Let’s talk about the thing we’re all talking about.
My social media feeds look like yours probably do right now, overflowing with “#MeToo” posts and difficult, brave conversations from people of all genders about the ways they’ve been harmed by, or complicit in, rape culture. And embedded in that are a series of questions about how to get real about the ongoing and systemic problems of sexual harassment and assault in our community.
To start out with, let me clarify what this post is not.
It is not an accusation directed at any specific person or persons in the theatre community, but instead a set of suggestions intended to be applicable to all.
It is not an appropriation of this conversation or these ideas as though I’m the first person who has suggested them.
It is not an attempt to minimize the many people in our community who are, and have been, doing this work for a long time.
It is not a declaration of me claiming any kind of leadership or authority to be the driving force in this discussion.
What this post is, I fervently hope, is a way to consolidate into one clear, concise breakdown some of the concrete, actionable solutions that have come up in many of my conversations over the past few days, so that they can be tossed into the ring for consideration by all the people engaged in this work at their organizations and on behalf of the broader community. It is also a summary of some new suggestions which arose during a happy hour get-together I had with some very smart women last night, an attempt to add the perspective of a career arts administrator to the voices of the many artists who have been driving much of this dialogue, in case that’s of use, and an offer to continue this conversation in as many ways as possible so we don’t let this momentum drop without doing anything to create real change.
There are so many people on social media WANTING to do better, but perhaps not knowing where to start, so I’m focusing here on concrete action items that organizations could implement immediately if they wanted to. What are some things that we can actually DO to keep artists safe in their workplaces, and show that we hear, and stand in solidarity with, survivors coming forward?
So here’s what I’ve got.
#1. This is so obvious it’s kind of absurd, but let’s start here anyway. Does your theatre company have a sexual harassment policy? If so, does it have any actual teeth in it? Is it designed to work just as well if the harasser is a carpenter working like 2 weeks on contract as it does if the harasser is your artistic or executive director? Does it protect both your artists and your administrators? Does it apply equally to your board of directors and your volunteers? Are there actual consequences for sexual harassment? Is anyone at the organization considered “above the law”? If you’re embarrassed of your answers to any of those questions, it’s not a sexual harassment policy. You can do better by your employees than that. You could start today, if you wanted to.
#2. Okay, so you have a robust sexual harassment policy in place. That’s great. Step 2 is how to enforce it. If you have been harassed or assaulted by someone who is higher up the organizational ladder than you, someone who is considered more indispensable to the organization than you, what is your recourse? Who do you tell? This is a suggestion from Tomi Douglas and I think it’s a brilliant one: what if we, as a community, work together to start empowering board chairs to do this work? The board’s job is organizational oversight anyway; they’re the only people with hiring and firing ability over the heads of the organization, if that’s what it comes to. They also have fiduciary responsibility; meaning, in the case of a civil lawsuit, they’re the ones who would be liable for that money. So this very much is their job. What if training and education and clearly-written policies were provided to every board chair and vice chair of every performing arts organization in the community? What if all “welcome to the company” info packets given to actors at first read and new hire paperwork for every employee and contractor included the contact information for the board chair, with the knowledge that they were the person to whom you could safely direct a confidential report of workplace harassment or assault (or the vice chair if the chair presented a conflict of interest) and know they would act on it – up to and including asking for resignations? What if our board development strategies got a lot more intentional about identifying and recruiting potential members with expertise in this area, willing to take on this role?
