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Creating a Platform for BIPOC, Deaf, and Hard-of-Hearing Artists

With Michelle Banks of Visionaries of the Creative Arts

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Yura Sapi: Imanalla mashikuna. Imanallatak kanki. Hello, friends. How are you? Welcome back to season two of the Building Our Own Tables podcast. I’m your host, Yura Sapi, recording from Embera native lands on the Afro-Indigenous Pacific coast of Columbia in Nuquí, Chocó in the Gulf of Tribugá. The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, and by Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion and justice through the arts by creating liberated spaces that uplift, heal and encourage us to change the world.

I’m interviewing Black, Native, Asian, and other founders of color to find transformative solutions and ways of working together that are not replicating the same white supremacy culture we wanted to get away from in predominantly white institutions. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from Black, Native, Asian, and other people of the global majority who have created arts organizations, movements, initiatives, practices, and beyond that are changing the game, making new things happen within, and building their own tables instead of focusing on getting a seat at existing white and Eurocentric ones. Or even something beyond the table. We’re learning from incredible arts organizing visionaries on their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they’ve overcome.

In today’s episode, I’m interviewing Michelle Banks, founder of the Visionaries of the Creative Arts, or VOCA, which is a one-of-a-kind and newly formed nonprofit organization founded in July 2019 based out of Washington, DC, that responds to the critical needs of Deaf and hard-of-hearing artists who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color to collectively create, collaborate, and showcase their culturally distinct work through a range of performing arts genres, including theatre, dance, poetry, film, and storytelling using American Sign Language. The Deaf and hard-of-hearing BIPOC community and its artists have been overlooked and underrepresented in the mainstream and Deaf culture, a form of social injustice that VOCA stands to redress.

Michelle A. Banks is an award-winning actress, writer, director, producer, motivational speaker, and teacher. She has taught Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing children K-12 for over thirty years in performing arts and American Sign Language. She’s the former artistic director of Onyx Theatre company for over eleven years in New York City.

Welcome. Hello. Welcome to the Building Our Own Tables podcast, here with Michelle Banks of Visionaries of Creative Arts or VOCA. And I’m really excited to talk to you, Michelle. Would love to give you a moment to tell us more about yourself and about VOCA, about its origin story. How did the idea come about? What were your first steps? What do you envision as the end results of your work?

Michelle Banks: Absolutely. First, thank you Yura for that warm welcome and the invitation to be here today to chat with you regarding VOCA. As you know, I am a Black, Deaf woman and my involvement in the entertainment business has been difficult. I don’t want to describe it as difficult, but it has been a challenging journey for me as an artist. However, being born and raised in Washington, DC, I always knew that I would be heavily involved in theatre or the arts. And my goal was to make this happen when I reached adulthood. That was always a constant goal, and that journey started right here in Washington, DC.

While attending a Deaf school, I was a member of a theatre troupe. Much later, I made a decision to attend the State University of New York at Purchase. I graduated with a BA degree in fine arts, or drama. At that point, I realized the Black Deaf community needed more opportunities. And Onyx Theatre company was founded in New York in the early nineties. And things were going on just great for the next, what, about eleven years. And then after eleven years, I was burned out and just needed to pursue some of my own personal goals in life. So I decided to leave New York and head for Los Angeles, California.

While there I was involved with the Deaf West Theatre, other productions, other TV shows, and independent films. That is also where I became pregnant with my son. I then made the decision to move back to Washington, DC, because it was my hometown. Of course, I had no plans of staying in Washington DC, but somehow fourteen years later I’m still here.

I think you asked me how VOCA was formed. There was a production I directed called A Raisin in the Sun, and I directed it at one of the high schools in DC. No, no, no. Let me go back and restate that. First, let me say that that was the major reason why and how I ended up in DC. I was asked to direct the play in DC. From that it led to other opportunities, employment, acting gigs, and other directing opportunities. I ended up purchasing a house and staying and living there, close to my family. I had to ask myself, “What was the purpose? What am I doing here? Why am I here?”

