How Do We Hold Arts Leaders Accountable Towards Equitable Change?

Image for post
Image for post
Free Bi-lingual Self Empowerment Workshop for Local Latinx Youth

Dear Sonoma, my Transcendence Family, and the Larger Arts Community:

It is with a heavy heart that I share news of my resignation as the Director of Education and Community Engagement at Transcendence Theatre Company. I want to first say that I am incredibly grateful to the Sonoma community for the love and support you have shown me. You have championed and trusted me and my team to collaborate alongside you to create arts education programming that focused on equitable access for underserved communities. In my tenure at Transcendence, the Education Department has grown to serve over 13,000 young people.

While a difficult decision to make, my reason for leaving is in direct response to the Transcendence Executive Team’s ongoing suppression of equity, diversity, and inclusion practices and inaction toward becoming an equitable theater. They created a hostile work environment where I could no longer be successful in serving all of our diverse communities.

I am sharing my experience with you all from a place of love for the Sonoma community. This is not a call out but a call in to the conversation and necessary work needed to truly serve all who call Sonoma home. It is my hope that Transcendence (TTC) and its leaders can live up to a higher standard of inclusivity moving forward.

What I Experienced

For over two+ years I have endured the continued suppression of my efforts toward equity and diversity work within Transcendence. In 2018, I entered this Predominantly White Institution (PWI) in a Director level position after having worked in several contracted positions for the organization beforehand. With an understanding of TTC’s structure and the work necessary to fully realize their mission, I negotiated hiring terms. If I was hired, the Executive Team would support Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (E.D.I.) training as a means to equip the staff with resources to serve ALL the diverse communities within Sonoma. However, after several months of submitting multiple E.D.I. training proposals and excessive back and forth communication with the Executive Team, they did not fulfill their agreement. In response to my repeated efforts, I received emails from the Executive Director stating, “I know this is in your contract but timing might not be best right now,” (10/03/18) and “it challenges us financially on different levels” (2/7/2020).

Through the years, I grappled with the disconnect between the “Theater For All” mantra professed by the Artistic Director and the lack of action supporting these words. I repeatedly observed the lack of attendance by the Executive Team to performances, workshops, and events centering our communities of color. These pivotal events were created by the Education Department at TTC to welcome new communities into the fabric of our organization. They included youth and adult performances, workshops and speaker events at our local Latino Social Services Organization, five weeks of Mobile Unit workshops (free arts workshops for underserved youth), and in-person school programming. All were unattended by TTC’s current Executive Team. Lack of presence and interest in these events which center our communities of color is representative of the Executive Team’s priorities and the value they place in welcoming diverse audiences into Transcendence.

Furthermore, the Artistic Director has been consistently disengaged from Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion conversations and planning over my two+ years pursuing this work. When pressed on issues of E.D.I. in relation to artistic programming, the Artistic Director projects blame/responsibility onto BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) artists and communities — faulting them for their lack of representation at TTC. For example, in relation to casting, she has repeatedly made comments that Transcendence offers “African American” actors contracts but they are all working or uninterested. In a seemingly passive comment that is made with a jest and a quick laugh, she dispels a harmful narrative that presents an exclusive culture while removing culpability in supporting a system of oppression.

Due to the lack of E.D.I. implementation, within my time, I experienced several racialized instances with major donors in which there was no process to protect myself or allow the staff to facilitate conversation/change. For example, after I gave a presentation in one committee meeting, a donor divulged — without shame — that he did not want to allow his funds to be used for Latinx youth. Because there are no processes in place to report racialized encounters at Transcendence, I was forced to respond and engage in that conversation without support from the Executive Team, or board/committee members in the room. I later confided in the Executive Director that a violation had occurred — he dismissed it. Shortly after the meeting, I was approached by a committee member who had observed the incident, confirmed that it had happened before, and suggested that I just ignore it. There was no follow up from any of the TTC leadership present and that person is still an active donor at Transcendence.

