In early July, Milwaukee Repertory Theater announced that the company was expanding its leadership team to include Tammy Belton-Davis. Belton-Davis, the founder of Milwaukee-based brand management and communications firm Athena Communications, was being brought on for a 10-month appointment to be the theatre’s chief diversity officer. Though her professional background spans two decades of government, education, and public relations work, Belton-Davis also has a long history with theatre and the arts. The daughter of a musician and a one-time performer herself, in joining Milwaukee Rep Belton-Davis combines her passion for theatre with her skills in community engagement.
Belton-Davis’ 10-month appointment is an escalation of an ongoing volunteer (and later consultant) relationship she’s had with the regional theatre dating back at least as far as a 2014 production of The Color Purple, which Belton-Davis recalls working on with the company to engage the local community. During her loan from her company, Belton-Davis will be working with Milwaukee Rep and the Chicago consulting firm Kaleidoscope Group to develop, implement, and measure the organization’s equity, diversity, and inclusion goals. I spoke with Belton-Davis recently about her role and the potential she sees for the future of the field.
JERALD RAYMOND PIERCE: I’d love to hear about the origins of you coming to work with Milwaukee Rep. I know you’ve consulted with them and volunteered before, but how did this particular opportunity come about?
TAMMY BELTON-DAVIS: I operate Athena Communications, which is my public relations, government affairs, and community engagement firm. So we’ve been doing a lot of work in the equity space, a lot of what I call transformational work around communities and how do we transform lives. Because of that work, Milwaukee Rep and I were having conversations about what support could I provide for them. The opportunity for me to be on the inside versus a consultant was one that I just could not pass by; the idea of being able to help an organization from the inside out is certainly new to me. Helping other organizations, we’ve been doing it from the outside in. Because I have a relationship with Milwaukee Rep, because I believe in the institution it is and what it can be, it just seemed like the right opportunity to do this work in a very intentional way.
I’m curious about the “loan” aspect of your position. Can you tell me a little bit more about why it’s structured the way it is, where you’re coming in as a chief diversity officer, but only for 10 months?
Really it’s because I am a business owner. I committed to being a part of this equity work in a way that helped them to implement what they had already started last year, through the creation of the equity, diversity, and inclusion committee of their board. They were looking for someone that could help to put in a plan and execute on that, and I committed to doing that over the next 10 months. We will have a permanent position filled, or at least we will have that search underway, during this time I have with them.
From your experience so far, and from your experience over the years, does it feel like theatres need somebody dedicated specifically to this work?
Absolutely. It is necessary that we look at these issues, not just from a moral imperative, but a business imperative. Truly understanding that the two pandemics that we are living through—with our health crisis, but ultimately with this 401-year-old pandemic called structural racism—it’s critical that theatre as an industry really tackles the issue and addresses the inequities that exist. In this moment in history, people are committed to doing that work. And it is work. There’s no question that this is not a sprint; this is a marathon. This is about the journey. It’s about widening the tent around these conversations related to diversity. It’s about understanding. It’s diversity of perspectives and thoughts. All of those elements are at the core of this movement.
I want to be really clear that the urgency is here, the moment of change is here. It’s not just critical—it’s necessary. It’s essential for the industry to tackle these issues with the intensity and audacity to believe that we really can change for the better. Out theatre companies should be a reflection of the communities that they serve. The stories that come out of theatre should be a reflection of the stories of all of humanity, not just some.
Do you have advice for theatres across the country who might be trying to figure out how to find the right person to fill this kind of role?
It is essential that theatre companies look for not a person, but many persons that have the ability to help influence and speak to change in a bold way, who also can develop an action strategy around that. You make a commitment at the highest level of leadership that equity is your issue. Every organization has a different budget; every organization has different resources from which to pull. But some of these conversations can start with community members. It can start with executives and others who have been working on these equity issues. But there is no question that the commitment of time, resources, and space on agendas, and how we execute our mission should be the focus around how you tackle these equity issues. Bringing on a chief diversity officer is not the end. It’s a step in the right direction, but it’s one of many steps.
A lot of your work has been around government, education, and communications, but not directly theatre. What skills do you bring from those worlds into our theatrical world?
It’s about relationships, understanding power structures, and being connected to the community. What I love about my collective experience is the spirit of collaboration. The spirit of, How do we engage in thoughtful planning that connects us to grasstops and grassroots? How do we ensure that our storytelling is truly a reflection of the community we serve? As companies, we need to be engaging with all kinds of backgrounds. The experiences that I bring from those respective industries gives me a foothold into the pulse of the community locally, in Milwaukee, but also regionally.
Understanding the power of relationship cultivation is a really critical component of that. What’s also required is being a strategic thought partner, because part of being creative is to understand how all of these pieces fit together. So whether it is your budget, audience engagement, how you engage donors and subscribers and new audiences—all of those are skills that I’m bringing from experiences in other industries.
From your expertise and perspective, where do you see theatre? As an industry, what’s the biggest thing that needs to be worked on? And how do you see the progress so far?
I think theatre has the opportunity to truly be a model for other industries. How do you survive and thrive through two pandemics, knowing that a huge part of your customer base is based on engaging with live performance? The innovation that can come out of this experience can be extraordinary. If the theatre industry gives the time and attention and commitment to equity, I think it will set the industry apart. I’m very optimistic about what can happen. When you start to put diverse voices at the table who begin to offer these unique perspectives and creative ways of how to build the theatre—some of the best ideas are coming out of this crisis. If we’re building on the deep equity work that needs to happen and actually pivoting to a more creative space in which to engage, I’m completely optimistic about what can happen.
We’ve done some reporting on the We See You White American Theater movement and their demands over the last few weeks. Has that movement come up in the conversations you’ve been having and in the work you’ve been doing?
It’s a huge part of the conversations that are happening locally and nationally. The commitment to hearing the voices of BIPOC artists is necessary. Again, I started off this conversation by saying this moment in time is not just a moral imperative, it’s a business imperative. Theatres cannot thrive without the existence of BIPOC artists at every level within an organization. That representation matters. The decision-making matters. The input on strategy, it matters. It matters at the leadership level—diversity on boards, more diversity in the leadership structure. All of that matters. This is for the future of the industry.
Is there anything else about the work you’re doing with Milwaukee Rep or about your work in general that you’d like to add?
A word of encouragement: These are challenging, incredible times. We have the opportunity to lean in and do the work, recognizing that this is a journey. The solutions are not going to come tomorrow. But if we’re all committed to achieving the same goal—which is a thriving theatre company that celebrates, acknowledges, and is deeply infused with diversity and equity at its core—we will see brighter days.
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