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From Awareness to Action: Facilitating Change in the American Theatre

Amelia Parenteau: When did you first envision No Dream Deferred launching Equity and Justice for Institutional Change (EJIC)?

Lauren E. Turner: Back in 2017 or 2018, I was telling a dear friend of mine, Daniela Capistrano, about all the barriers that I was facing as a Black theatremaker in New Orleans and that the organization was facing as a Black-led organization. I was saying these predominantly white spaces should be having these conversations and taking these actions, and she said No Dream Deferred should be leading them in that direction. No Dream Deferred is a model for that work, especially locally in New Orleans. I thought about how it was what we were doing anyway in our artmaking, and I was like, “Why don’t we put this in terms that people who may not work in the arts can see the value in it as well?” So that launched EJIC, where we work with all types of organizations and institutions.

In the beginning, I was trying to adapt our people- and process-centered, equitable approach to artmaking into a model for organizational culture. The way we lead people through the facilitation process benefits from the fact that we’re artists. To be fair, nothing I was doing was groundbreaking because I’ve had such great mentors, like Carmen Morgan from artEquity. Brilliantly gifted facilitators have taught me how to do this work.

Amelia: There are so many acronyms thrown around for this type of work. How did you pick EJIC?

Lauren: I was sick of holding up “diversity and inclusion” as the only, or the most important, values. While I understand their value, I wanted conversation around equity and justice to be what leads. I wanted to plainly name our motive: we’re promoting equity and justice as key ingredients for institutional change. That way, there’s no question about what we’re here to do, what the conversation’s going to be about, or what our agenda is. Institutional change is our agenda, and we’re focusing on equity and justice to do that.

Amelia: One of your great strengths as a facilitator is your ability to name things as they are, and that’s something participants sometimes struggle with in their own capacity to accept what’s being said. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in people’s willingness to receive the transparency of the work that we’re doing?

Lauren: Every time our facilitation team finishes a session, I feel like I learn something new about what humans need in order to feel as though they’ve been heard and what they need to comprehend information that’s being given to them. I have embraced an attitude of being unapologetic about setting that repetition up, not judging it, and not trying to control it. If you tell me I need to go over all of these group agreements every session, or that I need to repeat this phrase every single time in order to facilitate a cultural shift, I will do that.

That’s why it’s important to understand that the approach to anti-racism is to develop a practice. Even in our facilitated spaces, we’re having to develop practices that allow for the true embodiment of these values that we’re sharing. For the values to be received and absorbed, there has to be a practice that they’re inserted into. And so, we’ve designed our process based on the way that people best absorb information. The design of the sessions is ritual; it’s a practice in and of itself. The practice then asks of participants, “What do you do every time? Every day, what is it that you’re doing to be anti-racist in your actions?”

Some of the tactics buried inside of our practice include things like, when defining white body supremacy culture—to borrow a term from Resmaa Menakem—it doesn’t always have to be me—a Black woman—saying that definition. Sometimes having a white or male co-facilitator saying the same information goes a long way. Hate it or love it, it is what it is.

Also, people sometimes hear something very differently than what you think you’ve communicated. A key practice I’ve used over and over again is to ask clarifying questions, not just in terms of what a participant said, but also to clarify that what I’ve just said has been heard. Then, I give people the time and the space, even if it’s slightly awkward, to process the question and the conversation in real time.

That’s why it’s important to understand that the approach to anti-racism is to develop a practice.

Amelia: I feel like Zoom can actually help with that sometimes, especially with the chat function. People who are visual learners can process better when seeing a written question or prompt for reflection. There are obviously pros and cons of using Zoom for this work, but for a lot of people it seems the security of being in their own space to confront these questions leads to more honesty, more vulnerability, and more fertile reflection. You’re not in the room with whomever you might not be able to be so open in front of in an in-person context.

Lauren: Also, we’ve had incidences where the angriest people in the room will follow up a month later, and the information has been absorbed after our sessions have ended. It’s amazing to see that happen, and it reinforces the idea that everyone has their own process and is on their own journey. It allows me to meet those challenges in session with some grace, since I know that this work is not in vain. We may not see or experience the fruit of our labor now; it could be a month from now, or even later. But the seed has been planted. That is our work.

Amelia: We’ve seen radical transformation! That keeps me going. To break it down for people who might not be familiar with our terminology, we are doing anti-racist work, which is assuming a context of white body supremacy culture, yet it’s not just about race. The collective liberation we are steering organizations towards is not about “diversity and inclusion” and filling a quota of how many global majority people you’ve hired at your organization. That is something that can take people a while to understand. Can you talk about why you feel like it’s worth using these definitions and these terms that might not be the easiest for people to grasp?

