In recent months, the Loyola Theatre Department has heralded a number of initiatives to create a more diverse, inclusive and equal learning environment, including holding workshops with students and faculty, taking part in nationwide initiatives and drafting a new values statement.
After a number of one-on-one conversations with students about the lack of diversity in the department, theater professor Ann Joseph-Douglas said it was time to take more concrete action.
“If I continued to have private discussions, nothing would change,” said Joseph-Douglas. “Building diversity has been an important issue for all the faculty and it just felt like now was the time to get proactive.”
In November, Joseph-Douglas and theater professor Kelly Howe co-facilitated a department-wide town hall meeting on diversity, equity and inclusion. At the meeting, students and faculty discussed how to be a better ally to those in marginalized communities, and how to create an environment where the stories of those communities can be accurately represented onstage.
Ulises Acosta, a senior theater major who attended the town hall meeting, said even though he’s graduating at the end of this semester, he’s still glad he was able to take part in the beginnings of a larger discussion on diversity. He said one of the reasons he thought the town hall meeting was successful was that the theater faculty took part in the discussions along with students.
“It made me feel like my professors were here for more than just teaching a few classes,” said Acosta. “It showed me that they really do care for the whole person and not just the student.”
On Jan. 19, the department took part in the Ghostlight Project — a nationwide initiative to unite theaters in a commitment to value equity, inclusion and social justice. The project gets its name from the theatrical convention of a ghost light, which is a single light left on in the theater at the end of the day to make sure nobody hurts themselves if they enter with the lights off.
Howe, the host of the Loyola event, said the department decided to participate in the initiative to send a message to those who feel their rights might be threatened in the coming years.
“We want students, faculty and staff to know that we are here to support and defend each other and the cause of social justice, and we also want to signal that we are not alone in this commitment,” she said.
Kyle Schwartz, a senior theater major who helped plan the event, said he thought the project was an effective way to show everyone where the theater community stands.
“I think the project is important because it’s giving the theater community the opportunity to actively pledge ourselves to protecting our values, and to get specific about what it is that we believe to be in danger and important,” Schwartz said.
Howe said the project was an import- ant reminder of how to achieve justice.
“Justice does not exist inherently,” she said. “Justice is the product of ongoing struggle.”
The ceremony included students and faculty making individual pledges as to how they were going to fight for inclusion and justice in their daily lives. Natalie Santoro, a junior theater major, said she pledged to have more composed conversations with those who disagree with her.
“[My pledge] was to engage in calm and thoughtful discussions with people who have differing opinions from me, even if they’re uncomfortable conversations,” she said.
At 5:30 p.m., in conjunction with other theaters around the country, a lighting display that Loyola theater faculty member Lee Keenan designed was projected onto the lawn between Cuneo Hall and the Mundelein Center.
That display, along with the glow sticks and finger lights worn by those attending the event, created a department wide “ghost light”; a symbol that one can walk into the department without fear of being criticized because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, ability or other status.
In the future, the department plans on creating a values statement with the input of both faculty and students. Joseph-Douglas said the statement should be a living document and should serve as a base for more concrete action the department can take.
“It’s one thing to want to increase the diversity of the department,” she said. “We also have to take the necessary steps that all students know the department is a welcoming and respectful environment for all.”
Joseph-Douglas said the department plans on holding more diversity and inclusion workshops throughout the year and creating a recruitment plan to bring more diverse students in the department.
Santoro, 20, said she’s confident the department will live up to its pledges to create a more inclusive environment.
“We have some really thoughtful professors like [Howe], and she is very cognizant of the work that we do and the stuff that she teaches and how that reflects on our community,” she said.
Schwartz said he thinks that the department will adhere to its promises because of recent attitudes he’s noticed in the department.
“Just given the resolve of the faculty and the students, I do think the department will follow through,” he said. “There’s a lot of momentum around building a culture of inclusivity within the theater unit, and it’s strong. It’s not going away.”
But Howe noted that statements and symbols can only go so far.
“It’s my deep hope … that we will remind each other regularly that the work of social justice and the work to end suffering and oppression is ongoing,” she said.
Joseph-Douglas echoed the sentiment that words must be followed up with actions, and that creating an environment of diversity and inclusion takes time.
“It will not be easy, and there is no right or wrong answer,” she said, “But I do know the faculty wants to do everything we can to ensure we are providing the best learning experiences for our students.”