PGA scholar discusses belongingness and how soul work moves mountains
Please introduce yourself. Where are you from?
My name is Crestcencia Ortiz-Barnett and I'm a Presidential Graduate Assistant from southwest Detroit, Michigan. I've been living here for a year and a half; I moved here to attend ASU. Previously, I lived in Japan. My husband just retired from the Air-Force and we were there for five years. My interests are theater, movies and anything that allows me to use my creativity. I love to read and I'm a homebody. My true passion is creating opportunities for others.
Where did you go to school before ASU? What was your major and minor?
I started my undergraduate education at Alabama State University, a Historically Black College or University (HBCU), where I studied theatre. I went on to attend the University of Nevada, Las Vegas where I obtained a Master of Arts in theater with a concentration in African American theater. Currently, I'm a sixth-year PhD in education at the University of Arizona and a second-year MFA in theater directing here at ASU.
What is something you learned during your professional or academic journey that surprised you or changed your perspective?
I learned that as a woman of color in this field, no matter how hard you work or how much you try to prove that you are worthy, it doesn't mean that you will always be accepted or that your work will be valued. Historically, everything has not been equitable in this business and sometimes you bear the burden of being the only person of color in the room and you are expected to speak for everyone. I used to approach every opportunity thinking that no matter how hard I work, what I create or produce, it will be well-received. However, sometimes it feels like I'm not doing enough and that’s been the biggest surprise.
I'm currently pursuing two separate terminal degrees, directing a student production through an organization that I created (ASU Black Theatre Organization), teaching two undergraduate courses, being a directing mentor, PGA Scholar and Graduate student representative. I have two children (one in college at ASU and the other is a junior in high school) and a husband. I'm doing all these things and creating all these opportunities and yet feel like I have to do more. I’m thankful for the support my department has given me; it truly changed my perspective on how I want to move forward in my career.
What types of problems do you work on? What are the reasons for these problems?
My foundation in Black theatre allows me to see the gaps in telling, creating and producing stories and those of other marginalized communities, when at predominantly white institutions. Research shows that the majority of Black students in theatre did not have a strong theatre background growing up due to many obstacles, one important being finances. This fact led many of these theatre students to feel a lack of belongingness in the westernized theatre world because they don’t speak the lingo or know all the “theatre terms”. I’m trying to close this gap by being a resource (teaching, directing, creating) and working on bringing opportunities to students to enact and take part in performances that celebrate and teach the Black lived experience. I also strive to show them that there are hundreds of methods to theatre, especially when pertaining to Black theatre.
Additionally, I've been working at helping students overcome impostor syndrome because I am familiar with it and understand how proper support can have a positive impact on how persistent a person can be in college. I believe a sense of belonging is important for wellbeing and the persistence that leads to graduation. If you don't have a community or a sense of belonging, you might consider dropping out. I see these problems or gaps and I'm doing my best to shorten them but I'm still a student, so my support only goes so far. Fortunately, my department has put initiatives in place to support our demographic and to make sure that we are included.
How did you become involved in this type of work? What inspired you?
For me, theatre started at an after school prevention program. I learned how to write and direct skits and it was an escape from my life. I got to create any narrative I dreamed up. I've always been a shy person: I get anxious when joining groups and anyone who knows me, knows that I don’t like speaking in public and rather be behind the scenes. But, theater is a way for me to show who I really am and allows me speak from my heart.
Also, having a foundation in Black theater has changed my perspective about life; attending an HBCU in my undergraduate years structured my life and allowed me to see things differently. It taught me how to navigate a difficult world and I could learn in a space where I wasn't the minority and I could focus on my education. That experience was imperative in my academic and personal career. I understand that fact a lot more now as I try to help my daughter navigate a Primarily White Institution (PWI) where she is constantly dealing with microaggressions and racism. I believe that these problems exist because of lack of representation in the field, classrooms and media, etc.
What are some approaches or methods you use in your work?
This semester, my classes are full, so I like to think that students are reacting well to my classroom process which borrows from the black acting method of "soul work" by Dr. Cristal Chanelle Truscott, which is not utilized in a lot of PWI theatre programs.
To enter my classroom or rehearsal spaces, you have to have an intention of what you’re bringing into the space and an aspiration for yourself. I was doing "soul work" as an undergraduate and didn't know it. We always had to state our intentions before we came into class. Instructors were like, "I know you can act because you got the role but now you need to show what you bring to the circle. How you complete this company of theatre artists? Why are you here? What are your intentions for this show and this class?" These questions allow someone to reset and think about their "why".
Students can get caught up in academics or making the Dean's list and we're all so stressed. We have families and some of students are working two or three jobs to afford school. So, I like to take it a few steps back and think about why we're doing what we are doing, to make sure that we are getting out as much as we're contributing.
Are there any individuals or organizations that you network with outside of ASU?
No, but I would love to connect with the Black Theater Troupe here in Phoenix because my students could talk to professionals to learn more about theater etiquette, how to be good audience members and supporters of theatre. Proper mentorship would also teach the designers how to communicate and collaborate; it would be beneficial for them to see more people of color in the field. Students would learn how to move to the next step of getting a SAG card or how to join a union and what that looks like for Black and Indigenous individuals and people of color (BIPOC).
Are there any events, initiatives or funding opportunities at the Graduate College that you’re excited about?
As a Presidential Graduate Assistant, I try to attend every event at the Graduate College because I want to show appreciation for the program and give back by introducing myself to the newcomers and being available to them. Each event keeps getting better and there is so much that I learn from each one!
What advice do you have for students who are interested in your field or higher education?
Know your why. Know what you're doing it for because if you're doing it for anyone else, then you need to have a conversation with yourself because it's going to get hard and you'll only be able to count on yourself to get things done. Prepare your mental and physical health first – everything else will fall in line as long as you’re taking care of yourself. Just know that the higher education experience is just one small bump in your journey, so make sure you are having fun! Do the internships, study abroad, go to the professional development events, network and make lots of friends but most importantly, lean on your closest friends and family for support when needed.
Why is it important to network with your cohort?
They are the few that understand what you are going though; you can lean on them for support, advice, etc and they will understand.
What are some of your long-term professional goals?
I’ve always wanted to be a tenured professor in theatre or a Dean of Students. I want to be a change-maker in the field.
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