Act for Equity at HGSE: Theater for Social Change

by: Josh Bookin

The Origin and Design of Act for Equity at HGSE

The HGSE Dean’s Office launched the Act for Equity project in early 2016 as part of the School’s commitment to the Fulfilling the Promise of Diversity (FPD) community conversation. The inspiration behind the project was to leverage the power of theater-based learning to broaden and deepen the ways in which we as a community interact around critical topics of diversity, equity, and inclusion.  According to Margie Zohn, the troupe’s director (Ed.M. AIE ‘12 and faculty member in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences): “Theater allows us to inhabit stories with not just our minds but also our hearts, and to be affected in deep and nuanced ways.” Act for Equity events combine prepared theatrical vignettes with improvisation driven by audience participation and facilitated discussions.

After a series of discussions, Dean Ryan decided that the inaugural Act for Equity workshop would be developed for staff members. Through this workshop, “we wanted to develop equity-oriented learning opportunities that was specifically tailored to the needs of our staff, and to do it in such a way that we provided the same type of powerful pedagogical experiences that we strive to provide in our classrooms for students,” said Matt Miller, Associate Dean of Learning and Teaching. The TLL, serving as the project lead for the initiative, worked in tandem with Zohn to design the events with sustained input from the staff community.  The process began with a staff focus group, whose ideas helped shape the design of a staff-wide climate survey.  An advisory board of staff, faculty, and students then worked hand-in-hand with Zohn and the TLL to shape this input into a set of meaningful experiences.

What We Learned from the First Workshop Experience

Act for Equity hosted two workshops, engaging more than 70 staff in total.  There were several goals for each event, including appreciating multiple points of views, learning about microaggressions, and practicing ways to create a more inclusive workplace climate.  The audience was presented with vignettes that evoked uncomfortable watercooler conversation dynamics, challenges about discussing race and racism with coworkers, and the types of both subtle and more overt discrimination that can occur during a hiring process gone awry.  The participants were invited to share their observations, to ask questions of the actors in character, propose scene rewrites, and even to enter into a rewritten scene to try out their own intervention as an upstander.

Feedback from staff members praised the acting and interactivity for creating rich opportunities for learning.  “The theatrical component is a really wonderful way of sparking conversation by watching something played out that is relatable, realistic, and relevant,” noted one staff member.  Another chimed in: “It’s powerful and empowering to be exposed to situations and ideas that help the audience come to productive conclusions without being ‘told the answer.’”  And a third staff member offered appreciation that “HGSE is offering this program and encouraging authentic relationships, even at work, via brave speaking and generous listening.”

Next Up: October 24 Learning Experience for HGSE Students

Building on the success of these staff workshops, the Act for Equity project has planned an event for students that focuses on this year’s community-wide topics of racial equity and viewpoint diversity.  Participants at this session will have the chance to explore the perspectives, experiences, and identities of others, as well as develop skills for engaging and leading inclusively.  The main scenario for this October 24th event is a challenging class discussion gone awry.  By giving students and faculty opportunities to discuss closely aligned narratives and content, the October 24 event will hopefully contribute to a wider and more coherent set of conversations across the HGSE community.

Looking forward, we are hopeful that Act for Equity can continue to provide creative and effective venues for convening the HGSE community around this essential and challenging work.

 

See also: Event