Navigating Our Journey of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Diversity. Equity. Inclusion. There is an increasingly focused discussion within our theatre and theatre education communities about these concepts in relation to our audiences, our students, and our programming.

“Diversity. Equity. Inclusion.” has become a rallying cry to spark both conversations and initiatives. Many theatre companies are working to design full seasons of work dedicated to the exploration of these principles. This renewed focus and attention comes at time when these deeply complex topics hold a sense of urgency for our nation as a whole.

My professional focus tends to place my lens of diversity within the frameworks of disability and access, and admittedly the term “inclusion” often has very specific context for me. So it can be puzzling when the frameworks of disability and accessibility are sometimes not considered (dare I say, included) within larger discussions of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Yet some of the trending conversations within the field of disability access may in fact be able to guide our field’s collective thinking about the broader implications of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” as it relates to race, identity, language, socioeconomic status, and other demographic parameters.

In her personal blog, Katie Rose Guest Pryal – a self-described writer, editor, and freelance academic, who also self identifies as a person with a disability – writes about the difference between the concepts of accommodation and accessibility. Pryal explores how accommodation can sometimes be framed as special, or that someone has gone “out of the way” (even if willingly) to provide something “extra.” She further suggests that accommodation can even put a burden on the individual receiving services – since they may need to disclose personal information to obtain accommodation (“The accommodations model depends on invasions of privacy to work.”). Pyral contrasts this model to an accessible environment in which nothing about how someone engages seems “special” or out-of-the-ordinary, but rather inclusive in design and delivery. Engagement of any one person with the space or programming is no longer “special or unique” – it is simply inherent. So what happens if we use this framework of the concepts of accommodation versus accessibility to examine our approach to all of our programming and community outreach?

As artists and arts administrators, we want to believe that we are truly inclusive of everyone. For many of us it is why we do what we do, and why we believe in the power of the arts to be a catalyst for change as a pathway to common ground and understanding. It is most likely that our organizational intention is to welcome any and all who come to our doorstep. And while that is not always externally spoken, it is almost always internally assumed (“Of course, anyone who wants to come here is welcome!”). But how are we moving from assumption to action?  Are we framing our outreach in the vein of accommodation or accessibility? We need to challenge ourselves to think about the perceptions as much as we think about the realities of our programming. What are the barriers to our organization – real, perceived, or imagined – for our surrounding communities? What is the real, perceived, or imagined experience for someone entering our space? How are we framing our community outreach – and our work towards diversity, equity, and inclusion – so that it is not perceived as simply a “special,” “extra,” “one-off” accommodation?

Often, conversations with funders and stakeholders about outreach include our desires to design and frame our programming in a way that “allows” others to be included. It’s a natural turn of phrase in our language, but consider the word choice – “allow” – and how it can instantly place us in the role of gatekeeper, and create a large shift of power. This shift often places those being welcomed into our spaces through outreach initiatives into the role of “guest.” While it can be wonderful to be a guest, it can also sometimes be hard to take full ownership of an experience when you are in that role. Furthermore, if you are not able to embrace full ownership of the experience, can you come to feel that you belong and truly begin to claim the space as an artistic and cultural “home”? If so, how and when does it happen?

As we examine our own outreach initiatives, it is important to think carefully if those we welcome to our space feel like “guests,” and perceive our initiatives as “special” but not necessarily part of our identity as an organization. Are there members of our community who feel they must disclose personal information (for example, identity, ability, or socioeconomic status) in order to access our programming and/or our outreach initiatives? How do we facilitate the psychological transition that must happen so that a visitor to our space no longer feels like a “special guest”, but rather a validated and fully engaged member of our artistic community? How do we make it so “our” home becomes “their” home?

Moving forward, we must be willing to continue to turn the magnifying glass on our own organizations as we investigate: Do we unintentionally create boundaries as we think about inclusivity? Do we have any limits to our inclusivity for our organizations and programs, and where do they stem from? As someone engages in our programming, what is the transition from “outsider” to “insider”? How and when does it happen, and what is the catalyst?

Of course there are no easy answers. When we work to welcome new community members to our spaces and into our programming, we know we are often working against an ingrained sense of “othering” that has occurred for decades (or even longer). Therefore, we must acknowledge and commit to the journey of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” – not just the destination. Now more than ever, we need to think carefully about how the diversity of our country is reflected on our stages and in our staff, faculty, and artists. We need to make sure that the topics we talk about are important and timely and that our young patrons know that they have voice and power, that they have accessibility – not merely accommodation. We must continue to use our art to create citizens who are critical thinkers, catalysts for change, and know that they are not just a “special guest” but a member of the greater community.