Why I'm Committed to #ChangeTheStage

By Nicole Smart
Originally published in the Summer, 2017 issue of Equity News.

Many of you have already read about the study on hiring bias Equity released in the last issue of Equity News.

If you missed it, the study in its entirety is worth a read. What we found is that there are stark and pervasive barriers when it comes to employment for women and people of color. Not only that, women and Members of color often draw lower salaries when they do find work.

I don't say that because I want to place blame or find fault, but instead to start a conversation that needs to go beyond Equity and encompass the entire theatre industry. We can only move forward and #ChangeTheStage when we are honest, open and transparent about the current state of the industry.

Personally, while I did not grow up in the theatre world, I believe deeply in this mission. In fact, where I was born, there was very little access to theatre at all. I was born in an underdeveloped community without running water or paved roads that was struggling to develop a progressive infrastructure. When I immigrated to the United States from the Caribbean in the 1980s, my family and I began our journey living in an impoverished neighborhood in Brooklyn.

My father began his career in the United States as the driver of a wealthy businessman, and my Mom as the family's maid. At a young age, they both taught me the benefits of humility and sacrifice. As my parents worked odd jobs here and there, they were encouraged to join unions; my Dad later became an MTA bus driver and my Mom a geriatric assistant nurse. It was through my parents and their careers that I learned the value of union membership. It was through their memberships in unions that they were able to purchase a home in a middle-class neighborhood, giving us a shot at a better education and the American Dream. Today, they continue to keep me grounded in my roots through their early experiences as immigrants.

Because of my parents, and because they were able to work family-supporting union jobs, I was able to become the first in my family to obtain a college degree from NYU and then went on to earn a graduate degree from Cornell University in Industrial and Labor Relations.

In addition to my previous roles in advocacy for those who are underrepresented, those experiences make me passionate about the work that lies ahead here at Equity. Now that we have the data from our diversity study, it is time to move forward.

In my first few months, some Members have asked me tough questions about why we are doing this work. When these questions come up, here is what I have said: Workers’ rights are human rights. We know from our study that Members of color and women are underrepresented on the stage and get lower paying contracts when they do find work. Diversity and inclusion is a long-term problem that impacts us all. In fact, it’s systematic. If people of color and women don’t see characters and stories that reflect them or speak to their experiences on stage, then what does that mean for the future of our industry?

Now that I've had a chance to share my personal story with some of you, I hope you will also share your own stories about why this work matters to you. Our work to ensure that our entire industry represents the full diversity of our nation will help insure the sustainability of live theatre. Stay