Moving forward, together

The USC School of Dramatic Arts strengthens its commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion with the help of its community.

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

In the wake of the police killings last spring of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the School of Dramatic Arts community has been soul-searching and strengthening its commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Starting in May 2020, four town hall forums were held, and in July, a “Commitment to Change” was published by SDA administrators that included eight action items “to assure a safe environment of authentic belonging and community for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) students, faculty and staff.”

View this story in the digital version of the 2020-21 Callboard magazine.

So where is SDA now with this work?

Anita Dashiell-Sparks, associate dean of equity, diversity and inclusion, who wrote the “Commitment to Change” with Vice Dean Lori Ray Fisher, says “a lot of wonderful work is happening.

“We literally have created equity, diversity and inclusion plans for each of our program areas and degrees within our school — including performance, production, design, dramatic writing — as well as for our administrative departments. We have never had that before,” she says. The School also has formed an Inclusion and Equity Committee of faculty, staff, students and representatives from the Alumni Leadership Council. The committee has been meeting monthly since September and facilitating open forums to gather input and feedback from the SDA community. The first three meetings focused on areas of greatest concern: casting for productions and representation; ways to report problems and accountability; and creating standards of professional practice and a code of ethics.

The issues raised in the open forums and the work of the Inclusion and Equity Committee already has resulted in these tangible measures:

  • Action items for eight categories (mandatory EDI training, curriculum changes, reporting and accountability, casting and representation, support, faculty and student recruitment, code of ethics, career center and mentorship) have been defined and posted under a new EDI section on the School’s website.
  • A newsletter sent weekly to students now includes regular updates on equity and diversity efforts, including events and ways to collaborate and participate in this meaningful work. One early event was the SDA Anti-Racism & Advocacy Challenge, a 30-day program of daily activities for individuals trying to become better allies. Starting in mid-September, the SDA community received prompts each day to act, watch, read, listen and advocate for anti-racism.
  • In a first for the School, a data analysis was made of the diversity in casting for undergraduate productions, showing how many students auditioned and were cast during the last three semesters. The figures were broken down by gender, year in school and ethnicity, and posted on the School’s website. This data informs, and will continue to inform, changes to the casting process.
  • Future auditions for productions will have an expanded number of individuals in charge of casting, including adding a representative from the Inclusion and Equity Committee. Also, students will be able to note on their audition forms if there are specific roles they would be interested in playing. Additional changes will continue to unfold as the School continues to re-imagine the casting process.
  • Discussions have begun on creating a system for the SDA community to report discrimination, harassment or bias incidents that could be reviewed and investigated within the School. This system would complement the work being done by university-wide entities such as the Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX. It is hoped the School could follow up on these issues in real time so they could be addressed and de-escalated quickly. In addition, Dashiell-Sparks says the School also is considering a way to offer mediation or a pathway to restorative justice so there could be reconciliation and learning after incidents are reported. “The intention is still to hold people accountable for actions and behavior and choices, but do it in a way that helps bring both parties and all the individuals involved to understand the dynamics of what happened,” she says.
  • New standards of professional practice and a code of ethics for the School are being written by the Inclusion and Equity Committee. This code of ethics will be posted widely throughout the School. “The language will address microaggressions, racism and bias previously identified by our students, faculty and staff,” the School’s action items document states.
  • Creation of a physical space where the School’s students of color can gather. “There could be programming — some formal, some informal — but it would be a place where students could just come and be,” says Fisher. A typical comment she heard in the town halls this past summer was: “I’m a Latino student and I go all day and I don’t see any other Latino people.” Fisher, a USC alum who was a first generation college student, sympathizes with that sentiment. “When I started at USC, there weren’t many African American people here,” she says. “I understand what it felt like to want to have a space where you could go and connect.” Fisher says the space will begin virtually on Zoom, as soon as January, and then move to an actual office on campus.
  • The School’s Board of Councilors has developed an EDI Task Force to help support and advance the School’s EDI action plan. They identified actions board members can take that would have the greatest impact for the School. These include building the School’s scholarship funds for BIPOC students, recruiting industry leaders who represent BIPOC artists or other diverse communities for masterclasses or speakers series at the School, and help develop — and participate in — a mentorship program for students.
  • A group of SDA students is being trained to act as liaisons between the student body, the Inclusion and Equity Committee, and the SDA faculty and staff. These engaged students will share information and gather input and feedback on the various EDI initiatives and programs.
  • The co-heads of Undergraduate Acting, Kenneth Noel Mitchell and Dashiell-Sparks, have been meeting with faculty members and program directors to work on the diversification of curricula and methodologies. The expectation is that at least 25 percent of plays, readings and multi-media content will be by a BIPOC writer, artist or scholar. Time periods and playwrights for each BA progression class have been adjusted to include more BIPOC and female playwrights, and the SDA community has been made aware of an alternative canon of plays written before 1945 by global, multicultural and LGBTQ playwrights.
  • SDA’s Office of Admissions and Student Services has expanded outreach to underrepresented communities in its student recruitment efforts. Taking advantage of working virtually, the School has been able to participate in class visits and recruitment fairs in locations that it has been unable to attend in person.

Learn more about the School’s equity, diversity and inclusion efforts and actions.

Other actions in the works include inviting more BIPOC guest artists to the School; mandatory equity, diversity and inclusion training for all faculty and staff; raising more scholarship funds for BIPOC students; fundraising to hire more BIPOC faculty members; updating the School’s strategic plan to better reflect EDI concerns and issues raised in the town halls; and broadening the School’s Career Center offerings to encompass challenges faced by BIPOC artists.

So how do the most important constituents, SDA students, feel about the changes thus far?

Giovanny Camarena, a senior BA from Arlington, Texas, says he appreciates being asked to be on the Inclusion and Equity Committee because, as a Latino, he has fought for representation during his USC career. “Having professors notice that about me and feeling I could represent the student population and speak on behalf of those issues validates the work I’ve been doing.” Camarena says he is concerned about the lack of BIPOC students on the boards of student organizations on campus, and about roles meant for BIPOC actors being given to white actors.

He says he was encouraged about the School considering a mechanism for students to report incidents without going through a formal Title IX process. “Most students get uncomfortable with having to go through Title IX,” he says. “They say, ‘I’ll just let it go, it’s not that serious.’ They don’t want to be seen as problematic.”

Spencer Claus, a junior BFA from Scottsdale, Ariz., has been critical of the School at times, but says he and other students can advocate for SDA while acknowledging its faults. “We want it to get better because we love it,” he says. “In order for something to get better, you have to analyze it critically.”
“It’s easy to say we’re going to make the environment better for our Black students, better for our students who come from low-income households, we’re going to make the School more accessible — that’s really easy to say, but it’s a lot harder to do. It’s so necessary that policies are actually put into place so that we can really get there.”

Claus says the discussions, suggestions for improvement and faculty willingness to change have been encouraging. “I love that we are at this point, and I honestly think it’s because we’re artists,” he says. “It speaks to the power of artists and what we can do when we come together to support a common cause. I’m very proud of the student population and I’m very proud of a lot of the faculty who have added their voices to the conversation, because it’s a hard thing to do. But it’s necessary, and a lot of people have stepped up.”

This story originally appeared in the 2020-21 issue of Callboard magazine, the USC School of Dramatic Arts annual publication for its alumni, parents, students and friends.