January 28, 2020

Chicago Inclusion Project staff members Arti Ishak and Abhi Shrestha alongside Kaiser Ahmed, Rom Barkhodar, Tina El Gamal, Martin Zebari, Gloria Imseih Petrelli and Abbas Salem have formed a collective and organized an event to gather actionable solutions for the community:

When: February 16th, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Where: Steppenwolf Theatre Garage Space: 1650 North Halsted St., Chicago, IL

MENASA MidWest is a newly formed collective of Chicago artists and organizers dedicated to amplifying, representing and advocating for the MENASA artist community.

We will be organizing a community forum at the Steppenwolf Theatre Garage space on Sunday, February 16th to facilitate an open, structured and brave discussion by and for MENASA folks regarding aspects of fair and transformational representation in our theatre, film and television communities in Chicago and the surrounding region. Although this conversation impacts artists of all backgrounds, the organizers have chosen to focus on a MENASA only community forum first.

The forum is open to performing artists, tv/film/theatre makers, and storytellers who identify with and claim heritage from South West Asia, Middle East, South Asia, North Africa and mixed-race descendents of the diaspora. This event has risen from a need for individuals in our emerging community to identify, organize and hold to account not only ourselves, but the institutions and organizations that have over the years both intentionally and unintentionally constructed an unsuccessful, inaccurate and often times damaging veneer of MENASA people.

The evening will be hosted by Ian Martin, Haven Theatre’s Artistic Director and Program Manager with Enrich Chicago, and will be borrowing from “The Circle Way,” a facilitation strategy created by Ann Linnea and Christina Baldwin that reaffirms the essential practice of taking a seat on the rim and turning to one another to uphold racial, ethnic, gender, economic, and environmental justice. Utilizing this structure and a neutral moderator we aim to conduct a safe and constructive atmosphere to explore solutions to questions like: What constitutes transactional vs transformational representation? What actionable steps can companies take to produce MENASA work successfully and respectfully? How do we actively combat the myth that all folks from the MENASA region are monolith? What actions can we take to advocate for our community within our respective fields and for each other’s fields?

It is our goal to facilitate a brave and forward moving series of questions and solutions regarding the intersection of our professional and cultural identities in which we are often required to wrestle with alone when we work in the industry. We operate in the belief that we are stronger together and that singular consensus is not a requirement of intercultural allyship.

Doors open at 6:30 pm with some food and drink available before our discussion begins at 7:00 pm. The organizers include Kaiser Ahmed, Rom Barkhodar, Tina El Gamal, Martin Zebari, Arti Ishak, Gloria Imseih Petrelli, Abbas Salem, and Abhi Shrestha.

CONTACT MENASA MidWest: menasamidwest@gmail.com

MENASA: The Middle East, North Africa and South Asia 

January 1, 2020

The Chicago Inclusion Project has seen a lot of growth and change -- as our community has --  and as we continue to learn from the challenges set in front of us, we thought it fitting to meditate on the last 12 months as artists and as members of this organization... 

I'm grateful for the kinds of artists I am lucky enough to connect with.  I am grateful for opportunities to get my

artist friends to engage with life outside of the art they make; just humans connecting as humans and not talking about our art.  I had a lot of that this year, and I think it's important for our sanity to be intentional about that.

I'm looking forward to directing my first show with Interrobang, writing, more of the above, more TCIP trainings and being surprised by life.                            - Elana Elyce, Chicago Inclusion Project Business Manager

This year I was thankful for:

  • The generosity of our community: their spaces, their time, their energy, their thoughts, their resources and their talents

  • The opportunity to fail

  • The love and space to learn from those failures

  • Rooms where marginalized artists and leaders could find each other, breathe, share and reassure that we are not alone

  • The brave and inspiring teachers and students who inspired us this year during our professional training series

  • The expanded definition of what accessibility in the arts can mean and the passionate, sometimes difficult conversations that surround it

  • The reminder that we all know so little and that that’s what is so exciting about truly listening to one another

