The Bipoc Leader’s Survival Guide
This one goes out to our fellow leaders. Artistic Directors. Associate Artistic Directors. Resident Directors. Directors of Engagement and Education.
Maybe you’ve been at your job for a year or two, maybe more. Maybe you’ve got an exciting offer from a PWI this summer, when the call for social justice spurred some institutions to rightfully and finally, create some new seats at the table.
Maybe you’re the first and only. Maybe you’re among a few or many.
Real talk: these theatres are striving for diversity, equity, and inclusion on paper, but are not doing the necessary work and thereby causing more harm. When you invite BIPOC people into a broken system it does not fix the system, it breaks the BIPOC person. We do not want you to break, fellow leader.
Microaggressions. A lack of budgetary support. A lack of staff support. A lack of affinity spaces. Implicit bias. Misogynoir. Implications that you are inexperienced, while at the same time, you shoulder the burden of every step towards anti-racist progress the institution slowly makes.
It’s a lot.
So take this survival guide with you wherever you go, made of our wouldas, couldas, and shouldas, the cautionary tales of your BIPOC brethren who know exactly what you’re up against.
Walk In With Clarity
Interview them like they interview you.
How am I being positioned?
What’s the organization’s hiring history? Am I the first? The token?
Where is the institution in its anti-racism journey? What is the culture here?
How are harms addressed when they occur?
Are explicit conversations about race encouraged within the organization? When and how?
Could you share an example of a time you had to defend the work of someone on your team? Who was it?
What were the last three stretch assignments you gave and how were they distributed across the organization?
What initiatives and resources are in place to retain me?
Find Your Allies
You need a tribe, friend, because as much as you might feel isolated, as much as they might make you crazy and gaslight you into silence, you are not alone. Hopefully, you’ll have allies at your organization. But also, reach beyond your staff to find your fam in the field. We’re everywhere, but we’re in different versions of the same Predominantly White boat.
However, not all your skinfolk are your kinfolk. We’ll get into that later.
Keep track of everything you accomplish: every program, every initiative, every policy you enact. Make a Google Doc. Track it, because then, that truth can’t be erased. And every time you feel discouraged or lonely, open it up and take a look at what you’ve done.
And when the time comes and you need an effusive letter of rec, hand it to your boss so they remember, lest they forget.
While we’re talking about documentation, keep track of harms and microaggressions, too, just in case. Write alllll that shit down.
Prioritize Your Health
Whatever they’re paying you, it is not enough for you to sacrifice your well-being. Clock out. Unplug. Take your vacation time and your personal days. You’re already going to work twice as hard (because, racism) so make sure you actively carve out times to divest and disengage.
Do not take on the institution’s failures as your own. The institution will never move quickly enough for you. That is a fact. You are not your institution, nor is it your responsibility to dial down your vision for their sakes. Keep their feet to the fire, but also, know that their shortcomings are theirs and theirs alone.
We know, this is a hard practice to live by when we feel like we’re failing our own beloved Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. If you’re a highly visible BIPOC leader, this only gets harder. When we are up against gridlock and gaslighting how do we hold ourselves collectively responsible without shouldering the blame for institutional resistance? We’re right there with you, trying to figure out the balance. You are your own person, you can’t control how people respond, but you can express your beliefs and goals privately or publicly.
Also, hydrate. Exercise. Don’t skip meals. Get a therapist if you can.
Own Your Brilliance
Disrupt the notion that you need to fit in to belong; they need to adjust to keep YOU.
Don’t diminish what you know, believe, and value for the sake of white comfort. That’s on them. It’s not on you.
Easier said than done, we know. But until we truly dismantle the status quo for which we have adjusted since time immemorial; until the White American Theatre understands that it is not our job to be patient but it is their job to change faster; until we can not only survive these spaces but thrive within them, then we will have to keep telling ourselves and telling one another just how precious, invaluable, and brilliant we are.
Take care. Stay safe. And if there’s trouble, send up a flare.