The topic of diversity and inclusion has, rightfully, been on an upswing the last two years. And arts organizations, particularly dance, have traditionally been slow to respond.
Recent efforts from ballet companies in the form of hiring more female and BIPOC choreographers have sprouted up across the globe but establishments need to push themselves to dig deeper and set roots for long lasting change. It is becoming more and more evident which companies prioritize diversity in their advertisement versus in intrinsic processes.
I recently sat down with the founders of Cultivating Better Tomorrows, a consulting business aimed at
“advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in the performing arts and arts & culture communities”
to discuss the changing landscape of dance and what we can all do to promote equity.
Created by three artists, former Joffrey Ballet dancers Erica Lynette Edwards and Mauro Villanueva, and former commercial contemporary dancer Kenny Borchard, the company has a very “by creatives, for creatives” mentality.
Dancers of all ages need someone in their corner and who better than those who have taken similar steps before?
*Note: This interview has been edited and abridged for clarity and conciseness.
Interview with Erica Lynette Edwards, Mauro Villanueva, and Kenny Borchard of Cultivating Better Tomorrows
‣ Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired each of you to start Cultivating Better Tomorrows?
MV: I was keeping up with Erica and all that she was doing in her role as Community Engagement Director [at The Joffrey Ballet]. And so, just listening to all of the work that she was doing and the Artistic Directors that were courting her to come to their organization because she was doing such a fantastic job… I sort of mentioned the idea of a consulting company for a few years because I knew that what she was doing could positively affect a large population.
ELE: Ditto! And understanding how we can spread this work to more people. Understanding that there’s joys in being a professional dancer but the joys of the idea of making it and performing on stage don’t outweigh the trauma that people experience. So, what can we do to create a model for a better environment for people to thrive in instead of just keeping it standard?
As the world understands through media, the dance world is not the most positive space – what are we going to do to try to change it so that people can enjoy both performing on stage and all the other aspects that happen behind the scenes.
KB: I got involved because I am very process-oriented and can develop longer term strategies and so that’s kind of what my role has been – to listen to the goals and figure out how to implement them into a cohesive plan.
MV: Yeah, Kenny is our systems guy. He keeps us on track.
We can continue and actually dig into the meat of the conversation that’s required for the change to actually occur.
‣ You work with arts educators, arts professors, and corporate entities. All three of you come from dance backgrounds; do you think arts organizations and corporate institutions have similarities?
KB: I think everybody is looking to have these conversations. I think that what we offer that’s different from what other DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] companies are offering is the way that we present a space that allows people to feel comfortable.
And Erica does such a fantastic job of, in our trainings, creating those different levels of engagement. So that when it gets to the harder subjects, there were already four different opportunities to engage on a less challenging level so that when we get there, we can continue and actually dig into the meat of the conversation that’s required for the change to actually occur.
Because what we are also finding is that the shared language and the language around having these conversations is not there, and so we then have to provide that to then have constructive conversations. And that’s how we realized that our model can translate into a corporate environment. And it allows the corporate environment to engage in a different way that feels more authentic.
MV: I would say corporate presentations are… just that: presentation of information that you’re supposed to take in. Versus what we do which is more conversational. We give you what we want you to learn but we ask you to partake in self-reflection about whatever that subject is, to share stories if it feels right for the person, and to move it from learning in the mind to into how you actually connect personally with whatever that subject is.
‣ So it sounds like you are giving some building blocks rather than, “Here’s a brochure on DEI”.
MV: I think as corporations change and are realizing that this kind of model works better, we are more suited for that. Presentations can only get you so far and especially because these are complex subjects that require back and forth.
Like Erica says at the beginning of our in-person trainings,
“If you agree, please speak up. If you disagree, please speak up.”
Because it’s really important that we aren’t just shouting the information from the rooftops. She is really good at managing how different opinions on different subjects come into play.
ELE: Can I say “Ditto!” again?
‣ Ha, yes!
Action needs to happen. Learning is important. And then accountability to make sure things are actually being done.
‣ What else can companies do to actively promote DEI besides a yearly training video, as many companies – like mine – require us to watch?
