Building a Strong, Inclusive Community
Being a participant in RIT’s Diversity Theatre workshops can be a growth experience for many—it certainly was for me. Sharing personal stories tends to broaden the awareness of one’s own mindsets and actions, as well as sets the stage to discover how best to understand and respond to others. This growth assists in promoting social change at the larger level. Watching personal stories played back in an improvisational theater setting with skilled actors definitely heightens the experience. What a creative and wonderful way to look at topics that are typically difficult to address and discuss!
“It’s a very unique opportunity to raise awareness, and also redirect the ways the participants act and react within their community, says Dr. Connelly. “They are given the chance to share their own stories as well as experience the stories of others. It’s not just a passive process, but involves them directly in the lives of others in their scientific field, giving them insights and new ways to think more inclusively.”
The RIT HHMI Inclusive Excellence 5-year initiative is widening the reach of participating individuals in an effort to build awareness, skills, and communication tactics toward a more inclusive environment. Community Strand Leader, Dr. Jennifer Connelly, and Director of Diversity Theater, Tina Chapman DaCosta, are soon to have completed the first series of Playback Theatre workshops of this 5-year program.
As a participant, I am extremely grateful for having had this opportunity. As a staff member, it was especially meaningful being a part of this journey alongside faculty and students—seeing us all as equals in this shared experience—excluding no one, and valuing what each had to share and offer. I for one, learned ways to spot check my own thoughts for unconscious biases or reactions, which in turn would help me re-direct them to a better place of understanding and openness to others.
Faculty, staff and students from the School of Physics and Astronomy will have taken part in four workshops on topics pertaining to inclusion, unconscious bias, bystander awareness, and concluding with a transformative experiences session. The work will continue, with facilitators inviting new participants from the College of Science. The work of this grant starts with deepening inclusivity of individuals from excluded identity groups in the STEM natural sciences, with the hope that this will eventually spread campus-wide.
Those taking part in the improvisational Playback Theatre workshops anticipated the actions that followed Director Chapman DaCosta’s “Let’s Watch” prompt to the actors.
“In some cases, there are sides to the story that we haven’t thought about before that the Playback Theatre allows us to see from a third person’s perspective,” comments graduate student participant, Yashashree Jadhav. “It lets us reflect on the incident, and even perhaps our actions, and see how we can make a change in the future.”
As the workshops progressed with the same participating cohort, the comfort levels and trust built. After discussing strategies of being an active bystander, Chapman DaCosta offered participants the chance to replay their role, changing their approach after seeing the actors playback of their story. It brought the Teller, as they are called, in closer to the enactment of his/her shared occurrence, and allowed those watching to see that transpire.
Community efforts of the project continue to broaden outside of these theater workshops, where events, discussions, coffee chats, seminar speakers and gatherings are open to all on campus.
One of the highlights this semester was the opportunity to extend an invitation campus-wide to watch the 2018 Academy Award-winning Live Action Short Film, The Silent Child, organized by Inclusive Excellence Research Strand Leader, Lea Michel. The film starred a 4-year old deaf girl who lived in a silent world until a compassionate social worker teaches her sign language. A post viewing discussion with a carefully selected panel opened up conversation about this controversial community and school responsibility. The panel consisted of the following individuals: Deirdre “DD” Schlehofer, Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural & Creative Studies at RIT/NTID; Kaitlin Stack Whitney, RIT Visiting Assistant Professor in College of Science and a hearing parent of two ASL-using deaf children; and Stephanie Smith Albert, Director of NTID Diversity and Inclusion. The panel moderator was Tina Chapman DaCosta, Director of RIT Diversity Theater in the Office for Diversity & Inclusion, a senior lecturer in the College of Liberal Arts, and a filmmaker.
Inclusive Excellence work is being done in the Research and Classroom Practice strands as well. Beth VanWinkle, a faculty participant in the Classroom Practice Strand is holding Maker Fridays. During these sessions students journal in the form of poetry, paintings, drawings, writings, games they have designed, craft projects, videos, songs and more. These efforts include novel ways of thinking about a topic and encourage reflection and sharing. This spring, seven freshman and transfer students were matched with faculty members from the first Faculty Research Mentor cohort. These students will receive stipends to work with their mentors on research projects full-time over the summer.
For more information on Inclusive Excellence visit InclusiveExcellence@rit.edu.
—Debra Jacobson is a marketing specialist in RIT’s Center for Advancing STEM Teaching, Learning, and Evaluation (CASTLE). She is a marketing consultant, freelance writer, Pilates instructor and artist/owner of Debra A. Jacobson Jewelry & Art.