“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
On August 4, 2018, Monica White Ndounou and Nicole Hodges Persley conducted the “Pedagogy Clinic: Implementing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Every Level” workshop as the second element of a two-part plenary session at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference. This introductory, experiential workshop was designed to develop individual strategies and institutional practices geared toward incorporating equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) initiatives into pedagogy, research, and practice. Participants were invited to submit questions in advance and/or bring questions related to syllabi, assignments/exercises, season-selection options, curricular and program design considerations, and any other relevant materials for onsite consultation regarding incorporating EDI into multiple areas of pedagogical practice.
Due to the large volume of participants, we reorganized the session using story circles in order to allow for maximum participation. What we found in the process was that those who attended were eager to discuss the complexities of EDI, but were at varying stages of awareness and implementation. Our goal was to open opportunities for conversation that were based on seeing and hearing our colleagues where they were in their levels of fluency in EDI discourses. The “clinic” thematic was used to admit and diagnose challenges. As facilitators, our work was to visit each story circle and offer possible solutions as to how our colleagues might identify strategies, resources, and practices that could help them create safe and inclusive teaching, research, and practice spaces.
The workshop opened with many people expressing how they felt following the first part of the plenary, titled “Revolutions in Pedagogy and Practice,” a moderated panel discussion and open forum that brought together leaders in higher education and representatives from professional organizations and advocacy groups in theatre (see embedded video2). The conversation focused on the urgent revolutions—those already occurring and those still needed—in the professional practice of theatre and training in the academy. As a result, the plenary raised important questions about what was needed to better align EDI initiatives in theatre education and theatre practice.
Two primary questions during the plenary’s question-and-answer session lingered in advance of our workshop:
1. How can we alter the language used to discuss EDI in a way that does not continue to marginalize underserved individuals and groups in educational programs and American theatre? For instance, recognizing how continuing to identify people of color as Other by using the term “people of color” normalizes whiteness as the false universal to measure all other groups. Additionally, by suggesting that predominantly white institutions “welcome” people from marginalized groups continues to position white people and institutions as the owners of the space in which people of the global majority from various cultural backgrounds have made significant contributions that continue to be unacknowledged by the use of such language. Ultimately, the questions of how we talk about matters of equity, diversity, and inclusion and the inadequacy of existing terminology served as a primer for our workshop.
2. The second pressing question of the two-hour event exposed the challenges that change-agents face when introducing and implementing EDI into predominantly white institutions. An audience member sincerely asked the panel during the question-and-answer session following the plenary panel, “What are the oppressions that you’re talking about?” For many of the plenary panelists, the question was less an attempt to become better informed and more to undermine the validity of the two-hour conversation that preceded the question. This type of micro-aggressive questioning often undermines the labor that scholars of color enter into to infuse the disciplinary conversation with language that amplifies the experiences and exclusions of people of color from diverse racial, ethnic, gender, class, ability, and veteran status.
Both questions reflect some of the anxieties that arose when discussing EDI within the context of the plenary. Although the two questions are distinct and oppositional in focus (the first an attempt to inspire greater exploration of advancing the conversation, and the latter an attempt to shut it down), both are representative of some of the parallel anxieties about EDI in theatre education and approaches to pedagogy. We find it necessary to note that the first set of questions was raised by black faculty; the second set by a white faculty member. These distinct reactions to the same panel illuminated dueling anxieties that must be addressed in order to make significant progress in creating academic programs that work better for underserved and underrepresented people and cultures in the academy and on America’s mainstream, professional-theatre stages. The workshop breakout following the plenary session provided us the opportunity to dive deeper into some of the anxieties that were revealed during the plenary session.
The Pedagogy Clinic
“Revolution is not a one-time event.”
Our clinic opened with vocabulary exercises encouraging everyone in the room to value each person in the workshop with the energy and emotions that they brought to the space. One exercise in particular was targeted at acknowledging the challenges of language in starting the conversation. It was important to acknowledge the lingering questions from the first plenary by clearly stating the limitations of language and declaring that we would meet participants where they were even as we held the group to a higher standard of learning more and doing better. We recognized that the phrase “people of color” raises problems, in that it positions whiteness as central in our language choices. Recognizing that it would take a longer workshop to fully rectify the complications of language, we used the clinic as a starting point to encourage participants to become more aware of the language they use and how it perpetuates social inequities, while offering suggestions as to how they could include new vocabularies that could help them become more effective in their daily practices and exchanges with colleagues, staff members, friends, and students.
