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March 25, 2021

SCA’s Council for Diversity & Inclusion Keeps Pushing for Change

By Hugh Hart

Last summer, a newly resurgent Black Lives Matter movement inspired a series of heated SCA town hall meetings. Council for Diversity & Inclusion head Evan Hughes recalls, "After the murders of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor, students wanted to make sure their voices were being heard about the relationships they have with campus security, for example, how classes are discussing race, and how campus learning environments need to be thoughtful about showing images that can be traumatic for students. Understandably, there was a lot of hurt and anger from students demanding change." 

Evan Hughes

Unfortunately, these issues weren’t new at the School. The Council itself was formed, Hughes says, in response to the 2015  #Oscarssowhite campaign. At the time, Hughes recalls, "Students talked about how SCA and the [movie] industry at large weren’t reflective of society at large. SCA had to really think about what we needed to do to support students who want to tell stories about the BIPOC experience.” Since then the Council has led monthly meetings, open to everyone in the School, where long discussions about shortcomings around inclusion have become the norm. In the last few years the Council has developed a liaison system in which designated faculty and staff in each of the School’s seven divisions represent the interests of students in addressing diversity issues. It also created a support program for first generation and low-income students, and an event series, titled “Our Voices,” that has hosted speakers on race, disability, gender, and other issues around inclusion.  

Hughes (right) leading a Listening Session on abelism

The Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 led to more concerns from students, that change wasn’t coming fast enough. A John Wayne exhibit in SCA’s Cinematic Arts Complex became a public symbol of this disconnect. Students had long complained about its prominent position, pointing to evidence of Wayne’s racism including a 1971 Playboy interview in which the late actor endorsed white supremacy and disparaged Native Americans. After spending many months debating the issue and trying to add context to the exhibit, the School made the decision last July to remove it. "We didn't want to inadvertently reinforce the mythology of the John Wayne model of Hollywood by displaying these objects in a public space," says Hughes, who teaches in the Media Arts + Practice Division and in 2019 became SCA's Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion.  

Over the past few months, the Council, imbued with a renewed sense of urgency, has pushed for other impactful changes. It has hosted conversations with campus police about profiling experienced by Black students, ramped up its system for addressing issues and grievances throughout the School, supported mental health initiatives, and championed the hiring of four new full-time BIPOC faculty members. "We want the faculty to represent the students who are coming into the school," Hughes says. "And we need to have conversations within all of the School’s divisions focused on making sure the classroom is an inclusive space.” 

The Council's most comprehensive new initiative requires all SCA undergraduates to take a newly created "Visions of Diversity in the Cinematic Arts" course that launched this academic year. It challenges students to view scholarship and media creation through a more inclusive lens.  "The first semester looked at the history of problematic stereotypes," Hughes explains. In the second semester studies, he says, students will look at models from contemporary change-making creators. "We're focusing on people who challenge those histories with shows like Michaela Coel's HBO series I May Destroy You, which deals with intersectionality, domestic violence, the culture of consent, race and feminism." 

Even as forward-thinking media makers lead by example, myriad forms of bias continue to vex both the entertainment industry and American society at large. Hughes says "The big difference from when we started the Council is that students now understand the industry itself is a product of our entire culture."