#3. Okay, so now you’ve got a plan in place on paper, including rules and procedures, and a reporting policy with a direct line to your board chair. But the board chair’s not around every day; who’s keeping an eye out to prevent incidents of harassment before they happen, or shut down uncomfortable contact before it turns into assault? This suggestion came from my friend Heidi Hunter, and it’s also great. Stage managers are more intertwined with the day-to-day workings of a production onstage than anybody else. What if the Portland Area Theatre Alliance regularly produced annual or even quarterly workshops and trainings in basic human resources policies for stage managers? And not just for sexual harassment, but for all safe environment protocols – racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. Corporations are required to hold employee trainings on this stuff all the time; nonprofits rarely do so, because they trade heavily on the whole “we’re a family! we’re all here to support the cause!” mindset that can often lead to environments where the care, health, safety, work/life balance and happiness of employees are the absolute last priority. But hiring professional trainers to provide seminars and education for stage managers on how to identify these situations would give them the tools to be a safe resource backstage, in the rehearsal room, etc., to help either prevent situations from occurring by knowing how/when to step in, or simply by being the safe person you can go to with a complaint and know that it will be confidentially passed along to the board chair or oversight committee and dealt with properly. I don’t know if this is a resource that union stage managers have available, which could be extended to the whole community, or whether an organization like PATA could identify and schedule skilled trainers to come in a few times a year and give presentations. Arts orgs, sponsoring your season stage managers at $20 a person to go to a series of safe environment trainings is a great way to show you’re taking concrete action.
#4. What if for some reason, either your stage manager and board chair aren’t available, or you’re at an organization that has chosen not to implement such policies, or for whatever reason neither they nor anybody else at the company is a safe person to tell? This is where I would like to throw out several suggestions that might be able to be successfully implemented, with great positive effect, by PATA (Portland Area Theatre Alliance), and other such membership organizations. An outside committee or advisory board available to any PATA member or any employee of a member company, and a whistleblower policy which PATA member organizations must agree to in order to renew their membership, could make a huge difference. (And, as above, not limited to sexual harassment; racist, homophobic, etc. behavior could be reported here too.) 75% of people who report workplace sexual harassment face retaliation or consequences at work; especially if you’re trying to report on someone who is higher up the ladder than you, like the director of your production, or your own boss, this fear keeps many survivors quiet. They often fear – with good reason – that the end result will be that the perpetrator will be, at worst, quietly pulled aside and given a talking-to, while the victim will be quietly never hired again, because they “made trouble.” But a neutral, outside advisory council, with rotating membership to avoid conflicts of interest as much as possible, and a whistleblower policy companies agree to in advance – promising that no employee will suffer consequences for filing a harassment complaint – could give many victims a safe place to go when they fear retaliation. I know several other folks besides me, including Mariel Sierra and several others, have already begun dialogue around this, so it seems like an area where perhaps there’s enough interest to begin building a plan.
#5. The board of the Weinstein Company didn’t all of a sudden wake up one day and decide they cared deeply about creating a safe environment for women, so they gave Harvey the axe to atone for their sins. No. They did it because of money. They did it because the PR crisis precipitated from a New York Times story they couldn’t dodge or discredit presented a real, vital threat to their profit margins, and they began scrambling to do damage control. So here is where I say the ugly thing that we all, as theatre makers who believe in the power of art to change lives, spend a lot of time and effort desperately trying to avoid saying out loud:
Sometimes organizational change doesn’t happen until you’re afraid you’ll lose money.
This is where I deeply believe, from the bottom of my heart, that three of the most vital partners we need to actually drive real change forward are the Regional Arts & Culture Council, the Oregon Arts Commission, and the James F. & Marion L. Miller Foundation. One key change major funders have made over the past years is to press for a commitment on the part of organizations – especially those who get operating grants – to step up in the areas of ADA compliance, and DEI (Diversity, Equity Inclusion) work. What if this was the next step? What if, in order to qualify for RACC operating funds or a Miller grant, you had to present a sexual harassment policy or participate in a whistleblower initiative or provide employee safe environment training? What if the only thing that might spur some organizations to actually make bold moves to protect employees is the risk of losing the $100,000 grant that keeps the doors open? What if RACC and the OAC provided resources to organizations to help them develop and enact these policies? Hopefully, once enacted, other funders could follow suit; Meyer and Collins and Murdock often work collaboratively with Miller and RACC on information-sharing and funding decisions. Also, it seems like an easy ask to make this a mandatory stipulation to receive Age & Gender Equity In the Arts’ annual grants.