As facilitators, we created three small working groups that discussed anxieties in three principal areas: institutional interaction; curriculum/pedagogy; and overall practice. Participants were encouraged to visit the site that held the greatest anxieties for them first, with the goal of visiting each site in timed discussion intervals. At each site, participants in the group engaged in an open discussion of their individual fears before identifying the top three anxieties circulating within the groups. Facilitators addressed each group’s top three fears, before the groups rotated to the next site of anxiety. We completed two rounds before concluding with facilitators offering suggestions for action steps and how to move forward. What follows is a brief discussion of the anxieties and action steps that were illuminated over the course of the workshop.
Round 1: Story Circles
Anxiety: How to address power hierarchies in departments and professional theatre practice.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Facilitators asked each participant to think of what power they might have to speak out about engaging discourses of EDI in our departments and professional theatres when our colleagues feel resistant and/or demonstrate hostility toward discussing the spectrum of diversity in our everyday lives and practices. By asking participants to revisit specific scenarios where resistant moments happened and to think critically about the power dynamics and their capacity to foster coalitions, many began to consider potential action steps for the future. One participant reported that this particular exercise made him realize the potential for using his voice in ways he had not previously realized. For example, we discussed the ways that non-POC colleagues can amplify scholars of color who are often shut down in faculty meetings or in professional theatre spaces simply because they are addressing the subject of race. The group explored how questions such as “Could you help me understand how you came to that perspective?” or “Could we return to Professor X’s idea, because we did not give that much consideration?” can carry more weight in terms of affecting change in a department, theatre, and other arts institutions. We also discussed how POC faculty members are not required to do the labor of explaining EDI discourses to their colleagues when they do not “get it.”
Anxiety: Faculty of color feeling implicit bias against them is reflected in their teaching evaluations. Faculty of color feeling misunderstood by students when using racial, ethnic, gender-specific language or teaching students about racial difference (for example, student evaluations that are beyond professors’ control).
“Even biases that fall outside traditional categories of discrimination [that is, gender, racial, and ethnic bias]—such as student negativity toward classes they perceive as overly challenging or taxing—harm an institution’s ability to use student evaluations to gauge instructors’ effectiveness. Professors who are perceived to be difficult, or who teach difficult material, may receive lower evaluations despite students’ often having greater success in later courses based on what they learned from those professors.”
Becoming familiar with and sharing research on bias in teaching evaluations along with self-care when reviewing evaluations can help prepare instructors for the potential challenges posed by negative teaching evaluations. Researcher Victor Ray’s compilation of studies on race and gender discrimination reveal that people of the global majority and women from all cultures experience higher levels of racism and sexism in teaching evaluations. For those groups most vulnerable to negative evaluations (women, people of color, self-identified queer faculty members), we recommended self-care when reading evaluations. This includes reading them once, rather than repeatedly, at a designated time when in the frame of mind to be able to distill valid recommendations from the constructive evaluations. We also offered suggestions for contextualizing critiques for faculty reviews.
White faculty members seemed to be afraid that students might view them as racist, sexist, or homophobic when they misused language or interacted in class. In these instances, participants were encouraged to become more familiar with the people and cultures represented in their classrooms. We acknowledged the fact that all people have areas where they are less fluent in discourses of equity and inclusion. Everyone makes mistakes, however; we stressed the importance of being self-reflective and sincerely apologetic when those mistakes are made. Try not to be defensive. Take time to reflect on what has been addressed by the student or colleague about your remarks. Ignoring mistakes only amplifies them and compounds micro-aggressive behavior. Facing these issues on an individual level is the first step toward tackling the larger structural challenges that reinforce hierarchies.
Anxiety: Identifying and using a range of texts, such as how to be an antiracist educator and decolonizing syllabi. Many reported a lack of familiarity with texts beyond the Eurocentric, heteronormative, male-centric theatre canon. Those faculty and graduate students who had familiarity with texts by nonwhite playwrights often expressed challenges of pushback from colleagues and departmental/institutional procedures that redirect their focus to the exclusionary canon.
