If you explored our newest Strategic Plan in September’s Behind the ‘Line post, you saw that one of our Primary Excellence Goals (PEG) is “Everyone’s History.” While this PEG has been a formal part of our strategic plans since 2017, diversity, inclusion, and community-focused programming have been woven throughout our strategic plans for much longer. Over time, Everyone’s History has evolved from the desire to be a “diverse” organization toward concrete, intentional actions and programs that push us to become an antiracist, multicultural arts organization. We can never truly tackle today’s political and social issues on our stages—truly reflect and inspire our community’s past, present, and future—without that transformation.
We can never truly tackle today’s political and social issues on our stages—truly reflect and inspire our community’s past, present, and future—without transforming into an anti-racist multicultural organization.
In 1997, TimeLine started as many theatre companies have—as a homogenous group of young theatre-makers who met in college, came together, and began building a creative home that could outlast them. But as the company’s work and notoriety grew, our sense of responsibility to Chicago and its arts community deepened.
We recognized that merely surviving as a small company was not enough; we needed to broaden our perspective and include previously marginalized voices. We could no longer excuse our whiteness, reflected in both the core team of leaders and in the body of work being produced. TimeLine’s mission is to serve the community, and so the organization understood that we needed to better reflect and support that community—on stage and off.
Today, TimeLine is structured with three branches of governance—Company, Staff and Board. All three helped craft the Strategic Plan, and all three have a responsibility to take action to further Everyone’s History. This includes instituting anti-racist policies and practices, championing diversity and inclusion on our stages, and using our positions and privilege to fight back against the years of oppression that our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) colleagues have experienced in the theatre and performing arts industry.
Each branch is a work in progress; each is aware of where further improvements are needed. All have made changes in recent years to work toward fulfilling the goals of Everyone’s History:
TimeLine’s art is guided by a group of Company Members, who work democratically to fulfill their primary responsibility: curating programming and an artistic vision that fulfills the organization’s mission and aligns with TimeLine’s values. This group has prioritized recruiting new members who offer varied perspectives and voices, becoming more diverse and supporting the broadening of stories presented on our stage in recent seasons. Earlier this summer, Company Members also took part together in anti-racism training led by Enrich Chicago.
The Staff plays a pivotal role in translating the Company’s artistic intentions and supporting the mission. To ensure that the composition and daily work of our staff better supports Everyone’s History, we have revised hiring policies and practices to uncover and eliminate issues with unconscious bias and encouraged staff members to attend anti-racism professional development courses such as the Erasing Racism workshops offered by the League of Chicago Theatres and Equity Quotient. Staff members also gather weekly to engage in conversation around readings that explore anti-racist concepts and practices.
Our Board is evolving alongside the Company and Staff. Plans are underway to engage this group in anti-racism training, helping to build shared understanding that will allow all three branches to better collaborate toward our goals. In addition to that opportunity, we are also conducting an analysis of Board policies and recruiting practices to uncover and eliminate any obstacles toward a more inclusive constituency.
Even with measurable progress made toward our Everyone’s History goals, we acknowledge that there is much more work to be done. Based on most demographic measures, TimeLine does not yet fully reflect our community. We are still a predominantly white organization in a predominantly white industry, within a city that is predominantly not white and a country that is predominantly not white. We understand the time and sustained work it will take to move through this transformation. At the same time, recent events have galvanized us to move forward both thoughtfully and more rapidly.
One of the new resources we are using to accelerate our work is the BIPOC Demands for White American Theatre, a powerful collection of “interlinked strategies” compiled by BIPOC artists that was released this summer, following an initial open letter taking a stand against systemic racial injustices in our industry. This document filled our inboxes, social media feeds, and industry forums as part of a necessary reckoning with white supremacy, oppression, and racism in our industry and our country. It is now guiding many of our internal discussions.
To understand how we could implement this call to action at TimeLine, we began by uncovering how the BIPOC Demands document applies to us and to our Strategic Plan, both during this pandemic-induced producing pause and once we’re back on stage, as well as into the future as we continue to grow as an organization.
It is important to acknowledge that when we use and learn from the BIPOC Demands for White American Theatre, we are using the products of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color labor. TimeLine is beyond grateful to these folks, and will ensure that their labor is not wasted. We will do our best to honor the spirit of these demands and we will recognize that any successes here are due in part to this document and the BIPOC persons who struggled in this industry, and still took the time to try to make it better for all people.
Our initial analysis of the BIPOC Demands has been undertaken with the input of Company and Staff members. The document already contains “manifold voices and views,” so we knew that adding the multiplicity of experiences and thoughts contained within TimeLine could inadvertently muddy the waters. However, we also know that our organization can’t craft new policies from these demands without agreeing—together—about what paths to take. Inspired by adrienne maree brown, we committed to working through the document “at the speed of consensus,” slowly uncovering the “critical connections more than critical mass.”
Our Anti-racism Working Group—comprised of a pair of champions from each of our three branches and tasked with accelerating the development of anti-racist policy and procedure—began by asking these questions:
- What of these demands do we feel like we are currently practicing?
- What of these demands do we feel can be implemented at TimeLine this year?
- What of these demands do we feel can be implemented at TimeLine over the next three years?
From those questions, we are gaining understanding about priorities for our Company and Staff members: what issues we can focus on while we are in a production pause, which policies have not received adequate focus over the years, and what demands deserve further conversation and/or don’t seem directly applicable to our organization’s size or operations.
What rose to the top during this semi-Socratic exercise only represents a snapshot of what TimeLine intends to accomplish—a few steps on a long and winding journey. We are working to integrate land acknowledgement practices into our work; dedicate a budget line item to ongoing anti-racist training for Company, Staff, and Board; and develop “intervention and disruption protocols,” so that we can build a “safe and anti-racist environment for BIPOC producers, board members, leaders, staff and artists.”
Throughout these essential conversations, themes of education and accountability have cropped up again and again. It’s clear that TimeLine’s Staff and Company members want anti-racism, diversity, inclusion, and access to be at the forefront of our work culture. To that end, each of our bi-weekly Staff meetings now has time devoted to the discussion of anti-racist policy and education, as well as to working through the BIPOC Demands in the context of our Strategic Plan. This allotted time will keep us accountable to each other as we transform the organization. From there, we will continue to make adjustments, check-in on progress, engage with Company and Board members around their priorities, and evolve this work.
All of this effort will be built on the foundation of TimeLine’s core values of collaboration, inclusivity, and respect. We know that our work is far from over, and that it might not be completed as swiftly as might be hoped or asked of us. But we are committed to it.
It’s important to not only be accountable to our co-workers, but to you, our community. We’ll continue to share our process and progress with you. Thank you for joining us on this urgent journey toward the future envisioned by our BIPOC colleagues and all who believe in creating a just, equitable, and anti-racist society.