ELE: A DEI training video is a great start and we really believe in the power of shared language so everyone can understand what DEI is together. You’re having these conversations at work? Then that’s a great start.
But learning about DEI to check it off a checklist doesn’t work in promoting inclusive management and it doesn’t work in promoting the foundation of DEI working all together. So, if you’re really committed to DEI,
- Is there a line item for DEI in your work?
- Do people have time to meet and talk about DEI practices?
- Is there accountability so that DEI is seen in the work of the company? Or is it just seen as an outlier instead of built into policies and practices to include everyone?
There’s a long list but it really requires action in addition to learning. Action needs to happen. Learning is important. And then accountability to make sure things are actually being done.
KB: With everything that was just said, making apparent that it’s a distribution of power and how that power is being distributed over the system within your institution. And, is that equitable for all players within the system? And trying to get them to realize their system needs updating and improving. That’s when the internal buy-in leads to the change that’s required for the policies to change that then allow for marginalized communities to have more say or contribution to the space in general.
MV: Yeah, and I’ll just add that in a traditional top-down leadership, the people at the top have to be active like Erica said. They need to be promoting this work. It needs to be important to them. Because if you’re someone that doesn’t have the power to implement these changes then you can be doing all the work but that makes no difference.
‣ Yeah it definitely helps to have someone at the top who is kind of setting an example and making sure that things actually get pushed forward.
There are some cohorts that are doing authentic work and there are some that are not.
‣ How can ballet companies in particular be better at promoting diversity in a historically elitist art form?
ELE: First they have to understand this is the history of the art form. And understand that people challenging the lack of representation, the lack of inclusive spaces, is not tearing down individuals. If you are saying “I don’t really know how to make my company more diverse”, well,
- What are you doing right now?
- What is the system of recruiting?
- What is the system of casting?
- What is the system of all the things you are doing?
And then find where there are areas of improvement there.
I think people, especially in a dance space, don’t want to fail; they want to be perfect in this elitist art form, right? But it’s important to understand you might make some mistakes but you’ve just got to fix them, you’ve got to do better. You might be like “Oh, I thought this was a great way in!” and someone tells you “Oh, no it’s not”… then this is okay! Just do better next time.
‣ It sounds like we are in a place where solutions need to be the next step.
KB: Erica always says, “Don’t expect acceptance, demand inclusion”. And that’s the point we’re at. This system has been built this way and maintained and that doesn’t seem to be working for the people who are not participating. And so we have to look at the system and make edits to allow for more people to participate.
‣ As a follow up question, do you think there’s a possibility that ballet companies (who generally work as separate entities) can come together to help improve diversity standards?
ELE: There are cohorts that have been created to do exactly what you said. There have been cohorts created based on authenticity, based on truth, and based on real solutions. There have also been cohorts created based on inaccuracies and checklists. Leaders in the ballet world have been a part of both types.
Where is the change coming from? It’s from the first one.
Who is doing the work authentically because they care and believe in this? And who is doing this to get people off their back? And it’s very clear what side you are on as a leader when you are doing this work.
‣ I think that’s a really great point because there are a lot of pressures from people running companies to make money and to do certain things and it’s an interesting line in the sand. Like you were saying, what side are you on? And maybe it’s more about doing the hard work up front.
ELE: Yeah, absolutely. Because if you are just saying “Oh, there’s not enough Black people here, let me put them in here”, well you haven’t created the space for them to feel good in your company. It’s not just about filling spots, right?
Let’s figure out all the other problems that are in our organization where people don’t want to be here, or they came here and they left because they’re like “this is not where I would want anyone to be dealing with these challenges”.
There are some cohorts that are doing authentic work and there are some that are not.
In “power with” there is honesty and integrity within the organization so that there isn’t an unhealthy hierarchy that makes people feel like they can’t speak up.
‣ There has been a decent amount of leadership turnover in large ballet companies in recent years. What do you think these new directors can do to help combat a toxic work environment?
ELE: They need training. Many artistic leaders have no training in this. They are really good at dancing. They are really great at vision, making visionary goals, setting repertoire or coaching. But creating a healthy workplace is not natural to the dance world. So, they need training. They need to understand what it takes to be a leader in a workplace.