So in 2018, Gallaudet University asked if I would direct a play, A Raisin in the Sun. That’s when I noticed all of these beautiful, amazing talents of BIPOC Deaf artists. Some of them were students at Gallaudet University. Others were staff members. I inquired as to where they had been with all this talent and skill. And that’s the moment I realized I had to do something.

That’s the time I spoke with my colleague, Nayte Paxton, who happened to be one of the voicers as well as the voice director for our Deaf cast. We both looked at each other and could not believe all the talent and skill that was right here in front of our eyes. Nayte and I wondered how could we assist them. We both looked at each other and VOCA was formed. We both thought we needed to do something. And that’s how VOCA was established, the Visionaries of the Creative Arts. All of the skill and talent was right here in front of our faces.

And before VOCA was founded, there was lack of support. They had minimal employment opportunities, minimal training opportunities. And Nayte and I—who both had years of training, knowledge, and experience in directing, producing, and acting—thought that this would be a remarkable way to utilize our expertise. Nayte is not Deaf. He’s hearing, but he’s a fluent signer. He has been involved in the Deaf community for thirty years. We both looked at each other and thought we must do something. So in 2019, VOCA was born.

At that time, things just blew up. However, it’s ironic that our production, A Raisin in the Sun—which we did on a professional level—had to be put on hold due to COVID. We were unable to continue the production. So Nayte and I contemplated on what could we do during this pandemic. We both didn’t want to just sit around and do nothing. So the idea came up for us to host a virtual panel discussion with BIPOC Deaf and hard-of-hearing artists. They could discuss oppression, oppressive behavior as it relates to the entertainment business. They could also discuss and address the concerns regarding how the majority culture and the Deaf community felt that they were inadequate in skill and talent.

We needed a venue to speak out upon it with our issues. It appeared that since the spread of Black Lives Matter, the death of George Floyd, and the political unrest that it related to social justice and racial inequities, we needed to do something.

We were able to pull together three different virtual panels that discussed social justice, racial inequities, and the entertainment business. We also needed to discuss the inequities to those in the disabled or disability communities. After the completion of the panel discussion, we decided to work on a virtual play, A Raisin in the Sun. And last December, we directed a sneak peek of that event. We brought only five cast members together to highlight the play. It was an overwhelming success.

VOCA was born out of what I viewed in the BIPOC Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. And it was started right here in my hometown. We saw the need to do something here in the DC, Maryland, and Virginia area. And look at what society thought was a marginalized community and show that we indeed had enormous amount of skill and talent. We wanted to uplift our community by providing additional leadership and guidance into what they aspire to be. Some wanted to be directors, actors, producers, and we would be there to guide and assist them as necessary. That’s how VOCA was formed.

Yura Sapi: Yeah. So this idea of being “community anchored,” which is a term from Lauren Turner, who was the founder of NOLA— No Dream Deferred, NOLA, in New Orleans. And I would love to hear more about how your organization is community anchored and how you work with the community, how you plan.

Michelle: Yes, absolutely. VOCA believes in community engagement, and VOCA was founded in Washington, DC, with a direct focus on DC, Maryland, and Virginia residents. Then of course, we will work on a national and international level. We do focus and work more closely with BIPOC, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing community members. Those who wish to showcase their expertise, skill, and talent, we provide a platform for them to perform and discuss various issues of interest that’s happening around our nation and the country.

We also include BIPOC, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing artists on panels in open dialogue on various topics of interest. And, on another note, we do have white allies who are supportive and want to assist with the change and movement necessary as it relates to social justice. We also are inclusive and diverse. Our white allies who wish to assist and be a part of this change are also welcomed. We also have white colleagues who are on our board. They work with us as allies in a partnership capacity. They realize and understand white privilege. However, they make no attempt to utilize their privilege to devalue, destroy, or tear down. They feel that they are there to uplift us, work together with us to achieve VOCA’s ultimate vision, mission, and goal.

We also work or practice the holistic authentic openness approach model. And with this particular model or approach, if someone feels uncomfortable in sharing their feelings regarding any topic or event that happens, this open dialogue approach allows us to visually articulate in an open and honest way feelings that needed to be addressed by the artist.

