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In Conversation

Diversity in Media Education with Lee Pelton

College students studying media and arts feed a direct pipeline into the working industry. We discuss how diversity in the college experience shapes and informs the larger media industry.

July 8, 2020

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Our guest Lee Pelton discusses the importance of media and entertainment students experiencing a diverse and inclusive educational environment. 

The following interview is an excerpt from our video series, Production In Conversation. To watch the full interview and see more video content, click here. Or you can listen to the SHIFT - In Conversation podcast here.  

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Lee Pelton - President - Emerson College
Grace Amodeo - Program Manager - SHIFT 

Grace:
Tell us about yourself, and about what makes Emerson College unique. 

Lee:
I've been at Emerson as its President for nine years. The first thing is that we're distinctive, so we're not a traditional conservatory, nor are we 

a traditional liberal arts school. We've taken elements of both and created something new. As opposed to a liberal arts college where you wait a couple of years before you enter your major, students apply to a major department when they come here. So we have these students who know what they want to do. They're passionate about what they want to do and they're really very good at it, even before they arrive. The work that we do here is very collaborative, and we are a creative force. 

Grace:
What is your vision for the future of Emerson College?

Lee:
We're engaged in inculcating various capacities in our students. A capacity for creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication -- the four C’s. We believe that our students, when they leave Emerson with those four capacities, will be able to do whatever they want to do. Many of them will go into the creative world, the media world, or the arts world, but we have some who will go on to law school. Many of our students will go on and be entrepreneurs. We also have what I call several pillars of excellence. One is academic excellence, of course, that's the core teaching and learning of what we do. We have a pillar of innovation, and we're known for being innovative. We have a commitment to civic engagement, we want our students to be engaged in the broader society. And then we have a commitment to global education, so over the last three or four years we’ve been focused on making Emerson the global hub of arts and communication in the world. 

Grace:
What is your experience of diversity and inclusion efforts in higher education during your career? Do you think this moment is different from what you’ve experienced in the past?

Diversity is not something to be fixed, it requires an ongoing continuous effort. It's not about being something, it's about becoming something. 

Lee:
People ask me, is this a moment? And I say, no, it's not a moment, it's a movement. And what's striking about this movement is that it's profoundly multi-racial. It is led by young people, some of whom are still in high school and who can use social media to whip up a protest rally of 10,000 people in 24 or 36 hours. So, it is a movement, and it's symbolized by the death of Mr. Floyd. It really took root in that eight minutes and 46 seconds in which the officer had his knee buried into Mr. Floyd's neck. One thing about diversity -- diversity is the way of life. It is, as Lucretius would say, "de rarum natura", it's in the nature of things. In colleges and universities, you cannot be excellent without diversity. It's not possible. Because we thrive on diversity of ideas and perspectives and backgrounds and skin color. That's where learning takes place, in diverse environments. And so diversity is not something to be fixed, it requires an ongoing continuous effort. It's not about being something, it's about becoming something. 

Grace:
What do you see as the importance of the college experience in shaping those thoughts and contributing to that conversation? 

Lee:
We have to recognize there's learning that takes place in the classroom, and there's learning that takes place outside of the classroom. And both of those, at a residential college, are profoundly important in terms of how students grow and develop intellectually and personally. Inside the classroom, we want to make sure that our courses, and our faculty, reflect the diversity not only of the country but of the world. We also seek, as best as we can, to have a diverse student population so that the conversations that students have outside of the classroom, the associations that they have, and all of the interplay will be done within a diverse set of students. 

Grace:
Is there a special importance on diversity, equity, and inclusion specifically at Emerson because of its media and arts focus?

Lee:
There certainly is. This century is really the century of media. And at Emerson, we're the storytellers. We understand the power of storytelling to transform lives, and even transform nations. And the storyteller might be a journalist, it could be someone who makes film, it could be someone who performs on the stage or writes for the stage, but it's storytelling. But we also understand that, broadly, people of color are underrepresented in all of these areas. So we feel that we have an obligation to rectify as best as we can that underrepresentation. 

Grace:
Can you speak a little more on the importance of media and the arts in shaping our cultural landscape?

[Media] allows us to see with new and fresh eyes aspects of human life and human society that we might not have otherwise seen.

Lee:
Media, at the highest level, connects us to issues and topics that are most important. It allows us to see with new and fresh eyes aspects of human life and human society that we might not have otherwise seen. So it's vitally important.

Grace:
As you're experiencing this cultural movement, do you have your sights set on a vision of the future that you are steering towards?

Lee:
As a nation, we've not lived out our creed -- “E Pluribus Unum”, out of the many, one. We have a long way to go. And as we've seen recently in this movement, there are a lot of George Floyd's before Mr. Floyd. And there's a structural racism that's been a part of the founding of this nation, and even before the founding of this nation. It would be my hope that we would have a future where there's opportunity for diverse voices to be heard, where diversity appears more clearly in our personal lives and in our work lives. We have a lot to do in that area. If you look at Hollywood, for instance, who are the executives who control the money? Both for women and people of color, there is a considerable amount of work to be done.

Grace:
Are there any resources, action items, or reading you would like to leave us with?

I would encourage all of us, myself included, to put ourselves in places and situations and circumstances that make us a little uncomfortable

Lee:
There's a lot out there. I would say as a general rule, remember this: progress begins with discomfort. That's where change begins, with discomfort. So I would encourage all of us, myself included, to put ourselves in places and situations and circumstances that make us a little uncomfortable, whatever those are. You can figure those out. Making friends that you might not have made before, going to this social event that you had not gone to before, going to a cultural event that you might not have gone to before, going to this church which you might not have gone to before. Change really begins with discomfort. You know, the Greek word “crisis” really means change. And so we all need to be in a state of crisis.

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Would you like to participate in a future In Conversation video interview? Email grace@shift.io for more information. 

Grace Amodeo is a program manager at SHIFT, where she oversees the annual SHIFT Creative Fund grant program. She is a graduate of Emerson College, where she studied film with a concentration in directing narrative fiction. Grace lives in Los Angeles.
Read more by Grace Amodeo