(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.)
(photo by Michal Daniel)
On Tuesday, I arrived in beautiful, sunny San Diego for the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders. I flew in from Baltimore by way of Chicago. (Why there isn’t a straight flight from Reagan International Airport to San Diego is beyond me!) This was my first time flying across the country and I was pretty excited. On the second leg of my journey, I had a lovely travelling companion who gave me a bird’s eye tour of the United States. The theme of the conference, Crossing Borders, was not lost on me as he pointed out different states and landmarks. While invisible, the lines that divide the states are as powerful as the lines that divide people and cultures from one another. I knew the work we had ahead of us would be urgent and deeply complex.
(photo by Jacqueline E. Lawton)
Crossing the Border
On Wednesday, I was one of nearly 100 Pre-Conference attendees taking part in the Diversity and Inclusion Institute and the International Artistic Collaboration Forum. After a quick check-in, a few, robust mini-reunions, and undoubtedly, the longest, most entertaining line at the Starbucks ever (!), we made our way to Tijuana. I was bus captain, which meant that I got to take roll, pass out water bottles and snacks, and put my limited Spanish to good use. When we crossed the border, I reminded folks of the three questions that TCG wanted us to contemplate:
- What assumptions do you hold about “the border”?
- What are you noticing as you cross from the United States into Mexico?
- What other observations or feelings are coming up for you?
For me, crossing the border into Mexico reminds of when my family and I would visit my grandparents. They lived in El Paso and we would walk a few blocks down the street to Ciudad Juarez for ice cream and tamales. Often, it would just be my brother, sister and I. There was no wall and no fear of anything. But for many on the bus, crossing the border brought back a complex and challenging mix of emotions. Still, we crossed rather easily and didn’t even have to show our passport. We did have a bit of wait as Immigration police searched our bus, but soon we were on our way.
(photo by Michal Daniel)
We spent the greater part of the day at the Tijuana Cultural Center CECUT. A beautiful and resplendent multidisciplinary arts center located just 5 minutes from the border. It boasts an impressive array of literary events, visual arts exhibitions, dance and theatre performances, children’s workshops, and music concerts. What’s more, it has the only IMAX theatre in all of Tijuana. The facilities are gorgeous, the food is delicious, and the people working there are amazing, generous, and so friendly!
After a lovely breakfast and brief moment recounting our experience crossing the border into Mexico, the Pre-Conferences kicked off with a rousing and insightful dedication, “Borderfesto,” written by Daniel Jaquez and delivered by Spanish actor Victor Carpinteiro, then in English by Culture Clash’s Herbert Siguenza. It was wonderful to hear this speech in both languages. You can read the entire speech here, but I wanted to share this excerpt with you:
“I will talk about living in the border, being from the border. That beautiful and difficult place where ordinary people are heroes. People that are ambassadors of culture, politics, opinions, languages, rituals, and always working towards the greater understanding–whether they know it or not. We are used to looking out and looking in. As comfortable here, as we are there. We are Fronterizos.
I have the blood of Cuauhtémoc and the spunk of Davy Crockett; I have the insolence of Napoleon and the Navajo resistance to Manifest Destiny. No, really, that is my heritage, my constitution. These are just some of the peoples that inhabit my border. Border People that don’t want to move over there or live over here, they are fine just where they are. We patiently spend hours each way to jump through all the hoops to get a little of what we want and experience a little of what we haven’t. A complicated game of Twister, always reaching far and pulling back, stepping in and stepping out and forever leaving our print. We make a life of navigating both worlds, or should I say creating a unique world where transition takes place. We are, as Georgina Escobar calls us, welders. Border Welders: the linkers of worlds. We can make fire and heat to soften those hard, sharp edges of two pieces of steel so they can come together as one strong piece of humanity.
We are trees that grow through walls, our roots spreading underneath in all directions, north, south, east and west getting nourishment wherever we find it, our branches pushing on fences, growing though holes and crevices trying to breathe, but always reaching towards the sun ready to give shade and fruit to whomever allows themselves to come near.”
After which, it was time to split into our separate groups. The International Artistic Collaboration went into a courtyard. The participants engaged in a series of artistic and intellectual discussions with the specific purpose of promoting cultural and aesthetic diversity.