When discussing strategies, that can be quite organic. Let me think a minute. Let me see if I can come up with an example. We performed a short film called “We Wear the Mask,” and it was written by Paul Laurence Dunbar. His poem was perfect and in sync with what is happening in today’s world. We are currently experiencing COVID, Black Lives Matter, oppression caused by the majority race and systematic racism, which has been causing a lot of chaos across the country. What we did was pulled in about eighteen Deaf and hard-of-hearing BIPOC artists to express various parts of Dunbar’s work.

His work was characterized through American Sign Language, dance, body movement, the spoken word, the signed word. And this work by Dunbar makes a major impact into showing the cohesive unit of the group. It appeared to be a movement against systematic racism. People were able to crack the barrier, so to speak, and state; “Look at me, we have been wearing this mask for generations.” Slaves have come across during the middle passage. Can you imagine some of these things are still happening today? Slaves were forced to come here over three hundred or four hundred years ago, and Dunbar states,

What are we going to do about this? Take off the mask, watch us as we provide insight and expression regarding who we are, look at who we are. Look beyond our skin color, look beyond our sexual preferences. Look beyond who we are from the outside and look at us from the inside our soul to find out who we are.”

That is a strategy that we can utilize to get our messages across to others.

And after viewing that, people were blown away from our work portraying the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Folks cannot believe what we had done with his work. That was an additional way in which we showed our artistic abilities and work and utilizing our Black voice in American Sign Language.

Yes, I’m a co-founder and Nayte is the other co-founder. We founded VOCA together. However, I can only speak and add comments from my own personal experiences. As a co-founder, it was indeed a challenge. In the beginning, I had no idea as to how we should run VOCA. It’s been, what, two years now? I can recall our challenge was to ensure we attracted the right people to be on our team. We needed to have the right people who supported the vision, the mission, and the goal of VOCA.

How could we ensure that the right people would recognize and support what we wanted to do? Now that indeed was a challenge. However, with the support from the Deaf community, the BIPOC community, the white community, and others, we obtained all of their full support because they all recognized the need that we needed here in the DC metroplex.

Due to the support at the present time, we do not lack anything. Nothing is void. We have everything that we need. And, as a co-founder, my situation may be a bit different than other Deaf theatre companies out there. There is Deaf West Theatre in Los Angeles, California, the National Theatre of the Deaf in Connecticut. And guess what? The National Theatre of the Deaf I hear is moving to Washington, DC. I guess they’re moving here to be close to the VOCA, right? I’m just kidding. Yes. It is true that the National Theatre of the Deaf is indeed moving here to Washington, DC. There is another Deaf theatre company in Austin, Texas. It’s the Deaf Austin Theatre, I believe.

And when I looked at all of these theatre companies, they are indeed white-owned, except for another theatre company. It’s the Deaf Spotlight located in Seattle, Washington and run by a BIPOC person of Asian descent. But all the others are run by white males. And I should add they’re run by white Jewish males, as well as having white boards. Again, how are they to work with the BIPOC, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing community? They needed to work with us somehow.

They finally realized that they must work with us. Now, when I vlog, I tell folks, straight up, my thoughts and opinions on issues and concerns I have observed or noticed that shook up the Deaf theatre community. Now, all of a sudden, they want to work with us. All of a sudden, they want to know how to work with the BIPOC community. They say things like, “They needed to expand their pool of BIPOC actors.” Of course, my thoughts are, Why haven’t they done this earlier? Why now? Was this change due to the death of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter? I do think the change is welcomed. And I do realize that we’ve been doing... The beginning of COVID assisted them in beginning to unpack their own biases and prejudice.

And as a co-founder, I too had to do some unpacking of my own as a Black Deaf woman, I needed to represent myself well. And my challenge is now to go out and represent. There are several organizations that would like to work in partnership and collaborate with us and that’s a good thing. We are establishing partnerships in the community as well, and it’s extremely important to develop a rapport partnership in which we can work effectively together. I’ve learned that I am unable to complete anything in isolation, and in order to grow and flourish we must share ideas and have collaboration and partnerships with those who wish to partner and form collaborations with us.

