Author Archives: melissahillman

How Can My Organization Attract and Retain Diverse Staff?

Photo by pxhere.com, Creative Commons License.

This is a question I’ve been asked often both as a consultant and as a professional colleague. 

I know that some people want to hear concrete, easy-to-implement answers, like “Use this program designed by someone who’s never set foot in your organization,” “Advertise here,” or “Do these three harm-reduction protocols that assume to know what harm you’re causing and assume anything they haven’t foreseen is irrelevant,” but, until you know why you’re having trouble attracting diverse applicants and retaining the diverse staff you hire, it’s all guesswork. 

The real answer is: ASK THEM. Believe them when they tell you what’s wrong. Then ACT on it. You must then assess your progress over time, which includes, of course, restarting the cycle with ASK THEM. This is an oversimplified overview, of course. The complexity of these issues is why there’s an entire profession around JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) work. But understanding the basic steps will help you to lead your organization to JEDI mastery. 

Let’s start by breaking down what I mean by “ASK THEM.”

“Ask them” doesn’t mean management walking up to employees in the break room and saying, “Kim, you’re Black! Why don’t more Black people want to work here?” When you’re seeking to learn more about why your organization struggles to retain BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, and (in many places) female staff, your data gathering must both FEEL safe and BE safe for your employees

While we’re at a cultural moment in which equity in the workplace is being more closely examined, there is still a very real lack of safety around speaking openly about racism, sexism, and other types of bigotry and discrimination in the workplace. Although technically illegal, retaliation is common. For example, 72% of people who report sexual harassment in the workplace face retaliation

Retaliation. The fear of retaliation is intense and very justified. Most employees in your organization who are BIPOC, disabled, LGBTQ+, or female witnessed retaliation or experienced it firsthand before they came to your organization. Retaliation works as intended– it creates a cultural climate of fear around speaking honestly about workplace experiences. Retaliation is easy to excuse and difficult to prove, leaving employees very little recourse. Three of the most common types of retaliation are poor performance evaluations, hostile work environment, and blackballing. 

Performance reviews are so unproductive, ROI-negative, and easy to manipulate that many companies, such as GE, Adobe, and Deloitte, have just eliminated them completely. The ease with which they can be manipulated or even falsified make them perhaps the most common form of retaliation. It takes very little effort to make a poor performance eval appear well-earned by exaggerating flaws and minimizing achievements, giving employees very little recourse. A retaliatory performance eval has the added bonus of justifying future retaliatory actions such as demotion or even termination. 

Creating a (more) hostile work environment is depressingly common and just as difficult to prove. Each individual instance is minor, and complaining about them seems petty, but the hostility is very, very real and it adds up quickly. Gaslighting is a common tactic that hides behind “a difference of opinion.” There’s nothing quite like watching the white men in an organization close ranks and insist that women of color on staff are “exaggerating” about workplace racism and sexism, yet I saw it with my own eyes at an organization that advertises itself as focused on social justice. 

Blackballing is the ultimate threat. While technically illegal, it’s very common for former employers to tell prospective future employers that someone who spoke out about issues in the workplace is a “troublemaker,” “toxic,” “not a team player.” This often takes the form of words that appear to be race-neutral but are so commonly used to refer to Black people that they have become racially coded, such as “angry,” “didn’t fit corporate culture,” and “unprofessional.” Again, illegal but very common. 

I know what you’re thinking– “But I would never do any of those! My staff can trust me! I’m ready to do the work.” Even if that’s true, your staff will never give you the whole truth until you’ve proven to them that you’re trustworthy and ready. I’ve personally witnessed white men in upper management claim they were “ready,” then retaliate viciously against every single person who spoke out. And while you may know to the core of your being that you would never do such a thing, the fear that comes from having seen it elsewhere– over and over and over– is very real, and too great to ask your staff to overcome before the work begins and they see you being reliably awesome. 

Another way marginalized workers will be more likely to trust you is when they see you refusing to settle for compliance-based assessments of your organization’s JEDI progress. 

Compliance-Based Assessments. Don’t mistake compliance with the law and lack of EEOC complaints for success. This is a common roadblock for organizations that see JEDI as an aspect of HR. Most workplaces that experience difficulties attracting and retaining diverse staff are (at least on paper) compliant with the law. Your organization can be completely compliant with the law and still be a miserable place to work for women, BIPOC, disabled people, trans people, fat people, non-Christians, and anyone who isn’t in your corporate culture “in group.” If you want to attract and retain diverse staff, you must do more than refrain from deliberately mistreating them. 

A lack of formal complaints is as far from JEDI success as passing the DMV driving test is from qualifying for the Isle of Man TT. Your organization may have many serious issues and yet have never received a formal complaint. Most instances of marginalization and bigotry in the workplace are extremely difficult to prove, and the formal complaint process is often expensive, onerous, intimidating, and timebound. Go look at the EEOC site— it’s a wonder any complaints are filed at all. Additionally, it’s well known that EEOC complaints are usually more trouble than they’re worth; 82% of workers who reported cases of discrimination in the past decade received no relief whatsoever. And of course fear of retaliation is huge here as well. JEDI success is not about avoiding lawsuits. It’s about making your organization a welcoming place for all types of workers, enabling you to attract and retain the best of the best in all your hires, not just the best out of one limited demographic. Which brings us back to:

“ASK THEM.” The first step in attracting and retaining a diverse workforce is identifying your organization’s strengths and growth areas by crafting effective, robust data gathering that captures both quantitative and qualitative data and analyzes that data effectively. You’ll also need longitudinal data gathering strategies to assess progress over time. 

To make data gathering both safe and effective, you need a multilayered approach, and I strongly recommend bringing in a JEDI specialist to guide you through the process of data gathering and data analysis. 

Quantitative data. A lot of organizations limit themselves to the most basic quantitative data gathering– how many people of certain identities are on staff. This is the first step, not an effective approach to data gathering in and of itself. 

One mistake I’ve seen people make with data analysis is to use incomplete employment data. I was recently asked for my opinion about attracting and retaining a diverse workforce for a large local business. The data I was given was just a table showing staff diversity data over time. A fictionalized example: 

2012: 

  • 15% Latinx workers
  • 4% Black workers
  • 6% Asian workers
  • 11% women

2017: 

  • 18% Latinx workers
  • 8% Black workers
  • 6% Asian workers
  • 12% women  

It looks like this fictional business is on the right track, right? Well, maybe not. How many of the original staff from 2012 are part of the 2017 staff? Are they hiring BIPOC and women workers only to see them leave within 2-3 years? If so, why are they leaving? The area in which the business is located is currently 25% Black, 27% Latinx, 15% Asian, and, of course, 52% female. Why are they so underrepresented at this company? Is the (slightly) increased representation due to JEDI initiatives they’ve put in place, a change in demographics in the area, or something else? Why haven’t they gathered any data on disabled workers? Trans/enby/genderqueer workers? Native workers? And those questions just scratch the surface of the data that needs to be gathered. There was simply no answer to the question they were asking without deepening the quantitative data gathering and beginning robust qualitative data gathering. 

Qualitative data. Quantitative data is the what; qualitative data is the why. Without identifying the specific issues at your organization– a process that will only be successful if your workforce is empowered to speak freely, without fear of retaliation no matter how misplaced you believe that fear is— your quantitative data will be essentially useless. Qualitative data gathering can take many different forms, and this is where a JEDI specialist will be critical. You only get answers to the questions you ask, and a JEDI specialist will be able to determine which questions your organization needs to ask. Additionally, there must be an impenetrable layer of anonymity in qualitative data gathering. Employees need to know that they will be protected from retaliation. Anonymity is just the first step; BIPOC workers often fear retaliation against all BIPOC on staff, and for very good reason. Fragility, resistance, defensiveness, gaslighting, and retaliation are all very common responses from management when issues in their workplace are identified, which is why “believe them” is the critical next step. 

The hard reality is that it’s very difficult for any of us to examine how we’ve contributed to a workplace that’s uncomfortable for diverse workers. Most people in management, especially upper-level management, have many robust areas of privilege and the power to act on that privilege in harmful ways, even unknowingly. Everyone with privilege– and we all have areas of marginalization and areas of privilege in our intersectional identities– has contributed to and benefitted from systems of marginalization and oppression. We all have work to do.

There are concrete benefits to addressing these issues. A diverse workforce that feels valued and heard is a more productive workforce, a workforce with loyalty to you and your organization, a workforce that will delight clients and be brand ambassadors for you wherever they go. But most importantly, working for greater equity in your organization is the right thing to do.

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Trans Girls, Sports, and Punishing Difference

A young Black girl laughs while standing against a white background. Her hair is in long, small braids that tumble down her back and over her shoulders. She wears a black Nike cropped running top.
Andraya Yearwood found herself at the center of a controversy when cis female runners sued her and another girl to stop them from running in high school track meets. (Photo: Jesse Ditmar)

There’s a major debate happening around transgender girls. It’s actually been going on for years, but its current popularity among right-wing extremists (like Marjorie Taylor Greene) and high-profile anti-trans “feminists” (like JK Rowling) has brought the discussion into the mainstream. While an anti-LGBTQ stance is expected from the far right, many people are surprised to learn of the existence of TERFs– trans-exclusionary radical feminists. In brief, TERFs, who also refer to themselves as “gender critical,” believe that trans women are “biological men” who are appropriating the cultural oppression of women for a vague collection of reasons that include “cultural capital” and the head-scratching “to oppress women.” 

My daughter, now in her 20s (!), isn’t “appropriating” the bigotry that rightly belongs to me and other cis women. There’s plenty to go around. Yet hateful people will use whatever excuse is to hand to justify their hate, and both the far right and TERFs have decided to pretend that their transphobia is actually just protecting girls and women from a host of wholly imaginary dangers that trans women inflict on cis women by virtue of their existence alone.

The latest imaginary danger is that trans girls are robbing “real girls” from the ability to be competitive in sports.  

This argument is garbage, and I can prove it. 

There are close to fifty different bills being proposed in over twenty state legislatures, being quickly passed by Republican-dominated legislatures, all claiming to “protect women” from trans girls playing school sports, and every one of them is bolstered by ignorance and bad-faith arguments.

Title IX protects girls from having to compete against boys.” Trans girls are girls. Anti-trans activists do not get to gatekeep the term “girl” and set themselves up as the sole authority over the genders of all the children in America. Next.

I’m not anti-trans! I just care about protecting women’s sports!” We all know this is a bad faith argument. A small percentage of anti-trans activists are self-serving people who want to eliminate competition, while the rest are posting mocking memes about the WNBA the 360 days of the year they’re not “protecting women’s sports.” Next.

Lindsay Hecox, a sophomore at Boise State,, is suing for the right to run on their cross country team, backed by the ACLU. (Photo: Kohjiro Kinno for Sports Illustrated)

Allowing boys in girls’ locker rooms is a danger to girls.” Again: trans girls are girls. Trans women, especially trans women of color, are much more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of violence. Anti-trans violence occurs in shockingly high numbers while trans people themselves are no more or less violent than cisgender people. A trans girl in the locker room poses no more danger to her teammates than any other girl on that team, likely far less, as you’ve made certain she knows her inclusion is highly conditional on your level of tolerance. 

