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The U.S. Department of Labor Spotlights Equity in the Arts

In celebration of Black History Month, the U.S. Department of Labor welcomed artists and theater works to discuss career opportunities for African Americans in the arts. 

Secretary of Labor Julie Su and panelists discuss career opportunities for African Americans pursing the arts. (Skyler Winston/The Hilltop)

The U.S. Department of Labor recently welcomed artists, theater workers and labor unions to the department headquarters to emphasize the intersection of job quality and equity within the arts industry.

Secretary of Labor Julie Su welcomed the panelists, various HBCU students and other guests on Feb. 28 for the event, titled “Making Equity Real: Creating Career Pathways and Good Jobs in the Arts.” 

“One of the reasons we’re holding this event is to highlight the intersection between good jobs and the arts,”  Su told The Hilltop

The event included a panel discussion which celebrated this year’s national Black History Month theme, “African Americans and the Arts.” Su led a panel of distinguished figures in the arts community, including the American Guild of Musical Artists and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, along with Congressman Maxwell Frost. 

Su was introduced by the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson. President Joe Biden appointed Jackson in January of 2022, and she serves as the first African American in her role. 

The conversation centered around the importance of art unions, educating institutions to create a more inclusive environment and the need for those in power to invite marginalized voices to the table within the art industry. 

“You create a picture through the arts and performance when there’s [a] little bit of cultural diversity at every step, [including] the marketing team, the design team and even the box office,” panelist Frank Brown, a Local 22 member and Kennedy Center production shop steward, said. 

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“There needs to be cultural diversity every step of the way. If the institution understands that, then they have a better presentation and better cultural efficiency in the program they’re doing,” Brown continued.

According to a 2021 report by the NEA which examined the role of arts and culture, the arts hold significant importance as they serve as a means of expression, foster community and facilitate connection among individuals. 

Displayed drawing by Geffrey Love, Jr. (Skyler Winston/The Hilltop)

“When you’re intentional about seeking out diverse representation, you get to create opportunities for all kinds of people,” Su said. “I always say ‘if you demand excellence, you get diversity and when you demand diversity, you get excellence.’”

Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who currently serves as the first vice president of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, expressed frustration with the current system for training Black artists to conform to white standards rather than nurturing their own creative voices.

“Where is our national Black theater? We’re training all these kids in these institutions, universities and conservatories to go in and make white people comfortable,” Santiago-Hudson said.

The “Making Equity Realevent served as a motivator for student artists. Several artists from HBCUs, including Howard University, attended the event as their work was highlighted and displayed.

Displayed paintings by Geffrey Love, Jr. (Skyler Winston/The Hilltop)

Geffrey Love, Jr., a student artist at Bowie State University majoring in studio arts with a concentration in drawing and painting, expressed hope and comfort regarding job security after attending the event.

“I put myself through college [and] all my money goes to school and my art, so I try to balance it, but it gets very difficult,” Love said. “ I can say after attending this event, meeting people and networking makes it easier.”

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Kiana Thomas is also a student artist who attends Bowie State and majors in visual communication and digital media arts. Thomas expressed that the event was a breath of fresh air, as it addressed her concerns about her career.

“I feel like I have somewhere to go. I don’t have to be forced to work somewhere I don’t want to work and continue to finance something I love to do,” Thomas said. “Seeing this event and realizing there’s hope out there is empowering. Just keep pushing forward, like you’ve got this.”

Displayed art by Kiana Thomas. (Skyler Winston/The Hilltop)

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall employment within arts and design occupations is expected to grow at the average rate of all occupations between 2022 to 2032. Last year, the Wallace Foundation released a report which provides guidance for cities to use as they decide how to leverage the power of the arts within their own communities.

Jackson expressed pride in implementing workplace protections for employees within the field of cultural arts.

“I’m proud that all federal funding the NEA makes available comes with important worker protections, including prevailing wage requirements and workplace protections,” Jackson said. “I’m honored to partner with Secretary Su on these critical issues.”

Copy edited by Jasper Smith

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