International Artistic Collaboration Forum
While I wasn’t able to attend the International Artist Collaboration Forum, I had extensive conversations with the attendees over lunch and throughout the Conference over the next four days. I also followed up with a couple folks to share their thoughts in this post:
“It’s been years since I’ve been to Mexico. What I hear in the U.S. media gave me woefully uninformed expectations (trepidations?), which were beautifully overturned. ¡Tijuana hace teatro! The gorgeous Cultural Center! The inspiring words of the “Borderfesto” written by Daniel Jaquez (“If you want to be a better human being you have to cross borders”)! The artists I now want to have a long-term relationship with after we “speed-dated” (Tijuana Hace Teatro and their terrific audience-development program, Escuela de Espectadores; Sofia Olmos and her show about Aspergers, “Escondites”; Teatro en el Incendio’s street spectacles)! The visit to the wall (no exclamation marks for this. Stop. Let it sink in. The wall extends out into the ocean. Stop. Let it sink in.). The vibrant reclamation of space via artists and their work that is the Pasaje Rodgriguez Cultural Corridor! And the late, but most satisfying dinner at Caesar’s! Satiated. Still buzzing with images and ideas. Fronterizos, Border People, I salute you. ¡Gracias!”
– Laurie McCants, Ensemble Member at Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble and Board President of Network of Ensemble Theaters.
“Two things struck me at the Pre-Conference in Tijuana, the preamble to the 2014 TCG Conference aptly titled ”Crossing Borders.” I was a member of the International Artist Collaboration Forum and the first thing that struck me was the ease with which artmakers come to understand one another. During a speed-dating session, U.S. theatre makers met Mexican theatre makers and within minutes of viewing the work, a U.S. director could ascertain her Mexican counterpart’s use of space, time, bodies, movement, language and come to an almost immediate appreciation and understanding. And then we went to visit that WALL. The second thing that struck me: the brutality by which one nation, or rather its economy excludes another. The contrast was daunting—but also, a gauntlet thrown down as if to say “what are you going to do about it?”
– Lisa Portes, Head of Directing, DePaul University
Diversity and Inclusion Institute Convening
The Diversity and Inclusion Institute convened in a large meeting room on the main level. As a reminder, the institute comes out of the urgent conversations at the 2012 National Conference in Boston and the 2012 Fall Forum on Governance: Leading the Charge. This three year initiative endeavors to empower attendees with the tools to build diversity and inclusion action plans at their theatres. Entering our second year, this is the third meeting of the Diversity and Inclusion Institute. Facilitators Carmen Morgan, Dafina McMillan, Gus Schulenburg, and D&I Fellow Ty Defoe led us through another full, emotionally charged, and productive day of activities.
(Photo by Jacqueline E. Lawton)
Diversity and Inclusion Institute Objectives:
- Continue getting to know one another better, beyond our titles and organizational roles:
Since much of the work around diversity, inclusion, and equity requires solidarity, we spent a great deal of time getting to know one another. While many of the core theatres were present, there were new faces in the room. This check in allowed each of us to get centered and be present in the space. For as a large a group as we were, about 50 people, it was an intimate, charged, and emotional space.
Diversity and InclusionInstitute Regional Convenings
- Create additional structure and support for regional convenings and cross-theatre collaboration:
After a brief break, we met in our Regional Teams to identify a host theater for upcoming regional convenings. These are the groupings:
- Western Region: California Shakespeare Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Portland Center Stage, Magic Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival
- Southern Region: Alliance Theatre, Cara Mia Theatre Company, Dallas Children’s Theater, Dallas Theater Center, Jubilee Theatre
- Midwestern Region: Children’s Theater Company, Cleveland Playhouse, Penumbra Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
- Eastern Region: Ensemble Studio Theatre, Lark Play Development Center, Tectonic Theater Project, The Public Theater, The Theater Offensive, Theatre Communications Group
The regional convening will allow theatres to come together to address diversity, inclusion, and equity in their communities. It’s an opportunity outside of the National Conference and Fall Forum to share resources. In addition to there not being L.A. theatre represented among the group, there are no theatres from D.C. or Baltimore. Of course, that’s what makes the regional convenings so important.
(photo by Michal Daniel)
Diversity and Inclusion Personal, Theatre, and Institute Goals
- Create personal, theatre, and Institute goals for this next year of work together;
From there, we established our personal and professional goals:
- What do you want to accomplish within your theatre for the next year? While I’m not working full time at a regional theatre, I am deeply invested in the D.C. theatre community. I’ve long wanted to facilitate a regional convening on Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity. I don’t know that I can do it as an individual artist, but I hope to get enough theatres interested in participating.
- What do you want to accomplish within the Institute over the next year? I want to figure out how to help Member Theatres share their learnings and discoveries with theatres that aren’t a part of the Institute. It’s inspiring the work, commitment, and resources these theatre have allocated to address diversity, inclusion, and equity in their theatres and communities. My realm is the blog, but there isn’t always time to write. I’m still thinking about different ways this can be done.
- What do you want to accomplish personally over the next year? As an individual artist, I recently gathered a group of women together for a Diversity and Inclusion brunch. I want to continue doing this. Also, I have my Women Theatre Artist series on my blog. I’m hoping that more women designers respond because I would love to showcase the amazing talent here in the D.C. area.