Trans girls have an unfair physical advantage over cis girls.” This argument is easy to counter. Anti-trans activists only seized upon the fallacy of “protecting girls’ athletics” recently, when a far-right hate group, Alliance Defending Freedom, filed suit on behalf of three cis runners who believed that competing against two trans runners was unfair. They stated that it was now “impossible” for them to win, and that they were being “sidelined” in their own sport. The two trans athletes in question are both exceptionally gifted runners, and the ADF suit alleges that their achievements on the track are solely due to their gender. The scientific consensus is that there’s no science-based reason to ban trans girls from girls’ athletics, but you don’t need science to disprove this argument. All you need is the simple fact that one of the cis girls who’s a plaintiff in the lawsuit beat Terry Miller, one of the trans girls she’s attempting to bar from competing– more than once, and in three separate events– just days after the suit was filed. 

If you need more evidence, consider that children under 10 have few discernable gender-based differences in their physical abilities, yet anti-trans activists want to extend the ban to all ages.

 

A National Geographic magazine cover with their standard wide yellow border and white lettering saying "NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC." A nine-year-old girl with dyed pink, shoulder-length, side-parted hair and pale skin sits in a chair with one arm in her lap and one arm dangling off the chair to the side. She looks seriously into the camera. She's wearing pink flowered cropped pants and a pink t-shirt. Underneath her, in white lettering, it says, "The best thing about being a girl is, now I don't have to pretend to be a boy." Across the middle of the image, in white lettering, it says, "Special issue: Gender Revolution."
Avery Jackson became the first openly transgender person to be featured on the cover of National Georgraphic in 2017.

The most disturbing aspect of all of this is the question: How do anti-trans activists expect schools will enforce these bans? Before puberty, gender difference is expressed entirely through external markers like clothing and hair– unless you insist that teachers have the right to physically inspect children’s genitals, an appalling concept to everyone, one would hope. And even after that age, there’s no reliable way to determine who is cis and who is trans just by looking. Due to the relentless and aggressive harassment, attacks, and oppression trans students face in our schools, many trans kids do not reveal they’re trans. I recall sitting in a staff meeting at a high school and silently listening to another teacher– a cis man– wonder aloud why we had no trans girls at our school. He worded it as “boys who want to be girls,” which explains why he had no idea that we indeed had trans girls, none of whom evidently felt safe enough with him to reveal that fact. All of our high school students were well past the prepubescent stage, and it was impossible to identify every trans girl attending our school as trans. 

If you’re about to say, “Just use the birth certificate,” I have a birth certificate that shows that I gave birth to a baby girl, despite the fact that she was assigned a different gender at birth. When she was a teenager, the court changed her name and gender, and all I had to do was send a copy of the court order and $32 to Records to have her birth certificate reissued. While not everyone has the resources and parental support to get a legal name and gender change, many states are making the name and gender change process more accessible. And even with dozens of roadblocks, the number of trans students able to access the process is not zero. Which leads me to:

It should be illegal for people to transition before they’re 18 anyway.” One of the main challenges of this “debate” is the sweeping, comprehensive ignorance of anti-trans activists combined with their consummate dedication to bad faith arguments. Anti-trans activists love to pretend that parents are somehow forcing their children to become trans, and that children are too young to know who they are. Yet parents of trans kids all tell the same stories– our kids came out to us, often to our great surprise. There are parents who try to influence their child’s gender identity, though. A shocking amount of kids are kicked out, disowned, sent to abusive camps for “conversion therapy,” and even beaten, all because they’re transgender. This lack of acceptance has led to an astonishingly high suicide rate for transgender youth. 

It’s also important to address the word “transition.” There are an enormous array of options available to trans women today. Even just limiting the discussion to medical treatments, there are dozens of different drug therapies, surgeries, procedures, and processes available. Anti-trans activists oversimplify this process, often down to the outdated, cringeworthy, and wholly inaccurate “pre-op” and “post-op,” as if the current state of a stranger’s genitalia dictates their gender. I can assure you, dear reader, that exactly no humans apart from my husband and my doctor have seen mine for many years, but every anti-trans activist I’ve encountered believes– without question– that I am a woman simply because I appear to be

This is the heart of the matter. Anti-trans activists don’t care about protecting women. They care about punishing difference

How do we know this isn’t about “protecting women” or “saving women’s sports”? Because many of the bans being proposed or currently in place require all student athletes to compete as the gender they were assigned at birth, which forces trans boys to compete against cis girls

Let’s take a little tour through online photos of trans male athletes, beginning with Mack Beggs.

A young man with a shock of dyed blond hair and pale skin slightly flushed from exertion stands with his arms crossed, looking straight into the camera, against a black background wall. He wears a black school wrestling tank with red trim and white letters that say "TRINITY," the name of his school.
Mack Beggs, pictured here at 18, wanted to wrestle against the other boys, but Texas state law forced him to wrestle against the girls because he was assigned female at birth. He took two girls wrestling state championships and was booed and harassed by the parents of the other wrestlers

A shirtless young man with tan skin, a small chin beard, a backwards baseball cap, and a pendant on a chain hits a classic thirst trap pose with one hand behind his head and his shirtless body slightly in profile, showing off his perfectly defined muscles. He holds his camera in the other hand to take this mirror selfie, and looks down at the screen, smiling slightly, giving the impression that he knows exactly what a thirst trap he is.
Alex Tilinca, seen here at 18, is a trans male bodybuilding champion. (Source: @alextilinca Instagram)

A light brown-skinned man sits outside and looks up and to the left at the camera. He has short curly black hair and a short black beard and mustache. He's a boxer, shirtless, hands taped, wearing boxing shorts. The expression on his face is somehow both kind and forbidding, the epitome of "Don't start no shit, won't be no shit." You can see part of a Celtic knot tattoo on his back.
In 2018, Patricio Manuel became the first trans boxer to compete professionally, beating Hugo Aguilar in four rounds. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

According to anti-trans activists, these young men are, in fact, women, and should be competing against women and using women’s restrooms and locker rooms. Of course, what they really want is for trans people to disappear from public life entirely. Conservatives forced Mack Beggs to wrestle on the girls’ team and then harassed him when he did.

These bans are harmful, anti-science, and, ultimately, unenforceable. They exist solely to punish difference, as they exist alongside other punitive measures taken against athletes who don’t conform to stereotypical notions of binary gender. Intersex athletes (a category larger than many people believe) who identify as women have long been subjected to invasive, traumatizing, and sometimes disqualifying examinations to determine if they’re “female enough” to compete as women. Even cis women who simply appear more masculine than transphobic gender gatekeepers would like, such as Caster Semenya, are subjected to invasive procedures, humiliating public discussions, and open harassment. When it was discovered that Semenya had naturally elevated testosterone, World Athletics instituted a regulation requiring women with elevated testosterone to take medication to lower it in order to compete– but only for the events in which Semenya regularly competes. And it’s surely no coincidence that the athletes bearing the brunt of all this scrutiny and criticism are Black.

This is about punishing difference, and nothing else, and the fact that it’s mainly targeting children is over the line. Let the kids play.

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Is Your School Reopening Its Buildings? Here Are the Questions to Ask.

Small child with dark skin and curly black hair wears a face mask while being carried by an adult. The child looks over the adult's shoulder, clinging to the adult, eyes wide.
Photo by Xavier Donat. Creative Commons License.

There’s been a flurry of activity nationwide about the need to reopen school buildings and get back to in-person instruction. No one wants to get back to in-person learning more than teachers! Teaching on Zoom is much more difficult, and an all-online K-12 curriculum has been wickedly difficult to create on the fly, not to mention extremely time consuming. But educators aren’t enthusiastic about this sudden push for in-person instruction because we want to ensure that it will be safe for teachers, students, and the families who are at risk of contracting anything brought home. 

The safety guidelines touted as “easy” and “effective” are impossible to follow without an enormous influx of funding and support. If you’re concerned about your school buildings reopening and want to ensure that it’s done safely, here are the questions to ask administrators and school board members. 

DISTANCING. In-person instruction can take two forms: hybrid instruction and full in-person instruction. 

HYBRID. Usually what “hybrid” means is that students are divided into small groups to allow for distancing in a regular-sized classroom, and attend in-person classes one or two days a week.  This sounds like a great compromise, but this model usually depends on every teacher moving from a single full-time job to two full-time jobs with no increase in pay or support. Each lesson will require both an in-person version for the students who are getting that day’s lesson in the classroom, and an asynchronous online version for the students who are at home for that day’s lesson. Those are two completely different types of pedagogy and require entirely different approaches. Teachers already work 10-12 hours a day on average, and there are only so many hours in the day, so the hybrid model requires that some corners be cut unless educators are receiving robust support. ASK:

  • What support are you providing teachers with the asynchronous curriculum so both in-person and asynchronous online instruction get someone’s full attention? 
  • Are you hiring more teachers to handle asynchronous curriculum?
  • If teachers are creating, implementing, and grading both the in-person and asynchronous classes simultaneously, are you shortening the instructional week to provide teachers with at least one day a week of lesson planning and grading? 

FULL IN-PERSON. This model involves just throwing open the doors and returning to pre-Covid in-person instruction. CDC guidelines for in-person instruction recommend keeping students six feet apart, but they have also said that three feet is fine if six feet isn’t realistic. In most overcrowded classrooms, three feet isn’t any more realistic, and it’s less effective for Covid mitigation. ASK:

  • How will distancing be achieved in a full classroom? 
  • Will the CDC-recommended distancing of six feet be in place? Or are you settling for three feet? 

FOR BOTH. ASK:

  • Has staff been given increased PTO to encourage staying home at the first sign of illness and for the full course of any contagious airborne virus?
  • Will everyone be given a temperature check before they’re allowed on school grounds? 
  • Will unvaccinated staff be required to undergo regular Covid testing? Will testing be conducted onsite, free of charge to staff?
  • What is the district doing to ensure rapid vaccination of teaching staff? 
  • Will families be able to request their students be placed only in classes with vaccinated teachers? Will priority for that placement be given to students at higher risk of serious illness and students whose family members have higher risk?
  • What happens when a student or teacher is diagnosed with Covid? Will the whole class be quarantined for two weeks as per CDC guidelines? If students move from class to class, as in traditional middle and high school in-person instruction, will the whole school be quarantined for two weeks for each diagnosis? 
  • What will the trigger be to close school buildings again? How many cases in what time frame?
  • Will you commit to informing all families of any Covid cases on site the same day you receive that information? 

MASKS. This is a particularly critical area for people who live in conservative areas rife with Covid deniers and anti-maskers. We know that a tight-fitting mask, combined with distancing and handwashing, can be as effective as a vaccine. If you have a crate of N95s, you can use one per day with no doubling. If you’re using cloth masks, the CDC is recommending layers– double masking or cloth masks with multiple layers– and choosing masks with nose wires and/or using a mask fitter or brace. The guidance is complex and is frequently updated as we gain more knowledge about the virus and its transmission. Don’t accept “We can’t enforce mask usage.” If they can enforce sexist school dress policies like “no spaghetti straps” and racist policies like “No braided hair extensions, twists, locs, or dreads,” they can enforce safety policies like mask wearing. ASK:

  • How is the school enforcing mask usage? Will there be a school-wide policy with clearly stated consequences for violations of the policy?
  • What happens if a student comes to school without a mask? Are they sent home or will the school maintain a supply of masks for those students to use? 
  • What happens if a student refuses to wear a mask correctly? 