                                                                    - Emjoy Gavino, Chicago Inclusion Project Executive Director

This year, I was tremendously heartened and thankful to see more and more theatre artists of all backgrounds embracing the power of "no" as a tool for change-- refusing to indulge and cater to the machinations of privilege (obstinately and wilfully wielded by leaders so convinced of their own allyship that they cannot see the forest for the trees). The glorious sound of "NO" has been ringing out in many forms all over Chicago these past few years, growing in volume and scope, in venues big and small: from the lone artist demanding the protection of union oversight before addressing abuses with leadership of an artistic juggernaut; to the creative team driven to call out repeated institutional racism on social media and in the press; to the artist unwilling to remain complicit in allowing antiquated, destructive depictions of their marginalized community to persist in theatrical portrayals, and calling upon fellow community members to lift up their own voices in celebration of their own stories. 

I was also very very thankful for the new and growing generation of casting directors who have taken up the mantle of inclusion and run with it, such that I am personally able to take a step back from casting in pursuit of my own artistic endeavors, with the full knowledge that there are now many qualified casting directors doing the work we have championed here at The Chicago Inclusion Project from our inception. 

Looking ahead, into the here and now of 2020, I'm excited to see how the growing multitude of voices in our artistic communities will help us evolve into better listeners, better friends, better artists, better humans.

                                                                                        - Stephanie Diaz, Chicago Inclusion Project Grant Writer

There are many things that I am thankful for this year, and many things I’m excited for in 2020 – most of these things fall under these two categories:

Instead of “is this good or bad?” I’ve been reframing that question to “What can I learn or unlearn from this experience?” We often situate our thoughts into various binaries, but this binary of learning/ unlearning has provided me a space for reflective consideration that challenges me to refract thoughts beyond a binary and towards movement and action. Unlearning has been a very healthy tool to engage my past, present, and future in an active way. I am grateful for this new practice, and excited to bring it into a new decade.

Damage v. Desire in narrative frameworks –
This framework around damage v. desire first came into my world through an amazing open letter that Indigenous scholar Eve Tuck penned called “Suspending Damage”. The abstract of the letter states,

         “Eve Tuck calls on communities, researchers, and educators to reconsider the long-term impact of                       “damage-centered” research—research that intends to document peoples’ pain and brokenness to hold   

          those in power accountable for their oppression. This kind of research operates with a flawed theory of     

          change: it is often used to leverage reparations or resources for marginalized communities yet

          simultaneously reinforces and reinscribes a one-dimensional notion of these people as depleted, ruined,

          and hopeless. Tuck urges communities to institute a moratorium on damage-centered research to

          reformulate the ways research is framed and conducted and to reimagine how findings might be used by,

          for, and with communities.”

This letter challenged me to consider the stories we tell on stage. How can we push to have a nuanced conversation around damage and desire in the stories we tell? I understand the importance of pain in representation, as it offers an antidote to the isolation that we can often times feel in our pain. But I am also curious if damage centered narratives provide a one-sided portrait of various communities. As an educator, I am uninterested in the only representation young people of color or young queer people have being tied to pain and brokenness. I am excited to explore this more in 2020 and to consider for myself my participation in the proliferation of damage-centered narratives.

                                                                         - Abhi Shrestha, Chicago Inclusion Project Community Organizer

I am thankful for growing through rough times and finding joy in those times and the family and friends  who made me laugh and got me through one of the hardest parts of my adult life! 

                                     -  Jessica Vann, Chicago Inclusion Project Facilitator

I‘m thankful for the amount of times folks said “no” this year. I’m grateful that actors are feeling empowered to speak up and leave dangerous performance situations for their own well being, and I’m grateful for the times the community had their back.

I’m hopeful we can continue to foster a community with more transparency, prioritize each other’s humanity over the product, and honor the immeasurable power that truth & authenticity in storytelling has. Most importantly, I’m hopeful we realize we each individually have the power to make our industry one where none of the above is actually at odds with the ability to turn a profit or move a career forward. 

                                                                                                  - Arti Ishak, Chicago Inclusion Project Facilitator 


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