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Standing tall on the shoulders of ancestors for racial justice in the arts

In her own words: A candid conversation with Colleen Jennings-Roggensack

Colleen Jennings Roggensack
March 16, 2021

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the spring 2021 issue of ASU Thrive magazine.

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, vice president for cultural affairs and executive director of ASU Gammage, speaks candidly about her proud heritage and upbringing, a lifelong commitment to racial justice, and her passionate desire to connect communities through the arts. As told to Ramona Harper.

'Broaden your horizons and give back to the community.' 

I grew up to be an adventurer. My father was in the Air Force, and we lived in 13 states, England and Okinawa, (Japan), before I went off to college. As a military brat, I remember not having much money, but my parents figured out how to scrape it together so we could go to the theater. So, I always had a great respect for culture and understood the importance of culture.

Dance made me curious, and I started out as a Martha Graham-trained dancer. I wondered about how people moved differently because they saw the world differently. My passion for dance is great, but then it spread and blossomed to all the art forms.

I understood that the mainstream is the stream that you’re standing in, and I think this belief gives you a global view. The term isn’t international or foreign — it’s global. We say global because we’re part of it. We’re not separate from it. And I do believe that my worldview is the direct result of my upbringing.

My parents gave me and my two siblings three sacred texts. My mother said, “You will be a great success if you just broaden your horizons.”  

It was my father who said it was important to give back to the community.

And then the third thing, which my father pragmatically said, was: “Get a job.”  

Those sacred texts challenge you to make the world a better place by committing yourself to something larger than yourself. These were the ideas and the forces that influenced me the most growing up. And it’s in my DNA as my responsibility to pass them on and share them.

When I was very, very young, probably in the third grade, I was on a military base and I was walking to the library. A group of white boys in a convertible drove by and shouted the N-word at me and laughed and shouted. I didn’t know what to do, how to process that, how to bring understanding to that. 

And there were other situations. I remember being with a group of classmates and I was probably a little bit older, maybe in junior high, and they were going to have a sleepover. I said, “Great.” And a young girl said, “You can’t come because you’ll get the sheets dirty.”

I think that I internalized it then, but later I found my voice. I could say, “That’s not right.” I could confront it, but it took me a long time. 

And when people say you can’t work for “the man” or you can’t do this and that, I said, “No. We can’t change things from the outside. You have to be on the inside to make changes."

'We need people who have skin in the game.'

ASU President Michael Crow selected Dr. Jeffrey Wilson and me to head up the advisory council on African American affairs as part of a list of 25 actions to collectively support work to enhance diversity, growth and opportunity for Black students, faculty and staff.

And while “allies” is a nice name, we need collaborators and co-conspirators to do this work. We need people who have skin in the game, irrespective of the color of their skin. We know President Crow is committed to this. We know our ASU charter says we want to be judged by whom we include, not whom we exclude, and the success of whom we include. So the executive council and subcommittees are gathering together specifically to work on those 25 actions. 

Colleen Jennings Roggensack

Colleen Jennings-Roggensack stands tall on the 2019 Tony Awards red carpet in ASU alumnus Loren Aragon’s couture dress, inspired by his Acoma Pueblo heritage. Photo courtesy of Shevett Studios

'I am passionate about art and culture and how it unifies us.'

My passion is being in a theater and having people together, sitting in a room, breathing together and waiting for the curtain to go up because they’re going on a journey together. And they don’t know what the journey is, but once that curtain goes up, they’re all in it together. That’s my favorite moment in the theater. It’s why I’m so passionate about art and culture. It unifies us. 

Passion is my personal motto. Passion gets you up in the morning. It isn’t money or a job title or position — it’s passion. And if you don’t have passion for what you do — stop doing it. Go and find something that you are passionate about. And I believe I live my life this way.

I sit on the board of governors and executive committee of The Broadway League, which oversees all theaters on Broadway, as well as hundreds of theaters on the road where Broadway is. And of some 40 members, I was the only person of color for a very long time.

The Black Lives Matter movement has made a difference, and now there’s the We See You, White American Theater movement (a national multidisciplinary Black, Indigenous and people of color coalition that published its “BIPOC Demands” to address racism in American theater). It calls you on the carpet and says, “Where are our African American directors, set designers, costumers, hair designers, diversity in unions?”

There are people who are ready to do this work — Black theater managers, producers, stage managers and press agents — and they’re just standing there ringing the doorbell. So, The Broadway League went from saying, “Pipeline, pipeline, pipeline” for greater equity in theater, to “Doorbell, doorbell, doorbell.” We have to focus on the doorbell because it’s not the pipeline.

My white colleagues at The Broadway League said, “OK, what do we need to do?” We created the first equity, diversity and inclusion committee and interviewed a series of people to do our anti-racism training. The Broadway League has been doing many exciting things and is committed to change.

The most horrible thing in the world is to be forgotten. The arts can bring inclusion and connect communities.

