(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?
KASEY ALLEE-FOREMAN: I feel like I’ve had a firm grasp on my privilege for a very long time. Becoming more aware of my prejudice is something that I’ve been developing rather intensely these last few years as I embraced a leadership role in USITT’s Diversity and Inclusion efforts. It’s so important for me right now to recognize how much my silence (or lazy unawareness) contributes to the continuation, or even tacit approval, of systemic injustices. Very recently, I sat in a room with the amazing Carmen Morgan (artEquity, LDIR, TCG) who opens my eyes to something new every time I see her, and she said that allies need to talk about their own privilege more, not just about the injustices being inflicted on others. That is a really important concept that I hadn’t fully considered, but it’s HUGE and I’m making an effort to act on that more.
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?
KAF: We’ve just completed a significant renovation of one of our theaters. In the front of house portion, we were avoiding major architectural/structural changes—we just didn’t have the funding for that. Part of the design was a change in location for our sound mix position and the design gave us the chance to place it in a position that allowed the space to be accessible for people with mobility impairments. There was, of course, a relatively small financial investment to making that work and there were people in the room who didn’t want to spend the money (we were not required to make that space accessible by code). There is so much of what we do in design and production that is made unattainable for disabled persons! There is no reason, other than actual physical barriers, that a mobility impaired person couldn’t do this job and I had the opportunity to remove those barriers. I fought very hard for that (and won) and will continue to argue for us to commit to making every aspect of our theatre accessible.
That event seems rare to me. Most of the time, we don’t get to have a single decision/action that makes a change. As an ally or activist, I think we’re more often in the position of having to maintain a constant campaign against something that is more systemic and ingrained. A current example for me is trying to break down the disparity in treatment and expectations between working fathers and working mothers. My friend, and amazing ally, Michael Mehler (USITT VP for Communications) tells the story of how often he is told that he’s “such a good dad.” He misses a meeting to take a child to the doctor, “what a good dad!” Hangs up his kids’ artwork, talks about them at work… “such a good dad!” Working mothers never hear that. We do everything we can to hide our motherhood when we come into the workplace. We’re judged as less than able to do the job if our focus is ever split to our children, particularly when children are very young and it is so hard to juggle work with healthcare, breastfeeding, diapers/potty training and just parenthood. Fatherhood enhances a man in the workplace and motherhood compromises a woman. My children are older now, so I feel like an ally in this to my female colleagues with small children. I call it my “You’re such a good mom” campaign. I don’t want men to have less of the kind understanding they seem to receive, I want women to be appreciated and celebrated in their working motherhood. In my campaign, I try to frequently, publicly compliment the working moms in their struggle to find balance. I softly point out, to my colleagues without children, the differences in their reactions to working fathers vs. working mothers. I TALK about the struggles of parenthood in a way that I was terrified to do when both my career and my children were younger—for fear of losing momentum in my career path because it would be perceived that I was diminished in my capacity to do my job.
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?
KAF: I’m fortunate to have a platform with USITT and I take that very seriously. I make a lot of effort to keep up with what theatres are doing to expand what theatre looks like. I value what mainstream theatres are doing to diversify their productions, their staff, etc., but I also want to bring our mainstream audience’s attention to theatres who are working to present and create theatre reflective of underrepresented people. I share things regularly on our social media platforms. I work with my colleagues at USITT to ensure we are bringing that theatre into our education and training for our members. I work from a philosophy that everyone can take a small step forward. If you are oblivious to the experiences of others, you can become aware. If you are aware, you can become engaged… Engaged, become active… I try to provide our members as many resources and as much information as I can to push that progress.
JL: In our work as allies, it’s important 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?
KAF: One of things I am most proud of in our work at USITT is the Gateway Program. We have created a mentorship program for students and early career design and production artists from underrepresented populations. Each year, we bring 12 mentees to the USITT Annual Conference and Stage Expo, pair them with an established industry professional who matches up with them (in area of interest and background). The participants, through their peers and mentors, get an inside track to all that USITT has to offer, including access to its leadership. We provide portfolio and resume review with production managers from around the country. We also have them participate in our Diversity and Inclusion Forums and help guide them in finding their voice as advocates, activists and allies. It’s our hope that we are giving them every tool possible to become the next generation of leaders in our industry.
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?
KAF: I find a great deal can be learned from the work the business industry is doing on Diversity and Inclusion. Forbes has a lot of great information (and a lot of data to back it up). I read that pretty voraciously. Howlround, American Theatre… I read a lot and try to absorb what the current struggles are and where we’re making headway in theatre.
But more importantly, I think it is essential that you find friends and colleagues who challenge you and support you in this important work, both as organizations and as individuals. USITT has partnered with TCG and Oregon Shakespeare Festival and I personally find Teresa Eyring (TCG Executive Director) and Sharifa Johka (OSF FAIR Experience Manager) to be fierce leaders that I admire greatly. I’ve already mentioned Carmen Morgan as someone who inspires me every time I see her. USITT has a long list of amazing activists and advocates, and I consider myself to be so fortunate to work alongside them. Andi Lyons (USITT VP for Members, Sections & Chapters) and Lea Asbell-Swanger (USITT Immediate Past President) created the Diversity and Inclusion efforts within our organization 20 years ago and they continue the work today with such grace and good humor. David Stewart (USITT Management Commissioner, Chair of the People of Color Network) and I have walked side by side in our leadership efforts and we have the trust in each other to call each other out on our prejudices and privilege, to debate concepts and ideas, and to mourn losses and celebrate progress. Finally, especially since this is a blog about allies, I strive to be like my friend Michael Mehler, who walks the straight, white, cis-male ally walk better than anyone I’ve ever seen. He speaks of his privilege often, speaks up when his voice is most useful, supports others’ voices standing up for themselves before inserting his, and listens. I try to learn from these amazing people every day.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to others interested in serving as Allies for Diversity and Inclusion in the American Theatre?
KAF: Start by looking at what you have in your own backyard. Are you in a position of hiring?—How are you making sure you have diverse pool of candidates? Do you have a voice in selecting your season or casting? Can you provide outreach to local schools whose arts have been cut? When you lead a meeting, how do facilitate making sure every person’s voice is heard (and gets credit for their ideas)? What organizations do you already belong to and how can you join their efforts on Diversity and Inclusion?
You have to start by actively (and sometimes loudly and blatantly) valuing the people and experiences that are outside the mainstream. Increase your awareness of others’ experiences (don’t expect them to teach you). Check your privileged (white/male/straight/etc.) fragility—if it makes you feel defensive and uncomfortable, ask yourself why instead of lashing out with a kneejerk, wounded response. You cannot be an ally if people constantly have to tiptoe around you and cushion their tone as they express their pain and frustration.
Kasey Allee-Foreman is the Production Manager for University Theatre in the Weitzenhoffer Family College of Fine Arts at the University of Oklahoma. Professional Theatre Credits include: SphinxCON, a conference promoting Diversity in the Arts; Canterbury Chorale: Bernstein’s Mass, Houston Grand Opera: Renée Fleming’s premiere La Traviata, The Little Prince (world premiere); Stages Repertory Theatre (Houston); Houston Shakespeare Festival; Shakespeare Festival at Tulane (New Orleans); Theatre West (Los Angeles). Professional Film Credits include: Mystery, Alaska; Lost and Found; Austin Powers: The Spy who Shagged Me. She is USITT’s Vice President for Education and Training and the Chair of the USITT Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
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