(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
Diversity & Inclusion blog salon: The Role of Allies
Context: According to Reverend Dr. Andrea Ayvazian (Senior Pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church), an ally is a member of a dominant group in our society who works to dismantle any form of oppression from which she or he receives the benefit. Allied behavior means taking personal responsibility for the changes we know are needed in our society, and so often ignore or leave to others to deal with. Allied behavior is intentional, overt, consistent activity that challenges prevailing patterns of oppression, makes privileges that are so often invisible visible, and facilitates the empowerment of persons targeted by oppression.
JACQUELINE LAWTON: In our work as allies, we must begin by addressing our own privilege and prejudice. Where are you in this process? What are some areas where you struggle?
JULIE HENNRIKUS: I work at StageSource, a service organization for the New England theater community. Last fall we had a series of conversations about Diversity/Inclusion/Gender Parity in our community. We released a report on those conversations earlier this year. I knew the conversations would be challenging, and the path forward is a tough one. What I didn’t know, or understand fully, would be my personal challenge in removing the lens of white privilege and recognizing these issues are mine. Recognizing that you think your lens is considered the “norm”, and then shifting that, is really hard. Once you see how skewed our world view is, you can’t unsee. And there is a lot of guilt that comes with that. Good intentions aren’t enough.
JL: In our work as allies, it is necessary to take a stand when groups are targeted with unjust treatment. As a theatre artist, can you share an experience where you stood in support and solidarity with someone who was unfairly blamed, targeted, ignored or left without resources? Or can you talk about when someone stood in support or solidarity of you?
JH: My career has been in arts administration, and I am now running a service organization. So am I a theater artist? I think so, but that is another conversation. As a woman, I am frustrated with gender parity issues that persist in our sector. As the ED of a service organization, I am concerned about the struggles of culturally specific theaters, theaters that support specific genres, and the overall struggles of individual theater artists. As a teacher (of arts management), I recognize that my students are the future, so they need to build an awareness now so they can be part of the change. So one thing I can do is to shine a light on these issues, and find ways to help, both small and large in scope. And I can keep the conversation going on my various platforms.
JL: In our work as allies, it’s important that we support theatre artists and organizations that aren’t at the center of mainstream culture. In what ways have you done or encouraged others to do this?
JH: StageSource has both organizational and individual members. We provide a web of services for each, and are creating programming to better support the small/fringe community and individual artists. But we are also on a mission to be, in Suzi Lori Parks’ words, radically inclusive. I know that I don’t know all of the small, cultural organizations in Boston and New England. Some may not even self identify as theater organizations. But I want to know who they are, and who the artists working with them are. And I want to make sure they get counted as part of the conversation about the cultural landscape. There are a lot of barriers set up to being counted, so what can we do about removing some of them?
JL: In our work as allies, it’s import that we find and create opportunities to promote the leadership of people in groups that traditionally don’t take leadership positions. Can you share an experience where you were able to do this or where this was done for you?
JH: StageSource has done this as part of its mission for years. There are service organizations all over the country doing this work.
I do find that in my role of a teacher I have had a number of opportunities to support students and their visions throughout the years, most often by listening, introducing them to people, and offering advice. And then continuing to offer support as they move away from college into “real” life. My part in their success is so limited that I can’t take credit, but I am proud of any role I played.
JL: Knowing that the work of allies is a difficult, complex, and necessary, what resources have you found useful in your work? Who are you role models?
JH: I am finding the work of community organizers to be a roadmap for my path. People dedicated to building communities and partnerships, fighting the good fight, and not accepting the status quo. I have met some wonderful allies outside of the theater community who are more than happy to provide support and advice as needed. I also have a kitchen cabinet of friends and associates who are a great sounding board.
But my role models in this? The people in the community who have been talking about this for years. Listening to the frustrated conversations that start with “we’ve been talking about this for ten years” and end with “why will this time be different?” Asking for, and getting, feedback on simple changes like how the wording of some casting notices don’t invite actors of color to audition, and how removing the term “white” from a character description (unless it is critical to the casting) is one change that may stop actors from self-selecting themselves out of the process. Or being part of a brainstorming session about how to provide basic ASL classes to the community, and hearing how excited a stage manager is at the idea. Or getting an email from a friend in a wheelchair who read our D/I/G report, and was so happy that she was included in the conversation and the action steps, and then offering to help with next steps. I am empathetic, but I cannot and should not presume to understand other peoples’ experiences as if they were my own. Instead, I can use their input as a role model of paths for change.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to others interested in serving as Allies for Diversity and Inclusion in the American Theatre?
JH: First of all, listen to the people who have been fighting this fight for a long time, and honor their work. And really, really listen, without judgment. Second, find ways to help however you can, right now. I have had wonderful conversations and planning sessions around initiatives that are going to take funding to get off the ground. And the funding isn’t there right now. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take other, smaller steps that can still have impact. Web pages with best practices, conversations about trainings, pursuing partnerships in the community. And third, sign on for the long haul. This is too important for us to let up, and too easy for some of us to pretend it isn’t our problem. Because the thing is, it is our problem. So we need to fix it.
Julie Hennrikus became the Executive Director of StageSource in February 2011. Prior to that she was the General Manager and Director of Marketing of Emerson Stage, the producing wing of the Department of Performing Arts at Emerson College. She continues to teach arts management classes at Emerson College as adjunct faculty. Her previous arts administration experience includes being the Program Manager of Sanders Theatre at Harvard University; Box Office Manager the Harvard Box Office (creator), Nunsense at the Charles Playhouse); and Company Manager of A…My Name Is Alice at the Next Move Theatre. She is also a strong user of social media, and tweets under @JulieHennrikus @StageSourceBos @SinCNE.
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