One of the major ways we want to be of service is by leading diversity and inclusion training programs in organizations. This way, the burden would not have to be on the people of color in your organization.
In our open discussion, the following issues were raised and deeply resonated with me:
- While essential to TCG, the Young Leaders of Color and many theatre folks I met at the conference, the need for diversity is not a universal core value.
- There are artistic directors, executive arts managers and board members who are afraid to admit that diversity isn’t a top priority. It’s important to note this, because this lack of admission leads to false hope for change.
- The notion of allies was addressed. Ultimately, more white allies are needed. We need more individuals to advocate for diversity and inclusion alongside us and especially when we’re not in the room.
- In times of financial instability, we need to envision ourselves in multiple ways. As theatre artists, we have multiple skill sets that can be utilized in and beyond the arts and academic field. We need to explore this further.
Intergenerational Leaders of Color Check-In led by Benny Sato Ambush
Following the Young Leaders of Color lunch, I headed to the Intergenerational Leaders of Color check-in led by the incomparable Benny Sato Ambush. It was a rainy afternoon, but the room was densely and beautifully packed. I couldn’t help but smile as more and more chairs needed to be added. However, I immediately saw that the room was not as diverse as it could have been. I saw very few colleagues from Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern or Native American theatre communities. This served as a reminder to me that when we think about how to be more inclusive within our conversation about diversity, we have to think beyond Black and White. There was a strong Latino contingency, but I wanted more.
The major issues raised in this conversation would appear again and again throughout the conference. Here are a few of them:
- When thinking about programming, there was encouragement to branch outside of your roots even while being culturally specific. There is much to be learned from other cultures. Also, we should strive to strike a better balance between presenting musicals with singing and dancing and plays with plays that address a specific social justice focus.
- As we challenge the larger theatre to embrace plays by theatre of color, how do we protect smaller culturally specific theatre?
- If we want to build, grown and sustain theatre, we need to look to children/younger generations because it is their passion, vision, interest and brilliant ideas that will move theatre forward. We also need to look towards individual giving. Of course, neither of these are new ideas. At their core, both action steps call for increasing the value of arts in our society and cultivating a spirit of philanthropy towards the arts in our communities of color.
In a particularly charged moment in the discussion, there was an observation that culturally specific theatres aren’t establishing longer term relationships with artists, specifically playwrights. In response, there was an observation that culturally specific theatres don’t have the finances to compete against the larger theatres for the continued growth and life of the playwright. While I don’t think this is always the case and know of many examples where playwrights have remain invested the theatre while working a day job or even at another theatre, the financial health of the artist is an issue that came up again and again at the conference.
Emilya ended the session with two inspiring gems that I had to share and actually use as guiding principles of my work:
- Do not work in isolation. If you don’t feel you have people in your community, the internet and social media make connecting across geography quite easy, use it!
- As you are rising, lift others up with you. This is the only way we will grow as a community.
Diversity and Inclusion Arc Homeroom
Making Change/Making Meaning: Demographic Shifts Economic Uncertainty and the Role of the Arts
This session was phenomenal. It was presented by Dr. Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE) at the University of Southern California. Pastor provided an humorous, enlightening and accessible look at the shifting demographic and cultural currents in our country. Author of numerous books on equity, economics, demographics and social change, Dr. Pastor is also the recipient of many grants and fellowships Danforth Fellow, Guggenheim Fellow and recipient of grants from the Irvine Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Ford Foundation, National Science Foundation, Hewlett Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and many more. What’s more, he’s the father of an actor/musician and a dancer. So, this conversation was passionate, informative and personal.
These were the major points that spoke to me during his presentation:
- With the demographic change, there is not only a shift in politics and leadership styles, but also in how we as theatre artists meet the needs of a new audience.
- As gentrification of major cities occurs, the demographic shifts are happening in the suburbs. New communities are forming and shaping as African Americans and Latinos are moving into close proximity of one another. The critical role of the arts will be to create programming that targets the fabric of America moving forward.
- Only 10% of grant money made with primary or secondary purpose of supporting the arts actually benefits underserved communities of color and other disadvantaged groups. And less than 4% focus on advancing social justice goals. This is made even more problematic when the funding for these programs go away, because without the funding the programs are discontinued.
- When talking about the value of the arts, especially the theatre arts, there is a need to push the conversation beyond that of self-expression to one of community building and democracy. I believe this is essential. More than beauty and hope, we have to show that theater is an integral part of civic action, economic growth and the sustainable vitality of a community.
Click here to learn more about his powerful and important work around these issues.
Creating a Common Language: The Real Presence of Race in the Artist-to-Artist and Art-to-Audience Relationship
Jasmine Guy, actress, writer and producing director of Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company and Susan Booth, director and artistic director of Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre spoke candidly about race relations in the rehearsal hall, the organization-to-artist relationship, and in the space between the work and the community.
At the start of the conversation, Susan Booth recommended that we all read: It’s the Little Things: Everyday Interactions That Anger, Annoy, and Divide the Races by New York Times veteran Lena Williams. This is an “honest look at the interactions between blacks and whites-the gestures, expressions, tones, and body language that keep us divided.”
More than anything, this discussion posited a series of powerful questions that I’d like to share here and would love your thoughts:
- Does an organization have a racial or cultural identity? If so, how it is derived?
- Does multi-cultural programming make a theatre run by white administrators multi-cultural? Or does it still retain its “plantation” status?
- Why are white directors allowed to direct black plays, but black directors aren’t allowed to direct white plays?
- What happens when cultural history is not carried over into the current generation?
- How do we sustain culturally specific theatres?
- Looking at the power structure the American Theatre, arts administrators are at the top of the pyramid and artists are at the bottom rung. Both are essential to the process, but how do we empower artist and create a more sustainable life for them?
Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions and any of the issues address over the course of the day.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com