#6. I’m not a union member, but I think unions could have a really crucial role to play here. In a thread on Chris Murray‘s Facebook page the other day, John San Nicolas suggested that AEA could be a vital partner in this work. If unions have policies to protect their members in the workplace, are there ways those policies could be extended as an umbrella? For example, as John suggested, you could make the case that actors who aren’t AEA members yet but could be future AEA members might have some wiggle room to at the very least ask questions or try to get some support/advice from local reps, if the reps agreed to it. Or could AEA policies about protecting members from workplace harassment be extended to every employee of AEA companies? That is, in order to hire union actors, you are obligated to commit to an organization-wide policy which meets AEA standards for how every employee is treated, and if you’re found in violation of that policy – even if neither party is a union member, like an admin staffer harassing another admin staffer – you are still considered in violation. Are there folks out there who work closely with AEA who might be willing to float these ideas past them, per John’s suggestion? This doesn’t, of course, necessarily offer concrete solutions for non-union theatres, but it could serve as a powerful point of leverage with getting larger companies to set a positive example. And a union would serve the same function I mentioned above re. PATA, with having a neutral outside organization who can step in and take action if no one within the organization is willing or able to do so.
#7. Another one of Tomi Douglas’ suggestions was to invite assault survivors in the community create our own hashtag – or some other mechanism for sharing stories, like a blog, performance, etc. – called #MakeAScene, to unpack all the ways in which, particularly (though not exclusively) for women, our social conditioning to keep quiet, avoid conflict, and not stick our necks out for fear of losing our jobs creates a culture of secrecy and silence where we feel penalized for speaking out. I’ll let Tomi continue to further on her own social media, if she wishes, any particular suggestions for how to move this forward, but it could be really instructive to invite survivors to share stories of the ways they were silenced or shamed into not speaking, as well as for men/other folks who have not been victimized to dig deep and think about the ways they may have silenced people from coming forward. Did you know about an incident but encourage someone not to tell their boss because it would “rock the boat”? Did you defend a friend who did something harmful because you didn’t really want to have to think about him as the kind of guy who would assault or harass someone so you encouraged the victim to just forget about to so the whole thing would just go away?
(NOTE: It’s important that none of these actions be specifically gendered, as we all know that sexual assault does not only affect and harm women, and we can’t turn a blind eye to the male/nonbinary victims in our own community. However, it’s a huge and unignorable side effect of patriarchy that women specifically are socialized from an early age to perform “niceness” and manage the emotions of others by not causing trouble, so that’s a specific factor that we should empower women to be able to address, without in any way detracting from the prevalence in our society and our community of male/nonbinary victims. Trans and genderqueer people in particular often suffer in silence and experience tremendous fear about speaking out.)
#8. Women are, quite frankly, really tired of serving so often as the ones having to move the narrative forward in order to protect ourselves and each other when the system won’t. It’s time for men to start developing proactive plans for communication and action with other men. Partly this is crucial to emphasize how many men are themselves survivors of harassment and assault, and are often shamed out of coming forward because of the same forces of toxic masculinity in our culture that punish and silence women; but it’s also because men stepping in to interrupt and shut down harmful male behavior when they see it in male-only spaces is a powerful tool for change. I know that Joel Patrick Durham has facilitated a conversation on a public post on his own Facebook page about creating a men’s group to gather around discussion and action about the ways they are impacted by, and complicit in, rape culture. (This, as above, is not to ignore the role of nonbinary/genderqueer folks in the conversation, but rather to acknowledge the statistical fact that cis men – both straight and queer – are the majority of perpetrators and it’s on them to police their own and their brothers’ behavior in ways that women/NB folks don’t always have the power to do.)
Whew. Okay. That’s a lot.
If you have other suggestions for action items, or if I cited you and got your words wrong, or if you’d like me to append a note to indicate folks in the community who are already doing this work, please leave a comment below. I know that the improv community has been working on this and that Pat Moran is continuing to explore what it might look like to adopt Chicago’s “Not In Our House” model to Portland and that dialogue in many other corners of the community is already underway, so this is by no means to pronounce myself the first person to have coined these ideas. Let’s keep talking, but let’s also make sure we’re not just talking, we’re taking real action, too.