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ASU student uses theater to give voice to people on the margins of society

ASU doctoral student uses theater to empower those without a voice.
McGilvery: “Everything we do, we like it to be performative and for healing.”
February 18, 2019

Dontá McGilvery finds passion in teaching African-American theater, community work

Dontá McGilvery has devoted his life to finding people who live at the margins of society and giving them a voice through theater.

“Performance has the power to transform,” he tells his class.

And he’s harnessing that power in many ways to tell stories.

McGilvery is pursuing a PhD in theater for youth at Arizona State University and was recently honored with ASU’s 2019 Martin Luther King Jr. Student Servant-Leadership Award. Several years ago, he started a nonprofit in his hometown of Dallas to help people who are homeless — an issue he learned about firsthand after living in their community for a year. After coming to ASU in 2017, he co-founded a community theater group, and this semester, he launched a course on African-American theater for undergraduates.

“I noticed that in my own classes, we didn’t talk much about African-Americans’ contributions to the field of theater so I began studying it on my own, and then I would include it in class,” he said. “Often, there were things that the students and even the professors didn’t know.”

So he reached out to the School of Film, Dance and Theatre in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts to ask about teaching African-American theater, and he received enthusiastic approval.

“What my students like is learning about something they never heard of, in all of their education,” he said. “To me, that’s encouraging.”

So far this semester, the class has covered the genre of plays about lynchings, including “A Sunday Morning in the South,” written by Georgia Douglas Johnson in 1925.

“If we understand that in the 1920s, there were black playwrights who wrote anti-lynching plays to combat what was happening at that time, the class can connect that with what’s happening today with black and brown bodies having their lives taken by police,” he said.

The students have learned about the connection among African-American artists, including the play “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry, whose title comes from the poetry of Langston Hughes.

“It’s a diverse group of students, and we’re talking about things that the African-American students can identify with and then lead the discussion,” he said.

The class studied the 1916 play “Rachel,” by Angelina Grimke, about a young black woman who, overcome by the horrors of racism, vows never to have a child. That was especially poignant to Leslie Campbell, a senior who’s in the class.

“It deals with the fragility of the black woman and the black woman’s negotiation of herself in white society in the early 1900s and particularly the black mother’s desire to protect the black child’s innocence, which I think is a struggle that rings true even today,” said Campbell, who is from the Bahamas and is majoring in theater and global health.

“In this class, I’ve appreciated being able to share the knowledge that I learned growing up in the islands and our history with slavery, and then being able to relate this information to my African-American and non-black counterparts and having them say, ‘I didn’t even think about that,’” she said.

“Dontá takes the time to break down the dynamics of how these systems work and to see how it’s being played out even today.”

Donta McGilvery teaches African-American theater at ASU.

Dontá McGilvery works with a group of students in the undergraduate class he teaches on African-American theater in the Nelson Fine Arts Center on the Tempe campus. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

McGilvery said that he’s always pursuing one goal: “I’m trained to see that when you read a text or enter a space, the first thing you want to spot is whose voice is absent from the narrative and then investigate why.”

That helped lead to the Sleeveless Acts Drama Company, which he started in 2017 with fellow student Claire Redfield, who is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in theater for youth. Their idea won an entrepreneurship grant from the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

“We had this idea of starting a theater company that amplifies voices in marginalized communities, telling their stories using drama,” he said.

“We tear away the sleeves that keeps people’s history hidden.”

Last year, the company created a production about African-American history featuring a cast that ranged in age from 13 to 70, he said. Currently, they’re working on staging a performance later this spring to celebrate Eastlake Park in Phoenix, a historic center of the city’s African-American community.

“Everything we do, we like it to be performative and for healing,” he said.

The company also performs in churches in central and south Phoenix, a mission that is central to McGilvery, who also is a minister.

It was his personal faith journey that led him to make a startling decision eight years ago, when he was in graduate school at Southern Methodist University: He gave away all his possessions and lived for a year with people who were homeless.

“It was important that I took on that project because of my spiritual calling as a minister,” he said. “I understood Jesus was homeless, and I wanted to understand why he decided to live a homeless life and, by being homeless, how could it give me a different perspective on the world.”

He found that the homeless were friendly, supportive of each other and, usually, regular people who came upon hardship.

“The first day I was homeless, I didn’t know how to start, so I just went downtown and laid down on the sidewalk to go to sleep,” he said. “And another homeless guy named Robert tapped me on the shoulder and walked me to the shelter. He told me how he fell on hard times.”

McGilvery spent his nights in a shelter, but because his grad school classes were in the evenings, all the beds were filled by the time he arrived, so he slept in a chair in the overflow room.

In conjunction with living on the streets, McGilvery started a nonprofit called the Dallas Improvement Association, which recruited volunteers to experience homelessness for short periods, as well as helped homeless people with donations and meals.

“We didn’t go to the shelter — we went to those people who were strung out and wouldn’t go to a shelter,” he said. “We were always searching for the most voiceless within the group that has no voice.”

When the year was up, it was hard to leave his friends and transition back to a more typical life.

“My heart is now more compassionate to the people who suffer the most. When I drive in my car and see someone on the corner, I wonder, ‘What is their story?’

“And I look at the other cars and wonder about the assumptions those people put on them.”

McGilvery’s work drew attention. He spoke at a conference held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which later partnered with the Dallas Improvement Association and donated more than 1,000 computers to low-income schools. He also spoke at a U.S. Army War College security seminar about his experiences.

“I talked about how homeless people are marginalized and how cities are intentionally pushing them to the side,” he said.

Eventually, McGilvery would like to be a professor of theater, but he has a few years left in his doctoral program.

