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Are You Really a Parent-Friendly Workplace?

Michelle Ramos: Since you've started working in the arts sector, you’ve done a lot of amazing work: founding your firm, Unlock Creative, which is a social enterprise dedicated to nurturing, growing, and sustaining Black creative leadership; founding and being the current president of the National Black Women’s Creative Cooperative, a worker-owned limited liability cooperative and mutual aid network of Black women creatives; and doing work focused on how our industry can better support theatremakers with children. What are some of your observations in doing this work as a theatremaker and a parent?

Ashley Davis: I started out working in stage management and as a producer. One of the reasons that I switched from being in production to nonprofit work is because when I thought about having a family, I didn't understand how I could have a family because it didn’t seem very welcome in the field. Producing in Los Angeles, I worked around eighty hours a week, so I wondered: When do people see their kids? Theatre people who are working on the actual production part, are often expected to not have children or be around their children because they’re working nights and weekends. That was the sense I got when I started in the field over a decade ago.

As I was young and eager, I realized there was an assumption that younger, eager, and often single people could work nights, weekends, and longer workdays. There was this idea that we could do the travelling because theatremakers who were parents had to go pick up or look after their children. Of course, everyone was respectful of that, but sometimes I saw that that would also brew resentment. Because of this, one of the reasons I moved over to the management side of theatremaking is because of the set daytime work hours that are more accommodating to people with children.

The other piece of that is the dynamic between men and women. Cis men could often do more of the night work—but they had to have a partner or some support system that would allow them to do those really long, crazy hours. This was different than what I found in looser, grassroots spaces, where people just had their kids with them. It's just a different thing.

We have these deeper systemic issues in our society that are making us question: “Okay, what's the access to childcare? Can I be both an employee and a person in this workplace?”

Michelle: Some of those things that were considered to be “unprofessional” in the past are now kind of the norm—especially with the increase in remote work because of the pandemic. People are now like, “Oh, those are my kids in the background,” or, “That's my dog barking.” Nobody even thinks twice about it, which is interesting. So, now that we are working more in remote spaces, do you think that sort of perspective is loosening up a little bit? What has been your experience as someone who works remotely and is a full-time parent?

Ashley: I think remote work, particularly during COVID, felt more laid-back. I think organizations who were already working remotely before COVID were more accommodating of doctor’s appointments and flex schedules. But I think the shift to remote work during the pandemic forced places that had stricter standards and expectations such as, “You better be on camera when you work from home,” or “You better be in a suit and have a tie around your neck,” to relax because of everything we were going through. It was unattainable to maintain that strict level of professionalism without going crazy. I feel like people had to let that go. We decided as a whole culture that we're going to let that go.

But what I think is happening now is that some organizations—particularly the larger ones—are trying to pull the reigns back in a little bit. Like, “No, y'all are going to come to work every day. Y'all are going to dress ‘professionally’ again.” But I feel like folks and organizations that are more equity-focused and really did change during lockdown realize that parenting, having children, and being a caregiver—because there are theatremakers who may not be parents but are still caregivers in some capacity—is a part of many people’s lives. So, I think even what we thought about who may be giving care in their personal lives has expanded. People are more open to and conscious of the realities of parenting and caregiving.

A lot of people are interrogating what it means to have a hybrid work schedule. I’m doing a lot of work around that right now. The fact that more and more people are questioning that lets me know things are changing. But there are still some people who just want to go back to “how it was.” Again, I think the larger institutions just want their workers back in the office.

Michelle: Yes. That idea of, “We need to go back to this world where individuals are not as much of a priority as the work is,” is something I’m seeing a lot of people push against. I have heard a few people that are like, “I like the structure of going back into the space, having a place to show up, and not being distracted by family or other things that are going on at home.” But I think what I'm mostly hearing is people really pushing back against going back into an office five days a week.

Ashley: Yes. I think employees have more power now, so they’re having a conversation about what they want for themselves and it’s different than what the institutions’ management wants. Also, some people in the field can't afford to go back to work. If they go back to the office, half of their check will go towards daycare. In those instances, it often doesn’t make sense financially for one of the parents to go into work. We have these deeper systemic issues in our society that are making us question: “Okay, what's the access to childcare? Can I be both an employee and a person in this workplace?”

Michelle: I'm curious about the relationship between childcare and the workplace in the arts sector. When I was in the legal field, I noticed that for most women lawyers, whether to have children or not was a career decision because sometimes having children inhibited their ability to become a partner at a firm. Women were put in a position where we had to choose between children and our career. So Ashley, when you decided to become a mom, did you feel any hesitation, worry, or concern—not only with respect to the way that you were going to be able to manage your own work-life balance but also how that would be received at your workplace? If you had to make that decision now, would that look different than it did when you first made that decision?

A family of three illuminated by a bright light.

Roots Week 2017. Photo by Melisa Cardona.

Ashley: I decided to be a mom while I was at Alternate ROOTS. When I told you I used to work a lot of hours, that was at my previous job. Obviously, I did what I had to do, but I realized I couldn’t have a baby while I was working there. I don't even think I would've been able to have a healthy pregnancy with the way that I was working. It was not healthy. It is not healthy for anyone. No one should be working eighty hours a week, but many theatremakers do.

The funny thing is—I don't know if you know this, Michelle—I was the first employee to have maternity leave at Alternate ROOTS. While some may have been parents, I was the first to actually have a baby while working there. But we always welcomed kids, so it was a non-conversation. Everybody was so happy for me. They even officially codified the policy. My partner and I made a commitment during the first year of our son’s life. I had to do a ton of traveling for work, so I would just take him everywhere with me. I think there were only two trips he didn't go on with me.