VENTILATION. Distancing isn’t worth a hoot if the ventilation in the room isn’t adequate. An average school classroom contains 30-35 people anywhere from an hour to six hours at a stretch. Few schools have working, properly maintained HVAC. Many classrooms don’t even have working windows, and of course keeping windows open isn’t possible in cold, rainy, or snowy weather. Even here in California, it can be quite cold in the early morning, especially in classrooms with no heat.  ASK:

  • How will the district ensure that each classroom is properly ventilated regardless of weather?
  • Will HVAC systems be repaired and regularly maintained by professionals adhering to EPA and CDC guidelines? How often are air filters replaced?
  • Which school sites have no HVAC? Will you commit to providing those classrooms with high-quality air cleaners?

HANDWASHING. The need for frequent handwashing in classrooms is often tossed out as if it’s no big deal. Most classrooms do not have working sinks. Even with a sink, it can take half an hour of class time or more to get 30 students to wash their hands for twenty seconds each. Remember, they can’t share the sink area and must go one at a time to maintain distancing. The optimal situation would be individual bottles of hand sanitizer, or squirting hand sanitizer onto each pair of hands as their owners come in from recess or hand in an assignment one by one. But hand sanitizer isn’t– as you may have noticed– free. Hand sanitizer manufacturers expect to be paid for their product and its transport to your locale. School districts are so laissez-faire about supplies that teachers are forced to purchase pencils and paper for their classes with their own meager salaries, let alone hand sanitizer. ASK:

  • What percentage of classrooms have working sinks? How often is the hand soap replaced? When will the CDC-recommended no-touch faucets and soap dispensers be installed? How often are soap dispensers refilled?
  • Will you commit to purchasing a supply of hand sanitizer for each classroom without a working sink? Will you commit to restocking that supply throughout the year? When will the CDC-recommended no-touch dispensers be installed in those classrooms? Will they be regularly maintained?

STERILIZATION. One of the features of the Covid-safe school is sterilization of areas and equipment between use by different groups of students. Right now, it’s assumed that teachers will do the work of sanitizing areas and equipment. That assumption is wildly misguided. Teachers have very little time between classes, and that time is almost always taken with answering student questions, preparing for the next class, and supervising free-range students (“hall duty,” “yard duty”), which will also be a critical aspect of enforcing social distancing. Passing periods, recess, and lunch are also teachers’ only time to go to the bathroom. Teachers can’t legally leave students unsupervised, and must wait until there’s a break to run to the bathroom. What this means is that the district can assign sterilization duty to teachers, but teachers have not yet (to my knowledge) gained the requisite control over the flow of spacetime to carry out that assignment. Even if you had nothing else to do, ten minutes to wipe down an entire classroom with Clorox wipes is a tall order. Now try it when your classroom has been out of Clorox wipes for ten days and “Just come to the office during passing period and grab a few from our container” sucks up 6 of those minutes. And of course there are common areas, like lunchrooms and bathrooms. ASK:

  • Who will be sterilizing each classroom between classes while teachers are busy prepping the next lesson, supervising students in the hallways, or running to the bathroom?
  • Who will be sterilizing common areas, and how often?
  • Who will be cleaning student bathrooms, and how often?

BATHROOMS AND LOCKER ROOMS. Speaking of bathrooms, most student bathrooms have historically been crowded and unsupervised during passing periods. Locker rooms are somewhat better supervised, but often just as crowded, and filled with students breathing hard and sweating after exercise, making social distancing even more critical. ASK:

  • How will social distancing be enforced in bathrooms during passing periods and during class? 
  • How will social distancing be enforced in locker rooms? 
  • Are the bathrooms and locker rooms equipped with CDC-recommended no-touch faucets and soap dispensers? How often are the soap dispensers refilled? 

EQUIPMENT. In the pre-Covid world, students shared equipment frequently. In science classes, two or three lab partners shared the same microscope and lab equipment. In art classes, multiple students shared the same paint containers, pastel crayons, brushes, and pencils. In PE classes, some activities require multiple people handling equipment. ASK:

  • Has adequate equipment been acquired to ensure that students will be able to socially distance in every class, including PE and labs?
  • Who will be sterilizing each piece of equipment after use? Will students be expected to sterilize equipment as part of the clean-up process? Will there be extra time allocated for this, or will teachers need to end PE, art classes, and  labs early?
  • Will you commit to purchasing an adequate supply of cleaning equipment and PPE such as gloves to ensure this gets done? Will you commit to maintaining the supply throughout the year?

PE, MUSIC, & THEATRE. In these courses, students are usually quite close together, speaking loudly, breathing heavily from physical exertion (running, dancing), expelling air & droplets through singing and musical instruments. Yet these courses are often critical for student mental health and well being. Students who take music and theatre courses do better in English and math, for example, and have better attendance rates.  ASK:

  • How will PE, music, and theatre courses be adjusted to maintain social distancing?
  • Will PE, music, and theatre teachers be given expanded budgets and other support as needed to meet this challenge?

TRANSPORTATION. Does your school district have a busing system? ASK:

  • How will social distancing be maintained on school buses? Have you hired more drivers and acquired more buses so students can follow distancing guidelines on school buses?
  • Will there be increased supervision to ensure distancing and mask use, so enforcement doesn’t fall to the driver? Will you commit to hiring increased supervision rather than  simply assigning it to already overworked teachers?
  • Who cleans the buses, and how often are they cleaned?
  • Are drivers tested? Given daily temperature checks? Do drivers have adequate PTO so they aren’t forced to come into work regardless of illness? 

This doesn’t cover everything, but it’s a solid start. And this wouldn’t be a Bitter Gertrude post unless I mentioned the social justice impact of these decisions. When we believed white people were at equal risk, we closed school buildings and called teachers “heroes” for creating online classes on the fly. Now that we know communities of color and disabled people are much harder hit, teachers are “selfish,” the unions insisting on safety guidelines are “obstructionist” and “dangerous,” and school buildings must open right now, safety be damned, because it’s “safe enough.” Safe enough for whom? 

There have been 3.1 million cases of Covid in minors, and that figure is on the rise while nationwide cases decline. And while pediatric Covid is unlikely to lead to death, many people, including children, suffer long-term consequences we’re only beginning to understand, and of course infected children can spread Covid to their families and teachers.

Hopefully we can reach 100% vaccination before school buildings reopen, making all of this moot. Until then, let’s advocate for the safety of our students and educators– all our students and educators.

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Ten Ableist Tropes to Jettison in 2021

People with disabilities make up a significant percentage of the population– by some measures, a full quarter– and yet, despite aggressive, ongoing ableism, we are almost always left out of discussions of diversity and equity in theatre & film. We’re rarely hired and our stories are rarely told– when they are, they’re almost always told by abled people, for abled people, with abled people. Abled people are centered in nearly everything about us. 

A smiling young woman with olive skin, dark brown curls, red lipstick, and deep brown eyes smiles broadly in this headshot. She's wearing a red top and her head is tilted slightly to the side.
Throughout this post, I’ve included pictures and information about disabled actors, directors, writers, producers, & designers. Meet actor Melissa Salguero. Melissa is represented by Gail Williamson at KMR.

The centering of abled people routinely takes the form of ableist tropes that present the lives of disabled people through an ableist lens. In these tropes, the disabled body is used as a container for the emotions able-bodied people have about disability. 

You’ll recognize all of the following ableist tropes; you’ve seen them all numerous times. I am hardly the first person to write about these, and this isn’t even the first time I’ve written about them. Yet somehow, no matter how often we write or speak about this, ableism never seems to be taken seriously, and our concerns are minimized, dismissed, ignored, or outright rejected. Disabled people need people who live in privileged bodies to do better

A Black woman with her hair pulled back and falling over one shoulder smiles slightly in this headshot. She wears a rich blue shirt and light pink lipstick. She leans toward the camera as if she's about to tell a fascinating story.
Actor, storyteller, and performance artist Terri Lynne Hudson.

Ten Ableist Tropes to Jettison in 2021:

1. WE ARE NOT SYMBOLS. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen scripts with a disabled person who never appears on stage, only appearing in the play as a topic of conversation, a problem that must be solved by the able-bodied characters. I’ve seen scripts where a disabled person is on stage, but never given any lines or any meaningful action, often partially concealed– back to the audience, or partially behind a screen, for example. In each of these cases, the disabled person is a symbol of something affecting the able-bodied people. When a silent disabled character appears on stage yet is marginalized from the action, the disabled body is minimized, a prop rather than a human being. And those silent roles, removed from all meaningful action, are almost always played by able-bodied actors, which renders disabled people voiceless, powerless, and entirely invisible. The voiceless, powerless, disabled body is framed as a burden, an object of ridicule, an object of disgust, or an object of pity. An object, never a subject. 

Our disabilities are not ABOUT YOU. We  are not a “symbol of oppression,” a “symbol of willful ignorance,” “a symbol of the voiceless,” “a symbol of the futility of language,” “a symbol for our burdens,” or any of the other dozens of explanations I’ve been given when I point out that the disabled character is reduced to a prop. 

An ivory-skinned woman with short blonde hair and big hazel eyes has a perky smile in this headshot. She wears a rich blue shirt with a zig-zag pattern woven into the fabric. She stands in front of a black fence.
Actor, singer, director, and producer Erin Cronican, Executive Artistic Director of The Seeing Place Theater.

2. DO NOT INFANTILIZE US. When you depict your able-bodied characters treating your disabled characters like children, you’re echoing generations of oppression and marginalization we have endured. And these issues are intersectional. When you infantilize a disabled character who is neither male nor white, that infantilization is intensified by the white infantilization of BIPOC and the male infantilization of women, as well as trans, enby, and genderqueer people. 

Disabled adults are adults. Needing assistance does not make us children any more than an able-bodied person’s need for assistance makes them children. Everyone on the planet requires the assistance of another person each and every day. Unless you live as a hermit, grow your own food, generate your own electricity, make your own clothing from fabric you craft from raw materials; never use the internet, the postal service, retail stores, roads, healthcare, or sanitation services; never read books, listen to music, watch films, take classes, or have partnered sex, you are being assisted by others. 

Adults with disabilities are adults. We have adult problems, concerns, joys, fears, relationships, hopes, ambitions, plans, and desires. 

A tall, thin white man with a mustache and a beard; short, dark hair in a stylish cut, and dark eyes adjusts his tie as he smiles rakishly at the camera. He's pictured from the waist up, showing his stylish suit.
Actor Brian Seitel.

3. WE ARE NOT HERE FOR YOU TO SAVE. One of the most popular tropes is the “heroic” narrative in which an able-bodied person “saves” a disabled person by “curing” them, teaching them something (to walk again! to use spoken language!), or showing them life is worth living. The disabled person is deeply minimized, presented (again) as a problem for the able-bodied person to solve. The disabled character is often entirely reduced to “disabled and sad,”“disabled and angry,” or “disabled and bitter.” Disability is presented as a dragon for able-bodied people to slay while the disabled character sits by passively, and then showers the able-bodied character with gratitude when they are “cured.”  The worst part of this trope is that it’s often presented as “the heroic doctor who stops at nothing to find the diagnosis, treatment, and/or cure” when in reality, medical professionals routinely disbelieve us, avoid us, refuse to give us needed tests and medications, misdiagnose us, or give up after their first guess proves incorrect. And this gets much, much worse if you’re also in any of the other groups that doctors treat with the utmost skepticism– if you are a woman, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, poor, or fat

A woman with dark eyes and pale skin sits in her wheelchair. She has bleached blonde hair with dark roots cut in a short, 80s-inspired style. She wears a black top, a silver pendant, silver hoop earrings, and blue jeans.  Her hands are in her lap and her body is turned away from the camera, but her head is turned to face us. and she has a slight smile that's a bit mischievous.
Actor, singer, dancer, director, and writer Megan Simcox.