As he continues his outreach, one memory stays with him: When he was an undergrad, he was riding a bus and sat near a man who was a drug user. The man started asking McGilvery questions about being a student. He said, “Do you want to get a PhD?”

“I was like, ‘Sure, if it comes around.’ He said, ‘If you become a doctor, just make sure you actually heal someone.’

“And I thought that was profound. It’s about, ‘What am I doing to bring about healing in society and in individuals?’ ”

He has never forgotten that interaction.

“That kick-started my passion for justice and speaking for the voiceless.”

Top image: Dontá McGilvery, a doctoral student in the theater for youth program at ASU, has launched a course on African-American theater this semester and also co-founded a community theater company. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU News


Geoscience Alliance national conference inspires Native American students to pursue careers in the geosciences

February 18, 2019

Earlier this month, Arizona State University hosted the Geoscience Alliance, the nation's leading organization devoted to promoting geoscience studies and careers for Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and other indigenous students.

“The Geoscience Alliance has been important for many years for its unique and far-ranging mission of mentoring and supporting Native American and other indigenous students and professionals in the geosciences,” said ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration Professor and geologist Steven Semken, who served as host for the conference. Geology Professor Steven Semken of the School of Earth and Space Exploration leads a geology field trip to the Superstition Mountains with Geoscience Alliance conference participants. Download Full Image

“More recently, it has further grown in importance by catalyzing research and education involving indigenous geoscientific knowledge and its applications — work that is primarily led by indigenous geoscientists themselves.”

The alliance has long had an active presence at annual meetings of much larger professional organizations like the American Geophysical Union and the Geological Society of America, but its own national conference, held every few years, has the greatest impact on the stakeholder community overall. This year’s conference included 160 attendees for the three-day conference, which included workshops, breakout sessions, invited speakers and a poster session. 

Ángel Garcia, who earned his PhD in geosciences from ASU earlier this year and is currently a visiting assistant professor at James Madison University in Virginia, was one of the conference’s returning attendees and is also on the conference planning committee. 

Garcia first attended the Geoscience Alliance in 2015 when he was a graduate student at ASU. He learned about the conference from SemkenSemken is also a senior sustainability scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and a faculty affiliate of the Center for Education through Exploration and the Global Drylands Center at ASU., who suggested that it would be a good way to develop networks in the geosciences with people who were interested in multicultural topics and indigenous cultures. 

“People from tribal lands have a strong connection to places,” said Garcia, who is Puerto Rican and Dominican. “We might first describe what tribe we are from, but then refer to a specific place within our tribal lands where we grew up and have family. Connections to those places go back generations for us.”

For Garcia and other participants, one of the best parts of the conference is making connections, networking with other scientists and meeting other students in the geosciences. 

“These conferences give us an opportunity to learn from people with a similar culture and background,” said Garcia. 

“At the Geoscience Alliance, I felt included right from the start. Now every time I see this group of people at other conferences we identify ourselves as members of the alliance, both as students and professionals.”

Since the first conference, the alliance has adopted the practice of “talking circles” from Native American ceremonies.

“We develop questions, break up into small groups and make sure each person gets a chance to talk,” explained Diana Dalbotten, who is on the alliance conference planning committee and is a diversity director at the University of Minnesota. “We have developed this to make our conference more participatory and to respect the idea that everyone is there to teach and everyone is there to learn.”

Conference attendees were also invited on several diverse field-trip opportunities related to different aspects of the geosciences, including a trip to the Superstition Mountains, the Heard Museum and Biosphere 2.

On the last night of the conference, attendees were asked to participate in a “science pop-up night” where everyone could spend three minutes talking about their projects and research. This event was so popular that even though it was the last day of the conference, it went well into the night. 

“It’s important for ASU to host events that focus on local communities in Arizona and especially indigenous communities in the Southwest,” said Garcia. “Giving teachers, researchers, professors and students the opportunity to share knowledge and connection to the land shows that ASU embraces diversity.” 

The conference organizers, including Semken and Garcia, hope that participants will seek more collaboration with each other in the future as a result of this conference. Garcia, for example, is working with two other researchers he met through the alliance on a National Science Foundation proposal to study the geology of caves in the Caribbean.

They also hope to continue to offer travel awards to the conference.

“Some of us come from places that are not financially stable, making conferences like this out of reach,” said Garcia. “But thanks to sponsors like the National Science Foundation, the alliance is able to provide the opportunity to those who otherwise would not be able to go.”

Previous conferences were held in the northern Midwest, the northern Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest.

“It was an honor for ASU to host this most recent conference in Phoenix and Tempe,” said Semken. “I think that the alliance members enjoyed their visit to our campus and their time in the warm desert sun.”

Semken is grateful for the support given to this endeavor by many colleagues in the School of Earth and Space Exploration; the ASU President's Special Advisor for American Indian Initiatives Bryan Brayboy; ASU Vice President for Tribal Relations Jacob Moore and his staff; and to ASU alumna (and a former graduate student of Semken’s) Nievita Bueno Watts, who is the co-director of the Geoscience Alliance.

The Geoscience Alliance is a national alliance of individuals committed to broadening participation of Native Americans in the geosciences. Its members are tribal colleges, universities, research centers, Native elders and community members, students and educators.

The alliance’s goals include creating new collaborations in support of geoscience education for Native American students, establishing a new research agenda aimed at closing gaps in our knowledge on barriers and best practices related to Native American participation in the geosciences, increasing participation by Native Americans in setting the national research agenda on issues in the geosciences, providing a forum to communicate educational opportunities for Native American students in geoscience programs, and understanding and respecting indigenous traditional knowledge.

The Geoscience Alliance conferences are made possible through the generous and ongoing support of the National Science Foundation and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager, School of Earth and Space Exploration