Diversity and Inclusion Through Theater

A UC Santa Cruz 2014 climate study found that African American/Black/Caribbean (ABC) and Latinx students are significantly less likely to feel respected and included than White students. Sense of belonging is a major predictor of retention and graduation; therefore, climate is a likely contributor to gaps in these measures between ABC and White students at UC Santa Cruz.

Campuses across the nation are creating programs and trainings to increase awareness of this issue and improve cultural competency. In this area, interactive theater presentations have been shown to be particularly impactful. Theater is a powerful medium, engaging audiences in complex, human experiences. Research shows that live theater increases students’ tolerance and their ability to recognize what others are thinking and feeling (Greene, Hitt, Kraybill, Bogulski, 2015). Diversity Theater challenges audiences with diverse experiences and perspectives that they may identify with and yet are not their own. This process of disorientation and engagement with diverse experiences “fosters active thinking and personal development” in all students (Gurin, Dey, Hurtado, and Gurin, 2002). Research shows that live theater increases students’ tolerance and ability to recognize what others are feeling (Greene, Hitt, Kraybill, Bogulski, 2015).

Student Success funding supported the Diversity Theater Project, a new program that brought two new theater productions to the UC Santa Cruz campus addressing the current climate and heightened racial tensions experienced by our student, particularly ABC and Latinx students.

Outreach targeted student organizations, classes, and offices serving predominantly underrepresented minority students. The two productions were followed by structured and facilitated audience dialogue designed to offer students the experience of positive interactions across differences and validation of experiences. The impacts of these experiences were measured by pre- and post-production surveys as well as focus groups. The data resulting from the project will be used to expand capacity by affirming best practices for effective diversity programs.

For example, our surveys found that participating students lacked information about issues of race, lacked experiences of validation and positive interactions in the classroom.  These findings can negatively affect the ability of students to engage this topic and increase the likelihood of URM students feeling uncertain and alienated from their peers in classrooms and sections.

Both plays were successful in offering students information and insights into the experiences of African/Black and Latinx communities. The first production, On the Hill, portrayed the shooting of a young Latino student in San Francisco and the community’s fight for justice. The second, Minority Report, brought historical facts, images, and perspectives about the African/Black experience, from Emmett Till to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The selected productions were also successful in offering audiences the experience of direct connections with ABC and Latinx communities. The two plays were written and produced by community-based groups and included a mix of professional actors and community members. For example, the cast of the first play, On the Hill, included high school and college students who were actively involved in the issue and the community that was portrayed.

The plays also brought the reality of community experiences to the stage through mixed media, including video footage and photographs of historical events and current community activism. For example, Minority Report included videos of the testimony of Fannie Lou Hamer at the Democratic Convention in 1964 and an interview with African/Black grade school children during the 1960s.

The project was innovative in its leadership composition: All decisions and design elements were made by a planning group of primarily underrepresented minority (URM) student leaders. The group met weekly and worked collaboratively and democratically.

The success of the productions and dialogues was a direct result of having URM students in positions of leadership and decision-making. For example, students interviewed playwrights and decided against a top production because they accurately anticipated that its portrayal of immigrants might be misinterpreted by students. This collective understanding of student perspectives informed all aspects of the project. Further, because the planning group was structured to make decisions democratically, actions required students to learn from each other’s differing perspectives. For example, a poster was reviewed, approved and printed but one student who had been absent caught wording as possibly offensive. The group considered his perspective and agreed that the poster had to be redone and reprinted. 

There were 336 students, staff, and faculty who attended the two productions. Of the 336 attendees, 216 shared student IDs and filled out a survey. Of the 216 who shared IDs, 185 filled out both the pre- and post-surveys. Of the 216 who shared student IDs, 124 were first-generation students.

Collaborators: SOAR, Student Media, Cultural Arts & Diversity (SOMeCA); Student Organization Leadership Body (SOLB); Steven Carmona Mora, undergraduate student researcher; Saugher Nojan, graduate student researcher; Dr. Veronica Terriquez; Dr. Kirsten Silva Gruesz; Loco Bloco (production company); aLorna Maize Design (production company).

Lead Contact Name: Sayo Fujioka
Lead Contact Email: sfujioka@ucsc.edu
Theme: Improving Climate & Promoting Sense of Belonging and Wellbeing