From fear to exploration

This morning Meg texted me to let me know that she’s ill and unable to teach. Unfortunately, I have a very short window of time in which to zip over to the bus stop on my bike and catch the ONE bus that slowly goes down to the jail (it takes a full hour from my part of town). I only had a few minutes to get everything together and fly out the door, which I decided wasn’t possible. On top of that, the lack of lockers at the jail (they removed the ones in the visitation lobby about four months ago) means that if I’m going alone, I have to leave a good deal of my personal possessions at home so they won’t get confiscated. Everyone who drives can leave their things in the car and quite frankly, I don’t see many people taking the bus either to or from the jail. They get off a block earlier, at what I think is a halfway house. This is truly a car culture. So that means that my cell phone and wallet need to be left at home, because the last thing I want is to get into any kind of trouble as a volunteer. We are there by the courtesy of the institution and going against any of their rules could mean a permanent rescinding of our invitation.

All of this highlights the complicated nature of working or volunteering in a penal institution. So why do we do it? This is a question I’ve been thinking about quite a bit recently. I met with a lovely woman who works with incarcerated women in Lockhart and she said quite simply, “Guilt.” She feels that she grew up in a supportive family, had many opportunities in her life and is fortunate enough to be married to a man who can support her. She is a Christian who was a minister to women for many years and as she said, the Bible says to help those less fortunate but nowhere does it specifically mention that the middle class church ladies she was ministering as a group that really needed help! She decided to go offer her services in a place that made her less comfortable – the prison. She told me that she had a calling, and as someone with more wobbly beliefs than hers, I can relate to the passion that a “calling” implies even if I’m not totally comfortable using that word about my own work. And while the word “guilt” also doesn’t quite resonate with me, I would agree that coming from a place of privilege motivates me to try to leverage that privilege back into something that I feel is useful to the community.

Could this guilt or privilege explain why so many of the people I encounter in this field are white women? I’ve been doing a bit of reading on the internet, and although it’s true that white women comprise a large percentage of those who work for nonprofits, in some states (like California) they’re not the largest group. In California, women of color comprise the largest number of those employed by nonprofits. What I find interesting, however, is that in my specific field, Applied Drama, most of the people I encounter are white women. While I have worked with and met not-white-women, it seems that they are the majority. What draws us into this? If it is privilege, why aren’t more white men involved? Is there something about nonprofits and social work that gives white women a better chance of succeeding? Why do I meet more faces that look like mine, with similar backgrounds than I do of white men, or woman and men of color? Am I not looking hard enough? What is the inherent power dynamic involved when a pair of white women (like Meg and myself) walk into a room in a jail to teach an ethnically diverse group of women?

And while I am always aware of this and fighting against it, struggling to make the room a space of equality, I can’t change my skin color or my background. I can reach across it but unless I include women who do not look like me, how can I show the women I work with that they don’t have be like me to succeed? Last week, we had a guest artist – a Fulbright scholar from Mysore, India, named Purnima. She came to observe and participate, and I asked her to teach us a song. She did and included some instruction on ragas as well. Hearing her sing was fantastic and just having her in the room opened it up in a new way. She provided a new way of seeing a strong, successful, artistic woman, an example very different from the one Meg and I provide. And we do provide an example, whether we want to or not and whether or not the women in our class want to follow it.

Purnima’s presence last week convinced me that I need to find more guest artists from diverse communities. Whatever the numbers are, when I look at theatre in Austin and at nonprofits in Austin, I see a largely white community. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough – there are African American and Latino theatre companies in town but I tend to go see my friends’ shows and most of them are white. How does having a white leadership structure in nonprofits affect the communities they serve? How does this tie into what I’m doing with Conspire Theatre?

I attended a great workshop when I worked for SafePlace on diversity in which the facilitators basically said that actively searching for a diverse group, whether it be for employees, participants, whatever, should be encouraged because it forces you to find other points of view and to make connections that you might otherwise ignore. It’s time for Conspire Theatre to start making those connections. We teach such a diverse group of people that it seems silly to think that Meg and myself are enough. We are both extremely talented with years of training and credentials, but what are we missing?

I’ve brought up many questions in today’s post without answering many of them. This is a beginning – to get down these thoughts that have been running through my head. And I haven’t been trying to diminish the role of women in color in nonprofits or the arts – what I’m trying to say is that they should be highlighted even more. And that means I need to actively seek them out and invite them to work with Conspire Theatre.

Last week we read a poem by a Dominican poet named Aída Cartagena Portalatín. I brought in both the original Spanish and the English translation. The first time around the circle, only the women who spoke Spanish read lines out loud but the second time around, almost everyone gave it a try. We moved from fear to exploration pretty quickly. I hope that the same can happen for us as an organization.


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