Lauren: I think it comes back to naming things for what they are, especially when it comes to the characteristics of a culture that’s ruled by white body supremacy. Those characteristics—such as paternalism, perfectionism, individualism, or any of those referenced in Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun's Dismantling Racism Works Web Workbook—tend to have implications that impact a multitude of identities, some of which are not only racial identities. Understanding how white body supremacy is connected to harm across multiple identities helps us to diagnose the entire patient, and not doing that is like only treating someone’s foot when they come in suffering from diabetes.

It actually has nothing to do with what’s in your heart and your head. We’re talking about structural, systemic things.

This philosophy of naming things for what they are also ties in directly to my analysis that white supremacy culture is “da muva.” Patriarchy and phobias and isms come from it, but white supremacy culture is the mother. I love to draw that visual for people so they can start to understand how this is all interconnected. This analysis affirms that any changes that need to be made have to be structural. Anti-racism work can’t just rest in the personal. We hear all the time, “I don’t feel like that. I’m not racist, so therefore these larger systemic issues can’t possibly be real. In my individual experience, I don’t know anyone who feels that way, so it can’t be true…” It actually has nothing to do with what’s in your heart and your head. We’re talking about structural, systemic things. That visual of an interconnected web, and the idea we’re treating the entire patient, helps people to understand that.

There’s also this unwillingness to understand, which is a place where I find myself losing patience. Some of the tactics of the unwilling are blatantly clear in session. It actually doesn’t matter what analogies you draw for people if there is an unwillingness to see or hear or think about what you’re offering in the moment. As much as I want us to find different ways to connect with different types of thinkers around what we’re presenting, I have an analogy limit. At this point, I’m comfortable with saying, “You just don’t get it right now, and that’s fine.” I’m not going to continue to do the labor of drawing comparisons and analysis when there are people who are being significantly harmed at the other end of all this. While I’m over here placating the unwilling to no end, there are people asking, “What happens if this macro-aggression I’m encountering at work costs me my job or my safety?” Inherently, I think we all understand that. No matter what words we use, there’s real danger here, and people’s lives are at stake.

Amelia: It’s just another distraction tactic, this defensiveness or unwillingness to accept reality as it is. We’ve felt the challenge that situation can present, when there are more people in the Zoom room who are unwilling than willing to get on board. But I also think that something that sets us apart as a facilitation service is that we are working at a policies and practices level, whereas other anti-racist trainings I’ve attended sometimes approach the material from a more personal angle.

Lauren: And lord knows we need it all! The personal transformation and the institutional transformation—we have to be hitting this at multiple levels. Each thing informs the next thing; it really is a web. I love tracing back the modalities for this facilitation. There’s a real living history attached to how people are doing things, and why, and how that connects to our work.

Amelia: There’s so much overlap with theatre person skills, too, even if a company is not as community-centered as No Dream Deferred. Producers are used to creating these containers, and directors are used to fielding everybody’s processes and being that central guiding force. It’s a huge and precious responsibility to be a facilitator, and I admire No Dream Deferred’s stewardship of that role. It’s a specific challenge.

Lauren: Facilitation is an interesting thing to step into because you’re becoming accountable for creating a space, but you don’t necessarily have to claim expertise in the topic filling the space. I think thoughtfulness and intentionality are the two top characteristics of someone who facilitates. No detail in planning is wasted, and you are able to let go of any desired predetermined outcome.

Amelia: We say transparently all the time that we have no predetermined outcome for this organization, and that’s definitely one of those things people don’t always hear. EJIC is creating a space for change to happen in, but we don’t know what that change will be.

Lauren: We don’t know what’s going to happen! Nor do we have a goal that we’re trying to work you towards. The only goal we have for ourselves is an inherent belief that if the container can be built, institutional change can happen.

We are claiming a narrative that says we actually don’t have time or privilege to not be doing the work that is most relevant to our collective liberation.

Amelia: You’ve spoken about how you feel like all of No Dream Deferred’s work is facilitation work. Could you elaborate?

Lauren: I think theatre trains folks to facilitate. By facilitate I mean create an optimal space or condition for people to collaborate. Do we always live up to that? Absolutely not. But ultimately, that is what our jobs are. Whether you’re facilitating a space within your own body as a vessel, in a physical space within a theatre, or the financial resources so the art can be made and artists can be paid, our field is inherently learning some of the best skills around facilitation.

