The Climb: Moving Forward in the Workplace

On Monday, February 22, Equity’s Equal Employment Opportunity Committee held “The Climb,” an annual celebration of Black History Month that uplifts the contributions and concerns of Black Equity members. 2021’s topic was “Moving Forward in the Workplace.” A panel of industry leaders discussed resources that can support Black Equity members, and how members can negotiate including these resources in their overall compensation packages. 

Bliss Griffin, the union’s national strategist for diversity inclusion, introduced the event. She began by explaining Equity’s diversity and inclusion retrofit, a process towards making the union an antiracist organization. She then introduced Destinee Rea and Tia DeShazor, EEOC members and co-founders of BOLD, an organization supporting Black women in the arts. 

Rea spoke of the balance of working from within and without to help Equity move forward to better serve its Black members. 

“We as Black folk also have to be thinking about what is our worth,” she said, “What is our value, and not cheapen it." 

Rea introduced the rest of the panel, who each spoke a bit about their work: Tavia Rivèe, Equity member and project director on the ARRAY CREW; Carlita Victoria, Equity member and Darkness RISING Project founder; and Elena Bell, LCSW at The Actors Fund

Rea began the main conversation by discussing a recent success for Black artists: The producers of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical provided the company with mental health counseling during the pandemic. 

“It was a huge, huge blessing to my life, to be able to have that space and not have to worry about the cost,” she recalled, and determined to spread the practice. Working with Victoria, they developed a mental health packet, including resources for Black, LGBTQ, veteran and other communities. They shared this packet with producers of returning Broadway shows, as well as encouraging them to subsidize counseling for their employees. 

“Our hope is that this won't be just for Broadway shows,” said Victoria. "That we'll extend to tours, we'll extend to regional, we'll extend everywhere.” 

Griffin spoke about Equity's role in codifying such initiatives into union contracts. 

“As union members every contract has a minimum," she explained. “We may be going into an environment where producers are not eager to go above that minimum because they've been out of work for the past year. So I think an important question to ask ourselves is, ‘How else can we be compensated?’ And one of those ways is by getting the things that you need to be happy at work, to feel like your cup is full, to get those things baked into your contract. 

“Collective bargaining takes a minute, and you're empowered to ask for the things that you need right now. So perhaps an employer won't necessarily be able to come above the minimum, but it may be very important to your mental and emotional health to have a five-day work week instead of six. You can ask for that. The collective bargaining agreement offers six, but that's to the producer’s benefit. And it is quite okay for you to ask them for anything that's legal... And Actors' Equity is here to back you up in the process of locking that into a rider. So call us up.” 

Rea suggested that a valuable resource to ask for as a Black artist is an intimacy coordinator, and Rivèe shared more about her related work as a cultural coordinator. 

Bell shared more about her work at The Actors Fund, helping to provide mental health services to artists, and the importance of supporting Black artists, and specifically female Black artists and providing a space of affirmation. 

"As Black women, we're taught to be nurturers, and we're taught to care for other people, and we so rarely care for ourselves,” concurred Victoria. “As actors going back in — and we're already in these very difficult times for everyone— this is going to be that much more important, because we're already up against experiencing racial trauma in the workplace as it is. Some people just found out, but we've known, this is not new for us.” 

"An important question to ask ourselves is, ‘How else can we be compensated?’ And one of those ways is by getting the things that you need to be happy at work, to feel like your cup is full, to get those things baked into your contract."

Rea fielded questions from the audience, first if there is training for cultural coordinators— Rivèe said she’s currently building the curriculum. 

The next question was what steps Equity will take when dealing with producers not doing anti-racist work. Griffin explained the power and limitations of the union, how it can hold producers accountable to contracts, but not dictate the way they run their business. While the important step of negotiating further inclusive practices into contracts takes a few years, members facing discrimination can ask for help from the union now: 

“We need you to let us know, ASAP, quick, fast and in a hurry when you are on a job site where there is a problem,” she said, “because our collective bargaining agreements are very clear about the fact that there should be no harassment, discrimination, bullying, significantly different treatment, based on a person's protected characteristics based on their race, their age, their gender, their religion, their disability.” 

She also shared the union’s employer resources page for producers who want to learn more about how to make their theatre as equitable as possible. 

Rea further emphasized that union members should feel empowered to ask Black and other allies for support, and to ask employers what work they’ve been doing to combat racism. 

“For the theatres who have decided that maybe it's not that important to them,” added Rivèe, "there will be a reckoning.” 

“The people on this call, the people with their card, you are the union," emphasized Griffin. “If employers are feeling a strong push from every Equity member who comes into their auditions - Black, white or anything else - they're going to start making the shift.” 

Members who wish to watch the entire event or access a full transcript can do so in the member portal.