We were able to do that because Alternate ROOTS allowed it. It was okay that my partner and my child stayed in my hotel room since it didn't cost Alternate ROOTS more money. Because it was the rural South, I drove to a lot of the site visits I went on, so my partner and child could just ride in the car with me. I mostly didn't take them to meetings with me. I would work during the day and then we did stuff together in the evening. The fact that it was family-oriented, partner-oriented, and welcoming allowed me to be able to stay at Alternate ROOTS.

Michelle: You kind of touched on this, but do you think part of your decision to stay at Alternate ROOTS was because Alternate ROOTS does offer a paid maternity leave? In my experience, that is not typical.

Ashley: Yes. I had eight weeks off when I had my son. I received paid maternity leave and then used my vacation days because we have a generous vacation policy, and my son came three weeks early. Thankfully, he was totally healthy, but the fact that Alternate ROOTS could handle that is great, right? It was almost a month before I was supposed to be out, but it was okay to take my leave earlier than anticipated.

Michelle: When I had my daughter a bazillion years ago, maternity leave for me wasn't even an option. I was only able to breastfeed for a month before I had to go back to work because I wasn't getting a paycheck if I wasn't working. So when I first came to Alternate ROOTS, I remember just thinking to myself how fantastic that policy is. While maternity leave is mandated by law, the requirement to be paid while you’re on maternity leave is not. The fact that Alternate ROOTS does that says so much about the organization. We really do try to function in a people-centered way.

Ashley: Something you hit on makes me want to share something private that is important to talk about: I was actually pregnant before I had my son and I miscarried. So, during my second pregnancy, I stopped travelling. Alternate ROOTS required a lot of travel, and I was actually supposed to go to Canada for work. There reached a point where my partner was like, “I don’t want you to travel,” and the executive director approved that for my pregnancy. That was one reason why when it was time for me to go back and travel, I wasn’t necessarily pushing back on it—because after my first trimester, I didn’t travel. My job was 40 percent to 60 percent travel, but they cared about me enough to allow me not to do it while I was pregnant with my son. That’s why those types of work environments make a big difference. It’s already stressful being pregnant and it’s even more stressful being on the road. I just feel like that’s important to say.

Michelle: Thank you for sharing that. I think one of the main questions I have is around the culture of childcare as it relates to convenings. I think Alternate ROOTS does childcare-centric convenings so well. More and more people are choosing to bring their kids to ROOTS Week, our annual convening in Arden, North Carolina. Could you share a little bit about your perspective on that trajectory since you were at Alternate ROOTS for seven years and have had the chance to see that growth?

Ashley: There’s this community culture at Alternate ROOTS outside of the formal offerings. People welcome children and help each other with their children. People hold the children, take the children, and get the children’s plates. It's literally what we mean when we talk about communal space, which is a whole different tone from going to another conference. The space is built to help everyone, including people who have kids. So many single moms come to the convening and are able to give and receive help.

We created a Youth Village. It was hard in the beginning because we only had community members working it, though they were community members who typically worked with youth. But as we matured, we hired professional staff to give some of our artists who were working with the Youth Village some time to participate in the conference, so we weren't taking their entire time away.

The conference is literally built around the needs of parents. Some of the other traditional conferences just don't have that in mind when programming. They don’t necessarily think about how a lot of these hotels or the spaces they’re offering for their convenings aren’t very kid-friendly. They’re not even really family-friendly or elder-friendly. It's like when people say to design spaces for people who may have different abilities. When you do that, you're designing for everyone because it’s making the space more accessible. When you design spaces to accommodate wheelchairs, you’re also designing them to accommodate strollers. Because of that, some of the work we do at Alternate ROOTS of making our spaces as accessible as possible benefits kids and people with kids.

A mother and her son sitting together in rocking chairs on a porch.

Roots Week 2016. Photo by Melisa Cardona.

Michelle: Now that you have stepped away from Alternate ROOTS, you’ve founded your own organization, Unlock Creative—which is thriving, by the way. Congratulations to you and all your success with that company and organization! If anybody is looking for a consultant in the nonprofit sector, please look up Ashley's company because she's amazing! But now that you’ve grown and have your own employees, how have those things that you have witnessed and experienced as a working mom impacted how you now choose to lead your organization—especially with potential future employees who might be making similar decisions about parenting?

Ashley: Thank you, Michelle. Well, I am all about people getting their work done and taking care of themselves. At Unlock Creative, we have a whole list of working agreements. My employees and I show up for our meetings in a particular way for clients, but our internal meetings are different. Our cameras can be off, and I really encourage my employees to take care of themselves. I think sometimes companies aren't being clear about what they can offer their employees. They're not actually being honest about what their benefits packages are, or who their target employees are.

I'm really honest about that right now. Maternity leaves and babies are welcome because it lets people show up and do better work. Keeping that in mind and having parents on a committee is beneficial. I try to keep in mind what an event could look like if we had kids come.

Michelle: I think that is the perfect place to end this interview. Thank you so much, Ashley, for your honesty and transparency, both as a mother and as someone who has been in varying work environments throughout your career. I appreciate you sharing ways that organizations, regardless of size and area of focus, can be more parent- and people-friendly. Like you said, creating this type of organizational culture makes the employees better because it allows them to bring their fullest selves into the workspace. Thank you so much for your time, energy, and beautiful thoughts.

Ashley: Thank you so much, Michelle.

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