Last summer, the murder of George Floyd shook the world and started a long overdue conversation about the history of white supremacy in institutions, especially in the theater. More and more artists who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are sharing their experiences of racism in the arts and calling on theatrical institutions to reform the way we write, direct, cast, work, teach, and perform theater—most notably, the collective “We See You, White American Theater” (weseeyouwat.com).
But what does that reform look like? What can theater institutions do to better represent BIPOC artists? How can theaters measure their level of anti-racism if, historically, theater has never been anti-racist?
One exemplary organization that is doing the work of providing tools for anti-racist self-reflection in theater companies and organizations is based in the LA area: the Joy-Jackson Initiative.
The Joy-Jackson Initiative (JJI) works to build systemic equity in the arts by providing organizations with the guidance necessary to formulate and implement changes to create the safest possible spaces for the BIPOC collaborators who enrich them. JJI is currently creating the Racial Equity Assessment for organizations to take and learn about how they can better represent and care for their BIPOC artists and collaborators. I (digitally) sat with the Initiative’s founder, Gabrielle Jackson, to learn more about what went into creating the Assessment and how the Assessment will be used to introduce a better, more equitable theater culture.
LAFPI: First, can you share briefly how you founded the Joy-Jackson Initiative?
Gabrielle Jackson: The Joy-Jackson Initiative was founded out of a deep sense of disappointment and urgency. Disappointment that, at a time where we were encouraging each other to help flatten the curve and save human life, so many of my friends and colleagues could remain unaware of the violent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery and the countless other Black people who have lost their lives to police brutality. The urgency that followed was an understanding that immediate action was required to rectify the rampant white supremacy and willful ignorance that allowed for people in my community and in my industry to witness racial violence and do absolutely nothing.
I was going to do something. I was going to show people that this violence was happening in their own communities, in their own organizations. People had to know that it was so much deeper than a protest or a political movement. This was about real people and real life.
LAFPI: The Joy-Jackson Initiative’s Racial Equity Assessment is a huge undertaking, yet extremely necessary and relevant, especially after last summer’s call for anti-racist practices in the arts. You have said before that the assessment went under a rigorous review process. In a few words, what was the process like from concept to debut? What kind of collaborations were needed to make all of this happen?
Gabrielle: There’s an African proverb that says if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together. This assessment is the product of so many collaborations and incredible connections. Initially I was using my own personal experience to create the Assessment’s questions. I spoke with some friends after I developed the initial draft and they called in their friends and hooked me up with some really wonderful organizations who were interested in helping me continue to build the work.
One such org was Black Theatre Girl Magic. With the help of BTGM’s incredible team, we were able to gather a group of incredible Black women from across the professional theater spectrum to review and advise on the initial assessment. We organized a 3-day summit where we story-circled and shared our professional experiences and gathered the information that would help me develop the first Beta Version of JJI’s Assessment.
We beta tested with a small group of theaters from across the country and gathered data and participant feedback.
In a little over two months we had developed and tested a great first draft of the Assessment. We took this feedback and immediately went back to the drawing board. I personally read every set of “requemands,” as I like to call them, put out by every collective, organization and student group I could find. These folks were all calling for change and had very incredible plans for progress. I distilled the information from these resources and turned these demands and action steps into questions for the assessment. Then JJI’s Managing Director Julie Oulette, who is one of the most knowledgeable people I know and someone who has really worked in this business from every angle, took the assessment and organized it and edited it so that it was digestible and made sense to people who were leading these orgs that we were addressing.
We then organized another peer and professional review of the assessment with industry vets and folks who really knew the business and the people who made it. We also invited students and entry level professionals who were just starting out and had some really excellent ideas and paths forward. We then hand selected our second beta cohort and conducted a second beta test of the assessment. As with the first Beta test period, we culminated in a data share and town hall where the leaders of participating organizations were invited to share their experience with the assessment. Now we are rounding the corner on our publicly accessible version of the assessment and will, again, be hand selecting a small cohort of organizations from across the country to participate in our first full rollout of the assessment and its accompanying facilitation program. We could not have done any of this work at this pace without the power of collaboration. We’ve turned something that could very easily be a 10 year undertaking into something that has been vetted by industry professionals and is ready and effective in a very short period of time.
LAFPI: Companies will be able to take the assessment and, ideally, commit to implementing more anti-racist culture. What are the next steps after that?
Gabrielle: A huge part of all of the work we did in our last round of beta was holding office hours. Initially, Managing Director Julie and I were only there to answer technical questions. And that’s how it was for the first few days. Participants were in and out asking us questions and giving us great feedback. But about a week in, people were starting to be confronted with some pretty unsettling data. And the fact that these were numbers written out in black and white made it inescapable. There was a shift in the way office hours were happening. People were coming to visit, and vent, and seek community and validation and guidance.