MV: I would also say that the idea of “power with” versus “power over” is much more common these days for people who are analyzing their environments. And I think that needs to be implemented in these places. Just because an Artistic Director is the head, doesn’t mean they should have complete and total power over people. Because without all of those artists, there is no product. So I think that shift could be really altering to the ballet world.
‣ Could you quickly explain the concept of “power with”?
MV: Power shared. [In “power with”] there is honesty and integrity within the organization so that there isn’t an unhealthy hierarchy that makes people feel like they can’t speak up.
Discipline and trauma aren’t the same thing.
‣ On the Cultivating Better Tomorrows website, it says you would like to help “learning and working environments become places where everyone can thrive”. What does this look like to each of you?
ELE: I think that means people find fairness in their learning or working environment. That people feel like they are being treated like their peers. But also it’s just a healthy place to be in. There’s not an artist mentality, there’s not a voiceless mentality, and there’s not a fear of being in your place of work. That everyone depends on everybody else to make sure that we’re all working towards making a welcoming place for us all to attend. And experiencing joy in doing what we love!
KB: A sense of belonging. We are so far away from feeling, especially people who are traditionally marginalized, like we cannot only operate within a space but belong in that space. And thinking about the work that can be produced when you feel like you belong in that space, I don’t think we’ve seen that because there have been so many systems of oppression being used to prevent the new ideas, the new thoughts, the new perspectives that haven’t even been expressed because there hasn’t been space to do so.
MV: And I think something’s that interesting that Erica says in some of our sessions is that there is this misconception that by achieving all of these things that we are promoting that it will be a free for all. That there won’t be discipline because everyone is treated fairly. But I don’t think that’s true. Ballet requires discipline and it requires focus. But those are separate from trauma. Discipline and trauma aren’t the same thing. So, we need to be clear that the goal is joy alongside the discipline that it takes.
ELE: I would also add that making the world a more just place is a two-parter because the majority of our time is spent at our work or at our learning environment; so we really want to focus on that. And at the same time, focus on our self-reflection about things that exist outside of that working environment because that’s the other part of our life. And we can’t just make one of those places more just, we really have to focus on both of them.
‣ Do you think a just world is something feasible for the dance community?
MV: Yes, but it’s going to take the majority to put their dollars – or choose not to put their dollars – where it counts.
ELE: I would add that yes, the dance world can be more just because there have always been people who have said “we need to change these things” or there’s always been people who have modeled wonderful behavior. And those are our models of continuing this work.
When I was in high school, I didn’t have bad experiences. I look back on that time with fondness. And my hope is that everyone would have that opportunity to do that exact same thing. And we know, for a fact, we can’t.
So, what are we doing? We are making these changes available to people so that they can be aware that there is a new standard in town. And then they can rise to the occasion.
It requires thinking about the perspective on every level to come to an understanding that is different from the conclusion we would have come to if we were operating in the same system that we know is continuing to cause harm.
‣ If you could describe Cultivating Better Tomorrows in one word, what would it be?
MV: Erica. Disruptor.
‣ Disruptor? Or just Erica?
MV: Erica! Ha ha.
‣ I could believe that!
ELE: My one word is model. Because we are literally trying to say “You need help making this better? We can help you.” Every individual, every organization, can be a model for how to do this work and we are happy to support them. So, that’s my one word.
KB: Our name says a lot. It’s a lofty goal. I would say multi-faceted. It requires thinking about the perspective on every level to come to an understanding that is different from the conclusion we would have come to if we were operating in the same system that we know is continuing to cause harm. So, I would say multi-faceted.
‣ How can companies interested in working with Cultivating Better Tomorrows get in touch?
They can email us to set up an introductory call to meet with our team. We work with organizations that are on very different stages of their DEI journey. We are ready to support those just beginning, as well as those that have begun conversations but might feel stuck or need additional support.
‣ Any closing remarks?
MV: In general, our work is difficult but it is rooted in positivity. Erica says it all the time. Because it’s already hard enough so we have to have some positivity.
Featured Image of Cultivating Better Tomorrows founders Kenny Borchard, Erica Lynette Edwards, and Mauro Villanueva. Photo by Ginger Sole Photography.
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