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Acknowledging and Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace

I was introduced to the document “White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace” at the 2016 Theatre Communications Group (TCG) annual conference in Washington, DC.  The document, I learned, is being used as a foundation for the equity, diversity, and inclusion work TCG is conducting.  Throughout this post when I refer to “white supremacy culture” it is through the lens of this document.

My first response upon reading the document was shock.  Not only did every item listed in the document show up in the way we conducted business at our organization, they were embedded in the DNA of how we function.  My next response was rationalization: “why would we not strive for perfection?”, “of course there is a sense of urgency, we have to move fast, there is so much to do!”  

I was deeply concerned about how our modus operandi was so perfectly aligned with the document and deeply uneasy and unsure about how to even begin the conversation internally.  So, I put the document, my concern, and my uneasiness aside…for a year.  I completely recognize the privilege inherent in my ability to put it aside for a year.  But, that is what I did.

My reintroduction came at the 2017 TCG annual conference in Portland.  I saw a session called “White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace and How to Dismantle It” in the schedule and committed to attending.  The organizers provided the link to the document in the session overview and I read it again.

The session was pragmatic and effective, using facilitator and attendee experiences as case studies and discussing ways to address each situation.  I felt the urgency and necessity of tackling these issues and also the enormity of the problem…there is a reason they call it systemic racism.  It isn’t necessarily racially biased hiring practices, it is how we do or do not allow other voices a true place at the table and true participation in decisions.

I reached out to Tirzah Tyler, one of the session’s facilitators, for help.  I expressed the shame and overwhelment I felt recognizing how deeply white supremacy culture was embedded in the culture of the organization I help lead.  Tirzah looked at me with compassion and a bit of surprise and said, “that is true of most organizations.”  This both soothed and depressed me.  Our organization wasn’t alone in shutting down dialogue through our very work practices, but we have a tremendous amount of work to do as an industry and a society.

I pushed the industry and society piece aside for the moment and focused on our organization.  How to start this conversation?  There was no quick fix, but we couldn’t make any progress if we didn’t start talking and acknowledging the problems.

First, I had to come to grips with my own issues with the phrase “white supremacy.”  That phrase evokes visions of hooded men with torches.  That’s not me.  That’s not our organization.  How could I go back to Virginia, distribute this document, and say to our predominantly white employees that we are perpetuating white supremacy culture in our organization?  Those are some loaded words right there.  How do we compassionately, yet unflinchingly, unpack the issues embedded in those words?  It took me a year to own this reality.  How to bring all our employees along this path more deliberately and quickly while not shocking/scaring/shaming them into not wanting to walk out onto the path in the first place?  How to best work through our white fragility?  We firmly believe Shakespeare’s work is for everyone; how do we cultivate a more mindful and inclusive culture that invites the diverse perspectives we welcome in the Playhouse?

I chose a side door.  Another 2017 TCG session mentioned the Harvard Implicit Bias Tests.  I thought if we could start getting our heads wrapped around bias in general we could make our way to dismantling white supremacy culture in our workplace.  I wanted to discuss the way we individually look at the world and how those perspectives could be coloring the way we interact and, therefore, limiting our ability to have true dialogue and  uncover the best ideas.  I’ve always loved self-examination and sociological imagination.  Learning how the my history affects my present actions; how the way I interface with the world affects the way people respond to me; bringing unconscious motivations to the light so that I can choose my approach and not let my assumptions control me.  I, naively as it turns out, believed everyone loves to do this.  I thought we could work through some of the tests and that those discussions would organically dovetail into an examination of our workplace culture and the “White Supremacy Culture…” document.

We have a full administrative staff meeting each month.  All full-time employees within our Finance, Marketing, Tour Operations, Education, Box Office, and Development departments attend.  I decided this was the easiest place to start.  After an overview of my experience at the TCG conference, I expressed my desire for a more self-aware and inclusive workplace.  I announced we would be working through the majority of the Implicit Bias Tests together and the group decided to start with the “Male/Female, Home/Career” test…it seemed the least fraught.  The consensus in the room was that we wanted to get more comfortable with the language around bias and how to talk about it before tackling the issues of racial bias.

