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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in SoC

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion in SoC

By E. Patrick Johnson

Pictured: Aymar Jean Christian (right) with the OTV | Open Television team in 2019

Northwestern’s School of Communication enjoys a reputation as a global leader in the communication arts and sciences, with alumni, faculty, and students who excel at the top of their fields. Yet the recent national conversation around anti-Black racism and injustice, when viewed through the lens of our community’s many achievements, shows us that access to our resources and opportunities for advancement are not equal—not on the national level, and certainly not at the university and school level.

I am making the pursuit of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) a central tenet of my deanship. Expanding access to opportunities, thinking critically about our established curriculum and its implications, engaging in thoughtful conversations with scholars outside the academy, and pushing for institutional change are to the benefit of everyone, but especially our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) community of students, faculty, and staff who have long been kept at the margins.

By elevating and committing to celebrate the voices of this community, we will shift not only the school’s culture but also the functions of the professions we study, our government, and society at large. The School of Communication will be a leader in systemic change.

It is through the following initiatives as well as ongoing evaluation of our work in this space that I hope to create a school that leads not only through our achievements but also through the breadth of voices actualizing our excellence. 

Dean's Initiatives

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Task Force
Our newly launched school-wide task force includes students, faculty, and staff charged with ensuring that we all embrace the urgency of this moment, that we communicate constructively, that we listen and learn, and that we are prepared to do the work of authentic, impactful diversity, equity, and inclusion. The group will work in consultation with leadership and staff in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion to create and implement best practices for the school.

Black Arts Consortium
Formerly the Black Arts Initiative, my flagship multidisciplinary collaborative of Northwestern Black artists and scholars is growing. We now have space to work, meet, and perform on the 18th floor of Abbott Hall on the Chicago campus. Longtime BAC contributor and professor Ivy Wilson (right) is our new director, and Sheridan Tucker Anderson is our new assistant director. BAC offerings will include expanded programming, more artist residencies, more on-campus and virtual screenings of Black films, additional Black Arts in the City excursions, and new undergraduate and graduate opportunities.

Dialogue with the Dean
To raise the visibility of the dean’s office and, in many instances, to keep the DEI conversation moving forward, I am hosting quarterly events with scholars and art makers from both inside and well beyond the University. At the inaugural dialogue in October, I was joined by John L. Jackson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and codirector of my documentary, Making Sweet Tea. The conversation explored media making as a form of community building and knowledge production and the impact of mass media on urban life. The second dialogue, on February 18, welcomes Ruha Benjamin, professor of African American studies at Princeton University and founder of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab; on April 22, the third event will feature Safiya Noble, an associate professor at UCLA and author of Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.

David Mancosh Pathways to the Professoriate Postdoctoral Fellowship Fund
I am creating a pipeline for Northwestern postdoctoral scholars to advance seamlessly into tenure-track faculty positions here—a program that will be the first of its kind at the University. This will allow us to support efforts to search for and hire BIPOC and intersectional scholars while also ensuring these candidates feel at home and empowered in our school.

CommFutures: The SoC Mentoring and Development Initiative
While an invitation to teach in the School of Communication is a coveted honor, for postdoctoral fellows, PhD candidates, and early-career faculty, the process can be fraught with questions about resources, pathways to advancement, and research funding. To address these concerns, we launched a program of conversations and workshops to provide guidance and support to those just beginning their university teaching journeys. This will establish a culture of equity and accessibility across all ranks and contribute to extraordinary learning outcomes for our students.

Associate dean for external affairs
I am pleased to introduce our community to Roderick Hawkins, the new associate dean for external affairs and my chief of staff. He joined us last August from his post as communications director at the education nonprofit Advance Illinois and was previously deputy chief of staff for public engagement for former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel (GC85). Hawkins has extensive experience in civic engagement, communications, and advocacy. I am thrilled that he will be assisting me in enacting our agenda and strategic priorities, DEI being top among them. Since his arrival, his impact on our workplace culture and productivity has been refreshingly positive.

Staff advisory board
To ensure that our staff recognizes its role in furthering the school’s excellence, I will be assembling an advisory board to explore ways to facilitate pathways to promotion, including mentorship and professional development opportunities.

Antiracist syllabus statement
The dean’s office is working with departments to develop a statement that will convey in no uncertain terms the urgency of creating a supportive and inclusive community and ensuring that we are committed to dismantling systemic racism and injustice from the inside out.

