On Sunday, March 19, 2017, I gave the keynote address at the 10th annual Emerging Arts Leaders Symposium. It was such an exciting opportunity and truly quite an honor to be invited to share my thoughts on the role of arts in the time of political turmoil, the need for citizen artists, administrators, and arts leaders and where we go from here. I've been asked to share my speech and have included it here. I hope you enjoy!
Good morning! I’m honored to have been invited to speak with you today. And I’m not just saying that because that’s what people who give keynote addresses are expected to say at the top of their speeches.
I’m honored because by choosing to be a part of today’s symposium, you have taken steps that will forever change the way you look at yourselves and interact with the world. You have crossed a threshold that will forever demand the very best of who you are and ask that you position yourselves in your classrooms, communities, and workplaces as citizen arts leaders.
And I’m glad you’ve chosen to be here because these are challenging and turbulent times for the arts. Now, I don’t say this to disparage you. Quite the opposite, in fact, I say it to galvanize your spirits, to rouse your revolutionary heart, and to mobilize your efforts towards resistance! With what we’re up against, it’s going to take every single one of us working together to get ahead.
As you know, this past Thursday, the current Administration unveiled a budget plan that calls for an increase in military spending. In order to pay for this increase, the Administration suggests that Congress eliminate a whole host of agencies that assist children and the poor; offer guidelines for agricultural, labor, and environmental protections; fund scientific research; aid our allies abroad; and support a multitude of arts and cultural organizations across our nation.
By the way, this budget plan is called, “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.”
Now, as a progressive Democrat, I have all kinds of things I could say about that and in a different speech, in a different room, I certainly would. But, at this moment, in this room, I’m reminded that I’m also the daughter and sister of Veterans. My parents served in the Army. My brother served in the Air Force and now works for the Army. My sister works for the VA. I believe in a strong military defense and I believe we should do whatever we can to take care of our soldiers. However, I don’t believe we accomplish this by destroying social programs or by compromising our food, water, and work places or by endangering our planet; and certainly not by gutting our creative economy.
If passed, this budget will have a widespread and debilitating impact on our field. Mind you, together, the NEA, NEH, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting receive less than a billion dollars a year. The revenue from this proposed elimination is a drop in the bucket. So, it’s a gesture. Of course, we, in the arts, understand the powerful and lasting effect of a gesture. And there is no doubt that losing this funding will have real and damaging consequences on the lives of the artists, administrators, audiences, and students that these organizations strive to serve.
Confession: I’m one of those NEA supported artists. The world premiere production of my play, Intelligence, was funded by the 2016 NEA Arts Works grant. We opened last week at Arena Stage. The play is a piece of historical fiction about courage. It explores the consequences of speaking truth to power. Specifically, it’s a story about the lies that led to the war in Iraq, the impact of the war on the Iraqi people, and what happened when the Bush Administration retaliated against two U.S. citizens because the truth of those lies were revealed. The demand for tickets was so great that Arena Stage extended the run two weeks before we started rehearsal. Now, I don’t mention this to brag, though I certainly am proud, I mention this because it speaks to a hunger that audiences have for stories about courage.
The day after we opened, I headed back to Chapel Hill, where I work and live. I met a woman at the airport, who is in her 70s. We’re on the same flight and chatted about our reasons for being in DC. I told her about the play. She placed her hand on my cheek and said, “Thank you. This work you artists do, it takes such courage. And that’s what we need right now. I keep telling my children. We have to pay attention to what is happening right now. We have to record what’s happening to our country. For history. And we have to have the courage to speak out against what’s happening when it violates our civil rights and freedoms.”
This woman’s words reminded me of what Toni Morrison so wisely observed about the role of artist during times of great strife and uncertainty. She wrote:
There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.
But in order for artists to do this work, we have to have smart, passionate, fearless citizen arts leaders and that’s where you come in.
One of the first orders of business that you have ahead of you is to fight the narrative that our field is expendable. We have to shift the narrative away from “art for art’s sake” and “art as self-expression” to art as a vital contribution to the economic vitality, growth, and sustainability of our communities. And we have to start with ourselves. We have to pay and equitable and livable wage to the staff and artist that we employ. Of course, we have to raise revenue in order to do this, which means we have to be relevant. To do this, we have to appeal to more people and reflect our communities.
Now, I don’t run an arts organization as many of you do or one day will. I’m an artist, a citizen artist. This is an important distinction. Because as a black, cisgender female from a poor, working class family, I learned early in life that I’m part of a community of people whose voices have been silenced, whose images have been distorted and misrepresented, and whose legacy has been erased and exploited.
I grew up in East Texas in a township of sorts called Tennessee Colony. It’s lush and green. There are lots of trees for climbing, lakes for fishing and swimming, and open skies for dreaming. There are also more cows than people and a healthy dose of racism, sexism, and classism served daily. These systems of oppression were unrelenting and did a great deal of damage to my self-esteem, optimism, and enthusiasm for life. Thankfully, the love, strength, and support of my parents transformed my experience and primed me for the work I do today.
As part of my work as a citizen artist, I’m an advocate for justice, access, equity, diversity, and inclusion. My core mission is to dismantle systems of oppression. Often, I think about this work in terms of absence. What stories aren’t being told? Whose voices aren’t being heard? Who isn’t hired to lead an organization or to helm the production? Who isn’t invited to table? Who isn’t even in the room?
And I want to encourage each of you to do the same. Perhaps you can begin each day by asking:
These questions are essential to the work I do as a playwright.