4. WE ARE NOT HERE TO INSPIRE YOU. You may have already seen this one referred to as “inspiration porn.” We’re not here to inspire you; we’re just trying to live our lives. We have all the same problems you do, plus our sometimes stubborn & disobedient– and beautiful, and sexual, and joyful– bodies. One especially egregious version of this trope is the MANIC CRIPPLED DREAM GIRL. Her illness or disability is always invisible and she’s always played by a thin, conventionally beautiful, young able-bodied white woman. She teaches the able-bodied hero to love, or to find himself, or to “appreciate the beauty of life,” while she bravely “overcomes” her disability to graduate, or travel “one last time,” or enter the big ballroom dance competition or whatever. She then conveniently dies, but not before her Final Inspirational Words, which are, of course, all about HIM. She dies (prettily) and he lives on, eternally inspired. There are many other versions of this trope, such as: 

  • “NO EXCUSES” (“a nearly worthless disabled person can do this amazing thing, so why can’t you, with all your majestic abledness?”)
  • “SUPERCRIP” (“it should be impossible for this disabled person to do this thing, but they are the literal best in the world”)
  • “THE ONLY REAL DISABILITY IS A BAD ATTITUDE” (“look how positive this weak and worthless disabled person is; suck up your problems, majestic abled”)
  • “HOW CUTE! THEY THINK THEY’RE PEOPLE” (“these poor, useless cripples get one shining moment to pretend to be human through the selfless, heroic work of able-bodied people who staged this event”).
A Black woman with short hair, a green headband, tortoise-shell-framed glasses, a black spaghetti-strap top, and pink lipstick smiles cutely, showing off her dimple. She's seated outdoors in a lovely park with green grass and trees.
Actress, writer, and poet Love Lace. Email ciarayvonnelovelace@gmail.com for booking inquiries.

There’s an easy way to depict disabled people doing cool– dare I say inspirational– stuff and avoid sliding into inspiration porn. Just write the disabled character exactly the same way you would write an abled character doing the same thing. Chirrut Imwe from Rogue One is a great example. What prevents him from falling into the “Supercrip” category is the fact that able-bodied characters throughout the series are similarly depicted using the force to achieve seemingly impossible things. Imwe is a valued member of a collective. He has a well-developed personality. His loving, longterm relationship with Baze Malbus is one of the most enjoyable relationships throughout the entire genre. Depict disabled people and our lives as varied and as full as anyone else’s and you won’t go wrong.

A tall, thin woman with pale skin and long, curly brown hair sits in her wheelchair. She wears a 1/2-sleeved black top with a plunging neckline, blue jeans, and a thick gold bangle. Her hands are crossed in her lap and her body is turned away from us, but her face is turned toward the camera. She's in a house with a hardwood floor and cream-colored walls. Her smile is wide, warm, and welcoming.
Actor, singer, and teaching artist Jenna Bainbridge. Jenna is represented by Gail Williamson at KMR.

5. OUR LIVES ARE NOT ABOUT DISABILITY. OUR PERSONALITIES ARE NOT “DISABILITY.” People with disabilities are wonderful people. We are also petty bitches, selfless heroes, cruel gossips, hardworking activists, ambitious entrepreneurs, excellent parents, terrible parents, and everything else. Becoming disabled didn’t change anything about me. I walk with a cane and have to manage chronic pain but I was the same irreverent, nerdy, overeducated discount Dorothy Parker both before and after I acquired this disability. If “disabled” is your character’s only description, you need to start over. 

An olive-skinned young adult sits with their body facing away from the camera, but their head turned back toward us, their left hand behind their head. They have short, dark hair in an 80s-inspired style; deep, dark eyes, and full lips. They wear a hoodie with pastel multicolored stripes and a diamond earring. They're sitting indoors, in front of a small wooden table with a green, grassy plant in a white ceramic container.
Singer, director, actor, and writer Osiris. Email cuenosiris@gmail.com for booking inquiries.

6. OUR LIVES ARE WORTH LIVING. One of the ways in which able-bodied people comfort themselves in this pandemic is to tell each other, “Most of the people who die have pre-existing conditions.” This is equivalent to saying, “Your life is worth so little that your death is less serious than mine would be.” When a disabled character dies, other characters should not echo this kind of sentiment by saying things like,  “At least he’s not suffering any more” unless he was in excruciating daily pain. Sure, there are ways in which disability can limit what we can do, but even if we can’t do a ten mile hike or see a painting, trust and believe our lives are as full of joy and pleasure as yours is. We have spouses and children; we make and consume art; we make and consume food. To quote your aunt’s kitchen wall, we “live, laugh, love” as much as anyone else. 

A filmmaker is lying on her stomach, propped up on her elbows, on the ground near the wheels of a non-moving train. She holds her camera, but looks over the top. She has brown skin, black hair pulled back from her face, and an expression on her face of serious concentration. She wears a short-sleeved red top, blue jeans, and a, orange and white bangle. A black labrador sits on the ground with its body up against her, gazing off camera at the same thing the filmmaker is looking at.
Day Al-Mohamed is an author, filmmaker, and political analyst. She’s a founding member of FWD-Doc (Documentary Filmmakers with Disabilities) and the author of the novella The Labyrinth’s Archivist. I don’t know the dog’s name, but he is clearly a very good boy.

7. DISABILITY DOES NOT MAKE US DIVINE ORACLES. This trope is thousands of years old, and deeply enmeshed in western literature. Sophocles, Shakespeare, and everyone else who wrote prior to the 20th century get a free pass. Yeah, I’m not thrilled about “Now that he is blind, he can REALLY SEE” or “This nonverbal person can literally BLESS YOU,” but no one is seriously proposing that we set fire to classical literature. We’re only asking for an acknowledgment that these tropes dehumanize us and a pledge to do better now that you know. A blind human has no more (or less) psychic, prophetic, spiritual, or metaphysical talents than a sighted human. A nonverbal human is not an “angel.” People with disabilities are people, no more or less oracular than anyone else. Disabled people share this tired trope with BIPOC (the “Magical Negro,” the “Magical Native American,” the “Magical Asian”) and we’re all asking you to do better. How do you know if you’ve written a “Magical Cripple” as opposed to a cool character with special powers? Does the disabled character have any goal, purpose, objective, or concerns other than helping an able-bodied character? If not, it’s time for a rewrite. 

A man sits in his wheelchair outside in front of a large tree. He has long, curly drak hair, olive skin, and a beard. His mustache has been waxed to curl up at the ends. He wears large, 70s-style sunglasses, a dark yellow suede coat with a fur-lined hood and fringe at the chest and waist, and blue jeans. He has one hand on the wheelchair armrest and one on his knee.  He has tattoos on his chest and hand, and a serious expression on his face.
Writer, producer, and director Rio Finnegan. His film production company is White Whale Productions.

8. DISABILITY DOES NOT MAKE US VILLAINOUS. This trope is also thousands of years old, and based in two purely ableist bits of nonsense: “Disabled people are bitter and angry at the world, and their hate and jealousy lead them to commit unspeakable acts,” and “A deformed body reflects a deformed soul.”  Again, no one is asking you to detonate every existing copy of Richard III. We’re asking you to acknowledge the issue and pledge to do better in your 21st century work as a writer. Allison Alexander has a great piece on this trope. Read it here

A woman with light skin and light brown hair is pictured partially obscured by something out of focus. She sits with her head tilted to her right, propped up by her right hand, with her left hand curled at her chin. SHe wears a tan off-the-shoulder sweater and has a somber expression on her face,
Director Chloe Kennedy specializes in acting theory, improv techniques, and queer performance. Email chloenkennedy@icloud.com for booking inquiries.

9. DISABILITY DOES NOT MAKE US INNOCENT. One of the issues widely discussed in medical ableism is the fact that doctors often assume disabled people do not have sex. It can be a struggle to get STD testing, birth control, or useful, sex-positive information. This issue is exacerbated by the portrayal of people with disabilities as innocent, asexual beings. Let’s face it, even people who are genuinely asexual aren’t angelic innocents. No one is. This trope is also expressed as characters with cognitive disabilities who are “too innocent” to recognize abuse or crime, the “cute mute,” and characters with physical disabilities who are automatically assumed to be incapable of evildoing. 

10. WE ARE NOT FAKING OUR DISABILITIES. This trope does significant real-world harm. One of the most common problems people with disabilities face is being disbelieved. We’re considered unreliable narrators of our own lives by medical professionals, by our families, by coworkers, and even by random strangers. Nearly every disabled person– certainly every one I’ve ever met– has been accused of exaggerating or outright faking either their symptoms or their entire disability. Ambulatory wheelchair users and people with invisible disabilities are particularly favorite targets of ableist bullying. This trope causes immediate and immense real-world harm whether the character you’re writing is deliberately faking a disability or has a psychosomatic disability that magically resolves when they learn to accept that the Big Accident was Not Their Fault, or when they learn to love life again, or when they learn the true meaning of Arbor Day. (Bonus points for the able-bodied characters smugly smirking behind the Fake Disabled person’s back when he forgets to limp because they have successfully distracted him).

The only possible way around this is including at least one well-rounded, fully developed disabled character. You can argue all you like that people fake disabilities in “real life,” but “real life” also includes far more examples of actual disabled people, so without that counterbalance, your script is just ableist. 

Griffyn is angled away from the camera, but looks back at us with an eyebrow slightly raised and a slight, mischievious smile. His dark hair is buzzed on the sides and longer on top. He has pale skin and wide, dark eyes. He wears a grey T-shirt with a red flannel checked shirt over it and sits in front of a bookshelf stuffed full of books.
Actor, writer, and consultant (specializing in mental health, gender positivity, and disability) Griffyn Gilligan. Contact his agent, Simon Pontin, at castings@thesoundcheckgroup.com.

Ableism is rampant in playwriting and screenwriting. It’s 2021, writers. It’s long past time to do better.

MORE DISABLED TALENT TO HIRE AND SUPPORT:

Michaela Goldhaber is a playwright, director, and dramaturg who heads the disabled women’s theatre group Wry Crips.

Writer Jack Martin runs the film review website Film Feeder.

Michelle E. Benda is a freelance lighting designer for theatre, dance, and opera. See her portfolio here.

Sins Invalid is a “disability justice based performance project that incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities, centralizing artists of color and LGBTQ / gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized.” Sins Invalid is run by disabled artists of color.

Access Acting Academy is an actor training studio for blind, low vision, and visually impaired adults, teens, and kids. They offer classes in New York and worldwide via Zoom. Access is headed by actor, writer, director, and motivational speaker Marilee Talkington.

And of course, yours truly. I’m currently available for consulting, dramaturgy, workshops, and classes. You can also become a Bitter Gertrude patron on Patreon.

