Over these past few weeks, the staff of the Wisconsin Union Theater have been listening, reflecting, learning, and planning. Silence is complicity, and so we say loudly and directly:
Black Lives Matter.
We denounce police brutality.
We share protesters’ outrage for the wrongful deaths of Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and so many others.
But statements like these without accompanied action are meaningless. Composer, performer, educator, and activist Daniel Bernard Roumain (aka DBR); cellist, singer, and storyteller Marika Hughes; Howlround theater managers Kelvin Dinkins, Jr. and Al Heartley; and more than 300 theater artists are calling theaters and arts organizations like ours to take a stand, make a declaration, and most importantly walk the talk. They are rightfully calling us out on our past inaction and simultaneously calling us in to do something now.
While we will not rely on Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) artists and communities to teach us how to fight racial injustice, we are thankful for the times they do so and hold up a mirror in front of us.
We hear you. We are answering the call.
The Wisconsin Union Theater (WUT) is a performing arts presenter with a vision to “inspire cultural curiosity, fuel creative expression, and expand the human experience.” At this time of essential reckoning, we acknowledge that we—a nearly all-white staff—cannot realize that vision by operating within and supporting norms that reflect white supremacy culture. Furthermore, if we are to uphold the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s purpose to help students understand and appreciate the “complex cultural and physical world in which they live and to realize their highest potential of intellectual, physical, and human development,” we cannot authentically do so in a homogenous culture.
We declare our support for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and take a stand against racial injustice by acting now and committing to ongoing change.
Things we are committed to doing now:
1. We are educating ourselves.
We are using resources recommended and created by several racial and social justice organizations and working with experts in the field to help us look inward to define and understand our social identities, what that means for how we walk through the world, and the roles we've unintentionally but undoubtedly played in creating and supporting a dominantly white culture. We are starting this process with full-time permanent staff and will extend it to staff who work on stage crew, front-of-house, and in the box office before in-person events resume.
Our desired learning outcomes include:
- unlearning myths and uncovering truths about the racist history in the United States, Wisconsin, Madison, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Wisconsin Union, and the Wisconsin Union Theater;
- identifying our implicit biases and how our words, actions, and inactions harm people of color;
- identifying and dismantling our beliefs and systems that prevent inclusivity and diversity;
- developing a shared understanding of the essential value of diversity and the problems and limitations of homogeny; and
- developing a shared understanding of why we need change, what needs to change, and how each of us is responsible for making the change.
2. We will collect and report data.
We will evaluate and assess who does and does not currently benefit from the Wisconsin Union Theater. This will include who we have invited to perform on the stage, who can rent the space, and who has felt welcomed as an audience member. Our evaluation will provide tangible data that reflects what we think and what so many stakeholders already know: there are not enough Black and Brown students and community members in the theater. When the data identifies the reasons for this, we will better understand where we need to invest and what we need to change.
3. We will change programming & processes.
We will make space in the budget, in our calendar, in our physical spaces, and in our communication platforms to support, present, and commission more programming that highlights BIPOC’s stories and their beauty, power, and excellence.
We will earmark resources to subsidize rentals from organizations whose programming supports social justice and BIPOC.
We will revise contracts to include a clause requiring organizations who use the theater (rent it or perform in it) to acknowledge they have not and will not engage in racist or other discriminatory acts or support any people or organizations who are known to harm BIPOC, LGBTQ+ people, and other groups historically discriminated against.
We will not use words like underserved, underrepresented, marginalized populations, minority, non-white, or other terms that reinforce white power when describing BIPOC.
We will work with Wisconsin Union’s HR department to review job posting policies and recruiting strategies so that we more effectively recruit BIPOC candidates.
We will scrutinize our offices and theater spaces to reevaluate design, wall art, physical layout, and signage and work to remove overt whiteness and address lack of BIPOC representation.
Understanding that all of this work is intersectional, we will ensure our practices are inclusive to any groups who historically receive inequitable access to rights and benefits based on social identities and personal characteristics.
When we make mistakes along the way, we will hold ourselves accountable and learn from our shortcomings.
As we do this work, we will use these goals to guide us:
- Be more than allies; be activists
- Use the arts to create social justice
- Remember our students are our future leaders and must be part of the change
- Use our voices to influence leadership and be firm in our resolve
- Make space, step back, and learn how to give up undeserved or unnecessary power and privilege
Director, Wisconsin Union Theater