Performance puts diversity center stage at retreat

Show created specially for the dean’s retreat leads to frank discussion of race and gender

John Todd Photography

Anna Deavere Smith displayed her chameleon-like talent to capture and present the feelings of the subjects she had interviewed in her piece at the School of Medicine retreat.

Linda Shortliffe felt both disconcerted and relieved after seeing her sentiments about diversity portrayed by playwright and actress Anna Deavere Smith.

“It’s like seeing a tape of yourself and not being comfortable with what you see,” said Shortliffe, MD, professor and chair of urology. “But I’m so glad that she did it.”

What Smith did was create a one-woman performance based on interviews with 14 faculty members, alumni and students from the School of Medicine, including Shortliffe, about the issue of diversity. She performed her work in Napa on Friday at the school’s annual strategic planning retreat.

The 80 school leaders attending the retreat were moved by Smith’s performance—from the humorous recollections of a former African-American faculty member to the sobering feelings of isolation voiced by a current medical student.

Dean Philip Pizzo, MD, enlisted Smith’s efforts because he wanted to bring out the issue of diversity “in a very personal and very profound way” and to start conversations about diversity throughout the school in the coming months. “Her performance wasn’t envisioned as a source of solutions,” he said. “I wanted it to raise a cohort of questions.”

And it did.

Almost as soon as the performance started, Smith cut quickly to the heart of the school’s ongoing attempts to deal with diversity, as she echoed the words of Hannah Valantine, MD, professor of cardiology and the newly appointed senior associate dean for diversity and leadership at the medical school. “There is a lot that is talked about or essssssss-poused,” Smith said in Valantine’s British accent, with the final syllable exploding out of her mouth.

Espoused is the word,” Smith continued. “The use of that word is part of the pattern. There is a lot of talk about diversity, but really not very much happens.”

Throughout the performance, there were no mentions of overt racism or sexism at Stanford. Rather, the people Smith portrayed felt that racial, gender and socioeconomic inequities are issues that are almost invisible in the school’s current environment.

Smith, who was a member of Stanford’s drama faculty until 2000 and is now a professor at NYU, is perhaps most recognized as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally on NBC’s “The West Wing.” She has written and performed two widely acclaimed one-woman plays about racial tensions in American cities—“Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992.”

During her one-woman plays, Smith transforms herself, adopting the speech patterns and mannerisms of each person she portrays. At the retreat, her transformations ranged from her near whispering to evoke Shortliffe’s voice, to donning a suit jacket as she became Pizzo, to belting out the raucous laugh of the African-American former faculty member, who declared, “Medicine is a guaranteed—guaranteed!—good living.”

One of the people Smith portrayed, a Hispanic woman who attended medical school at Stanford, eventually turned down a teaching job here because she didn’t feel her work was valued. “It feels like there’s a color-blindness, almost to an extreme. It doesn’t feel like there’s any value to having a diverse population,” the woman said. “You’re allowed to succeed, but I bet most people feel that no one would cry very hard if they left.”

Later, Smith assumed the voice of a struggling medical student who said he quickly learned that when anyone asked, “How are you doing,” the only acceptable answer is, “Everything’s fine.”

“Everybody is super-bright; their parents are doctors or judges … they’re rich,” Smith said in the student’s halting manner. “They don’t like you asking questions.”

Valantine—who in her new administrative role will take the lead in moving the diversity discussion forward among faculty, staff and students—said she was struck by the feelings of isolation that were expressed during the performance. “It was quite a challenge to see all the aspects of diversity splayed out together,” she said.

Pizzo said what resonated with him was “the longing to be embraced” expressed throughout the piece. He acknowledged the potential for misunderstandings to emerge as the school tries to tackle the issues of race, gender and other diversity areas, “but if we don’t have the discussion, we won’t come up with answers,” he said.

The need to navigate such discussions carefully in the coming months was addressed in a panel discussion after the performance featuring Smith, Valantine, Shortliffe, associate dean of students Fernando Mendoza, MD, and University of Maryland-Baltimore County president Freeman Hrabowski, PhD.

“No issue is more difficult to talk about in mixed company than race, even though our intentions are the best,” said Hrabowski, whose research focuses on science and math education, with an emphasis on minority participation. “I encourage people to ask the hard questions. We need an environment where people can ask what they really need to ask.”

Valantine said she believes the conversation is off to a good start, as evidenced by small-group discussions that took place between Smith’s performance and the panel discussion. Each group was asked to come up with questions raised by the performance that were then shared during the panel discussion. Some of the questions that emerged were:

- How can the school create a culture where everyone feels valued?

- How committed are faculty members and students to developing a diverse environment?

- How can we have honest, open discussions about these issues?

“The conversation was very open and frank,” Valantine said. “When we have these discussions, people are the better for it. They’re energized by it.”

In the coming weeks, Valantine will be working with other school leaders to formulate a plan for further discussions on diversity. While the discussions may result in some immediate steps aimed at improving diversity, Valantine added that “change takes time, and realizing a climate change will take quite a bit of time.”

Shortliffe, though a bit self-conscious about seeing her story told by Smith, said she was glad to be included in the piece. Shortliffe is of Japanese descent, and the performance included her remarks about her parents being interned during World War II before they were married, as well as her own feelings about being a minority and a woman in the field of science.

But Shortliffe said that the performance left her feeling encouraged that school leaders want to explore such weighty topics and that she is hoping the conversation become even more complex in the coming months, going beyond the topic of race to other barriers to diversity.

“If the issue is just seeing a face (of color), then I’m not sure that we’re looking at the right issues,” Shortliffe said. “I think we really have to look at socioeconomic status within each race. That kind of conversation may be very different than what some people envision.”

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

When Anna Deavere Smith took the stage last weekend at the medical school retreat, she assumed the voices of faculty members and students, creating monologues based on interviews she conducted late last year. Here’s a selection of observations and insights that she presented while in character.

Fernando Mendoza, MD, professor of pediatrics and associate dean of student affairs, saying that health experts had been aware since the 1970s that many black and Hispanic children were overweight, but it wasn’t until childhood obesity began affecting an increasing number of white children in the 1990s that researchers began to focus on the issue. “We ask these folks (of color) to go to war, and they go to war. When it comes to paying taxes, they pay their taxes. But they never get the full American dream. They never get their issues evaluated.”

Linda Shortliffe, MD, professor and chair of urology, who described feeling “different and strange” growing up on the East Coast as an Asian in the 1950s and ‘60s: “It’s harder for me to relate to gender differences in some ways. The fact that I was a woman in urology was probably less important to me than being Asian as a child. That seemed harder to get through in many ways.”

Julie Parsonnet, MD, senior associate dean for medical student education and associate professor of medicine, describing the frustrations of some minority medical students: “What we’re saying is we’re going to accept diverse students but we’re not going to support them fully once they get here. If you’re going to try to develop a diverse population here, then we have to be even more committed to making sure that they don’t fail. I want to have a diverse class. I want every one to feel successful. I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re second-class.”

Hannah Valantine, MD, senior associate dean for diversity and leadership and professor of cardiology, on the salary inequities for women across all faculty ranks at Stanford: “There were many times when I felt discouraged. There was a long period in my career when I felt, well, that’s how I’m valued.”