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Theatre As Commodity: Saving Our Industry By Undoing Our Worst Mistake

We are a luxury good. And that? That’s not a compliment. It’s a calamity.

Chris Quintos in The Chalk Boy by Joshua Conkel at my theatre, Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Theatre is a shared artistic experience, both in its creation process and in its performance. In human history this shared artistic experience has been framed in a multitude of ways — as ritual, as religious observance, as entertainment, as propaganda, as resistance. And while it has been — and will continue to be — all these things in modern America, what it is primarily for us is a commodity. Framing theatre as a commodity is at the root of every major problem we have.

In 1954, we made a pretense of detaching art from commodification by the establishment of the nonprofit tax category, enabling nonprofit companies to collect tax-deductible donations & generate income without having to pay corporate income tax. Like absolutely everything else, this has primarily benefited the privileged.

Systemic racism, sexism, ableism, and transphobia are inextricably bound to classism and the commodification of the arts. All of these problems need to be addressed at once.

Arisa Bega in What Every Girl Should Know by Monica Byrne at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

INDIVIDUALS

The number of people making a living in the theatre is vanishingly small, and able-bodied white cis men are widely overrepresented. Most theatre is small, local, and underground, dominated by women and BIPOC who make almost nothing doing it. Well-funded theatres reach into this community occasionally and pluck out its white men while sourcing the majority of its hires from the same tiny handful of MFA programs that are the gated communities of the theatre world. While this has improved somewhat in the past ten(ish) years, it has improved at a glacially slow pace, in part because the commodification of theatre at all levels roadblocks progress and makes gatekeeping the far easier choice.

At every step on that journey, there are roadblocks for women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, and trans people. Economic disenfranchisement has long been a tool to protect privilege, and we have upheld that systemic injustice because the problems seem too big to solve. Whose family can afford theatre tickets, who gets arts education in schools, who can afford to attend an MFA program, who can afford to work for below-poverty-level wages before landing that LORT gig — and for many, especially women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, and trans people, after that LORT gig is over — all gatekeep who is able to become “professional.”

Imagine calling a doctor who runs a free clinic an “amateur doctor” or an attorney who works exclusively pro bono an “amateur attorney.” This is absurd; medicine and law rigorously control who is licensed to practice their craft as a “professional” based on education and experience. In theatre, we base this purely on income. How many weeks you were employed at a theatre with an AEA contract, which itself is based on income, determines who is a “professional.” These “professional” gigs are given disproportionately to white, able-bodied, cis men, weaponizing our art form against women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, and trans/nonbinary/GNC people.

ORGANIZATIONS

A small handful of companies, almost all run by able-bodied cis white men, collect the majority of the available funding. The importance, value, and prominence of a theatre organization is based on its annual budget. If your annual budget is below a certain amount, you quite literally don’t count — your stats are left out of every major study and your needs and concerns are left out of every initiative. Only theatres with a certain level of income qualify for inclusion in “the theatre.”

Theatres with incomes below a certain threshold are considered “amateur,” and beneath consideration. The more money a theatre has, the more power and influence it has. Considerations of quality or artistic experimentation are a distant second behind who is able to pay people the most money. That’s an important consideration — people should be paid fairly for their labor — but it should not be the primary evaluation of an organization’s worth. And of course, which organizations are given funding and how those decisions are made are steeped in the commodification of our art, which is bound to systemic inequities. Studies show that companies run by BIPOC get less funding; boards consider a candidate’s ability to bring in high-level donors a primary (if not THE primary) consideration in hiring and retaining Artistic Directors; grants are often given to white-run and abled-run theatres that do “outreach” to BIPOC and disabled communities rather than give funding to the smaller companies that are already doing that work. And so on.

AUDIENCES

Audiences are hounded for donations after paying an exorbitant amount of money for tickets. It’s shocking to charge $40 for a single ticket to a single performance when $40 will buy you a pair of padded, reclining seats with cupholders in a movie theatre, and no matter how you try to excuse it with “theatre is a unique experience,” “live performance is inherently more valuable,” or “it costs much more to produce than $40 a seat,” that’s a tough sell to the average overworked, underpaid American with very little free time and even less free money and we know it. We all know it. At the end of the movie, no one comes out and asks you to put even more money into a basket; no one emails you once a week forever after asking for money.

Theatre IS a unique experience; it DOES cost more than $40 a seat to produce. And yet the cost to attend is prohibitively high. Half price tickets for people under 30 is an expired Tylenol that theatre found in the bottom of its purse when what it needs is major surgery.

And what are you all thinking right now? You’re thinking, “$40 is cheap; most companies charge much more.”

FUNDING

We charge these kinds of prices because we must in order to survive. The truth is that most of us are barely surviving.

As a producer, I often heard, “If you can’t afford to pay everyone (amount), you shouldn’t be producing theatre.” This is the “let them eat cake” of the arts world. “Only the wealthiest theatres should be producing” is not the solution we need. “Just get more funding,” also something I was told over and over, isn’t a real answer. It’s magical thinking. There is no more funding.

We don’t just need more funding. We need better funding. Funding needs to be more practically and usefully conceptualized.

Right now, funding is based entirely on a for-profit, commodification model. We are supposed to imagine that we are selling a product to an audience. We should charge that audience as much as possible, pushing the limits of what the market will bear, and still work relentlessly to “upsell” them, to convince them to give us even more in donations. We do everything we can — we are forced to do everything we can — to cater to a wealthy audience, to keep them happy, to keep their wallets open.

We are a luxury good. And that? That’s not a compliment. It’s a calamity.

Jonathon Brooks in Of Dice and Men by Cameron McNary. Photo by Chshire Isaacs

WHAT’S THE SOLUTION?

Systemic problems require systemic solutions. And decoupling our art from commodification requires decoupling our art from the systems of hierarchical privilege that are bound together with it.

We need money to survive, and by “we” I mean both our companies and our individuals. Right now, in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, our industry — along with the rest of the US economy — is contracting, and there’s no way to know who or how many will survive. It’s a terrifying time. In many ways, it feels like now is not the time to address these major, systemic issues. But I think now, while everything is in flux, while most of our industry is paused, is exactly the time to create a better, more sustainable future.

We need to imagine ways in which our art is not valued by its success as a commodity, at every level.

Imagine more equitable funding. Imagine removing financial gatekeeping from grant applications. Imagine not caring if the money is “used well,” defined by the creation of a successful commodity. Imagine paying theatremakers a salary because they are theatremakers, whether they are part of a company, a production, or not. Imagine funding for operating costs, removing the need to lie on grant applications that all funding goes to production costs for that one sexy world premiere. Imagine funding playwrights because they are theatremakers, not because they wrote a sexy world premiere starring a celebrity. Imagine not caring about celebrity. Imagine free college and free MFA programs, including housing, ending MFA gatekeeping, then imagine fully funded arts programming in our public K-12 system, funding that’s centralized and untouchable, unable to be cannibalized for higher admin salaries at the local level by firing teachers and canceling programs. Imagine every child in America having arts classes. Imagine widening the definition of “arts” to include non-European art forms. Imagine kathakali being as valued as ballet. Imagine performance being as valued as STEM. Imagine capping all tickets nationally at the price of a movie. Imagine being able to make a career in theatre even if you didn’t marry an attorney or an engineer, even if your parents aren’t wealthy, even if you have no inheritance. Imagine how the entirety of our industry would change if access to its creation was no longer determined by income.

Imagine the circle of theatremakers, including funders, all looking at each other and saying, “We have decided to care for one another, as one community, to protect theatre as a shared human experience rather than a dog-eat-dog construct that values the privileged only.”

Systemic change is a challenge in theatre because we’re not just one field. We are multiple fields that collaborate to produce our deeply collaborative art form. Systemic change requires buy-in from funders, from donors, and from theatremakers simultaneously.

Every corner of our industry values the economically privileged. Our culture has spent generations disenfranchising people who are not able-bodied cis white men and creating systems based on the values, beliefs, needs, and desires of those able-bodied cis white men. Anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-genderist, anti-ableist work must be done as such, and it must be done in tandem with reshaping the commodification mindset and rejecting economic privilege as a core value, from playwriting to closing night.

Next up: That’s big talk, Melissa. Just how do we achieve this?

YOUR TURN

I have my ideas, but I want this effort to be collaborative. I want to hear from you as well. What are the ways in which you think theatre should be decoupled from commodification? Do you think theatre should be decoupled from commodification? Or is there a different solution? Email bittergertrude@gmail.com with your thoughts to include in my follow-up post.

Want more? Become a Bitter Gertrude Patreon patron!

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Worldbuilding: Your Secret Weapon

Cartoon image of Melissa in a red-orange shirtwaist dress with orange details, including a pumpkin brooch. Melissa has short red hair with bangs and wears black-framed glasses.
Art by Asia Ellington! I only own this dress in my dreams.

I’m giving a workshop in worldbuilding for playwrights! Come play with me!

Worldbuilding isn’t something we talk about often in playwriting and screenwriting. It’s more common to writers of fictional prose, especially SF/F writers.  Careful attention to worldbuilding, however, can level up your scripts significantly. Conversely, its lack can sink a piece, distancing or even confusing your audience. 

When people give examples of excellent worldbuilding, they’re always rich, deeply crafted fantasy scapes like the Lord of the Rings films, NK Jemisin’s fiction, or Game of Thrones. When you ask people about worldbuilding in playwriting, people will offer high concept musicals like Wicked or Seussical. But all well-crafted plays have richly detailed worldbuilding.

At its heart, worldbuilding is about consistency and detail

This Sunday at 4PM PST, I’ll be giving a Zoom workshop through PlayCafe on worldbuilding in playwriting. We’ll discuss the basics of intentional worldbuilding, troubleshooting common pitfalls, building inclusive worlds, and navigating authenticity.  Reserve your tickets here! The workshop is free, with a suggested donation of $10-20 to support the great work PlayCafe does for local playwrights. 

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Election Lawsuits: A Calming Closer Look

I have to admit I’m writing this piece as much for myself as I am for you. As a card-carrying Gen Xer, I’m a firm believer in KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! The more we know about Trump’s election lawsuits and claims of fraud, the easier it will be to see through his nonsense. 

First, let’s talk about Kayleigh’s binders. The woman who draws a taxpayer-funded salary to perform the duties of the White House press secretary has instead been wasting her time at work doing personal favors for one Donald J. Trump. You may have seen her waving around binders and claiming she has 234 signed affidavits. One brave Reuters reporter dove in and read them all when they were released, posting a thread on Twitter with examples. If you’re nervous about what evidence of fraud Republicans might have, real or invented, this thread is a calming read. They have bupkes.

A screenshot of Kayleigh McEnany on FoxNews holding two white binders, wearing a white shirt, and just being very very white in general.
OK, girl

Now let’s talk about the lawsuits themselves. I’ll limit myself to the post-election suits and a few pertinent pre-election suits; if I included all the pre-election lawsuits, this piece will be 20,000 words long. The pre-election suits are primarily the kinds of racist voter suppression attempts we’ve come to expect from the GOP. Most failed, but too many passed. Voter suppression will be a key issue between now and the 2022 midterms, so keep your eye on it. For now, let’s look at Deludinius Mendaciwhine Tantrump’s post-election lawsuits. Buckle up, kittens; here we go:

The Arizona state flag. It fails to appropriately capture just how freaking hot it is there, but it comes close.