ASU Gammage’s many “Cultural Participation” programs continue to have great impact in the community, giving children and adults of all economic circumstances access to community arts programs, international artists and innovative academic tools. For example, one day I said to my staff, “I want to be in the prisons, in the jails. Because that community is going to come out and they can be great contributors to the whole community — or not. I think we have a role here.”  And we are now in our 25th anniversary of the “Journey Home” program for incarcerated women returning from prison to mainstream society.

The inmates put on performances that are extraordinary. It always makes me cry. Once, during a Q&A, one of the inmates stood up and said, “We thought you forgot about us.” And to me, that’s the most horrible thing in the world — to be forgotten. So, I knew that we were going to stay committed to this.

Another one of my favorite programs is “Kaleidoscope,” part of our community arts programs for Title I schools that introduces students to musical theater and an intensive curriculum-based program.

We want that kid who is a D student or that kid who couldn’t make it to school for several days in a row because of whatever else is going on at home. We serve them a nice dinner with silver and china, and then they see a show at ASU Gammage. I said, “This is not going to be Styrofoam cups and pizza.” The actors come in and have dinner with them. So, this is a big deal for them to do this.

Hamilton event

Students give presentations to the cast of “Hamilton” as part of a special event at ASU Gammage in 2019. Photo by ASU Gammage

'We can solve the pandemic of racism. We are the vaccine for racism because we are the ones who are going to solve this problem.'

Looking forward, I believe it is important that we have a secretary of culture as part of the U.S. Cabinet. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that doesn’t have a minister of culture. I am really pushing for that and truly hope it will happen because it’s very important.

I also believe we need public healing right now. We need public healing for this administration and for what we’ve just been through. We need public healing for all of the issues that we are dealing with: justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. And artists can do that. We need arts workers declared as second responders.

As we’re talking about COVID-19, we also need to talk about art and culture. We need to talk about how we get people back together. We need to talk about our fears, our concerns and how we move forward. I truly believe we must be sitting in those spaces, breathing together so we can solve the pandemic of racism. 

There’s the vaccine for COVID-19 and then there’s the vaccine for racism. We are the vaccine for racism because we are the ones who are going to solve this problem.

There are many awards in my office, but one award that sits on my desk is very, very important to me. It’s an award for Mother of the Year. So, it’s about work you love, but you must also have people in your life that you love and who are important to you.

And I quote my friend Brian Moreland, an African American producer, who said, “All of us here are a walking return from someone’s investment in us.”  

We are the walking return on investment. We are the walking rich. Somebody invested in us. So we need to have high returns. 

See the ASU Gammage schedule and get the latest updates at

About Colleen Jennings-Roggensack

Arts leader and visionary Colleen Jennings-Roggensack has artistic, fiscal and administrative responsibility for the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed ASU Gammage and ASU Kerr, with responsibility for Sun Devil Stadium and Desert Financial Arena for nonathletic activities. She oversees the activation and transformation of Sun Devil Stadium into a year-round hub of cultural activity as ASU 365 Community Union. 

Appointed by ASU President Michael M. Crow, she co-leads the advisory council on African American affairs. The council enhances diversity, growth and opportunity for Black undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and staff.

Jennings-Roggensack serves on The Broadway League’s equity, diversity and inclusion committee, government relations committee, the executive committee, the board of governors, labor committee and co-chairs the legislative council and road presenters/intra-industry committee. She also is Arizona’s only Tony voter.  

Jennings-Roggensack is a founding and current member of the Creative Capital Board and senior adviser to Women of Color in the Arts, former Association of Performing Arts Professionals board president, and she has served on the National Council on the Arts at the bequest of President Bill Clinton and is a life director of the Fiesta Bowl. She is a consultant to universities and international governments and is a featured speaker at conferences. In 2020, she served on multiple panels addressing human rights, justice, diversity, equity and inclusion and the future of Broadway, and she participated in the TheaterMakers Summit on getting Broadway touring productions back on the road.

Jennings-Roggensack is the recipient of numerous awards including the 2020 National Coalition of 100 Black Women Education Legend, 2019 Valley Leadership Woman of the Year, 2019 ASU West Pioneer Award, National Society of Arts and Letters Medallion of Merit, Valle del Sol’s Mom of the Year, APAP Fan Taylor Award, Black Philanthropy Initiative Honor, The Broadway League’s Outstanding Achievement in Presenter Management, and Arizona’s Governor’s Arts Award. In 2012, The Arizona Republic recognized Jennings-Roggensack for Arizona’s 100th Anniversary as one of the individuals who had the greatest impact in the era.

Ramona Harper is an arts critic for DC Metro Theater Arts. She also is a retired foreign service officer of the U.S. Department of State, where she presented American visual and performing artists. She is an avid theatergoer, dance enthusiast and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.

Top photo: Colleen Jennings-Roggensack is a force of nature in the world of the performing arts. She’s also a healing force for social change in her work, for the past 30 years, as vice president for cultural affairs and executive director of ASU Gammage. Photo by Jared Opperman/ASU

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