Dialogue with the Dean

“I think the way forward is actually understanding that just because that’s the way we’ve always done it doesn’t mean that’s the best way,” said dean E. Patrick Johnson in his first Dialogue with the Dean event, a conversation with John L. Jackson (pictured), dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. “We talk often about diversity and inclusion around racial and ethnic issues, but diversity is also about diversity of perspective. Equality is also about making sure that everybody is around the table. Inclusion is also about extending a helping hand.”

The 90-minute dialogue in October touched on their individual career trajectories, the challenges of leading academic institutions, and the responsibility of the media and scholars to accurately frame the national conversation about race, politics, and empirical truth.

“We need to get people to be more self-conscious about the role we all play in imbuing things with meaning,” Jackson said. “We want to believe that meaning emanates from things as opposed to being what we impose on them, right? Whether it’s a flag and what a flag means, or what kneeling means when someone plays the national anthem. It’s not just about how we get people to believe science is a real thing—I think it’s also about making sure people take responsibility for the role they play in producing their own discursive power, their own semiotic and symbol-making power.” Jackson, who codirected Johnson’s documentary Making Sweet Tea, also talked about the difficulty in finding the right path to achieving more inclusion and diversity in academia.

“It’s often easy for everyone to rally around it at 50,000 feet in the air, when it’s very abstract. Once you try to pull it down to the bricks and mortar of your school and the people in it,” he said, it becomes more difficult to maintain a sense of common- ality and consensus around what form it should take.

“One of the things I always emphasize about the multi- modal work we’ve been doing at Penn is that all of the spaces we occupy—the annual Media Festival, all of the Media Labs we run—these are the most diverse spaces at the PhD level you will ever see at any institution. And that, to me, is about saying if we actually change—if we build a version of what it looks like to do scholarship that allows you to bring all the different skills and interests and passions you have to an academic conversation—if we build it for you, they will come.”

Schoolwide Events and Guests

Hope Abelson Artists
This academic year we welcome two distinguished artists to guest- teach classes and speak to our community. In the fall, we hosted Moisés Kaufman (right), the prolific Venezuelan theatre maker and 2016 recipient of the US National Medal of Arts. In the winter, we’ll be joined by Michael R. Jackson (right), a playwright, composer, and lyricist and the creator of A Strange Loop, winner of the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Kelsey Pharr Jr. Speaker Series
Spearheaded by theatre faculty Masi Asare and Roger Ellis, the series hosts artist- scholars who represent diversity and inclusion in the performing and media arts. In October, our inaugural speaker was award-winning theatre artist Lili-Anne Brown, who joined us virtually (see below). In winter we will welcome director Jess McLeod (GC14), followed by composer Brian Quijada in the spring. The series is named for Kelsey Pharr Jr., who was among the first Black actors to grace a Northwestern stage. The son of a Miami civil rights leader, Pharr performed in The Waa-Mu Show in 1937 and 1939, was featured in four Broadway shows, and achieved great musical success with the Delta Rhythm Boys.

Mellon-Sawyer Seminar Series
Made possible by a grant I was awarded from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2019, the series comprises three graduate seminars, taught over the course of a year, on the theme “Black Arts Archive: The Problem of Translation.” Visiting scholars will hail from all corners of the globe, and each series of symposia will cover a different geographic region: fall was Chicago, winter is the Caribbean, and spring will consider South Africa. For the fall event, associate professor Aymar Jean Christian (communication studies) and Mary Jane Crowe Professor Rebecca Zorach (art history) offered their seminar Black Arts Chicago: The Forgotten Story, with a corresponding virtual symposium in November. In February, with professor and chair of the Department of Performance Studies Ramón Rivera-Servera, I offered the seminar Black Caribbean Waters: Decolonizing the Archive with a corresponding symposium. This spring, professor emerita D. Soyini Madison (performance studies) and visiting scholar Athi Joja will offer the seminar Black Arts in Anti-Black Worlds: From Chicago to Cape Town, with a corresponding symposium on April 30 and May 1. Cosponsored by the Black Arts Consortium, the summer institute (Im)material and (Trans)mediation in the Black Arts Archive will take place June 21–25.

Lili-Anne Brown

For the inaugural event of the Kelsey Pharr Jr. Speaker Series, Brown (C95), the former artistic director of Bailiwick Chicago whose work has appeared at the Goodman and Steppenwolf Theatres, discussed a wide range of issues—from her experience as the only Black woman in her performance studies graduating class at Northwestern to how to move the needle on representation and inclusion in theatre.

