February 28, 2021—This past week, Georgetown University announced the establishment of its Racial Justice Institute (RJI), and the appointment of co-leaders from the areas of the arts, the law and health and public policy. The mission of the RJI is to bring together scholars, artists, thought leaders, policy makers and activists to provide a cross-disciplinary focus on persistent issues of racial injustice and the structural causes at the root of racial inequities within society.
The three co-leaders announced are: Theater and performing arts scholar Anita Gonzalez, Ph.D.; legal scholar Robin Lenhardt, L.L.M., and health and society scholar Derek M. Griffith, Ph.D. A fourth co-leader from the university’s McCourt School of Public Policy will be named at a later date.
I was so delighted to learn that the university’s Working Group on Racial Justice, which included students, faculty, staff and alumni, recognized the integral role arts must play when addressing issues of racial and social justice. I think Anita’s professional background makes her an ideal representative of the arts community for this historic endeavor!
Anita and I met as members of the National Theater Conference, and I have continued to follow her work. She will be joining Georgetown on July 1, 2021, when RJI officially opens, from her current position as Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs and a Professor of Theatre at the University of Michigan, where she promotes interdisciplinary and intercultural performance initiatives.
Anita also directs, devises, and writes theatrical works. Her innovative staging of historical and cross-cultural experiences has appeared on PBS national television; the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors; The Working Theater; Puerto Rican Traveling Theater; New York Live Arts; Tribeca Performing Arts Center, and other national and international venues. Her short libretto Courthouse Bells will be produced by Boston Opera Collaborative in 2021-22. She also is the author of several books, and her massive open online course, “Storytelling for Social Change,” has engaged more than 35,000 learners to date.
“I firmly believe the arts are the public face of policy. I hope that my collaborative work with the university’s Department of Performing Arts; the recently formed Department of African American Studies, and the Racial Justice Institute will open up dialogues about race and implement solutions which address core issues of black empowerment.
“I must say, I am particularly excited about potential alliances with the Washington, D.C., arts communities. I will be working with Acting Dean Soyica Colbert, Ph.D., and Professor Robert Patterson, Ph.D., who have already laid a lot of groundwork. Their advocacy made sure the arts were included in the conception of the Institute.
“It has been thrilling to have conversations with the other co-leaders, Robin Lenhardt and Derek M. Griffith, as we discuss what we can do to make a difference. We come from really different disciplinary backgrounds, and it’s always a surprise and a pleasure when we see how our interests and passions intersect.”
Georgetown’s decision to open the RJI culminates five years of planning, meetings, and dialogues to address the university’s historic ties to slavery, focusing on ways to transform the systems and institutions that uphold inequities in health, wealth and opportunity through research and scholarship. The establishment of RJI was one of the commitments the university made in 2016 to inform its work to address racial injustice.
I believe the RJI is a potential model for the establishment of similar think tanks on the campuses of colleges and universities throughout the country, serving as a collaborative hub for addressing issues of inequity, racial and social justice. By placing the arts on equal footing with the other disciplines, the RJI is demonstrating that arts and culture are integral components of affirming equity; promoting health and healing, and strengthening community bonds.
As always, I would like to know what you think. Please leave your comments below.