(photo by Michal Daniel)
Diversity and Inclusion Institute Personal Growth
- Continue personal growth in the area of identity, privilege, and ways to be better allies; and
First, we divided into four groups and did extensive work around identity and privilege. We brainstormed areas of privilege that come with being a member of the dominant culture within the United States along the following 8 social identifiers: Race, Age, Ability, Sexual orientation, Religion/spirituality, Class, Gender, and Nation of citizenship. These identifiers have an impact on our daily lives, how we perceive the world, and how we are perceived.
Next, we identified where we shared privilege with the dominant culture and ask ourselves:
- How much privilege do you have? Where do you have it?
- How does it affect how you move through the world?
- How does it inform your role within the arts community?
Ultimately, we identified wealthy, cisgender, straight, abled bodied, Judeo Christian, White men who are natural born citizens of the United States as holding the greatest privilege in the United States. However, there were some challenging areas. For instance, with regard to religion we identified that having a religion gives a person greater privilege unless that religion is Islam. Also, when it comes to breaking down the religions, the dominant sect depends on where you live in the country.
For me, I’m a working poor, cis-gendered, straight, abled bodied, African American female, who was born in the United States and is spiritual. Also, I’m 36, so just out of emerging, but not quite middle aged. Thus, I hold privilege in the following areas: Age, Ability, Gender, Sexual orientation, and Nation of citizenship. When thinking about diversity, inclusion, and equity, we’re moving towards a space where access to resources and opportunities for social mobility are available to everyone.
From there, we did a complex exercise to explore challenging real life workplace diversity and inclusion scenarios. This was an opportunity to strategize on best solutions for addressing inappropriate dynamics we might encounter. Here’s the scenario that my group had:
In one of your coaching sessions with a direct report, you encourage her to apply for an open position that would expand her leadership skills and support her overall professional development. She responds to the encouragement by saying, “Why bother. I won’t get that position. I’m white, and these type of opportunities are only going to ‘minorities’.” How would you respond?”
Our response was as complex as the situation, but we agreed that the first step would be to ask why she felt this way. In doing so, we might be able to get an understanding of the current work environment. We considered that training around diversity and inclusion might not have been done as extensively, thoroughly, or frequently as needed. We addressed the fact that this employee might not be on board with the company’s values around diversity and inclusion and if that’s the case, this employee might not be the right fit for the company. Again, this is a real life scenario. The stakes are high because folks in the room needed answers for how to move forward when faced with this kind of pushback. However, it became clear early on that there is no clear cut easy response.
Finally, we reviewed steps towards becoming better allies. We learned that anyone can become an ally. It is an active and ongoing choice. The work of being an ally requires an honest assessment of how you’re maneuvering in the world: Self-Awareness, Self-Education, Creating an Open and Supportive Environment, and Action. Click here to read more about the four steps.
After reviewing these steps, we learned a key distinction in the role of an ally:
Only allies can challenge inequities from a place of privilege; only people who are targets of oppression can do the work of resisting and challenging from that perspective. Although they are not the same, both are vital. For me, this means that an ally works to dismantle structures of oppression from a place of privilege, but allies do not speak on behalf of or from the point of view of those who are disenfranchised by those systems of oppression.
- Continue to develop a foundation of trust that will support our national resource network & ongoing peer learning, support, and accountability.
To end our time together, we read the questions raised in To Equalize the Power Among Us, which you can read here. Then we did a check-out and here’s what resonated with me:
- Greatest sense that we’re not just talking we’re creating change and providing resources, and that there is a community of people engaged in doing this work.
- There was a sense that the conversations around Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity are getting louder, better, stronger, deeper and more respected.
- There was a feeling of great strength and vulnerability in the community of being a part of something so powerful and important.
- That each of us has the potential to be a fierce leader and advocates changing the status quo. We are heroes…
In our final moments, we meditated on this powerful quote from James Baldwin:
“Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy that justice can have.”
A Trip to Friendship Park
When the pre-conferences ended, we came together in a powerful, charged, and complicated setting. We headed to Friendship Park, a beautiful, polarized cross-border meeting place. We were told the history of the park … about the families who meet here and reach through the gate to touch one another. We were shown the artwork and met a photographer who is capturing the experiences of the people here. Then we made our way to the beach. With the sound of waves, the laughter of families, and squeals of children as a soundscape, we watched a short performance of Antigona en la Frontera. Through the border fence that cascaded and disappeared into the ocean, you could see sea gulls and border patrol on horseback and in a jeep. Above us the sun was setting and the powerful wind of helicopters reminded us that we were being watched as well.
The performance ended and a handful of us returned to San Diego. However, the majority of folks enjoyed a visit to Tijuana’s Pasaje Rodriguez Cultural Corridor and dinner before returning to San Diego. Each departure was marked with long lines and the integrated experience of crossing the border.
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