As a result of heightened racial tensions this past summer and as a last attempt to implement E.D.I. training, I co-created a three phase E.D.I. initiative that was set for implementation this past fall. The current Managing Director advised me to position our initiative as a financial incentive as E.D.I. statements had recently become required by state and county granting organizations. He instructed that this would incentivize buy-in from the Executive Director. In response to that approach, the Executive Director approved the initiative.

My co-creator and I began working and almost immediately were met with continuous road blocks from the Executive Team. However, as we entered the approved data collection phase, the Executive Director viewed a meeting on my calendar with a veteran TTC artist to explain our new E.D.I. initiative. In response (and without my consent or knowledge at the time) he logged into my email account and read through my emails. After this final breach of trust and suppression of my efforts to bring equity and inclusion to TTC, I sought outside counsel and delivered a prepared statement to the Executive Team (10/15/2020) detailing the suppressive events of the past two+ years. In the months following this meeting, I faced gaslighting, discrediting, and the deliberate exclusion from senior leader communication. These tactics, used by the Executive Leadership Team, created a hostile work environment for me which halted all hope for successful collaboration.

In a last attempt at reconciliation, I requested a private conversation with the Executive Director (11/19/2020). My goal was to forge a healthy path forward by first understanding why I was being met with such resistance and fear. When I posed this question to the Executive Director, he explicitly assured me that he was not acting out of fear, because he and his wife (the Artistic Director) have designed the organization specifically so that they could never be fired.

With no fear of board accountability and an HR reporting system that leads directly back to the Executive Director — I finally accepted that I could no longer hold the Executive Team accountable towards equitable change from within the organization.

Words vs. Actions

On June 4th, 2020, in response to the heightened racial tension over the summer, Transcendence released a public newsletter and social post stating: “This is our commitment today, as Transcendence Theatre Company was founded on the concept of “arts as acts of service” and we are committed to ‘service’ not simply as a word we use, but a value we practice. Please hold us accountable as we are actively listening, learning and consciously taking action, to become a catalyst for change toward a more equitable and just world.”

It has now been eight months since this commitment was made and 2.5 years since I was contractually promised action toward company-wide equity training. As of this month, Transcendence’s staff has only been offered one E.D.I. conversation and no formalized approach for organizational changes in culture or policy regarding this subject.

Transcendence’s executive team is known for being able to inspire with their words. In order for us to be able to measure equitable change, we must distance ourselves from the promise of their words and look directly at actions and outcomes. Regardless of intent, Transcendence creates artistic programming that provides privilege to those who already have it. Their attempts at diversity in staffing, casting, and programming can only be described as tokenism. In reflection, it is clear that “theatre for all” and “arts as acts of service” are simply phrases they profess and not values they practice.

In the newsletter mentioned above, they asked us to hold them accountable as they move “toward a more equitable and just world.” How will we honor their ask and help Transcendence be a catalyst for positive change? As Transcendence leaders re-examine their commitment to this community, how will we hold them accountable in becoming an organization that is a safe place for BIPOC artists and administrators to work and an artistic home for all of Sonoma’s diverse populations?

Our Path Forward

My experience is not singular. It is occurring in abundance across our county and nation. My hope in sharing my story is that we can collectively brainstorm and create successful systems of accountability for our community organizations. Once created, we can share what we’ve discovered as a resource to other communities as they lead their organizations toward necessary change.

For those of you who are currently in or have endured a similar experience — I see you, and please hear me: you deserve leaders that will joyfully stand beside you and support you as you run towards creating a more equitable and just community for all. You deserve that and nothing less. I invite you to share your story in the hope that it will illuminate a path towards a better world.

To the Sonoma community, I offer that equitable and anti-racist practices are acts of LOVE for people who are not shown love through privilege. We must run towards implementing these changes motivated by our love of these communities.

So in closing, I ask: How do we individually and collectively hold this organization’s leaders and others like them accountable towards equitable change?

With BIG Love,

Nikko

Joy centered. Creative. Collaborator. Maker of Things. Producer. Teacher. Director. Strategic problem-solver. Systems of Success Designer. Artist. Leader.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store