Diversity & Inclusion Institute at the 2014 Fall Forum

by Jacqueline E. Lawton

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Diversity & Inclusion Institute at the 2014 Fall Forum

(Photo by Dafina McMillan.)

On Friday, before the start of TCG’s 2014 Fall Forum, members of TCG’s Diversity & Inclusion Institute convened for a fourth time. At the start of each convening, we review our group discussion guidelines and agreements. We’re a large, diverse, and passionate group. We’re committed to this work and we have a lot to say. Having these rules in places encourages an open, honest, and respectful environment. It also creates space for differing perspectives and opinions. During our previous convenings, I participated alongside the Institute members, but this time, I didn’t. I took notes, observed and bore witness. What I offer here are thoughts and reflections shared by the amazing theatre leaders of the Institute.

After spending more time getting to know one another, the Institute members heard a brief report on recent organizational achievements and discoveries. The following stood out to me as urgent lessons and meditations for each of us in the field to consider:

  • One challenge is to continue to engage staff in these conversations during crunch times when adding anything that is not related to a staff member’s direct work load can be seen as frustrating.
  • Without constant vigilance of the group who is focused on diversity and inclusion, it falls to the wayside.
  • Questions about diversity and inclusion take time to answer to find an expert who knows. Have a need for accessible experts.
  • Need for diversity training. Can’t begin to have dynamic inclusion and diversity plan without diversity training.
  • Staff wants to be involved but want to know more about the big picture. They want to own this, but don’t have training.

From there, we had an opportunity to learn more about the work the D&I Institute members have been doing in regional convenings since the national conference. By the way, these are the D&I Institute Member Theatres by region:

  • Western Region: California Shakespeare Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Magic Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Center Stage
  • Southern Region: Alliance Theatre, Cara Mía Theatre, Dallas Children’s Theater, Dallas Theater Center, Jubilee Theatre
  • Midwestern Region: Children’s Theater Company, Cleveland Playhouse, Penumbra Theatre Company, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
  • Eastern Region: Central Square Theater, Crossroads Theatre Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Lark Play Development Center, The Public Theater, Tectonic Theater Project, The Theatre Offensive, Theatre Communications Group

A representative from each region presented their learnings and discoveries in a panel discussion format. Here are the major takeaways:

  • With recruitment efforts, it’s critical to allow more time to promote a position in order to reach a wider and more diverse pool of candidates.
  • Also, it’s important to bring in a Human Resources perspective when implementing new language and policy in hiring and recruitment practices.
  • You have to consider your staff size and capacity along with the value of work performance and the ability to execute actions steps well.
  • D&I conversations are difficult and can bring about tension and insecurity among staff and board. How, as we work to advocate for change, do we listen to the needs and concerns of those who feel resistant or who focus mostly on revenue?
  • How do we balance that diversity initiatives may require more funds than what the revenue will bring in?
  • For those who are interested in diversity and inclusion, do they have the skill set to guide and facilitate the conversations?
  • What are the structures that are at play that we cannot see or do not know how to address?

It was such a powerful and robust presentation. It honestly could have been the entire focus of our day long convening. Beyond what I’ve listed, I also think it’s important that we talk across theatres more and share resources and strategies with each other. Of course, TCG’s Diversity and Inclusion blog salon is a great way to do this. We always want to hear from you about your experiences and the work you’re doing in your organizations and communities.

After lunch, we were joined by the members of the SPARK Leadership Program. Click here to learn more about these smart, talented, hardworking leaders of color. As an even larger group, we worked together to deepen our understanding of gender identity. We reviewed definitions of gender identity and expression from GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide 2014 and also watched Transgender Basics’ Gender Identity Project (GIP). Both were excellent resources. Remember, if you aren’t an expert in this area, you can always reach out to individuals and organizations focused on this work.

After the video, everyone had an opportunity to share their reactions to the film and thoughts or questions they might still have on gender politics:

  • An observation was made that gender expression can shift depending on the audience and that gender identity and expression interacts in different ways depending on racial identity.
  • We acknowledged that crossing gender lines is threatening to some people. We questioned, is this rooted in our need to classify and identify ourselves and each other in order to recognize danger and safety?
  • Recognizing where privilege lives and the safety in that privilege can help us be better allies and partners.
  • As theatres, we should model behavior that we want to see on stage, produce plays that address these issues and hire with racial and gender identity in mind.
  • Educate ourselves so that we can work as allies, so that trans people aren’t always having to advocate only for themselves.
  • Do we change the people or the model? How do we create the space for more people to live and be who they are?