You see, I write in order to make sense of the world. And my god, what a time to be alive trying to do that! Sometimes I feel lost to the hatred, bigotry, violence, and poverty faced by so many. But with a play, I’m able to lay out all sides of the story, hear all of the voices, and portray a myriad of responses to the many situations people face in life.
On stage, we can capture an intimate portrayal of the strange, beautiful, curious, brave and vulnerable human experience. We are able to explore the various ways in which people live and how we behave towards one another. We can process the immediate and residual impact of decisions. We can examine the damaging and devastating consequences of our neglect as well as the impact of our good deeds on a community. But in order to do this well, we have to have as full, deep, and complete a picture as possible.
As image makers, we have an important role to play in moving audiences beyond superficial and stereotypical representations of peoples and cultures and toward three dimensional representations that encourage deeper learning with honor and respect.
I place women and people of color at the center of my plays. I write these characters with depth, passion, wisdom, and flaws, but also with a yearning for love, hope for better days, and despair for all that will never be. I do so because when you see a person of color on the street, I want you to see us for who we are as individuals and not for the impressions left on you by stereotypical representations perpetuated by mass media and the arts world.
Once, I was asked by someone inspired by my social media advocacy, "Do you ever feel that you’re ‘beating a dead horse’ when it comes to addressing issues of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the American Theatre?” I’ll tell you want told them:
It’s disappointing when regional theatres continue to produce all/a majority of plays written by white men that are directed by all/a majority of white men. It’s disheartening that gender equity struggles to be intersectional and inclusive. It’s frustrating that issues of age, class, disability, and sexual orientation live in a land of etcetera.
However, I remain hopeful and ever stalwart. I'm encouraged by an increasing number of individuals and theatre companies, who are embracing diversity, working to be more inclusive, and supporting a multitude of voices. What’s more, I am inspired by the number of theatre leaders who are committed to creating spaces for equity and access for all theatre artists.
But it’s hard. Hard as hell. But doing nothing is harder still. So, I never think in terms of losing faith. I think in terms of time. How much time can I devote each day to bring awareness and support of others around these issues. For what little time I have on this earth, I will do all that I can to advocate for progress and change.
But again, citizen artists cannot do this work alone. We have to have citizen arts leaders, who are ready to step up, who make social awareness, cultural literacy, and racial consciousness a central part of their work, practice, and vision. As gatekeepers, you are in a unique position to do this work and create change. Of course, none of this work is easy, but that’s what makes it so necessary.
This work began for me in earnest at a meeting similar to this one. In 2012, I was nominated to be one of Theatre Communication Group’s Young Leader of Color. One of our first sessions was a Values Clarification Workshop led by motivational speaker, Paul Robinson, of the Wilder Center for Communities. In this workshop, we defined our core values and established a broader and more comprehensive understanding of what it means to be leader. This was such a meaningful experience. While I won't be able to capture it entirely, I want to share a bit about what we learned.
First, Paul had us define our individual Core Values. These values are what matter to us; what we can't live without; what defines us; what stimulates and inspires us; and what is central to who we are. In order for a value to be a Core or Touchstone value, they have to be:
As a leader, you have to have a clear idea of what your values are. You have to be able to stand up for your core values and defend them even in the most difficult of situations. Now, if you’re not living or practicing your core values, then you either need to adjust them or adjust your life! In other words, it’s a process and you're a work in progress! Translation: it takes time.
But I should warn you! The thing about core values is that once you establish them, they will be tested constantly and at varying degrees of intensity. My greatest test to date happened a few years ago. I was working freelance living paycheck to paycheck. I never knew when the next gig would come or if it would be enough to cover the bills. Every phone call, message or email contained the possibility of work, so I checked my phone incessantly.
I remember receiving an offer that would have made me comfortable for two months. In the freelance world, that’s a luxury. I was being asked to step in as a writer, but was warned that the situation was fraught. If I accepted, I would have to stomach the situation. I felt a rush of heat from my belly to my ears. I remembered all the times I had been asked to whitewash a situation and put conversations about racial consciousness and cultural sensitivity aside for the ease of the room. Then I remembered the line that I drew after that TCG meeting. It was an invisible, but palpable line that stood between what the world presented me and how I chose to be in the world.
I knew I had to say no. If I had accepted, I’d never be able to advocate for equity in the workplace or continue the work that I'm doing around diversity and inclusion with any credibility. I learned a lot about myself and about the kind of leader I wanted to be at that moment.
As leaders, we’re given great power and influence to impact the world around you. We’re uplifted and heralded because your values speak to the community. We’re also responsible to your community. Your actions and inactions matter. Let me repeat that: Your actions and inactions matter.
The leader, who is aware of their role and their impact on their community, this is someone who is citizen arts leader. Like regular leaders, they have courage, vision, integrity, and a strong work ethic. But they also get out of their own way, check their ego at the door, and remain accountable for their actions. They are humble, discerning, and listen to the needs of their community. They are willing to say when they don’t know something and they aren’t afraid to admit when are wrong. Mostly importantly, they understand that leadership is a privilege and with that privilege comes a great deal of responsibility.
Let me tell you right now, this kind of work takes time, effort, patience, and commitment. It’s as challenging as it rewarding, as exhaustive as it is rejuvenating. It requires hope in the greater good and faith in humanity, both of which at times will seem fleeting and nonexistent. There will be days when it feels like you’re starting over or that you never got anywhere at all. And on those days, you’ve got to hold on, dig in your heels, and keep going. Because that’s when you’re needed the most and we’ve never needed citizen arts leaders more than we do right now.
So, thank you. Thank you for being here and showing up. Thank you for listening and for staying so engaged. I wish you all the best today and your days ahead!
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!