This became much more complicated than I expected.  Turns out, not everyone approaches this stuff with the same enthusiasm I do, shocking, I know.  Some folks fundamentally don’t feel it is appropriate and/or useful to discuss these personal beliefs/perspectives in a work environment.  I could (and may) write a whole post about this process and how Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability is helping us, but that will have to wait.  I started to believe that it was going to take much longer to get to the topic of our workplace culture.  Then the rally and violence in Charlottesville happened.

I want to, and we will, continue to unpack and work through the issues coming to the surface within the administrative staff meetings.  However, knowing the horrifying events 40 minutes down the road from us were motivated by extreme belief in white supremacy, I could no longer allow my personal squeamishness with the phrase to keep us from talking about our corporate culture, not just with the administrative staff, but with the whole company.  

We’ve wanted to establish quarterly full-company meetings for some time.  Our touring troupe happens to be back in town for a couple of days in October.  With the support of our co-founder and Director of Mission and our Associate Artistic Director, we are using this opportunity to start the conversation.

I don’t know how it is going to go.  The Implicit Bias Test process has driven home the fact that there are as many reactions and approaches to this work as there are people in the room.  It won’t be easy.  It will be uncomfortable at times (often).  It will take a lot of trust from every single person in the company.  But, this work is no longer optional, it is essential to our ability to be the best organization we can  be.

We are experiencing one of Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping points.”  This isn’t just about history or statues or names on buildings; we have to look deeper.  It is about how we interact as individuals; how we run our organizations; how we welcome, value, and embrace other perspectives; how we allow those perspectives to inform and change our own; how we become better because of those changes; better people, better organizations, a better society.  These are not “them” issues, these are “us” issues.  It is time to take responsibility and make changes.

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Posted by on September 6, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Retreating, Year 2: the rhythm of solitude

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Glenn Falls, NC

This week, my second annual personal retreat, has been one of contemplation and discovery. I discovered it only took me one full day to let go of the need to check for texts and phone calls were consider  opening my email (vast improvement over last year).  By Tuesday morning I (mostly) let go of the outside world. Which was handy because the rain kept me inside with my books and notebooks all day.

I brought a number of books with me this year. I started the trip listening to the audiobook of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods in the car. After five hours I’d lost count of the number of women he described as “fat “or “stupid “or both. That not being the energy I wanted for this week, I turned it off.

The book I keep coming back to this trip is May Sarton’s Journal of a Solitude.  It has been a decade or more since I read it last. The timing is fortuitous. Being alone for four days (not counting travel days) in a row doesn’t come often, this is the second time in my life, last year’s retreat being the first. This year was very different, however. First, I am healthy.  The stomach bug last year inhibited my ability to enjoy my solitude in the beginning.  Second, I was not prepping for a finance committee meeting immediately upon my return (learned my lesson there!).  The end result is that I’ve had for full days with no one in my living space but me and no priorities outside myself. For the first time in my adult life, I found a new rhythm. Thanks to May Sarton, I’m calling at the rhythm of my solitude.

It is a gentle book that sits under my skin with surprising revelations. It is also a very different book for me now. I believe my son had just been born when I read it the first time. Now, married for 15 years with two children (10 & 12), Sarton’s contemplation of the vastly different path for a woman as an artist when she chooses a married or solitary life strikes particular chords. Can one still be an artist and have a family? If so, how?

The frame in which she writes also hits the ear differently today. This journal was written in the early 70s, against the backdrop of Nixon’s presidency and Women’s Lib. Sarton quotes women writing to her saying that they envy her solitude, her space. She quite rightly states that women are not simply seeking a room of one’s own, but time of one’s own. Without time, the room isn’t much good to us…indeed, it mocks us.

When reading Sarton’s book, I can’t help but think of my dear friend Heather. She, like Sarton, is a poet and she, like Sarton, has chosen a solitary life. In the past couple of years, Heather has reinvested herself into her poetry and it is beautiful to watch. Is this renewed artistry a direct outcome of her choice to bring her marriage to a close? Is it the demands of our families/spouses that keep us from our art, or our assumption that they are mutually exclusive?

