America is a population of 312 million; we speak 320 languages, 183 in NY state alone.  We count over 530 Native American nations/tribes within the U.S.  We practice every world religion. 36% of Americans are not Caucasian, meaning not of European descent. By 2042, the Asian Pacific American, Latino, Native American, African American/Caribbean Black, and Arab American populations will comprise more than 50% of America’s populace.  Yet these realities and the recognition of who we are, in all of our diversity, in our many cultural identifications, disabilities, sexual orientations, affinities and common humanity, are not fully or accurately reflected in our mainstream culture.

When Inclusion in the Arts was established in 1986, Actors’ Equity Association had completed a 4-year study that showed that of every professional production in the country, over 90 percent of the actors hired were Caucasian.  At the same time, the working assumption in theatre, film and television was that when a role was cast, unless it was specifically indicated otherwise, it was meant to be played by a Caucasian, non-disabled actor.  That’s where our organization started:  with the realization that a large segment of American artists were being systematically excluded from participation in our theatre, film and television performing art forms.  Our first task then was to accept, begin to understand, and actively address the fact that long-standing exclusion in American society was also a major issue in our field.  It is important to mention here that the organization was founded by artists and that their goals were in service to the art of theatre as well as to society.

Our first focus was on casting, as the actor is and has been the storyteller in every culture, worldwide, for centuries.  At the beginning of Inclusion in the Arts, the founders realized that enfranchising and empowering actors who had historically been excluded was an important part of our mission.  It was important on its own terms regarding employment, but equally if not more important was the issue of the images being presented on our stages and screens, and what those representations and portrayals told us about the spectrum of who we are as human beings, understanding these dimensions of our common humanity, what we mean in relationship to one another, and what these images in their presence, as well as in their absence, told us as a nation, an art form, and a field, of who counted, who mattered, and who did not. In this realization, we recognized that we had few role models to look to and to aspire to.

The second major focus of Inclusion in the Arts has been the acknowledgment that each group or population’s particular cultural, societal barriers and issues are distinct.  The common denominator is exclusion, but beyond that, Inclusion in the Arts efforts have tried to be both sensitive to and extremely respectful of the individual issues that each population faces. This is an ongoing process.

The third prong of Inclusion in the Arts focus has been to engage, interact and work with the major leaders/ decision makers in the theatre, film and television industries toward more inclusive standards, policies, and practices.  This includes the leadership of unions, guilds and trade associations; of producers, production companies, casting directors, artistic directors, directors, and writers.  We work both with the commercial as well as the non-profit professional theatre, with network and cable television, feature and independent films, student films, commercials, and to some extent, radio.  One of the real strengths of Inclusion in the Arts has been to bring together  leaders in the field around these highly charged (and emotional) issues, in a safe environment to deepen dialogue, challenge longstanding working assumptions, and work for change in thinking, understanding, and practice.

Inclusion in the Arts started in 1986.  We soon learned that the deeper we dug, the more complex and sophisticated both the questions and answers became.  Within four years, Inclusion in the Arts recognized a need to address these issues as comprehensive: you cannot look at one part without looking at all the parts — not only casting but also as these issues affect directors, writers, choreographers, designers, audience — and in institutional theatre, how these issues extend to theatre policy, philosophy, staffing, programming, messaging, accessibility, and boards of directors.

Although our organizational interests regarding diversity and inclusion are broad, our main focus has been on issues of race, culture, ethnicity, and for the last 20 years issues of disability and people with disabilities.

American performing unions are very active in promoting diversity, as are a number of individual producers, network and studio executives and industry organizations.  As a result of these collective efforts over many years, substantial, measurable gains have been made.  These achievements have required consistent, ongoing, multi-tiered efforts.  We have learned, in this process, no matter how much any of us has done individually or organizationally, much remains to achieve full diversity and inclusion throughout our performing art forms.  Why is this necessary for all of us?  If we are to succeed, flourish, and advance as societies, nations, and at the most basic level, as human beings, it is imperative that we make the effort to recognize and understand one another for who each of is as an individual, especially at this moment.  The dynamics of nationality, ethnicity, race, and all the other traditional markers of personal identity are growing increasingly complex.  Despite the challenges that all of this presents, I believe that there is tremendous collective strength and richness in our complexity.

– Sharon Jensen, Executive Director