Yura Sapi: Yes. It makes me think about this difference between a partnership and being tokenized or taken advantage of as a person of color or any marginalized community, as we see it, but especially thinking about Black, Indigenous, Asian people of color, and then also the intersectionality with also being Deaf or hard-of-hearing or disabled. And so, can you speak more about that? About this balance between almost accepting these “partnerships”—quote unquote, because they’re not really that, and it’s more of a tokenization or being taken advantage of with these predominantly white institutions versus doing our own thing, creating our own projects, building our own tables like this podcast is named. And so what has that balance been for you and what is your outlook looking towards the future?

Michelle: Yes, VOCA is definitely unique and one of a kind. There are a number of people who want to work with us. We had to ask them to provide us time and space so that we could develop ourselves first. We needed to see what we wanted and what we needed. We needed to look at how we could work together first with the BIPOC community. And then, upon completion of that assessment, we will be ready and able to partner with others.

What else can I add to this? We would show more of our own work and, by the way, we will be working on a particular project for the fall that deals with “-isms.” We will discuss terms like racism, ageism, feminism, ableism, and more, and we will discuss why are these labels being utilized? Why are we being labeled in the first place? BIPOC, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing individuals deal with these labels on a daily basis.

My question is, who created these -isms? I’m assuming the majority culture did, but I don’t know exactly. That will be the topic of discussion. Again, why are we being labeled? As you said, “What about intersectionality?” That must be taken into account as well. What we will do is we will pull together six actors who have had those specific, real-life experiences—for example, being oppressed or discriminated against—to speak on these topics. My goal is to utilize that creative space, to give, to allow, those six actors to create and provide their message in a way that others will listen and understand their plight. And the thing that I despise the most is when outside groups make the attempt to take over and gain control over something that was not requested of them, and my answer to them is, “Thank you very much. However, please allow us this opportunity to do our own thing, and then we can open it up to outsiders.”

At that time, we will be ready to collaborate in partnership with others. This concept is needed, which allows us to connect with others in a positive manner without them overstepping their boundaries. Our future goals are to expand VOCA and become a positive role model for others, one that will provide direct information. And from now on, I plan to always be open and honest with any information that needs to be stated. Do you understand what I mean?

A headshot of Michelle A. Banks against a galaxy backdrop with the logo for Building Our Own Tables to the left.

Michelle A. Banks of Visionaries of the Creative Arts.

Yura Sapi: Yes. You also mentioned this, maybe, principle that you live by, this idea of not lacking anything, nothing is void. Is that a principle that you live by? And can you tell us more about that?

Michelle: Let me speak a little bit about what I mean when I use the term “not lacking anything” or “never lacking.” We can look at another term, “an abundance of,” to understand what I mean. That’s a more appropriate term for what I’m trying to describe. VOCA now has talented and skilled personnel and actors. We, at this time, have all the resources we need and we’re not lacking anything. Other people will say that, “That’s a new organization. You need this. You need that. And you lack this.” I’m stating: At this time, we have an abundance of needed resources. We have the abundance of wise, experienced, and talented and skilled actors and personnel. Our team provides an abundance of information and resources to share if needed. So the term “to lack something” is not even in my vocabulary, even the term “to be deprived of something.” That word also is not in my vocabulary either.

Yura Sapi: Yes. I understand that so deeply, especially with Native Indigenous principles of gratitude and Thanksgiving address, and being able to start off the space and opening up spaces with gratitude and being grateful for— Honestly starting with nature, water, and fish and plants and plant medicines, and being able to start off conversations, or meetings, or any type of gathering or moment even for yourself, for oneself. It helps me feel super abundant and grateful going into the rest of the conversations. So yeah, I absolutely understand this idea of not lacking and never lacking. Always enough.

Michelle: Yes, absolutely. You’re right.

Yura Sapi: “Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address: Greetings to the Natural World.”

The People.

