(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.)
The Gateway program is a mentorship opportunity within USITT (United States Institute for Theatre Technology), that brings students from underrepresented populations to the national conferences. These mentees are paired with a mentor who possesses a similar background and career path. The pilot program was launched in 2014 at the national conference in Ft. Worth, Texas. The first group consisted of three students: two African American students, who were fully funded to attend the conference in memory of Tayneshia Jefferson, and one student (myself) partially sponsored by Texas Performing Arts at the University of Texas. At the 2015 conference in Cincinnati, the group expanded to 12 mentees. The growth of the program in the matter of a year is a reflection of USITT’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
As a young professional, attending a conference with over 5,000 attendees is intimidating to say the least. The tight-knit nature of Gateway makes that challenge significantly more approachable. Not only was I “given a seat at the table” and connected with some of the most notable professionals in the field, I was encouraged to pursue opportunities to advance my career. One of the most memorable points from my first conference was seeing Sharifa Johka, the FAIR Experience Manager at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, speaking in the People of Color networking meeting. Following the session, my long-time mentor David Stewart, knowing I wanted to work at OSF, literally pushed me away and said “don’t come back without her business card.” A year after that moment, I was packing my bags to start a 7-month Residency at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. In addition to fostering my immediate career steps, the Institute is consistently providing space for me to grow as a leader in the field. After the 2014, conference, I was asked to join the Diversity Committee and plan for the next cohort of Gateway students. It has been my honor to serve on this committee alongside a dynamic group of professionals who are dedicated to seeing the field change for the better.
I am eager to welcome the 2016 Gateway cohort. These young professionals, whoever they might be, have an incredible experience coming their way. The challenges, the revelations, the mentorship, the hard work, and the relationships built by this program are career and life changing. I am proud to be a part of this revolution and I’m thrilled to see how it grows this year. If you are at a university, a trade school, in the professional world and working with an early-career person who is underrepresented in this industry, do not waste a second: nominate them , support them, and be in partnership with them as they change the landscape of the American theatre.