As the nation continues to reflect on demonstrations with the Black Lives Matter movement, many individuals are reflecting on their personal behaviors and role as activists and allies. Whether it be demanding more from oneself or the institutions they operate in, the call for change is deafening. Tisch Visiting Assistant Arts Professor and Area Head of Scenery Andromache Chalfant and Adjunct Professor Donyale Werle answered this call with one major decision: resignation.
On Thursday, July 16, faculty and staff in the Tisch Department of Design for Stage & Film received an email from Chalfant containing her resignation statement. A short email in solidarity from Werle came shortly thereafter. Both professors spoke of creating necessary space for educators who are Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), hearkening back to student and alumni urges for a faculty and staff that represents the department’s racially diverse student body. The Department of Design for Stage & Film is currently composed of 34 faculty and staff members, 32 of whom are white.
Disappointment with the department’s demographics is palpable: these resignations follow a reportedly continuous lack of work toward inclusivity within the graduate program. On Sunday, June 21, students and alumni of the Department of Design for Stage & Film compiled a six-page letter to the department, outlining their concerns and solutions regarding work toward Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI), in addition to personal testimonies of discriminatory behavior they have faced.
For Chalfant, confronting her role and responsibility as one of the many white educators in her department is a direct way to support its students.
“As a white woman raised in the United States, I am aware that my experience does not adequately reflect the diversity of our student body,” Chalfant wrote in an email to WSN. “I am hopeful that my decision to resign will allow space for someone else with a different background and experience to join the department’s faculty and better serve these incredible students and the culture at large.”
For set design Professor Donyale Werle — who, as a white woman, was facing similar introspection — it was becoming increasingly difficult to justify her contribution to the racial majority in the department. Much like Chalfant, Werle focused on the students, who she believes deserve a faculty and staff that truly represent them.
“The students in the program are highly diverse, their home countries & backgrounds expand the globe,” Werle wrote in an email to WSN. “White teachers simply do not have this lived experience. I believe our students need to see the world through many lenses, not just through those who are white.”
These resignations are a reflection on the character of these two women as educators. In a statement to WSN, the Department of Design for Stage & Film commended Chalfant and Werle on their efforts.
“We appreciate Professor Chalfant’s efforts to advance much needed change and thank her for strengthening the department with her perspective and expertise,” the department wrote. “We also appreciate Professor Werle’s contributions to the dialogue and excellent work during her time as an adjunct faculty member.”
Both Chalfant and Werle emphasized the department’s diverse student body, 50% of whose population this year consisted of international students and students of color.
For Colombian scenic designer and alumnus Santiago Orjuela-Laverde, every member of his scenic design program in 2018 was an international student; this made the need for fresh and diverse perspectives in his classes feel more essential than ever. From favoritism toward Western culture to cliched assignments about white American theatre, Orjuela-Laverde felt that the department resisted ideas from students who wanted to step outside of that box.
“They feel proud about having us as a student body because we are truly diverse, but then don’t care about any of our backgrounds to actually build the classes in a way that we can explore our own artistic curiosity,” Orjuela-Laverde said.
While changes to the faculty & staff of the Department of Design for Stage & Film is necessary, former adjunct professor and mentor Clint Ramos believes there needs to be an environment conducive for students to unlearn internalized racist behavior.
“I think that white students are literally consciously and subconsciously harming students of color in discussions and in courses, and this happened in my class,” Ramos said. “I think nobody has the vocabulary to talk about it, and I also know that from my mentees they have been voicing their concerns for quite some time.”
Stacey Derosier, a 2018 graduate from the lighting design program, had a first-hand experience with racist behavior from her classmates — something she did not expect to encounter at a school like NYU. Derosier commented on the lack of accountability for student offenders: the actions of students often are compounded upon by the inaction of faculty and staff.
“I had a few instances with classmates of mine who said very awful racist things to me which was not something that I had ever encountered in an academic setting,” Derosier said. “I thought I would be in a program with people who were like minded and open for discussion and would not fall towards saying just the most nasty thing that they could say to someone.”
Ignorance in the classroom and opposition to multi-cultural influence contribute to an overwhelming sense of ostracizing that 2016 graduate and costume designer “Qween” Andy Jean felt the deep effects of. As a Black trans woman in the department, she found herself searching for advocacy and respect from those around her.
“I wish that our faculty and staff at NYU could have seen me for who I am,” Jean said. “I feel like for a long time I had to prove that I was qualified, but it was always at the convention of the white experience. My race, my skin color does not limit the stories and the power that I have. That is something that I had to unlearn when I came out of grad school.”
When educators of color aren’t present and white educators lack the tools to hold meaningful conversations about race, the responsibility to educate about race tends to fall on students of color, who are often unprepared to become teachers for all things related to race.
For the few professors of color in the department, the responsibility is tenfold.
Professor Clint Ramos, an immigrant from the Philippines, described how educators like him are lifelines for students of color. On top of that, professors of color constantly advocate for their students by “translating,” as he calls it: having to bridge the gap between the world of white privilege and the reality that students face, bringing awareness to injustice and biases that go unnoticed.
“You are inevitably tasked with translating for the students of color to these white faculty,” Ramos said, “and you’re doing that for every student of color. On top of that, you are the person these students come to. You’re their mentor, social worker, their shrink, and all of that work is on top of the work of being a teacher in a university.”
The biggest question facing the department now is: What is to be done?
In an email to WSN, Werle spoke about the changes she wants to see the department make moving forward, including a staff that is 50% white and 50% people of color. Werle also called for mandated anti-racist training for students and faculty through programs like Art’s Equity and the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond.
Santiago Orjuela-Laverde concurred with the need for programming but called for more unique classes and projects as well. He also voiced concerns about tokenizing professors of color, an issue that Ramos brought up as well.
Jean mentioned a level of sensitivity and cultural competency that the department at large does not possess. She believes that Chalfant and Werle’s actions were a necessary example of the way that individuals with racial privilege or “access” can be allies. Jean urged department chair Susan Hilferty and other department heads to do the same.
“I feel that so often people with access are afraid to relinquish power,” Jean said. “I would love to challenge them to change their thinking and realize that there is power in relinquishing power. They will always have access to seats at tables, we won’t.”
The Department of Design for Stage & Film expressed gratitude toward students and faculty for their advocacy and commented on the “reckoning” of racial injustice that the theatre industry is facing. The department also mentioned dialogue between students that has helped it craft strategies for EDI work in the future. These included — but were not limited to — inviting “outside voices” to play-reading classes, organizing a digital hub of equity and inclusion resources, creating an anonymous feedback forum, holding EDI centered programming, forming an anti-racism committee and broadening recruitment for BIPOC applicants.
“Our faculty, students and administrators are all working to create safe and equitable spaces for BIPOC students and train a new generation of theater and film designers who can use their art to engage with difficult questions, confront injustice, and envision change,” the department told WSN in an email. “We recognize there is much more work to be done to prioritize equity, diversity and inclusion within our department and make space for our faculty and curriculum to better reflect our dynamic student body.”
It’s more than evident that many believe the Department of Design for Stage & Film has a lot of work to do, and all eyes are watching to see what moves the department — along with the rest of the university — makes next. Students have demanded more effort and accountability for years, and are now eager to see their institution practice what it preaches and finally create an inclusive and diverse creative environment.
“My life includes NYU, whether or not they accept me,” Jean said. “One of the biggest slogans and mantras of NYU Tisch is that you belong here — it is plastered on the walls and the elevators and the lobby. You belong here, we belong here. I just don’t know if I believe that yet.”
Email Vanessa Handy at [email protected]