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. . . . Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”
As facilitators, we challenged those lacking familiarity with antiracist educational practices to become more familiar by first considering that we only gain by expanding our knowledge base and syllabi to be more inclusive. We also encouraged the group to take steps toward identifying how their areas of expertise intersect with a range of research, creative work, scholars, and practitioners. For those with the knowledge but are facing pushback, we offered subversive strategies for incorporating a range of materials that might otherwise be excluded when focusing on the canon. For example, we suggested that by including sonic and visual texts as entry points to critical analyses to illuminate inequities, students and colleagues may have more success gaining fluency in an area where they lack language. For instance, African American artist Jacob Lawrence’s “Migration” series can help understand August Wilson’s discussions of the Great Migration in his Pittsburgh Cycle, creating an intertextual approach to understanding African American theatre. We also suggested “starting where you are” and selecting material that allows your area of expertise to help you gain access to a text by a new author of color. For example, for the scholar who teaches the work of Edward Albee, there are opportunities to teach Adrienne Kennedy, who was heavily influenced by Albee as a participant in his playwright’s workshop. Decolonizing the curriculum requires more extensive structural changes that need more space and elaboration than can be offered in this short piece. We offer more extensive workshops for institutions, and may be offering one at ATHE 2019 as a follow-up to the clinic.
Round 2: Story Circles
Anxiety: Collective dealing with hierarchy and how it influences how we work (tied to language/communication and how to voice what we know).
“Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks from within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly.”
—Patricia Hill Collins7
Collective calls to action can amplify the voices of the marginalized by taking targeted action steps for tangible outcomes. Recognizing that there are various institutional barriers to implementing change, we encouraged participants to form coalitions within their departments, across their institutions and the field. Through the CRAFT Institute we have been working with ATHE to bridge the divide between academic programs and professional theatres by encouraging collaborative EDI work between ATHE members and the Theatre Communications Group, the organization that publishes American Theatremagazine and provides financial support for many regional theatres across the United States where ATHE artist-scholars may work. One such effort concerns the revision of the “ATHE Outcomes and Assessment Guidelines for Theatre Programs in Higher Education” to include EDI in every outcome, as opposed to mentioning diversity as a single, isolated outcome disconnected from all other aspects of teaching, learning, and assessment. Organizations like ATHE can help inform institutional approaches to understanding the importance of EDI being part of every campus. Theatre departments tend to be the most visible units facing EDI issues in institutions of higher learning, and they can also be the model for campus- and field-wide changes if we all get on board.
Anxiety: How to respect and not ignore discourses of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
“I tell my students, ‘When you get these jobs that you have been so brilliantly trained for, just remember that your real job is that if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else. This is not just a grab-bag candy game.’”
When considering how to be respectful and strategic in managing conflict, educators and practitioners, especially those who consider themselves to be allies of marginalized individuals and groups, will need to think about how to use their access to resources and abilities to circumvent certain barriers to advocate for changes that better reflect the demographics of the nation and the world, even at predominantly white institutions. Part of this comes with long-term training, but at other times it is simply the Golden Rule: “Treat people how you want to be treated.” When it is brought to your attention that someone is being mistreated or a group is being underserved, work with that individual or community to rectify it.
Anxiety: How to amplify all voices and negotiate the tension. Many workshop participants expressed that they often want to do or say something to promote EDI, but that they feel stifled because they do not want to offend anyone or say the wrong thing. They also said that they did not know how to deal with their personal feelings of white fragility and anxiety about performing inclusive practices.
“Guilt is not a response to anger; it is a response to one’s own actions or lack of action. If it leads to change then it can be useful, since it is then no longer guilt but the beginning of knowledge. Yet all too often, guilt is just another name for impotence, for defensiveness destructive of communication; it becomes a device to protect ignorance and the continuation of things the way they are, the ultimate protection for changelessness.”
We shared with participants that they must actually put in the work to get on with furthering inclusivity. Students, faculty, and staff members all deserve to be seen and heard in the workplace. Plays, journal articles, books, sonic and visual texts, and performances are readily available for inclusion on syllabi, seasons, and conference agendas. People of color are not anomalies in the theatre world, nor are women. If we do not make this work the responsibility of everyone, we will continue to show up at these workshops at every conference asking the same exact questions that were asked at the ATHE plenary session. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable as we build new knowledge.
Final Clinic Take-Aways: Diversity Is
“We are responsible for the world in which we find ourselves, if only because we are the only sentient force which can change it.”
