When I left the TCG National Conference in Dallas in 2013, I left with many different ideas and thoughts to mull over on my trip back to Ohio. However, one idea in particular stuck with me. One incessant thing was becoming very clear to me. After spending three days seeped in conversations around diversity and inclusion I kept hearing a rising chatter for several national organizations to do something about diversity and inclusion in theater. While I understand the sentiment and the need to have a national conversation, I couldn’t shake the thought that I wanted to do something in my own community revolving around diversity and inclusion. I wanted to have a very specific conversation about what diversity and inclusion looked like in Ohio. How does the conversation manifest itself within our own spaces in Cleveland? Who are the local entities that are doing this work? What are strategies that have worked for companies right here in Cleveland and how have they engaged people of color in Northeast Ohio?
That is when I discovered that a local organization called the Greater Cleveland Partnership hosted a diversity conference every year on the eastside of Cleveland. The conference is hosted specifically by the Council on Economic Inclusion, which annually surveys Northeast Ohio in regard to the diversity of the work force primarily based on race and gender. I was encouraged to go by my managing director last year and again this year to represent Cleveland Play House.
Have you ever taken a moment to just smell the sea when you are around it? There is always something fresh when I am around it and something that is extremely calming to me. That’s how I felt when I walked in the door this year at the conference hosted by the Council on Economic Inclusion. It was a breath of fresh air; something new to engage with and most importantly a topic to engage in with people outside of just theater (although I am fairly certain we were the only theater in attendance due to our membership with the Greater Cleveland Partnership). There were so many different titles in the room: Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, Chief Diversity Officer, Diversity Officer for Supplier Diversity, Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusion. These are the titles I wished theater would use more often. It gave me a sense that the people who worked for the companies that incorporated these titles had a strong connection with diversity and inclusion as an inherent and practical value to the organization. It was like walking into the sea. You felt that there was something that you had been missing, but by being in the water you started to become reconnected.
The majority of the day was moderated by a group out of Chicago called the Kaleidoscope Group. Their CEO, the marvelous Doug Harris, held sessions that focused on the diversity practitioner. That was an intriguing focal point to me simply because rather than having a broad strokes conversation about the merits of diversity, there was a deep dive into the skills needed in order to succeed as a diversity practitioner. What type of traits made for a successful diversity officer and advocate? How do you proceed being a change agent? What are practical steps that we can have our organization take to move an organization from having no commitment to diversity to establishing a framework? These were essential questions that we engaged in for the majority of the conference. It was a new way to approach the conversations of diversity on a very local level. There were organizations that had very sophisticated diversity plans (diversity officers, diversity statements, hiring practices, supplier diversity policies) and others who were just getting started with the work. This was all in Cleveland and surrounded a local conversation about the challenges and opportunities of the region. As the TCG conference comes to Cleveland in 2015, it will be imperative to think about how we take local lessons and resources on diversity and bring them to the national conference and vice versa. In other words, how does diversity work within our own space?
There were three themes that I took away from the conference this year.
- Measure, Measure, Measure. Many organizations at the conference, as well as the presentations, emphasized the need to find measurement tools for diversity and inclusion within an organization. One of the most essential things to do would be to take a pulse of an organization by conducting a cultural assessment. I think many theaters know that diversity and inclusion is important to the organization, but may not know how to move forward with the work within their specific structure. This can help lead to key conversations within the organizations and the development of measurement tools such as hiring and retention measures, recruitment measurements and practices, and cultural competency training.
- A Good Diversity Story To Tell. The one thing I love about theater is the one thing I love to do in life: tell a good story. No one ever likes to hear a bad story. It leaves you with nothing to hope for, to strive for, or reflect on. Every theater has a diversity story to tell and theaters should make sure that it is a good diversity story to share with the public. This does not mean to rest on our laurels as a field, but to make sure that diversity practitioners and advocates take a positive approach to this work. If the story is not good, then why? How can the organization change the story? How do we rework the story so that the organization can have something positive to talk about or talk about the challenges ahead? How you tell your diversity story is just as important as the policies and practices that theaters implement.
- How To Be a Change Agent. This was another intriguing idea from the conference. This made me think about how diversity work can create change agents, not just for individuals, but also for staffs as a whole in theaters? How can theaters encourage everyone in the organization to advocate for diversity and inclusion and empower them to speak about diversity? My dear friend Nijeul Porter said it best when we worked at Steppenwolf: “If I was to go up to anyone in your organization and ask what is your organization doing in terms of diversity and inclusion, could everyone answer that question?” That’s a good measurement tool and goes back to the diversity story idea. Is everyone on the same page about what diversity means for your theater? Can anyone be a change agent and tell the diversity story?
Many people call Cleveland the “Mistake by the Lake.” But with a conference like this that exists how could that namesake possibly be true? I had a wonderful experience at this conference both this year and last year. I am grateful that CPH sent me to this incredibly important conference and allowed me to gain additional training and professional development in diversity and inclusion. While we should certainly have national organizations lead the conversation on diversity, there are important local resources that can be utilized to diversify theater. The work must be done at home. And whenever you go home, you must be prepared to work.
Al Heartley is an anti-racism practitioner and arts leader. He currently is the education associate at Cleveland Play House in Cleveland, OH. He was a 2012 Young Leader of Color with TCG in Boston and in 2013 moderated a panel at the National Conference in Dallas on mentorship and fellowship programs. He previously received training in the Multicultural Fellowship Program at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago where he was the theater management apprentice. He is an avid reader and writer on critical race studies in theater and culture with an acute interest in African American and Latina/o theater.