ARIZONA

Aguilera v Fontes: This is one of the “sharpie lawsuits” that alleged votes for Trump in Maricopa County, Arizona, were invalidated because poll workers gave Trump voters sharpies to fill out ballots. It’s unclear how poll workers magically knew who was planning to vote for Trump. This was an internet rumor with no evidence and even less sense, so it was DISMISSED on 11/7. SCORE: 0-1

Donald J. Trump for President Inc. v Hobbs: Believe it or not, this is an identical lawsuit to Aguilera v Fontes. It was DECLARED MOOT on 11/13 as statewide votes have been tabulated and the Trump team realized Biden’s lead in Arizona was insurmountable. The court had previously asked plaintiffs to compile this suit with Aguilera since they’re the exact same suit, and plaintiff said no– because Aguilera had already been dismissed for lack of evidence. LOL. SCORE: 0-2

Arizona Republican Party v Fontes: Basically, this asks for a hand count of votes by precinct instead of at voting centers, and asks for an expansion of current audit practices. This was filed 11/12. Even if they win, Maricopa County vote totals show Biden ahead by 2.16%.. Recounts rarely overturn elections, and when they have, the original margin of victory was 0.05 – 0.1%. My guess is this suit will be declared moot as well. ONGOING, BUT IRRELEVANT. SCORE: 0-2

The Georgia state flag. It says "CONSTITUTION," "JUSTICE," "WISDOM," "MODERATION," and "IN GOD WE TRUST."

GEORGIA

In re: Enforcement of Election Laws and Securing Ballots Cast or Received After 7pm on November 3, 2020: The Trump Campaign and the Georgia Republican Party sued in an attempt to stop 53 votes– you read that right, 53 votes– from being counted in Chatham County, GA because, so Trump et al claimed, they were received after the close of polls. The court issued a one page order laughing them out of court for lack of evidence. DISMISSED. SCORE: 0-3

Brooks v Mahoney: Bunch of Republican yahoos in Georgia filed on 11/11 in an attempt to stop the statewide vote from being certified. They claim that voters’ voting and equal protected rights were denied, and therefore election results in eight Georgia counties are “illegal” and should just be thrown out entirely. Their evidence is speculative at best, mostly dependent on two things: five individuals claiming that they received mail-in ballots for dead relatives and the like, and– you’re gonna love this– the fact that Biden got more votes. They also claim that many Georgia counties have more registered voters than five-year-old population data predicted they would have, and they’re taking a Hail Mary pass at voting machines crashing in two counties, which they say is the same “glitch” that caused votes to be “miscounted” in Michigan. They must be hoping the court isn’t capable of googling the actual facts of the case from Michigan. Brooks v Mahoney is the sure_jan.gif of lawsuits. Since the entire state is undergoing a hand recount, this suit will probably be declared moot, but if not, surely it will be dismissed for lack of evidence. That said, even if Trump somehow managed to disqualify exactly the number of votes needed to win Georgia (and I’m sure that it’s just a coincidence that this lawsuit asks for exactly that), it doesn’t change the national outcome. ONGOING, BUT IRRELEVANT. SCORE: 0-3.

Why is Bigfoot on the Michigan state flag?

MICHIGAN

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc and Eric Ostegren v Benson: This one is hilarious. A dude named Eric Ostergren alleges that he was “excluded” from observing vote counting. However– and I quote the court in its ruling against Trump– “The complaint does not specify when, where, or by whom plaintiff was excluded. Nor does the complaint provide any details about why the alleged exclusion occurred.” They also submitted an affidavit from a poll worker who claims she was told by an unnamed poll worker that other unnamed poll workers said to backdate ballots. “Someone told me they heard someone else say X” is literally hearsay about hearsay. OBVIOUSLY Trump lost this one, but they’ve asked for it to be appealed, so technically it’s ONGOING. But since they already LOST this suit once, I’ll count it. SCORE: 0-4

Stoddard v City Election Commission: Republicans sued to stop the city of Detroit from counting votes. They LOST for lack of evidence. The 11/6 court order is full of snark about their lack of evidence and reliance on “mere speculation.” SCORE: 0-5

Polasek-Savage v Benson: On election day, Republicans asked for an emergency ruling challenging Oakland County, Michigan’s rule limiting poll watchers to one per party at absentee vote counting. DENIED. SCORE: 0-6

Constantino v Detroit: Another one claiming Detroit election results are too Black “illegal.” On 11/13, the court determined that the suit was “not credible,” both for lack of evidence and for the fact that many of the plaintiff’s concerns come from a lack of understanding of vote counting procedure because they failed to attend the pre-election informational walkthrough. You may have seen articles about this suit since it’s the one that contained things like “one poll worker was a big, intimidating man wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ shirt” and “people were giving us dirty looks.” DENIED. SCORE: 0-7

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. v Benson: This one also seeks to have the Wayne County, Michigan vote invalidated. Detroit is in Wayne County. It’s actually the DJT campaign plus a list of other people, including our old friend Eric “Lack of Evidence” Ostergren. This is another one about Republican poll watchers being “denied” entrance or re-entrance after leaving. The previous Michigan suits about this established that poll watchers were only denied entrance when the number of poll watchers had already reached the limit for that polling place. Previous judgments also mentioned that Republican poll watchers were so aggressive, disruptive, and combative that more than once they had to be removed by police for threatening poll workers. Nice. This one is technically ONGOING but it’s very unlikely to succeed. SCORE: 0-7. 

Bally v Whitmer. This is a doozy. Filed 11/10, it alleges all the same garbage about widespread fraud– backdating, computer “glitches,” lack of “transparency” due to poll watchers being “denied,” “clerical errors,” and “many other issues and irregularities” in Wayne, Washtenaw, and Ingham Counties. In case you’re wondering why those counties were singled out, Wayne County = Detroit, Washtenaw County = Ann Arbor, and Ingham County = Lansing. You have to hand it to these people– they’re persistent. At some point soon, someone’s going to be held in contempt for filing suit after suit alleging the same disproven, worthless, evidence-free garbage. In any case, this is ONGOING, but it seems very unlikely, given past rulings on these same allegations, that it will succeed. SCORE: 0-7

The Minnestoa state flag.

MINNESOTA, FOR SOME REASON

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc v Simon: The Trump campaign asked for all mail-in ballots received in Minnesota after election day to be segregated. The complaint was WITHDRAWN on 11/2, probably because Minnesota was already doing that. At this point, with Trump losing Minnesota by 231,633 votes. Trump has stopped claiming “fraud” in Minnesota and says he will never return to the state. I’m sure they’re broken-hearted. Personally, I think he’ll be back as soon as he’s free to start charging for tickets to his superspreader rallies. SCORE: 0-8.

The Nevada state flag. It says "BATTLE BORN."

NEVADA

Stokke v Cegavske: Welcome to Nevada, home of Las Vegas, acres and acres of desert, and Trump megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who has already told Trump to just coned already FFS. This suit is the same old “BUT OUR POLL WATCHERS” and gripes about signature matching software we’ve seen elsewhere. Republicans asked for a temporary restraining order to halt vote counts in Clark County, home to– you guessed it– Las Vegas, and to allow poll watchers to get closer than six feet. DENIED on 11/6. SCORE: 0-9

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc and the Nevada Republican Party v Gloria: Republicans were hearing voices in their heads calling “Gloria,” but they were far less successful than Laura Branigan was in 1982. Whatever happened to Laura Branigan? Anyway, DISMISSED on 11/9. SCORE: 0-10

Kraus v Cegavske: Another poll watcher case. Trumplicans wanted to stop vote counting in Clark County until they were allowed to observe the process. Poll watchers were restricted to 25 feet away from the vote counting, which is honestly kind of ridiculous, but at any rate Republican poll watchers were treated no differently than Democrat poll watchers, so the court ruled GTFOH. The Trumplicans were all, WE SHALL APPEAL and Clark County was like, GIVE ME A DAMN MINUTE and I’ll get you a doc with a settlement compromise because frfr, 25 feet is kind of ridic for both sides. The Trumplicans were like, WE DEMAND A STAY RIGHT NOW! STOP COUNTING VOTES!!!!!!! and the court ruled Settle down, Beavis. DENIED. SCORE: 0-11.

I need to get something to drink before I start in on Pennsylvania. 

The Pennsylvaia State Flag. It was show ponies on it and I have no idea why. It says "Virtue, Liberty, and Independence."

PENNSYLVANIA

OK, I’m back with a big glass of water and a molasses cookie. I’ll post the recipe at the end because I have the world’s best molasses cookie recipe, no lie. 

Republicans filed numerous pre-election lawsuits and lost all of them. They’re not in the count here because they’re all pre-election suits focused on voter suppression rather than challenging the results in any real way, but bear it in mind that Republicans were already cramming frivolous lawsuits into the Pennsylvania system long before election day. 

Woodruff v Philadelphia County Board of Elections: “So much fraud!” “Do you have evidence?” “I withdraw most of my complaint.” “Most?”   “I mean, I have SOME evidence.” “Do you, though?” “………………….no.” DENIED 11/3. SCORE: 0-12

Bognet v Boockvar. This one has a lot of moving parts. You can read the decision here. DENIED 11/9. SCORE: 0-13.

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc and Republican National Committee v Boockvar: In a rare win for the Trump campaign on 11/12, the court required Pennsylvania counties to toss out votes from voters who failed to provide supplemental ID by 11/9. The votes were already being segregated pursuant to an 11/5 court order, so this will not impact the state election results. Trumpworld is celebrating because the ruling at its heart was that Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State and KNOWN FEMALE PERSON didn’t have the authority to grant an extension to voters three days before the election, after she was told by the USPS that Pennsylvania had been thoroughly DeJoyed and would be unlikely to return mail-in ballots on time. Trumpworld is speculating that this means wins elsewhere. It does not. Trump’s attorneys admit that the goal isn’t to flip Pennsylvania since they’re too far behind for any of their lawsuits to have that impact, and of course there’s the small matter of losing every suit but this one. Campaign attorneys say their goal is to narrow Biden’s lead to trigger a recount. As I say above, a recount is extremely unlikely to change the results. WIN. SCORE: 1-13

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc v Montgomery County Board of Elections: The Trump campaign is asking for 592 ballots to be invalidated because the voters forgot to put their return address on the outside of the mail-in ballot envelope. DENIED 11/13. SCORE: 1-14. 

In re: Motion for Injunctive Relief of Northampton County Republican Committee: Republicans wanted to prevent the Northampton County Board of Elections from disclosing the identity of canceled ballots. I guess they didn’t want people finding out their votes had been invalidated, so they wouldn’t be able to seek remedy. A garden variety voter suppression effort. DENIED 11/3. SCORE: 1-15

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc v Boockvar: Basically, the Trump campaign has asked the court to invalidate the vote in all Pennsylvania counties that voted for Biden. If you want to read a zillion pages of Trumpian whining, be my guest. Here’s the motion to dismiss. The original complaint was filed 11/9, so it’ll be a few days before we get the court’s ruling. Unless they’ve suddenly found real evidence of fraud that’s not “Biden won,” this will be dismissed as all other claims of fraud have been dismissed. ONGOING. SCORE: 1-15

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. v Bucks County Board of Elections: The Trump campaign initially filed on election day to stop Bucks County from counting mail-in ballots. That was DISMISSED. I’m seeing conflicting information about whether this is an appeal with new evidence or an entirely new suit or what, and honestly, I’m so exhausted by reading all these whiny, evidence-free suits that I’m not planning to find out. Regardless, the appeal (or new suit?) is ONGOING BUT IRRELEVANT, as it asks the court to toss out 2200 ballots in Bucks County, where Biden beat Trump by 17,328 votes. The hearing is 11/17, and the “evidence” they’re using is that the 2200 ballots were not sealed properly, were filled out with incomplete dates (such as leaving off the year), or did not have the full return address on the outer envelope. SHOCKING LEVELS OF FRAUD OMG SOMEONE IN BUCKS COUNTY DIDN’T INCLUDE THEIR ZIP CODE ON THE RETURN ENVELOPE THE WHOLE ELECTION IS INVALID. I’m still counting the initial dismissal, because after all this, we deserve it. SCORE: 1-16.