Today we have gathered and we see that the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duty to live in balance and harmony with each other and all living things. So now we bring our minds together as one as we give greetings and thanks to each other as people.

Now, our minds are one.

The Earth Mother.

We are thankful to our mother, the Earth, for she gives us all that we need for life. She supports our feet as we walk about upon her. It gives us joy that she continues to care for us as she has from the beginning of time. To our mother, we send greetings and thanks.

Now our minds are one.

The Waters.

We give thanks to all the waters of the world for quenching our thirst and providing us with strength. Water is life. We know its power in many forms, waterfalls and rain, mists and streams, rivers and oceans. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the spirit of water.

Now, our minds are one.

The Fish.

We turn our minds to all the fish life in water. They were instructed to cleanse and purify the water. They also give themselves to us as food. We are grateful that we can still find pure water. So we turn now to the fish and send our greetings and thanks.

Now, our minds are one.

The Plants.

Now we turn towards the vast fields of plant life. As far as the eye can see, the plants grow, working many wonders. They sustain many life forms. With our minds gathered together, we give thanks and look forward to seeing plant life for many generations to come.

Now, our minds are one.

The Food Plants.

With one mind, we turn to honor and thank all the food plants we harvest from the garden. Since the beginning of time the grains, vegetables, beans, and berries have helped the people survive. Many other living things draw strength from them too. We gather all the plant foods together as one and send them a greeting of thanks.

Now, our minds are one.

The Medicine Herbs.

Now we turn to all the medicine herbs of the world. From the beginning, they were instructed to take away sickness. They’re always waiting and ready to heal us. We are happy they are still among us, the special few who remember how to use these plants for healing. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to the medicines and to the keepers of the medicines.

Now, our minds are one.

The Animals.

We gather our minds together to send greetings and thanks to all the animal life in the world. There are so many things they have to teach us as people. We are honored by them when they give up their lives so that we may use their bodies as food for our people. We see them near our homes and in the deep forests. We are glad they are still here, and we hope that it will always be so.

Now, our minds are one.

The Trees.

We now turn our thoughts to the trees. The Earth has many families of trees who have their own instructions and uses. Some provide us with shelter and shade, others with fruit, beauty, and other useful things. Many people of the world use a tree as a symbol of peace and strength. With one mind, they greet and thank the tree life.

Now, our minds are one.

The Birds.

We put our minds together as one and thank all the birds who move and fly about over our heads. The creator gave them beautiful songs. Each day they remind us to enjoy and appreciate life. The eagle was chosen to be their leader. To all the birds, from smallest to largest, we send our joyful greetings and thanks.

Now, our minds are one.

The Four Winds.

We’re thankful to the powers we know as the four winds. We hear their voices in the moving air as they refresh us and purify the air we breathe. They help us bring the change of seasons from the four directions they come, bringing us messages and giving us strength. With one mind, we send our greetings and thanks to the four winds.

Now, our minds are one.

The Thunderers.

Now we turn to the West where our grandfathers, the thunder beings, live. With lightning and thundering voices, they bring with them the water that renews life. We are thankful that they keep those evil things made by Okwiseres underground. We bring our minds together as one to send greetings and thanks to our grandfathers, the thunderers.

Now, our minds are one.

The Sun.

We now send greetings and thanks to our eldest brother, the sun. Each day without fail, he travels the sky from East to West bringing the light of a new day. He is the source of all the fires of life. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our brother, the sun.

Now, our minds are one.

Grandmother Moon.

We put our minds together to give thanks to our oldest grandmother, the moon, who lights the nighttime sky. She is the leader of woman all over the world and she governs the movement of the ocean tides. By her changing face, we measure time and it is the moon who watches over the arrival of children here on Earth. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to our grandmother, the moon.

Now, our minds are one.

The Stars.

We give thanks to the stars who are spread across the sky like jewelry. We see them in the night helping the moon to light the darkness and bringing dew to the gardens and growing things. When we travel at night, they guide us home. With our minds gathered together as one, we send greetings and thanks to the stars.

Now, our minds are one.

The Enlightened Teachers.