I am not a poet. I love to write, but as you see here, I can barely get a blog post written more than a couple of times a year. I do subscribe to Seth Godin’s premise that we can all create art at work, regardless of the type of work we do and I see that in my own life. When we are at our best there is an art to the marketing, the budgeting, the inspiring of donors. I love that. I particularly love that at the ASC. My work fulfills me in so many ways, which is why  you will often hear me say this is my last job. Is that enough?

I am happy in my marriage. I love my husband dearly, we’ and we have fun together. I adore the blessing of participating in my children’s lives; I even suspect we will survive puberty which is currently knocking at the door. Is that enough?

Must we always want more? More love, more space, more art, more solitude, more togetherness, more joy, more time, more contemplation?

I appreciate may Sarton’s steadfast, yet gentle, refusal to be the archetype by which others try to define her. The “man on the hill,” as she says. Separate, above it all, detached from passion. How can anyone truly live detached from passion, especially a poet? She created and lived the life that suited her, whether it fit a preconceived model or not.

We’ve come a long way from the assumption that women abdicate their jobs and/or personal drives when they get married. However, I don’t think we’ve solved the puzzle. Perhaps because we keep looking at the same models and trying to tweak them here and there. What would happen if we threw out all our assumptions and each person/group or family looked at their own lives and loves and art and created a model that works for them? Would we end up in the same place? Can we truly throw out our assumptions? It would take putting our personal and communal joy outfront and that is a scary proposition.

What I know is that this week I found a new rhythm. I guess the next step is to see how I can flow back and forth between the rhythms of my relationships and the rhythm of my solitude. I need both; I think we all do.

 
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Posted by on March 10, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

Hire for Human Connection: Lessons from Trader Joe’s

Trader JoesI recently read this post about one woman’s emotional connection to the guys who work at Trader Joe’s.  Yes, the end made me cry, but the piece also reminded me of all the reasons I love Trader Joe’s.  Sure, they have good gluten-free spaghetti for 80% less than Kroger, but it is more than that.  Much more.  As the author of that post highlights, every time I walk into a Trader Joe’s I feel seen.  I feel like I am a human being recognized by other human beings.  I feel like I’m welcomed and appreciated and acknowledged.  All of this simply from eye contact, a smile, and a hello?  Yep, that’s the magic of Trader Joe’s.

I can’t say that I get that same feeling when I walk into most theatre lobbies and offices.  Why is that?  What does Trader Joe’s have that our theatres don’t?  They are just as busy (or more so) as we are but they create a completely different atmosphere.

I went to the source: a friend who works at my customer service Mecca.  I asked, “What is it?  How do they train you?  What materials do they give you?  How do you create this amazing environment in what could just be a crowded grocery store?”

His answer?  “It is really about the hiring process.”

Really?  Just hiring?  No sample scripts?  No role playing?  No complicated brainwashing?

Really.  They put the most energy into what Jim Collins calls “getting the right people in the right seats on the bus.”  Each potential hire is interviewed by 3 or 4 people.  They are looking for innate qualities of kindness and human connection, not lines on a resume.  They don’t do much training at all.  As my friend said, “it is hard to teach someone to be warm and friendly.”  The fit is the thing.

I’ve read that so many times over the years but too often we hire for one of three reasons:

  1. They are our friends
  2. They are the person available and we don’t want a hole in the organization
  3. They have tactical experience, regardless of “soft” skills

Not everyone is the right fit for every organization and it takes discipline to hire for fit and not for “we think they can do the job.”  It takes fortitude (and everyone pitching in) to keep a position open until you find that right person.  And it takes courage to make a change if you make the wrong hire.  But, just as with the good-to-great companies in Jim Collins’ book, that is the essential first step to becoming a great organization.  You can have the clearest vision for the company possible, but if you don’t have the right people in the right seats, you aren’t going to achieve that vision.  Compromising on who you hire is the first step to mediocrity.