Pirkle v Wolf: Some random Republican voters (because Trumpworld needed to dig up some people who would have legal standing to bring the suit)  claim that election officials in some counties– COINCIDENTALLY all areas Biden won– counted illegal ballots. Their *coughcough* “evidence” contains gems like “Some voters were advised they needed to cure ballot defects while others were not” with no indication of where or when this happened, who performed these actions, or who witnessed them; and “a poll watcher overheard unregistered voters being advised to return later under a different name that was registered in the poll book,” which would be classic hearsay if they had details about who overheard this, when and where it was overheard, and who was doing the advising, but– and I know this will shock you– they do not. Which makes this yet another case of hearsay about hearsay. This was just filed on 11/10, so it has yet to be laughed out of court. ONGOING. SCORE: 1-16.  

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc v Philadelphia County Board of Elections: Lie-filled 11/5 claim that Republican poll watchers are being “intentionally refused,” and that an emergency stay must be issued to stop the count until this is remedied. Because poll watchers were indeed present by agreement of all parties, this was DENIED 11/5. SCORE: 1-17.

Donald J. Trump for President, Inc v Philadelphia County Board of Elections: This is actually five different requests for appeal. Each appeal is for a different area, but they all are demanding that ballots be thrown out if they have various minor envelope errors, are from people who voted by mail but then died before election day, or that were given a “secondary review” by election officials. There may be more; I just skimmed it. But honestly, who cares? They were all denied. 

FIRST APPEAL 11/10 asks the court to toss 1211 ballots; DENIED 11/13. 

SECOND APPEAL 11/10 asks the court to toss 1259 ballots; DENIED 11/13

THIRD APPEAL 11/10 asks the court to toss 533 ballots; DENIED 11/13

FOURTH APPEAL 11/10 asks the court to toss 860 ballots, DENIED 11/13

FIFTH APPEAL 11/10 asks the court to toss 4466 ballots; DENIED 11/13

SCORE: 1-22.

 

The "Game Over" screen from the old arcade video game Asteroids.
Trump is currently sending desperate emails asking his supporters for more quarters, but the fine print shows where most of the money is really going. You’ll never guess.

I’m sure there are some suits I missed, and I’m sure there are some details I got wrong. I’m not an attorney. My point is not to provide legal analysis but to provide a bit of calm. I’ve seen many legal analysts say, “Don’t look at what they’re saying on TV; look at what they’re saying in court.” Trump’s attorneys are deeply into the nitpicking weeds, focusing on things like “the envelope wasn’t sealed” and “this voter put 11/1 instead of 11/1/20.” They’re putting hearsay about hearsay into official complaints, then asking for wildly outsized remedies like “the entire county’s vote should be invalidated.” They’re even filing suits using “evidence” that was thrown out in other cases.  

When your lawsuit asks for votes in an entire county to be invalidated because a Republican poll watcher thought Democrat poll watchers were “staring at her” and the room was “too loud,” you’re not a serious attorney filing a serious case. The point here is to create mistrust in our democratic processes, diminish faith in our democracy, foment anger and division, and stall as long as possible so that Trump and the RNC can grift as much money as possible from their gullible supporters.

While the suits are still ongoing, Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security has flatly stated there was no election fraud, and multiple behind-the-scenes sources have admitted that Trump himself knows as much

While Trump will be out of office on January 20, 2021, Trumpism, with its lies, division, anger, bigotry, and hatred, will continue to exist. Republican voter suppression will continue to exist. Get ready to roll up your sleeves, but take a moment to enjoy Trump’s defeat. Why not make some molasses cookies?

World’s Best Molasses Cookies

There’s no picture because I went into the kitchen to take one and the cookies were all GONE. 

Ingredients

4 cups AP flour

½ tsp salt

2 ¼ tsp baking soda

2 tsp ginger

1 ¼ tsp ground cloves

1 ¼ tsp cinnamon

2 sticks of butter (1 C)

1 cup sugar

½ cup brown sugar

½ cup + 2TB dark molasses 

2 eggs

Method:

  1. Cream the butter and sugars.
  2. Add the molasses and eggs and mix well. 
  3. Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda, and spices.
  4. Add the dry team to the wet team and mix. You’ll need to use your hands to finish. 
  5. Roll into balls, then roll each ball in sugar. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet at least an inch apart and flatten slightly with the palm of your hand. 
  6. Bake at 325F for 9 – 11 mins. Cool on a baking rack. 

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The Future of Theater in the US

Everything is in flux, our future is uncertain, and we’ve never been more important.

Delacriox’s “Liberty Leading the People” with “The Arts” on her flag and “Remember Who You Are” below

Are we really that important?

The arts are always important, but they’re critical during cultural inflection points, and right now, the US is in a doozy. The GOP slide into authoritarianism is unraveling our democracy, emboldening racists, and pushing the horrific stance that everyone but the GOP base are “the enemy,” and, in the words of Eric Trump, “not even people.”

Republicans have radically shifted their approach to the problems facing our nation.

In the past, we discussed problems in terms of: “What do we do about this fact?” Republicans have altered the terms of the debate to: “What is true?” They dismiss factual evidence by claiming that the source of that evidence is liberal — “the enemy.” The circular logic is dizzying — they claim that publishing a “fake news” story is “proof” that a source has a “liberal bias” while simultaneously claiming that the “proof” that the story is “fake news” is that it comes from a “liberal” source. Only stories that confirm their world view — no matter how outlandish or contradictory — can be “true,” and all stories that contradict their world view, no matter how well supported by evidence, are “fake news.”

While the point of this is discrediting any source that could cast their agenda in a negative light, that short term gain for Republicans comes at a major long term expense. If we can no longer agree that facts, evidence, & expertise = truth, then we can get nothing accomplished, there’s no point in thorough, serious debate about any issue, and the only consideration becomes: Who has the most raw political power?

Republicans now have fully committed to Bully Politics. Using their newfound ability to define “truth” politically rather than factually, they feel perfectly entitled to ignore factual problems and substitute a list of wholly invented problems, like “Antifa,” (which Trump’s own FBI determined was an ideology, not an organization), the imaginary idea that trans women are a danger to cis women, or the dire predictions they’ve made about every Democratic politician for years that never materialize — they’ll send jack-booted thugs to confiscate your guns; they’ll outlaw Christianity; they’ll put conservatives in concentration camps; they’ll institute communism; they’ll kidnap, sexually assualt, and eat your children (which, while new for everyone else, is familiar to Jews as one of the primary antisemitic lies, known as the “blood libel”).

Republicans have evacuated all serious discussions facing our nation and the world — climate change, systemic racism, authoritarianism, public health, Russian aggression, North Korean nuclear capabilities, losing our place as the economic center of the world, losing our place as a political world leader, alienating our allies while courting & flattering brutal dictators — by locating the argument in gaslighting rather than in discussing the issues. Republicans have bet the farm on “none of these problems are true” because they have no answer for “what do we do about these problems?”

This inflection point will decide the entire future of our culture. Are we a nation of evidence, careful consideration of the facts, and serious debate? Or are we a nation that prefers to ignore our problems and focus instead on sifting who is in the “in group” and who is in the “out group,” distributing rights and rewards accordingly?

At major cultural inflection points, the role of the arts becomes critically important. The arts are where we, as a culture, determine who we are, what we want to be, what we hope for, what we fear, what we’re willing to fight for. The stories of a culture reflect that culture and shape it. The storyteller shapes the narrative; the narrative shapes opinion and belief; opinion and belief shape the culture. There is no greater power than controlling the narrative, which is precisely why conservatives have radically shifted the terms of the debate and focused on the fictional narrative that the left are not, as previously believed, fellow Americans whose opinions differ, but “the enemy,” hell-bent on “destroying America,” whose statements are always calculated lies.

At this point in our culture’s history, we must fight for a shared acceptance of reality. We must fight for a return to the critical cultural narrative that evidence and expertise are more important than opinion and belief, and that facts should shape our worldviews, not the other way around.

The arts have more power to shape culture than any politician or political pundit. There are examples of this throughout our history. Sometimes it’s an art-led movement, and sometimes the arts distill, reflect, and popularize something already stirring in the cultural fringes — usually both. But one thing is certain:

This is the most important cultural moment for arts leadership that there has ever been in our lifetimes. We must fight for the existence of observable, verifiable truth.

So what do we do?

Pete Seeger's banjo says "This Machine Surrounds Hate and Forces it to Surrender."
Pete Seeger’s Banjo, photographed by Annie Leibowitz.

We’re arts leaders. It’s time to lead. What does this mean in practical terms?

1. Honor and promote expertise. This means recognizing that an industry centered around white male able-bodied gatekeepers is limited in its understanding of the issues that face our industry and our nation. Hire, center, promote, & share power with marginalized people. Disabled people & BIPOC in particular have been pushed to the margins in our culture and our art. BIPOC are pushing theater, film, and television into a diversity, equity, and inclusion reckoning that’s been a long time coming. Embrace this rather than push against it. Disabled people are still almost completely ignored in DEI work in the theater. LEAD by putting both BIPOC and disabled people into real positions of power at your company and listen to what they have to say about every issue, not just about BIPOC-specific or disabled-specific issues. BIPOC and people with disabilities will have perspectives on general issues that white and able-bodied people lack. We recognize that professional experience grants expertise; this is not controversial. A development person with 20 years of experience has expertise in development; no one questions that. We must also value expertise gained through lived experience as a marginalized person.

2. Act on your principles. Move DEI from an “initiative” to a foundational component of your mission. Move DEI from vague and general to specific and direct. Several white men I was working alongside for the past few years publicly supported Black Lives Matter and #MeToo while simultaneously insisting that Black women in our own organization were “exaggerating” and “wrong” about sexism and racism in our own workplace. Online support is great. It helps shift the zeitgeist. But performative support for victims in high-profile cases of abuse, marginalization, and bigotry in which your personal influence is minimal becomes a depressing joke when you actively work against victims in your own workplace, where your personal influence is deeply consequential. It’s great that you show public support for women, BIPOC, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ+ people, but it’s critical to stand with them in your own organizations. I understand that it’s much easier to denounce someone far away than it is to examine and admit your own complicity, learn and grow from the experience, and commit to finding better ways to navigate your cultural privilege. But it’s work that can’t be avoided if we’re committed to justice. 

