Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, December 17, 2009

No, really, we must start thinking about diversity!

I feel like I've been going on forever about how white populations are precipitously heading toward the minority in the Bay Area, since I saw this presentation from the San Francisco Foundation that said, well, that white populations would in fact be the minority in all five Bay Area counties SFF serves by 2050. In fact, there will be no majority population much more quickly than that, and certain counties like Contra Costa and Alameda will reach a Hispanic majority within the next 20 years.

And now here's this New York Times story by Sam Roberts that essentially outlines the same projections for the entire country, per the U.S. Census Bureau. Depending on whether immigration continues at the same level as it has been or continues at a slower pace (those are really the two options), whites will be in the minority nationally between 2040 and 2050.

Why is this important? It is faulty logic to think that an arts infrastructure that creates work for and relies primarily on the attendance of white audiences will be able to sustain itself when projections are showing 20-30 percent drops in white population in the next 40 years. And right now, no one seems to care. Recently, we did a study of how our 100 Free Night of Theater companies are approaching non-white audiences. Here are some bullet points from the study, which is still being processed:

  • 39% of companies claimed no African-American or Asian-American audience share. Almost half (44%) claimed no Hispanic audience share. For comparison, the SFF study puts the current ethnic distributions for those three communities as 8% African-American, 23% Asian-American, and 22% Hispanic in the 5 Bay Area counties.

  • Of those that claimed some non-white audience share, the average claim was 7% for African-American and Hispanic, and 12% for Asian-American.

  • 85% of companies were producing shows that they self-reported as not particularly resonating with non-white audiences of any ethnicity.

  • 88% of companies were planning no particular outreach to non-white populations.

I find these numbers incredibly frustrating. I know it's hard, and I know there's a lot of nuance in the conversation. And I know it's such a hard conversation to have with companies, especially because there are few stories of organizations who have (1) had the impetus to become more inclusive and (2) succeeded. But this isn't a thought exercise anymore.

Mission Paradox, in a post spawned from discussions on Arena Stage's diversity conference (read more at their New Play Development Program blog), argues that companies all fall into one of the following groups, and then suggests a path forward:

1. The Sincere Effort Group - They have the support, the money and the time. At most these groups will need help and guidance on the strategy side of the ledger. They want to diversify, but they may not be sure how, or confident in their ability to do so. This group deserves all the help, encouragement and guidance they can get.

2. The Scared - These people have some sort of fear barrier stopping them from diversifying. Fear of losing audience. Fear of losing money. Whatever. This group should be supported and encouraged . . . to a point. Some organizations spend their entire life cycle scared, that's just how it goes.

3. The "Other Priority" Group - These organizations have decided, for whatever reasons, that other initiatives are more important then a diversity effort. I think we, as an industry, should respect the decision this group makes. Maybe it's a bad decision. Hell, it is probably a bad decision. But groups have the right to make bad decisions.

4. The "No Desire" Group - This group has no desire to diversify. Who really cares why they feel that way? The only thing that matters is that they made that choice.
Again, that's a perfectly acceptable decision to make.

I think our job as a field is to look at each organization and figure out which "diversity category" they fit in.

Then we deal with them accordingly.

Our job is not to move people from one category to another. That's a choice only they can make. Embrace the ones that want change. Support the ones that need help. Wish the rest of them the best of luck and send them on their merry way.


It's a hard line, but honestly if we're talking about a crisis of relevance (and when aren't we talking about a crisis of relevance?) then diversity has to be part of the conversation.


What group do you belong to?

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15 Comments:

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