We also need to work on the other thing my friend mentioned about Trader Joe’s:  they take care of their people.  Yes, that means good pay, 401(k), vacation time, holidays off.  Even more than those, he says Management is encouraged to care for the “whole employee.”  They treat each other with as much respect and humanity as they treat their customers.

Theatres are (can be) community-building, inside and out.  The relationship that can form betwixt and between audience members and artists is beautiful.  What Trader Joe’s shows us is that this human connection isn’t the sole purview of the theatrical production.  We can build community from the very first contact of someone walking into the box office, the classroom, or the administrative offices.  We can build it among ourselves within our offices, conference rooms, and rehearsal halls.  In order to do that you have to bring your humanity to work and welcome the humanity of those who enter our potentially magical spaces.  Connection is a vital thing to our well-being.  Let’s not wait for the show to make that connection.  It starts with us.

 
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Posted by on October 28, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Choices: A response to Louis C.K.

This may seem off topic, but it has been on my mind and I want to write about it.

If you’ve spent any time on social media in the past week or so, you’ve probably seen this bit from Louis C.K. on why he hates smartphones.  A lot of my friends are posting (and reposting) it and I understand why.  Louis C.K. is witty and articulate and what he says is real.  If you look around you can see evidence that supports his argument.  

But, you know what?  We all have a choice of what we give our attention to.  Do you know what I see?  

I see the boys on my son’s peewee football team, on which he is one of four second-string players, helping, encouraging, and teaching him.  I see children at my kids’ school supporting each other as they figure out together how to deal with conflict.  I see colleagues at the ASC, friends at Rotary, and folks in the community reaching out and helping each other in tiny and enormous ways.  I see our theatre community sharing, communicating, and collaborating with each other in ways and on a scale that would have been unthinkable a dozen years ago.  This is all real too.

Have you noticed that when you are irritated more irritated people show up in your world?  Which reality do you want to promote?  What do you want more of in your life?  Recognize that you are making the choice.  If you want more disconnection, keep posting that video, keep telling that story.  I know what I want.  I choose joy.

 

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Posted by on September 25, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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Shakespeare, human communication, and Twitter

I’m at the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference (up until 5pm it was the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America, but now the organization is embracing the whole world).  Between the gorgeous mountains and the amazing minds congregating here, I am immensely inspired and, basically, on fire.

The first speaker today was Tina Packer, Founder of Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts.  Her talk was titled, “Where are we going?  What are we doing?”  It was a fascinating talk that wove together Shakespeare, psychology, rhetoric, neuroscience, and the philosophy behind the writing of the King James Bible.  I could write a multitude of posts on various topics inspired by this one hour, but Tina said one sentence within the first ten minutes that will drive this particular response.

“[The Internet is] severing the idea of thought and feeling in the body and the process of communicating human being to human being.”

Those of you aware of my obsession with Twitter can begin to imagine how hard I had to sit on my hands and not respond until the Q&A portion of the hour.  When the session was opened up to the floor, my hand would be held back no longer.  First I quoted the Pew Internet & American Life Project study which said:

Compared to those who do not use the internet, internet users are 42% more likely to visit a public park or plaza and 45% more likely to visit a coffee shop or café.

The findings go on to say:

We found that ownership of a mobile phone and participation in a variety of internet activities were associated with larger and more diverse core discussion networks.

I can definitely say that this is true in my case.  The friends I’ve made on Twitter and, more specifically, the 2 am Theatre community, have expanded my world exponentially.  And, these relationships have and continue to translate into a much more active social network “in real life.”  Now, when I visit new cities (like Boulder, for instance), I have friends to meet and relationships to expand.  There are theatres I would never even have heard of that now I want to make special travel plans just so I can check them out.

I can already hear nay-sayers, “But, you are already invested in the theatre world, what about all those ‘kids’ out there who aren’t tapped into our community?”  My answer is they are out there, waiting to be engaged.  I believe the Internet has simply made it more impossible for us to blame the potential audience for not finding us.  It is easier and more vital for us to be present in the conversation.  LISTEN!  They are talking about issues that we explore every day.  Talk to them, ask them questions, get to know what they are looking for and how we fit into their lives.  But, above all, listen.