We gather our minds to greet and thank the enlightened teachers who have come to help throughout the ages. When we forget how to live in harmony, they remind us of the way we were instructed to live as people. With one mind, we send greetings and thanks to these caring teachers.

Now, our minds are one.

The Creator.

Now we turn our thoughts to the creator, or great spirit, and send greetings and thanks for all the gifts of creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on this Mother Earth. For all the love that is still around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choices, words of greetings, and thanks to the creator.

Now, our minds are one.

Closing Words.

We have now arrived at the place where we end our words. Of all the things we have named, it was not our intention to leave anything out. If something was forgotten, we leave it to each individual to send greetings and thanks in their own way.

Now, our minds are one.

This translation of the Mohawk version of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address was developed, published in 1993, and provided courtesy of Six Nations Indian Museum and the Tracking Project.

You also mentioned your co-founder. And so I want to know more about that experience. What does it mean to share power? And do you think about power? Because this is something that I’ve learned as a founder, as a leader… Ultimately, I want to avoid hierarchy and I want to be inclusive and be decolonized in that way, in my leadership. But I also am living in a capitalistic society, especially working in a country like the United States and in the nonprofit realm and the for-profit realm and the ways they make you incorporate and have to work in certain, specific manners. So how do you work through that? How do you share power? How do you think about leadership and hierarchy and all of these things that might come into founding an organization?

Michelle: The main reason why Nayte and I agreed to be co-founders of VOCA was due to my past experience with running Onyx. Onyx was established in New York City during the early nineties. I was only twenty-two years old at the time and I didn’t have, well I did have enough support at that time. However, being a leader on a theatre company at the age of twenty-two was quite daunting. I was quite young and I promised myself I would never experience that again. I was done. In 2018, it just so happened I was speaking to Nayte and the idea to establish a theatre company arose. Again, I informed him that I would not and could not establish it alone. Now if you wanted to support me a hundred percent, that’ll be fine. I was all in. I was game. Nayte provided me a resounding yes, of course, and so we went for it and VOCA was born.

To be honest with you, I knew there was no way I could do it alone. Nonprofits are time-consuming and work intensive. Concerns over funding and establishing boards… Just an enormous amount of work. I enjoy and love working with Nayte. I’ve known him for over what, twenty, twenty-five years. We are comfortable working with each other. We just click.

Now back to the question, we do share the power, however, we both are aware that the theatre is a company that is Deaf centered. Even though Nate is not Deaf, he’s hearing, he is aware that we want the company to be Deaf centered. As a Deaf woman, I’m the lead, but we do work together on equal footing by sharing the power. Nate works alongside of me as we are, as I said, a Deaf centered theatre. We work well together and often I am working on a project or company-related business while he’s working on something else related to the company or a project. He does his thing and I do mine. So far, it’s worked beautifully. It’s crazy to think that one person can take care of all the ins and outs of a company. If they did, the person would be dead. So no thanks, I refuse to go through that experience again.

One additional thing I learned: that I needed to have several various perspectives on our business, the Deaf perspective as well as the non-Deaf—or what we call the hearing—perspective. I wanted and needed the community to understand that the Deaf and the non-Deaf, or the hearing, can indeed work together. The purpose of the company is to bridge the gap between the Deaf and the hearing communities by working together. We wanted to show this through examples of our work and show that we can work effectively together. Nayte and I are a perfect team.

Yura Sapi: Was there anything else you learned from your experience creating Onyx and through the eleven years that, now at VOCA, you’re making sure to do differently or do the same or implement?

Michelle: Yes, yes, yes. I— One thing I learned to do is to delegate. There were so many things that were difficult for me just to let go, but I did. If there’s a person who has talent and skill in a specific area, I can let that person take the reins and know that everything will be all right and the work will be completed. That’s one thing I had to learn, to allow people who possess the skills to run the part that they are skilled in doing. People want to be a part of the team, that was something I needed to accept. So, formally, I thought I could do it all, but guess what? Wrong. I can’t and I couldn’t.