This was an excellent discussion and one that is needed as gender expression and identity are important aspects of our experience as human beings. In many ways, this work is new to the theatre community. We’re struggling just as many organizations are. It’s wonderful that we continue to be aware, engaged, and informed.

From there, we identified the characteristics of being a Leader of Social Change, which was adapted from the Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations, Equipping Leaders for Change (2005) and Leadership Learning Community, How to Develop and Support Leadership that Contributes to Racial Justice (2010):

Characteristics of a Social Change Leader

  • Committed to social justice, equality, inclusion and the empowerment of disenfranchised communities.
  • Seeks to work across difference including, but not limited to, race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation.
  • Willing to identify and share resources and skills with members of historically disadvantaged groups.
  • Incorporates social change including transparent dialogue about power and privilege into organizational development strategies.
  • Accepts responsibility for social change outcomes.

Emphasizes Collaboration and Relationship-Building

  • Focuses on relationship-building to support many leaders rather than directing all resources to a handful of charismatic “heroes”.
  • Embraces the intersectional nature of individuals’ identities, including race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation.
  • Collaborates with partners to design, implement, and evaluate initiatives to achieve common social justice goals.
  • Understands and consciously works to address imbalances in power within individual and group relationships.
  • Regularly assesses individual and group accountability for social change goals.

Engages Holistic and Systemic Strategies

  • Recognizes that discrimination is often institutionalized and requires holistic, systems strategies.
  • Promotes the ability to work from a multi-group perspective, understanding the needs of each group and bridging them to work toward a greater good for everyone.
  • Includes those most affected by an issue to participate in designing the strategies to address the issue.
  • Evaluates the potential impact of plans on historically disadvantaged groups before making final decisions as a way to maximize equitable systemic change.

Let me tell you right now, this work takes time and commitment. It’s as challenging as it rewarding, as exhaustive as it is rejuvenating. It requires hope in the greater good and faith in mankind, both of which will seem fleeting and nonexistent. There will be days when it feels like you’re starting over or that you never got anywhere at all. But you’ve got to hold on, dig in your heels, and keep going. We’re no longer in a world that accepts injustice and bigotry as the norm. Those of us working in the American Theatre have to create space and equity for everyone.

From there, Carmen Morgan led participants through Ally Building Strategies. We were divided into six groups and given different scenarios to discuss. Each scenario addresses issues around diversity, inclusion, and equity currently being raised in the field. Click here to read the scenarios and our possible responses.

Next, D&I Institute members and SPARK Leaders broke out into their Regional Groups to implement a new collaborative project. Here’s the criteria:

  • The project must connect important diversity, inclusion, and equity issues with theatre;
  • The project must have an impact on the broader field or a theatre community; and
  • The project must be a collaborative effort.

Isn’t that exciting?! And there’s no reason that each and every theatre across this nation can’t do the same thing. Of course, we acknowledge that this work is hard, but what about theatre isn’t hard? We understand that in order to cultivate a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable staff, board, and artistic programming, we have to build consensus and coalition. Well, in addition to the resource made available through TCG, the following service organizations are also committed to diversity, inclusion and equity: LORT, Actor’s Equity, SDC, USITT. Click here to read the All Hands on Deck: A Progress Report on Field-wide Equity from the national conference.

We also know this work requires inspiration … we ended the convening with this quote from playwright George Bernard Shaw, an excerpt of which appears on the homepage of my website as it serves as a useful, constant reminder of why I do this work:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for a moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to the future generations.”


Each time we meet, I’m increasingly impressed and inspired by the dedication and spirit of inquiry that these theatre leaders show. I can hardly wait to connect with them again and learn more about their regional projects. Of course, I’ll keep you posted. And remember, we always want to hear from you. Let us know about the work you’re doing in your theatres and communities.

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline 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