Over lunch a few of us got into a conversation about the perceived generation of “dabblers” out there, the idea that everyone wants to sample.  However, what I’ve found is that while, yes, people want to sample lots of things they may not have sampled before (and that is a GOOD thing), we also are seeing folks wanting to dive their entire souls into in-depth research about niche topics like never before.  I believe that it is our job to provide samples that make the dabblers want to dive in.  What is on your website that allows people to dig and dive?

One of my favorite quotes from Tina’s talk was:

“We have the run down of human conscious and a multiplicity of points of view embedded in Shakespeare.”

This is so true, her example of the characters in Julius Caesar was perfect: Cassius and Brutus on the same side but for intensely different reasons.  Antony and Octavius, the same.  However, the same quote could be talking about the Internet.  We have the opportunity to use technology and the Internet to introduce ourselves to our potential audiences, draw them in, and hook them so that they can’t wait to get through our doors.  The conversation is happening, with or without our points of view.  But, they can’t get hooked if we don’t show up.

 
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Posted by on January 6, 2011 in social media, theatre, Uncategorized

 

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Is your ideal customer on your Board?

I’ve been thinking more about this ideal customer idea and how it relates to the non-profit arts.  We actually have an advantage over for-profit ventures, we could have our ideal customer as a key advisor.  We could have them on our Board.  But, do we?  We spend so much time thinking about what slots we need to fill on the board: deep pockets, corporate contacts, fundraising experience, marketing expertise, finance, real estate, law.  What about an ideal customer?

Do any of y’all have someone on your board that could be the poster child for your company’s ideal customer?  If so, are you talking to them about what brought them to you & what keeps them coming back?  Are you picking their brain on a regular basis about where they get their information and how they share it?  If you don’t have this person on the Board, do you know someone in your patron base you should be courting?

Let me know your thoughts on this!

 

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You are not for all markets: Embracing niche marketing

In my last post I talked briefly about creating the profile of what John Jantsch calls the “ideal customer.”  (Yep, another post inspired by The Referral Engine)  In the theatre world we tend to shy away from the idea of creating one customer profile because we like to think that, if we could just get them in the door, most people would love what we do.  Please, keep believing that.  Hope springs eternal.  However, think about the power (and return on investment) of taking a smidgen of your marketing plan and focusing it on your true, core, ideal patron.

As an example, I’ll profile who I think is the ideal customer of Synchronicity Theatre:

  • Female
  • Professional
  • Well-educated
  • Household income of $75,000 or above
  • age 30-60
  • liberal
  • active member of a socio-political civic organization and/or corporate women’s affinity group
  • living within the neighborhoods surrounding 7 Stages Theatre

Think about the focus this provides to the marketing initiatives.  Immediately we know which blogs we should be reading and leaving comments on, which organizations we should be partnering with, where we should be setting the Artistic Director up with speaking engagements, etc.  Being this specific does not mean that we are turning away politically moderate stay-at-home moms or men right out of grad school.  But, those niches aren’t our ideal patron.  Our ideal patron will jump fully into our mission and revel in every nuance of it, understanding immediately the power and purpose of our company.

I challenge us all to take a moment with our key staff and construct the profile of our ideal patrons.  Then, for the entire next season, commit to targeting this patron in every way we can.  Notice nothing I listed above costs marketing dollars, but if you have the money, put some of it behind this experiment.  Plan out your key metrics now and track them against your general outreach and this targeted campaign.   Back to The Referral Engine, Jantsch lists these four goals as good measures to start with:

  • Lead generation:  For our purposes, let’s count this as how many people you are getting your message in front of with each campaign
  • Percentage of leads converted: How many folks from your initial list actually buy a ticket / attend an event?
  • Cost per customer acquisition: This is important!  How much did you spend per converted customer for each campaign?
  • Average dollar transaction per customer: How many tickets did they buy and at what price point?

I would like to add one more indicator:

  • Total income generated per customer acquisition for the season: I contend that your ideal customer will come back more often than the general target.

Come on, try it with me for a year.  Let’s report back at the end of the 2010-2011 season and see how we did.

 

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