This was no longer just a Q&A. We knew 2 things: the Assessment was working and more space needed to be held for these arts leaders to understand their data and create real solutions. So we went right to work on developing a facilitation program. I went to a leader in the field of Equity, Diversion and Inclusion (EDI) and intimacy and begged up on her guidance and mentorship, I started taking classes and using the office hours as another study, taking every conversation home with me to decompose and explore. We also started developing practical tools, like glossaries and reflection sheets that would help folks find deeper meaning in the concepts they were encountering in the assessment. Now, I can proudly say that what comes after the work with JJI’s Assessment is a fully personalized period of reflection and facilitation guided by myself and other key members of JJI’s team. The work is so delicate and important and we are ready and eager to help unravel the stories behind the numbers and help organizations find new and bold paths forward.
LAFPI: A huge issue that was raised this past summer was that there are theater companies that have reputations for disregarding and even allowing racist practices, as well as hiring artists who have historically exhibited severe racist behaviors. Are the results of the Assessment meant to solely inform a company about their culture and create a plan to solve it, or will the results also be used to inform outside artists?
Gabrielle: My ultimate goal with this work, once we have collected enough data, is to partner with data analysts and create a report on the macro data from the Assessment. The great thing about a study like this is that each individual theater remains anonymous. We only view the data in aggregate and are able to analyze the numbers on the whole. I think granting public access to the aggregate data – the way we do in our town halls and other online media – will really help to create transparency in our industry. I think once we have all the information and the numbers are clear, we can start getting honest and calling in organizations to make real change. The numbers of course will also help the individual organizations themselves as they will have exclusive access to their own micro data and will have a view of their personal numbers and information. This will help orgs to assess areas for improvement and create space for real and actionable change in their operations.
LAFPI: What kind of questions can companies expect in the Assessment?
Gabrielle: We’ve tested the efficacy of this Assessment with almost every type of theater company. So we are asking questions about everything from above title billing for theaters who are Tony eligible to whether touring companies are vetting hotels and accommodations for a history of racist action. We’re asking about what Black and Indigenous texts are being used in curriculum, and whether or not there is specific language in an organization’s bylaws that outlines anti-racist policy.
There’s truly something to be gained for every organization at every level.
LAFPI: This Assessment, undoubtedly, is aimed to create lasting impact in theater arts culture. Once the Assessment is released and artists can start creating post-pandemic theater, what do you hope theater will look like for theater companies? For BIPOC artists?
Gabrielle: I hope theater companies will use this time to actually do the work of change in their orgs. In the span of 7 months, we’ve been able to accomplish so much. It’s honestly made me realize that there is nothing a well-teamed organization cannot do if they are truly dedicated to their cause. And that’s the thing, right? An organization has to be dedicated to the cause and not just the lip service around it. So, I hope that theaters will have really backed up all those solidarity statements with action and accountability and that they are safe for us to return to when we can.
For BIPOC artists I wish us all the comfort, peace and stability that makes it easy to be choosy. More than anything, I’ve learned that wherever one or two are gathered, even if it’s in a Zoom room, art can be created. So, we now have this smorgasbord of opportunity in front of us. One of the questions I’ve been pondering in my own creative work is, “What are we going to do with all this future?” I hope that BIPOC artists have the means and the support to seek healing from all the compound trauma stemming from this time in our history and a lifetime of intentional othering by forces of racism and white supremacy. I hope that BIPOC artists find it within themselves to create work that speaks to their souls and sparks joy for them. I hope that Black artists, Indigenous artists, and other artists of color can finally have the space to be truly, truly free.
LAFPI: When will the Assessment be available for companies to take?
Gabrielle: The Assessment will be available to a hand selected cohort in 2021 and is preparing for wide release in 2022. JJI is currently looking for its first cohort of Full Program participants. Anyone interested in taking part in JJI’s 2021 Rollout should contact us through our website at www.joyjackson.org/theassessment.
Despite the grave uncertainty American Theater is facing amidst the pandemic and the plummeting economy, one great gift theatermakers have been given is the gift of reflecting on our own internalized racism and white supremacy. There’s no doubt that the Joy-Jackson Initiative’s Racial Equity Assessment will be one of many programs paving the road toward true racial equity in American Theater, so that BIPOC artists may not merely survive, but thrive in an industry that so often uses their voices. It’s not about diversity and inclusion of BIPOC people—it’s about telling stories for us, by us, and with us in mind. And that starts today.