No Dream Deferred’s mission isn’t to do the work that interests me or other members of artistic leadership. It is to create a space that says, “Let’s do it!” when Black and Brown community members say, “I always wanted to do XYZ.” No dream being deferred. Our goal is to facilitate the birthing of dreams that people thought were never going to be realized because they didn’t have access to resources. We are the vehicle. Because of that, our goals look different, and our understanding of what partnership looks and feels like is a lot different.

For so long, the narrative has been that social justice art is not as good as art that’s for art’s sake, as if there’s something corny or not quite artistically satisfying about it. We are claiming a narrative that says we actually don’t have time or privilege to not be doing the work that is most relevant to our collective liberation.

Amelia: For organizations that are interested in learning from EJIC and No Dream Deferred, do we have any advice or first steps other than signing up to work with us?

Lauren: In the spring, we had a free facilitator training for anyone who’s interested in facilitating—not just with us, but in general—and we’ll be offering another one next spring.

But ultimately, I think it’s about innovating and thinking about cross-sector partnering. It’s about asking, “How am I serving? How is my organization and my skill set broader than this very specific, specialized process of theatremaking? How is it applicable to the shared vision of my community? What else can I do?” We’ve always thought about what we do in these terms because the people who make up this collective have never only been able to do one thing.

So much of my approach to theatremaking is informed by a Southern Black feminist organizing principle from leaders like Ella Baker, which is ingrained in me through my matriarchal lineage. Organizers and Black theatremakers in the South are doing the same thing! No Dream Deferred never had to think about what skills we already possess, and I realize other folks do have to think about it. I think that’s probably going to be happening now more than ever as we go into this second iteration of the pandemic where people are having to look outside of theatre and manage how they feel about that.

Amelia: I’m grateful to No Dream Deferred for so nimbly making that shift last year by getting EJIC up and running in a virtual format. It fills a real need, as we have seen from the demand from people who wanted to work with us. For all the artists whose industries-as-usual don’t exist right now, we still have skills, we are still competent people, and we still have a vision and a desire to be connected to our communities and to affect change. I deeply admire your creativity in creating opportunities and recognizing the untapped potential that was sitting, isolating at home.

Lauren: You and the other facilitators who came on board—Alejandra Cisneros, Jon Green, Jessica Lozano, Ann McQueen, Tiffany Vega-Gibson, Bernardo Wade, Gabrielle Alicino, Jamie Berry—have all helped to shape how we do this work. The process has been created by us for us to lead. It was important that there wasn’t a cookie-cutter process put upon us, but instead one we could test out and make sure worked for us. It’s also important to understand that, even through adaptation, you can still claim you’re an artist. I think about all of the breweries that switched to making hand sanitizer at the top of the pandemic, and I don’t now think of them as hand sanitizer factories. They adapted to what the needs were and how they could best serve. The question is, how can I serve as an asset to my community in this moment?

Amelia: And to that point, I love that sometimes we’ll throw in something very silly and fun, like a “Name that TV Theme Song” game, in the middle of talking about anti-racism. I’m energized by the joy, which is a guiding ethos of No Dream Deferred in general and EJIC specifically, and I know that’s a personal value for you as well.

Lauren: There are varying opinions on how joy should or should not be a value in this work, but I’m never not going to claim it for myself. Joy is not the same thing as being toxically positive, or even happy. For me, it is faith that we will—I will—be able to overcome the challenges of now. I can already see myself enjoying what comes after this moment, and I’m choosing to celebrate in advance. Even through challenging moments, I can see it already. And that’s joy to me. If I enter into a situation and joy is nowhere to be found, that means I can’t see us on the other side, and I need to step away.

Amelia: I deeply appreciate that joy as part of our working model because this work is slow. We deal with managing people’s expectations of what is possible and how much is going to be accomplished in a given period of time. That can swing in both directions, with people expecting too much or expecting nothing will change and holding fiercely onto what exists. Having joy as the through line, in my opinion, is the best way to do it. This is lifelong work, and nothing is going to happen overnight, so I feel you may as well come back to joy.

Lauren: You may as well! It’s a visioning issue. If I can’t see us on the other side of this conversation, then there’s no hope. That is ultimately what we’re saying.

Amelia: Right, and then why are we even talking about this?

Lauren: Why are we doing this? Hopelessness is a place I refuse to sit in. I don’t want to be in that. And I don’t have to be. I’m leveraging my power for change and our work to invite more and more people to do the same.

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