When Chevaughan Dyer graduated from the USC School of Dramatic Arts in 2018, he was one of three Black men in a class of 120 students. He remembers sometimes going days on campus without seeing another student or faculty member who looked like him. He said his “biggest grievance” as an undergraduate student was the Eurocentric curriculum, more often than not forced to play cisgender white men from distant periods.
“We needed something that was bigger; we needed something that made more of a statement, something that was more permanent, that wouldn’t fade away with the students that came and left,” Dyer said.
As an undergraduate, Dyer said he spoke to the program about feeling underrepresented. He wanted to be in class with other Black students, to play different characters and to learn about woman playwrights and non-binary producers.
Upon graduation, Dyer took a job at the SDA dean’s office, where he worked closely under Associate Dean of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Anita Dashiell-Sparks to oversee research, workshops and guest speaker programs aimed to reform the anglo-centric, heteronormative culture of SDA.
Following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police last summer, Dyer, Dashiell-Sparks and the rest of the dean’s office began to rethink their approach to equity and inclusion. In early May, the team hosted a series of virtual forums that garnered feedback from student, alumni, staff and faculty voices.
“The strong points are reimagining and diversifying, and overhauling the curriculum to really have diverse — [Black and Indigenous people and people of color] — narratives foregrounded,” Dashiell-Sparks said.
Following the events of the summer, students, alumni and staff members pushed hard for a more diverse curriculum, student body and faculty, Dashiell-Sparks said. Attendees at the public forums made clear that they wanted marginalized voices and overlooked stories at the forefront of their educational experience.
After months of community outreach, public town halls, research and internal brainstorming, SDA unveiled plans for an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion office this past mid-February. The office is different from previous EDI initiatives — “It’s a front facing to students to say, ‘not only do we want you here, but when you’re here, look at what’s here for you,’” Dyer said.
For both Dyer, the physical space is more than just an office. It also serves as a common ground: a place for underrepresented students, Black and Indigenous students and students of color to congregate and forge community.
“A physical space provides … a place to come and to sit and to fellowship and to have community with like-minded peers,” Dyer said. “It really just provides a hub and a center for you to engage a different part of your senses that’s not just talking — it’s sitting, it’s touching, it’s communicating, it’s eating together.”
Jennifer Franco, another SDA alumna, will join Dyer and Dashiell-Sparks as the third full-time staff member in the office. Franco, who graduated in 2016, said she was also one of the few students of color in an otherwise majority-white graduating class. Unlike Dyer, however, Franco said she never noticed feeling marginalized, overlooked or unheard.
“I never felt like I wasn’t supported; I didn’t feel like my voice wasn’t heard,” Franco said. “Knowing that people are dealing with this, that hurts me. That breaks my dang heart. The thing that I’m most excited and passionate about is knowing that being a part of this office, … I can try my best to provide what I got for the next generation.”
Until Los Angeles County lifts coronavirus restrictions, the office will continue to operate in a virtual setting — hosting online workshops, professional development training sessions and town hall forums. However, when on-campus operations return, Dashiell-Sparks and her EDI office team look to host a series of in-person guest speaker events, curate a library of plays written by people from all backgrounds for public use and utilize the center as a research hub for future EDI initiatives.
For Dyer, the importance of the arts rests in its ability to “influence and push towards a more inclusive world.” Because of the unique influence creatives have over public discourse, Dashiell-Sparks see comprehensive and forward-thinking EDI programs as particularly integral to a school like SDA. Dyer and Dashiell-Sparks The team said they hope the office can have a powerful and lasting impact on the next generation of artists, actors, playwrights and screenwriters as their work shapes the entertainment industry of tomorrow.
“This is a really exciting opportunity that … we can actually do that. We can actually begin to implement that area of our school in doing [EDI-related] work, that allows wonderful, rich collaboration and opportunities for students as well for faculty,” Dashiell-Sparks said. “These core principles and values really speak and align to our core principles and values of what it means to be an artist.”