The only thing that is needed is to ensure that we have a team or a group of people who clearly understand the vision, mission, and goal. We must trust the team to get the job completed. To be perfectly honest with you, I think that I had trust issues. Now I have improved. Now with my eyes closed and not saying a word, hoping everything comes out successful and it usually does.

Yura Sapi: Yes, that reminds me of the white characteristics of white supremacy culture, our cultural story that we make it on our own without help while pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps is a toxic denial of our essential interdependence and the reality that we are all in this literally together. And so just hearing you talk about this learning that you had and that you’re now putting into place, kind of reflecting the antidote to individualism and that actually it’s part of our anti-racism and our liberation to be not falling into this idea that we have to do it on our own. And yeah, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that American dream… That’s actually super toxic and individualistic, selfish I would say, in terms of how we’re thinking about being in right relation with others, community, the Earth.

Michelle: We as Deaf people have to look at the mainstream culture and understand their principles are not the principles we follow as a BIPOC, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing community. I had to look within myself and decide what type of leader I am or wanted to be. I needed to become a transformative or transformational leader to make change and adaptations when needed. I needed to look at changes that we may need within our own BIPOC, Deaf, and hard-of-hearing community. We need to look at our own language and experiences. Again, I had to decide what type of leader I wanted to be. How would I lead this organization? I wanted to ensure I lead in a positive light or a positive way.

From that, a number of people stated that they would like to be a part of that change. Of course there were those who agreed with the transformation and others who did not want to be a part of the change, and that was fine with us. One needs to focus on the people and the community that supports us, our vision, our goal, and our mission, and that is exactly what we did.

Yura Sapi: Amazing. I have to let you go soon, but there are so many more questions I could ask and I would love to be able to talk with you all day. But for the final question I have for you here: I would love to know if you have any final tips or one final tip that you might give to viewers, listeners, people who are reading the transcript, maybe folks who are thinking about starting their own organizations. Any advice you would give?

Michelle: Of course, yes. For those who have a vision, always remember to write down every single detail. Whatever you want to come to fruition, write it down. Write how you want to execute your plan. Write your plan. View it daily. Post it on the wall or even make a vision board. The key is to look at it on a daily basis. As you complete your assignments or duties from the list, check them off or draw a line through the completed task. Check it daily to see what is the next task. Make a conscious effort to complete your steps until you have reached your goal. Write down.

I personally write down the information, for my organization, for events in my personal life as well. Again, write down your goals on a step-by-step basis. We often have so much information stored in our brain that we forget. We have to put it all down so we can view it. And when we view it, it causes us to take action.

Yura Sapi: Yes, I have heard about these studies that show that if you write things down, you remember them more and they happen more. You’re manifesting things. So I’m here with you as a fellow visionary, envisioning the future and manifesting it to existence. So yeah, thank you so much. Let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to share with us to close.

Michelle: Thank you, Yura, for having me, and thank you, Jackie, for interpreting.

Yura Sapi: This has been another episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast. I’m your host and producer, Yura Sapi. Our editor is Daniel Umali. Original music by Blackos the Producer and Julian Var. ASL interpretation by Jackie Bruce. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of the series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search “HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts” and subscribe to receive new episodes.

If you love this podcast, donate to support future episodes at AdvancingArtsForward.org. You can also post a rating and/or write a review on those platforms to help other people find us. There is a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content available on HowlRound.com.

Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit HowlRound.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

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Thoughts from the curator

I hear talk about wanting for racially diverse populations to “get a seat at the table” or “bringing chairs to the table for POC,” meaning that we want our people to have a position at existing organizations and institutions with decision making power. For me, a few years ago, I decided to not focus on infiltrating existing organizations, but rather start my own. I know I’m not alone. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from BIPOC founders of various organizations in and related to the theatre industry changing the game, making new things happen within, and expanding beyond white and euro-centric experiences. We will learn from these incredible visionaries who have created their own tables of arts institutions, movements, collectives, initiatives, and more. We learn about their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome. This is an outside-the-classroom leadership learning from folks who are doing the things.

Building Our Own Tables


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