3. Reject “balance.” Reject “neutrality.” Now is the time to take sides. Side clearly with the idea that reality exists and that evidence is unchanged by opinion. We’ve gone well beyond Rashomon-style examinations of subjectivity. In our culture, the terms of the debate have been deliberately shifted from “How did this murder happen?” to “Did the murder even take place?” and “Did this person even exist?” We’re seeing it in the shift from “What do we do about Covid?” to “Is Covid really dangerous?” and even “Is Covid even real?” We’re seeing it in the attempted ban on diversity training and the words “systemic racism.” But Covid is a public health crisis no matter how many times they deny it, and systemic racism exists whether they yank federal funding or not. Reality cannot be blackmailed. What does this mean for us in practical terms? Refuse to stage work or host discussions that feature false equivalencies between reality and propaganda. The terms of the discussion must be “What will we do about this issue?” not “Is this issue real?” Do not allow the terms of the debate to include calling hard evidence into question for ideological purposes. In other words: Do not stage Oleanna or any other work that pretends racism, sexism, ableism, or other forms of bigotry might actually just be tools to destroy good white men. These works are not “controversial” or “provocative.” They’re dishonest. No one needs to explore Oleanna’s silly, disingenuous central question “Are accusations of sexism just women exacting revenge because they aren’t smart enough to understand the brilliance of white men?” Stage works that deal with problems honestly. There are plenty of “controversial” and “provocative” plays that honestly explore issues. Remember that everything is political, so all of this applies to fluffy romantic comedies just as much — and likely more — than it does “political theater” with an outwardly political agenda. This extends to all programming. Do not host audience engagement events that include discussions that claim to feature two people from “both sides” of an issue when one side is just dismissing or minimizing the issue. And do not be afraid to ask for help. If you’re unsure, reach out to someone in your org or in the community, or hire a DEI consultant to confidentially help you navigate the situation.

4. Remember who you are. Remember your magic. Remember your power. Make “Guardian of Truth” part of your work. Remember that “truth” includes diverse perspectives. Remember that “truth” doesn’t mean “linear political theater.” Remember that “truth” extends to how you treat every human who touches your organization — staff, audience, press, donors, board, grant officers, passers-by, the dude at Office Depot ringing up your printer cartridges — everyone. I know times are tough. I know not every company will survive. But we will go down fighting. REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE. Your work makes a difference. Your work is powerful.

There’s so much more to discuss, and so much more we can do. This is just the Starter Pack.

Now is the time for arts leaders to lead. Suit up, theater. Let’s go.

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GOP Politicians: Your Five Point Plan to Surviving Trump

Dan Rather tweets: It's tempting to use the analogy of rats fleeing a sinking ship to describe the growing number of Republican elected officials starting to speak out against Donald Trump. But that's not really fair to rats, who tend not to be complicit in driving ships to the bottom of the sea.

I’ve long said that GOP politicians will stand by Trump, no matter how criminal, dangerous, or simply bizarre his behavior is, until the exact second he becomes a political liability. Well, we’re two weeks away from the election, and Republican after Republican — especially Congressional Republicans in tight races — have been tentatively testing the waters of dissent with a few mild, safe criticisms for weeks. Now they’re either arranging for their “private dissent” to be leaked or are publicly stating that they were secretly “concerned” all along as they begin the scramble to distance themselves from the sinking failboat that is Donald Trump. Some examples:

Even die-hard loyalists like Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham are publicly discussing the possibility of losing the White House to Democrats. Both Cruz and Graham vociferously opposed Trump in 2016, then made abrupt reversals as soon as he won. Reversals they have both lived to regret — Cruz nearly lost his seat to charismatic upstart Beto O’Rourke in 2018 and Graham is in real danger of losing his to brilliant, heartfelt Jaime Harrison.

And I haven’t even begun talking about Mitt Romney.

In the interest of selfless service like a good Camp Fire Girl (Ret.-CA), I’ve compiled the Five Point Plan for Republicans Looking to Survive Trump. I predict GOP lawmakers will roll out one or more of the following over the next few weeks. Some will roll out all of them for different audiences.

  1. “I’m a new man”: Admit you were wrong and choose a moment when you realized that your best intentions for America and loyalty to the Republican party had led you to support a man who was Bad for America. But at the time, you trusted! You believed! You had misgivings but set them aside because America! And then you met Mrs. Fictional Blackwoman, whose personal story made the scales fall from your eyes, and you realized that you were wrong all along. Then sell the whole thing as a book: American Greatness: The Day I Heroically Believed a Black Woman.
  2. “God’s imperfect vessel”: Rehabilitate his image using selective memory, lies, and racism. Claim that, despite his “rough edges,” “crass tweets,” “tough talk” and “plans to make the US an authoritarian dictatorship,” he still protected good Christian people from Antifa, Black Lives Matter, immigrants from nonwhite countries, and Jewi — I mean (WINK WINK) “globalists”! God used this imperfect vessel for good works.
  3. “The Susan Collins”: All of that support for Trump was just support for the glorious American patriotic Republican party. He was our leader and I owed him loyalty, but secretly I was at the White House every day begging him to be less awful. Look at all the times I said I was “concerned”! I voted with my fellow Republicans out of loyalty to them and to the party, but secretly the entire time I was “concerned.”
  4. “The Defense Counsel Special”: I never read any of those bills. I was just following orders from party leadership. Also Your Honor, I spread slander against the plaintiff only on orders from leadership. I just repeated what Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump told me to say and I had no idea it was Russian propaganda. I apologize to Hunter Biden and to President Biden, and to the American people, and hope that this court will take that into consideration when determining damages.
  5. “The Hail Mary”: But was he really that bad? Like, it could be worse, right? I mean, most people are still alive, right? And unemployment is what, just — oh, God, is it really that high? Um, OK, well, he lowered taxes? I mean, MY taxes went down, so — right; moving on. . .um . . . He was an American patriot who did his best in multiple crises, most of his own making, but he always put American patriots first, especially the great Trump family.

The next days and weeks will reveal which Republicans choose which of these to deploy, but the rats are indeed leaving the sinking ship, with apologies to Dan Rather. Whatever the outcome of the election due to the antiquated foolishness of the electoral college, Trump’s popularity is sinking like a rock, and the Republican party may never fully recover.

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Why It Matters That Trump Called Kamala Harris “This Monster”

Senator Kamala Harris smiles broadly and applauds at an outdoor event.
All photos of Senator Harris are taken from her Senate website, harris.senate.gov.

There’s a lot going on today. The FBI caught a white militia in an attempt to kidnap Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer, evidently believing they were carrying out Trump’s orders to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.” Trump’s team is throwing a tantrum over the Commission on Presidential Debates’ decision to make the next debate virtual due to Trump and his team being contagious with a dangerous virus. In an astonishingly dimwitted move, the campaign released a letter denouncing CPD for “trying to protect Joe Biden” (and, one assumes, themselves and everyone who works at the venue). Senator Mike Lee (R-Utah) tweeted that he’s against democracy because it “thwarts liberty, peace, and prospefity.” (Ah, prospefity, one of the cofnefstones of ouf gfeat country.)

Senator Mike Lee tweets "Democracy isn't the objective; liberty, peace, and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that." October 7, 2020. "Prosperity" is misspelled.

But one thing passed quickly this morning that needs a closer look: Trump twice called Senator Kamala Harris “this monster.” I know it seems like just one more thing to toss on the 25th Amendment pile, but it bears particular scrutiny. 

We’ve already seen conservatives (and even some men on the left) pull out every ugly sexist attack in the Tired Old Playbook of Sexist Attacks. Harris is a “madwoman,” a “slut” who “slept her way to the top,” she’s ugly, her voice is “shrill” and “grating.” She’s “ambitious,” which is only a slur when applied to women; when applied to men, it’s a compliment. After the Vice Presidential debate, conservative men– let’s call them “con men” for short– flooded social media with declarations of Harris’ “unlikeability.” That’s truly my favorite. These con men mean she’s “unlikeable” to them. The kind of man who uses that term is, invariably, intimidated by strong, smart women because they’re afraid (usually for good reason) that the women are stronger and smarter than they are. 

“Monster” has been used against women dating back to the fight for women’s suffrage. Women who rejected the idea that women are inferior to men, should be ruled by their husbands, and exist to serve men have historically been called “monsters” whose “monstrosity” is a destructive force against “the American family” and “the American way of life.” Senator Harris, as a powerful, brilliant woman who does not suffer fools gladly, is, to these frightened little men, a “monster.”

Senator Kamala Harris leans down and smiles broadly at an adorable Black boy of about 5, who smiles excitedly.

But to these frightened little con men, Kamala Harris isn’t just a woman– she’s a woman of color. She’s mixed race– her father is a Black man who immigrated from Jamaica and her mother was an Asian woman who immigrated from India. 

When a man like Donald Trump calls Harris “this monster,” he’s not only using a term with a long, sexist history; he’s deploying a racial slur that has been used against both people of color and mixed-race people for hundreds of years. 

“This monster” means she’s not human but sub-human, unworthy of the consideration we owe other human beings. Dangerous, malevolent. “This monster” is a weapon intended to dehumanize.

Dehumanization is the centerpiece of racism. Monstrosity has been attributed to both Black and Asian people throughout US history. It was used as a justification for slavery– these “savage monsters” would become a destructive force if left “uncontrolled,” raping white women and murdering children in their cradles, without the “guidance” of white enslavers. It underpinned the “yellow peril”– these “monsters” are “ruthless” and “heartless” sub-human dangers to upstanding Americans. Brown-skinned people, regardless of culture or ethnicity, were called “monster” after 9/11. “These monsters want to destroy America,” white people say when they attack– and kill– Sikhs in turbans, as far from being Al Qaeda as a white American is from being a White Guelph. These attacks surged after 9/11 and have been increasing, unsurprisingly, in the Trump era, as all racist attacks have been increasing, emboldened by their racist leader tweeting his racism, airing it on television, trumpeting it from the very steps of the White House. “We” are human; “they” are monsters. 

The young woman pictured here with Senator Harris is wearing a CHP Explorer uniform, a program for people 15-21 who are interested in becoming CHP officers.

What’s particularly potent in Trump calling Harris “this monster” is that “monster” has been used for generations as a particular slur against mixed-race people. They don’t “belong” to any one race or ethnicity; they’re “monsters” who don’t belong to any human category, an “unnatural” amalgamation that goes against the “law of God.” This argument was used to justify slavery (abolishing slavery would lead to interracial unions and “monster” children), and then again to justify bans on interracial marriage (again, “monster” children). It’s in use right now, in far-right circles, about mixed-race people. The far right is, right this second, justifying white supremacy and the “purity” of the “white race” by calling mixed-race children “monsters.” 

Donald Trump knows as well as any racist and sexist what it means to call a mixed-race female Senator a “monster.” 

Senator Kamala Harris stands with her hand over her heart.

As with everything in modern conservatism, accusations are confessions. Trump claims Biden and Harris are “liars” and “corrupt,” that Biden is “lazy” and “losing it”– all things that Trump himself is, as the impartial observers outside the US, aghast at what’s happening in America, often discuss. So Trump predictably defends against the widespread claim that he, and the GOP he bullied into his own image, are “monsters” due to their monstrous behavior by calling Senator Harris a “monster,” but the two are not equivalent. Trump and his GOP are monstrous in their speech and actions. 

Trump calls Senator Harris “this monster” because he’s using racism and sexism to appeal to his base, and that racism and sexism makes him, in a word, monstrous.

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