Ally Skills-Building at the Institute

by Jacqueline E. Lawton

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for Ally Skills-Building at the Institute

(Photo by Jacqueline E. Lawton. As part of the Diversity & Inclusion Institute’s meeting at the 2014 Fall Forum, we engaged in ally skills-building around scenarios inspired by real-life incidents. Please note that these scenarios are composites of multiple incidents, and were not intended or treated as criticisms of specific events.)

During the Diversity & Inclusion Institute convening, Carmen Morgan led participants through Ally Building Strategies. We were divided into six groups and given a different scenario to discuss. We were asked to consider possible responses. Based on issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity, the scenarios were developed by Carmen, Dafina McMillan, Gus Schulenburg, and Ty Defoe in response to the needs of the field.  After working together in small groups, participants then shared their strategies and gathered additional action steps from the room. What follows are notes from the large group discussion:

Scenario #1: A theatre in your community with whom you have strong ties stages a show that incites outrage and protest because of cultural misappropriation. They’ve decided to stage King Lear “inspired by the Ming dynasty in China,” but none of the collaborators on the production identify as being of Chinese descent, and no Chinese Americans were consulted in the process, in spite of their being a sizable Chinese American population in the local community. The theatre leaders at this institution—with whom you have a positive working relationship—have largely deflected or ignored the activism around their production. What steps do you take as a fellow practitioner?

Thoughts and Suggestions:

  • Ask questions to find out about the decision making process.
  • Acknowledge the challenges and request that they take responsibility.
  • Offer assistance and then open space for dialogue.
  • Arrange a face-to-face meeting to show a greater investment.
  • If you are willing to see the production, please do. However, you can ask that your voice and concerns be heard based on the knowledge that you already have.

Scenario #2: At the latest Institute meeting, you notice that the conversation is being largely dominated by a small number of participants. You also notice that these dominators come from positions of privilege, both in personal terms (they are white and male) and in terms of the resources of their theatres. Yet at the same time, you’re also grateful that they’re willing to take such an active and vocal role in advocating diversity and equity. How do you respond to ensure they continue to feel empowered as allies while helping them see that they may be replicating some of the inequities of our culture within the Institute itself?

Thoughts and Suggestions:

  • Establish ground rules for clear, honest, direct, and respectful communication.
  • Encourage those who step up and speak up a lot to listen more and vice versa.
  • Find ways to acknowledge aspiring allyship and create room for compassion. Be mindful that we don’t know we don’t know. We aren’t always aware of ourselves. We have to create space for growth, learning, and discovery.
  • Don’t allow the people with the most privilege to dictate the conversation, be it the topics or the depth

Scenario #3: At a board meeting, the playwrights and directors for next season come up. Your previous season featured only two women directors and one playwright of color in a season of five plays, and the rest of the roles were filled by cisgendered straight white men. Yet, when you advocate for a more intersectional and equitable slate for the next season, several board and staff members express variations of the opinion “that we’re already so diverse.” How do you help build consensus at the board and staff level to move beyond tokenism to a truly equitable season?

Thoughts and Suggestions:

  • Cultivate an environment that understands and appreciates an intersectional approach to diversity from the leadership level to the quality and variety of art presented.
  • If diversity is in your mission statement, then ensure your season, staff and board reflect that. Put the budget behind the artistic director’s decisions.
  • Remind folks that now’s the time, this is what the future is going to be. We have to program for the community.
  • Gather statistics about how well these shows are doing at your theatre and across the country.

Scenario #4: During an annual budget review, you notice that staff members at similar level positions are being paid differently based on gender. After running the numbers, you notice women and transgender staff at your organization are being paid less overall then cisgendered male employees, in spite of the fact that your artistic director is a woman. Yet, when you bring this finding to the leadership of the organization, you’re told that there isn’t money right now for raises, and anyway, the fact that the organization is led a by a woman shows “our commitment to gender parity.” How do you help your organization move from paying lip-service to equity to living it where it counts: in the budget?

Thoughts and Suggestions:

  • You make pay equity a priority. Learn about what has been happening with regards to pay.
  • Acknowledge that there’s a correlation between certain positions that have been historically held by women and so they keep pay for them low.
  • Empowering women to ask for what they need, negotiate salary, and benefit package.
  • Acknowledge that there is a limit to the budget and then figure out where additional resources can come from so that raises/pay equity can happen.
  • Be transparent about salaries and about how education and experience can impact salary. Offer a specific range of salaries.

Scenario #5: There are two doors that require those in your organization to go from one space to another in your work environment. Because of a particular disability, one of your colleagues can’t open the door and carry his coffee at the same time. You are aware that your colleague has shared this information with his supervisor, who told him: it is too expensive to do anything about it and that no one else has that problem. What do you do?

Thoughts and Suggestions:

  • Identify the practical solutions that can be addressed immediately. For instance, move the coffee pot or keep the doors open.
  • Ask the individual what can be done.
  • Launch a fundraiser to support creating a more accessible space.

This scenario led to even more questions:

  • What happens when you bring an issue to an organization and go to the top to address the concern, and nothing happens, What if you’re not in the position to leave your job? How to you create change from within?
  • What if you raise the issue, and you become the problem? How do you stay and create change?

Ultimately, don’t do this work alone. Consensus building is essential.

Scenario #6: In a conversation about diversity at a conference, a white woman stands up and says, “I’m tired of all this talk about people of color, what about gender? Women are still so underrepresented at our theatres.” How do you respond as an ally in that moment, and do you follow-up in anyway afterward?

Thoughts and Suggestions:

  • Identify that different identities are pitted against one another a lot.
  • Engage with the individual, hear their story and validate their experience.
  • Consider that this person might be looking for their role in this work.
  • Intergenerational work: acknowledge the work that was already done and identify where we have to move forward.
  • We need to balance the need to have multiple conversations with the need to have specific conversations.

Ultimately, the vision of inclusion needs to be more complex than just race. Identity politics have served us well, but we have to identify the complexity and intersectionality of the work that we’re doing. At each step in this work, we have to ask: What does diversity mean? What does inclusion look like? How do we bring about equity within our organization?

For additional resources from the Leadership Development in Interethnic Relations, follow these links:
Key Terminology and Definitions

Four Steps to Becoming an Ally

Organizational Traps Which Prevent Diversity and Inclusion


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