ATHE started a truthful and painful conversation about equity, diversity, and inclusion at the first session of the 2018 plenary. Instead of having a full house—as with several celebrity plenaries before it—there were vacant seats everywhere, which was a brutal reminder of where we are in the field as women and people of color and why diversity only matters to some people sometimes. Maybe saying that it hurts us when colleagues and producers ask us to contribute our labor and experience as novelties in a sea of disturbingly white production seasons on campuses and regional theatres hits too close to home. Maybe saying that we want a theatre that departs from an intersectional standpoint is too difficult. Maybe saying that our identities only make the field and the practice richer and that we need to hear diverse stories is too radical. As plenary participants and workshop facilitators, we think not. Diversity is. It does not have to find fault or blame to exist. It is not someone’s responsibility to treat it as an isolated issue only relevant to the historically underrepresented. It is all of our responsibilities to show up. Yet too many of us do not because we do not know where to start or we believe that EDI is a fad that will eventually pass. The exclusionary practices that affect people whose identities intersect across the diversity spectrum every day are stressful. For those who are marginalized, there is no break. Racism, sexism, misogyny, gender bias, homophobia, classism, ableism, veteran bias, and other intersecting forms of oppression are unrelenting. Unfortunately, we are having the same discussions that we had twenty years ago about equity and inclusivity. It is our collective responsibility to see all of our humanity. Seeing only part of a colleague, a student, a friend means that we have more soul searching to do. We have to show up even when it is not convenient, even when it is hard.
So, we convene each year and choose not to tell the truth, because it is a much more collegial choice. It is easier. It is less messy, less emotional—much less than we are all worth.
Our colleagues and students are hurting and asking to be seen and heard all over the country, all over the world. If we do not stand in the gap and use the organization to advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusion at every institution, we miss the mark. We have to stop treating the identities of our colleagues and friends as an “issue” that we talk about fixing or use strategically to diversify seasons, venues, experiences, rooms, and so on. Our identities are not an issue, however; implicit bias and structural barriers are. As artist scholars of theatre and performance studies, whether gay, straight, binary, or nonbinary, each of our bodies is just as important as anyone else’s. Each of us embodies multiple identities. Those of us who have been historically underserved and misrepresented are educated, talented, and capable. You do not have to look for us in unconventional places, because we are everywhere, prepared to do the work required of our profession. Our stories enhance collective understanding of the overarching narrative of humanity, much like our presence enriches departments, theatres, and related programs when we are truly a part of the life of an institution, rather than used as window dressing or crisis management in the midst of controversy.
Our workshop discussed many of these challenges and the disproportionate amount of labor it takes for faculty members and students to constantly educate their white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied colleagues about inclusivity. We concluded that in order for an actual revolution at every level, we all need to be civically minded. We need all of us to step up and change the diversity intelligence in academia and the entertainment industry. It is our hope that the first part of the plenary, the pedagogy clinic, and these reflections will not only spark dialogue, but incite action in all of these areas. If ever there was a time we needed to revisit the purpose, structure, and practical strategies of how our work in the academy can improve the world, that time is NOW. What will you do with your power in this moment?
1 Alice Walker, qtd. in William P. Martin, ed., The Best Liberal Quotes Ever, 173.
2 YouTube video, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=fb076L6wPVo. Livestreamed via the global, commons-based peer produced HowlRound TV network (https://howlround.com).
4 Margaret Mead, qtd. in Susan C. Mapp, Human Rights and Social Justice in a Global Perspective, 65.
7 Patricia Hill Collins, On Intellectual Activism, xiii.
8 Toni Morrison, qtd. in Pamela Houston, “The Truest Eye,” n.p.
10 James Baldwin, No Name in the Street, 65.
Baldwin, James. No Name in the Street. New York: Vintage, 2007 (1972). Print.
Collins, Patricia Hill. On Intellectual Activism. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2012. Print.
Falkoff, Michelle. “Why We Must Stop Relying on Student Ratings of Teaching.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 25 Apr. 2018. Web. 19 Oct. 2018.
Houston, Pamela. “The Truest Eye: Interview with Toni Morrision.” O Magazine, Nov. 2003. Web. 29 Oct. 2018.
Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde. New York: Crossing P, 2007 (1984). Print.
Mapp. Susan C. Human Rights and Social Justice in a Global Perspective. New York: Oxford UP, 2014. Print.
Martin, William P., ed. The Best Liberal Quotes Ever: Why the Left Is Right. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2004. Print.
Ray, Victor. “Is Gender Bias an Intended Feature of Teaching Evaluations?” Inside Higher Ed. 9 Feb. 2018. Web. 19 Oct. 2018.