Using theater to encourage equity and inclusion

April 2, 2020


The following story features a collaboration between Theater for Change UW — including ensemble members and University of Washington College of Education students Elba Moise and Debi Talukdar and alum Sooz Stahl (PhD '19) — and the Center for Neurotechnology.

How can people address racism, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of oppression if they can’t identify when it happens? These and other forms of discrimination can be nuanced and aren’t always obvious to everyone. Sometimes, instances of oppression commonly experienced by underrepresented students can be unintentionally overlooked; however, the impact can be deep and damaging.

The Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) recently partnered with Theater for Change UW, with support from the National Science Foundation, to build skillsets necessary for an inclusive and respectful environment. Together, they created an interactive performance presented as a workshop for CNT faculty, students and staff, which was designed to unearth and reveal nuanced forms of discrimination that often go unnoticed.

For example, here is an excerpt from the performance:

Amalia, a graduate student from Mexico, is frustrated, angry and confused. She doesn’t feel seen or heard by her professor or lab colleague, who are both white. They talk past her, mispronounce her name, exclude her from key assignments and tend to assign her menial tasks. To add insult to injury, her name was recently left off as co-author of a published research paper to which she made a significant contribution.

She is fed up and questions herself. She wonders if what she perceives is real. Are her colleagues ignoring and belittling her because of her race, nationality or gender, or is she perhaps not as accomplished as they are or maybe not smart enough to be here? Her lab mate Marvin, who is the only African American graduate student in the department, confirms for her that what she is experiencing is indeed racism and gender-based oppression. Marvin himself experienced racial oppression in spite of being a senior lab member. But even with Marvin’s solidarity, Amalia feels undervalued and alone. She wonders if maybe she doesn’t belong in engineering after all, or at least not at this lab, in this university.

This performance was derived from real-life experiences shared in focus groups throughout 2018 and 2019 by underrepresented students from the University of Washington (UW), San Diego State University and other CNT partner institutions. During the performance, audience members were invited to intervene onstage in ways that would lessen oppression for Amalia and Marvin. After each intervention, the actors and the audience discussed what went well and what could be improved to create better outcomes.

“We were crowd-sourcing solutions to our most pressing social problems,” said CNT Co-Director Chet Moritz, who co-organized the workshop.

“We use interactive theater—with a focus on Theater of the Oppressed methods—to create collective spaces that promote engagement in difficult dialogues, critical thinking, and taking action for change,” said Tikka Sears, director of Theater for Change UW. “By discussing challenging moments, we are taking a first step to change the dynamic of silence, inaction and oppression.” 

Sharing personal experiences to build awareness and skills

Racism, sexism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination are by their nature very personal, hurtful and wounding, and oftentimes, create deep impacts that are invisible to people who unintentionally perpetuate bias. These experiences strike out at a person’s identity, the core of who they are and whom they perceive themselves to be. Bringing this sort of material to the forefront of a group discussion can be challenging, to say the least. However, CNT leadership felt it important to take the center’s diversity efforts to the next level.

“The workshop complemented other CNT efforts because it helped people think more critically about our culture of equity and inclusion,” said Scott Bellman, the CNT’s associate director of diversity. “The student feedback, along with opportunities to practice difficult conversations and standing up for others helped tremendously.”

Theater for Change UW actors’ real-life social identities coincides largely with the characters they portray. For this workshop, actors made the performance even more personal and real by merging their lived experiences with stories from the CNT focus groups to inform and develop their characters.

“Amalia, in particular, is very similar to me,” said Carolina Nieto, the actor who was the play’s protagonist and is in real-life a communication doctoral student at the UW. “She comes, like me, from a middle-class family in Mexico. Her parents went to college, and my father is a professor, like Amalia’s.”

As a result of thoughtful work on character backstories, the realness of the play hit home for audience members like Devon Griggs, a CNT-affiliated electrical and computer engineering graduate student. Griggs volunteered to intervene in the play as a “spect-actor” on behalf of Amalia. In the play’s intervention, Griggs quickly became enmeshed in a back-and-forth conversation with Jared, Amalia’s and Marvin’s white colleague, which had the unintended effect of ignoring Marvin and shutting Amalia out, resulting in Amalia storming out of the room upset, needing to protect herself.

“I tried to be really affirming, but then it didn’t end up going the way that I expected,” Griggs said. “I’m so glad there was a safe space right here where I could give [the intervention] a try, and it’s okay if it didn’t go perfectly. Now, I have time to think about it and how I might approach [a similar situation] differently.”

Responses and ways to move forward, together

Response to the workshop from CNT faculty, students and staff was enthusiastic and positive. Several attendees mentioned how much they appreciated not only having the opportunity to build their awareness and skills, but also how they personally identified with some of the incidents of discrimination and oppression portrayed in the play.

“I could relate. These were things that I experienced, not only as a graduate student or a post-doc, but also as faculty, that you feel invisible or not heard a lot of times,” said Azadeh Yazdan, a CNT faculty member and assistant professor in bioengineering and electrical and computer engineering.

Leadership at both the CNT and Theater for Change UW emphasized that they saw the workshop as a first step toward an ongoing conversation and deeper commitment to equity and inclusion at the CNT and the College of Engineering. The college will be sharing the workshop as an online video module and several other university departments across campus are now considering offering similar experiences for their faculty and students.

For faculty and student mentors who were unable to attend this workshop, Theater for Change UW has a straightforward recommendation that can help people begin to recognize when students are experiencing discrimination or instances of oppression.

“Listen carefully to your students. They will tell you exactly what you need to know,” said Debi Talukdar, the workshop’s coordinator and co-facilitator. “Listen to the things they’re saying. Listen to the things they’re not saying, which they’re showing you in other ways. Then, don’t just let it drop there. You’re in a position to create change in a way that students cannot. Use your power to do something, because you can.”

For more information and resources developed to help build awareness of equity and inclusion issues and a welcoming, inclusive classroom or learning environment, visit Theater for Change UW's website.


Dustin Wunderlich, Director of Marketing and Communications