“I found out a Black musical had never been done at Northwestern, and I was like, ‘What? No!’” she said. “I mean, I should’ve known that if I was the only Black person in my class, then, well, of course this would be true, but still.”

After receiving rejections from campus groups, she decided to produce one herself. “I felt like I owed it to the ghosts, or whoever was coming behind me,” she said. “So I set out to self-produce a Black musical. I had to ask myself what I could afford.”

Brown ended up producing Ain’t Misbehavin’. The show starred Heather Headley (C97), who went on to win a Tony Award for the title role in Aida, and Sharif Atkins (C97), who would star as Dr. Michael Gallant on ER. Brown asked musician friends to play the score, and a production was born.

“Performance studies helped me be less of a consumer and more of a creator,” she said, “and more like, I’m just going to make it. If the thing does not exist, grab some friends and make it happen. That’s what I got from Northwestern. I don’t know if there’s a school anywhere in the country where students create and produce like they do at Northwestern. That certainly made me much more fearless, because it was so regular, to just be like, you can do it yourself. That’s how I ended up doing Bailiwick. I was being used and abused by these theatre companies. I was never allowed to direct. They’d straight-up steal my ideas and give them to other people and then shut the door. So, I put on my own shows.”

Faculty Achievements

Puerto Rican Arts Initiative
Professor Ramón Rivera-Servera launched this artistic residency program in 2017 to support, empower, and mentor Puerto Rican artists affected by Hurricanes Maria and Irma. The initiative was made possible by University and school funding as well as a sizable grant from the Mellon Foundation. Rivera-Servera recently received significant additional funding from the foundation to expand the program. This second phase will focus on curatorial practices in performance art with an emphasis on environmental politics, rights to the city, and community affects and infrastructure.

OTV | Open Television
Associate professor of communication studies Aymar Jean Christian has enjoyed a banner year in advancing the mission and reach of his OTV distribution platform. Nominated last spring for a public service and activism Webby Award, OTV in August launched new mobile and TV apps, and its new subscription website began in June. OTV picked up the popular drag show Black Girl Magic, and in the fall it brought a MacArthur Foundation–funded 48-hour film festival to Brooklyn, Atlanta, and Oakland, California.

Center for Latinx Digital Media
Professor Pablo Boczkowski launched in September a new center aiming to create knowl- edge about digital media in Latinx and Latin American communities.

New faculty
We’re delighted to welcome two theatre faculty members: lecturers Detra Payne and Tasia Jones. Payne is an award-winning actor and educator who joins us from the University of Texas, Arlington. Her experience, pedagogical mission, and expansion into other forms of theatre work will be a boon to our program and a welcome addition for our students. Jones (GC20) is a recent alumna of our MFA in directing program who memorably helmed the 2019 Wirtz Center production of Voyeurs de Venus by fellow alumna Lydia Diamond (C91). Jones will teach the new course Black Women in American Theatre and will coteach the first-year course required of all theatre majors. In performance studies, visual artist, scholar, and assistant professor Bimbola Akinbola will lend to the department her expertise in art, literature, and performance produced by women throughout the African diaspora. And we look forward to fall 2021, when Tracy Conner will join the Roxelyn and Richard Pepper Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Conner’s research focuses on identifying differences versus disorders, particularly in the syntactic variations of children who speak African American English, which is often misdiagnosed as a language impairment. Her work will bring exciting and much- needed attention to an underserved and underresearched population, and she will be the department’s first-ever Black tenure-track faculty member.

The Student Experience

MFA directing students (from left) Manna-Symone Middlebrooks, Tor Campbell, and Jasmine B. Gunter

New MFA directing candidates
We’re proud this academic year to welcome the first-ever all-Black cohort to the MFA in directing program: Manna-Symone Middlebrooks, Tor Campbell, and Jasmine B. Gunter. The candidates have been working on the reimagined fall and winter Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts mainstage shows, including the Visions and Voices series.

Vision and Voices
The Black playwrights reading series, presented by the Wirtz Center Evanston, features first-year MFA directing students and undergraduate and graduate actors. The directors, in consultation with faculty and the center’s managing director, chose three plays from hundreds of scripts. The stories are centered around racism in America, police brutality, anti-Blackness, the fight for justice, and the celebration of Black lives. Play readings included

  • Wine in Wilderness by Alice Childress, directed by Jasmine B. Gunter
  • A Few Short Plays to Save the World and What You Did by Steve Harper, directed by Tor Campbell
  • Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Manna-Symone Middlebrooks