5 Ways ETF Is Building Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for Students

Students from Cincinnati’s Gilbert A. Dater High School perform in a JumpStart Theatre showcase.
Students from Cincinnati’s Gilbert A. Dater High School perform in a JumpStart Theatre showcase.

By Julie Cohen Theobald

Take a moment to consider these important facts about theatre education:

  • Theatre teaches critical 21st century life skills: collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.
  • Black and Latinx students have half the access to arts education as white students.

If ETF is to achieve its vision of every child in America having access to theatre in their school, it will have to come through dedicated efforts to increase equity throughout everything our organization does.

So we’re launching new programs and looking at every existing program and process through the lens of diversity and inclusivity. While we have a long way to go, we’re taking many steps in the right direction. Here are five ways the organization is making an impact on students right now.

  1. Providing new scholarships to build diversity.

In 2021, ETF has launched three new scholarships with a focus on DEI. We’re thrilled to announce the Grace Kelly Scholarships, a breakthrough for Thespian scholarships, funded by an outside donor with a 10-year commitment of $500,000. In addition, EdTA and ETF board member Mark Drum has funded a new scholarship for Asian and Pacific Islander students. Broadway producer Ken Davenport has offered a new scholarship for students of color in the name of his father, Dr. Kenny D. Hasija.

All these scholarships are concrete examples of how we are making an impact for underrepresented groups by offering students more opportunities to pursue their goals.

  1. Expanding underserved students’ access to school theatre.

ETF’s JumpStart Theatre program, which builds sustainable theatre programs in middle schools that previously had none, has expanded to 10 states and 40 schools. The newest site is Detroit Public Schools, whose student population is 82% Black and 14% Hispanic — and where the entire district lacked theatre classes or productions.

Funding from Jeffrey Seller, Broadway producer of Hamilton, enabled us to secure a partnership with University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, and voila! Three Detroit middle schools are set to launch musical theatre programs this fall.

The Thespian Relief Fund, launched last year to save at-risk programs, is designed to be simple and accessible. Priority is given to Title I schools with significant BIPOC enrollment. ETF has awarded 165 grants totaling $121,000 in the 2020-21 school year.

Salem High School in Conyers, Georgia, home to Thespian Troupe 5120, is one of 175 schools to receive Thespian Relief Grant as of May 2021.
Salem High School in Conyers, Georgia, home to Thespian Troupe 5120, is one of 175 schools to receive Thespian Relief Grant as of May 2021.
  1. Encouraging racial learning and dialogue.

ETF’s new Pathway program will pilot in the 2021-2022 school year to build racial equity through school theatre. Honoring the legacy of the late Craig Zadan, Pathway focuses on enhancing the school theatre experience and impact in communities facing racial disparities, creating opportunities for students to work with industry professionals of color while performing a piece that encourages dialogue around racial equity.

  1. Infusing inclusion from the inside out.

In addition to programs, the organization’s most fundamental DEI efforts come from looking at the organization from the inside out and inviting new voices to the table.

For the first time, our EdTA board of directors has 40% BIPOC members. Workshop presenters at the International Thespian Festival are nearly 50% people of color. Adjudicators are being recruited for every competitive award and grant for better representation.

  1. Fostering awareness and connections.

Across the organization, a growing slate of event programming and resources is helping students and teachers increase their cultural competence.

EdTA’s Theatre Educator Pro hosts a series of anti-racist teaching tools. Panel discussions on DEI have been a staple of events at the chapter and international level – including a series led by this year’s class of International Thespian Officers (ITO). Last year’s ITO class created the Send a Leader Diversity grant to support student leadership for BIPOC students.

As usual, I find that the students are ahead of us adults in leading the association toward a more diverse, inclusive, and equitable future. I have been so impressed with their courage and insight as they facilitate dialogue. We just need to follow their lead and see how far we’ll go.

Students from Cincinnati’s Gilbert A. Dater High School perform in a JumpStart Theatre showcase.
Students from Cincinnati’s Gilbert A. Dater High School perform in a JumpStart Theatre showcase.
Julie Cohen Theobald

Julie Cohen Theobald

Julie Cohen Theobald is the former executive director of the Educational Theatre Association and past president of the Educational Theatre Foundation. She has a lifelong involvement in theatre and 20 years of business, marketing, and management experience.

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