Michael McElroy on Creating Lasting Change for Black Artists in the Theater
Black Theatre United's co-founder on the path to true long-term transformation
Over the last few years, Black Theatre United (BTU) has been a pioneer in moving the Broadway industry forward in the critically important conversation of diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s one thing to advocate for change, but there is something even more enriching for the community to make meaningful steps a reality, and I greatly admire what BTU has done. I recently had a chance to sit down with the group’s inspiring co-founder Michael McElroy to get an inside look into their work, their mission moving forward, and what they’ve learned along the way. It’s an inspiring conversation.
Damian Bazadona: Passionate and committed—these are the two words that are used to describe the leadership team at your organization, Black Theatre United. How do you keep that fire alive in the organization?
Michael McElroy: Remaining passionate and committed to our work as founders of Black Theatre United is not difficult. We believe in the theater industry and its potential to do and be better. All of us have navigated rooms where we learned to thrive in spite of systems and structures meant to derail us. We have also been in spaces over the years where we have been welcomed and given permissions to be our full and authentic selves. Learning and growing from both spaces has provided us with the much-needed resilience to engage a long-lasting career in the arts. And it has empowered us with the tools to navigate all spaces, build allies we can call upon and an opportunity to cultivate our own voices to advocate for ourselves and others. Our passion and commitment comes from years of being in this business and a deep desire to collaborate and partner to ensure the theater industry becomes a space where Black artists and theater makers not only have access, but once in the room, can truly thrive.
How do you keep that passion and commitment going with your donors and supporters against an array of societal ills that need support? You are competing with the headlines and people’s mental space to dedicate to your important work.
We don’t view our work as being in competition with other organizations and individuals. We view our work and the work of others as being in concert. There are many ways to ensure that our industry celebrates diversity and creates more inclusive practices so that people of color are given access and a fair shot at being an essential part of our community. As founders, we meet monthly as a group; but depending on what committees we serve on, we can be in conversation weekly or even daily. In our time together, we have learned to shoulder the load together. Even on committees, some will lead on specific issues and initiatives while others support. This way we don’t overtax each other and it gives each of us the opportunity to step into leadership and also to serve as support systems. We work together to ensure that the initiatives and causes we take on truly center the uplifting of Black bodies, Black artistry and Black opportunities across all fields within the theater industry and in important initiatives that affect Black people across the country. That is our north star. Staying in communication with donors and supporters is essential, and we’re learning to be even more communicative through our social media platforms. To us, it’s never about a competition because there is so much work to be done and it will take all of us to do it.
As you look back in time, are there any lessons you learned in the rapid growth of BTU that you would do differently if you could do it all over again?
We’ve learned a great deal, but I wouldn’t say I would change the lessons that have resulted from the journey. When we first joined together, many entities wanted to partner with us. There was a great need across our industry to do something, and even with good intentions, prove that individual organizations were instituting changes that were illuminated during the shutdown and taking of Black lives on the streets of our country. But true change takes mindfulness, great intention and time. We are interested in planting roots that deepen and expand, so that the structures and systems of change we partner and collaborate on are long-lasting.
That is why the New Deal for Broadway was so important. It is a document that speaks to the changes we need now, and challenges our industry to move towards the changes needed for the future. The fact that we were able to assemble organizations and individuals from all fields within our industry was a Herculean effort. I think it was the first time ever that all these entities held one space. But it was important to us because we realized the transformation we seek would not happen unless there was collaboration and buy-in across our entire industry.
So if I had to say what lessons we’ve learned, I would say staying steadfast, leading with grace while holding partners accountable, making space for everyone—understanding we’re all in different places on this journey to more inclusive practice—and ensuring those who wish to partner with you are like-minded and committed to the true long-term transformation of our theater community.
You have a powerful, connected and respected group of leadership. Most have busy lives as actors, etc. How do you maximize the impact of their support?
Once again it goes back to passion and commitment. What we’re doing as founders, like many other organizations, is essential to our core beliefs and experiences as individuals. We understand and believe that we stand on the shoulders of the generations that came before us. There are so many who fought and tried and were denied access. We all have worked very hard to achieve within our industry and we recognize that we have had opportunities that many have not. With that understanding comes great responsibility. BTU is a priority for all of us. We want to make a difference in our community. We utilize our power, personal and professional currency to be agents of change. We know our industry can do better. It has to. And we want to be a part of that change because we understand that the way forward is through creating spaces for diverse voices across all fields in our industry. More voices, more lived experiences given access to the table and truly valued, holds the potential for innovation and the future of our theatrical community. There is no return to what was before the pandemic. There is only a way forward. That is incredibly exciting.
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned in your journey about Broadway you didn’t realize when you first set out to do your work?
There are so many allies in our community. We live in a world where systems and structures are made to separate us. So much fear is messaged that if someone achieves or receives an opportunity, it not only takes something from you but is even to your detriment. That creates a world of anger, mistrust and fear. What I have learned is that many want to do the right thing, but they lack the tools to make the changes we so desperately need. And we live in a world that doesn’t allow for mistakes. Sometimes the fear of saying or doing the wrong thing is what keeps allies from stepping out into a space of change. So it truly does take partnership, grace and collaboration, while also holding folks accountable for learning the skills to do the work.
It can’t all fall on people of color to do. These systems and structures within our community are just a smaller microcosm of what we see playing out across our country. They are deeply seated and habitual. Even in this moment as we seek a way forward, the lure to return to what was is insidious. We have to make sure that what we are creating is incredibly specific, so that it disrupts the very nature of the biases that have brought us to this place. All that to say that even when we want to do the right thing, it does not always mean we know how. So we have to stay vigilant. Maintain open lines of communication, lead with grace, but also strength of purpose. The systems that have hindered true inclusive practice and access to people of color were not created overnight and will take time to dismantle and transform our industry for the betterment of us all.
What makes you the most hopeful for the future of BTU and the important advancements in justice and equality you are trying to make in the world?
That even through all the ups and downs that have occurred during the return this past year, folks are still in conversation. We are still being supported. We are being listened to. And we are still working in collaboration with the many organizations that were created during the pandemic or doing this work before the shutdown. We are not going away. There is no back to return to. Only forward. I believe in our community’s desire to do better. And I along with fellow founders of Black Theatre United will work along with many others to ensure that we continue that path forward, fulfilling our potential as a diverse space that is inclusive—where all have access, feel they belong and can thrive.
Building Passionate Communities is a regular interview series where Damian Bazadona, president and founder of Situation Group, sits down with extraordinary leaders at organizations that have paved the way in both cultivating passionate communities and driving them to meaningful action. For more about Building Passionate Communities, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.