Community Liaison Tara Houston reaches out to work with community volunteers
By Elizabeth Fairchild for Ashland.news
A newcomer to Ashland found the unexpected when she arrived at her new job at Oregon Shakespeare Festival in October 2022.
Tara Houston, the first person to hold the post of IDEA (Inclusiveness, Diversity, Equity and Access) Cultural and Community Liaison position at OSF, discovered some surprises on getting to know the Ashland retiree community.
“My experience with retirement communities was that they were insular,” she said, “that you check out and spend time with your friends. Coming here, I found a very different way of being retired.
“I have met people who are devoted to service, devoted to life-long learning, people devoted to building a healthy community. I’m in alignment with those things but that is not the experience I expected. Almost everyone is championing some cause, donating at the food bank, volunteering. People buy at the local bookstore. There is a certain kind of idyllic quality to being in Ashland and a big part of that is how service-minded the community is.”
Besides working with volunteers, Houston’s understanding of the job was “to work with the community to invite them into the theater spaces, particularly with parts of the community who have not felt welcomed in the theater before. For example, farmworkers who are multilingual, multi-ethnic, Black folks, Asian folks, Latinx folks and several large populations of Native Americans and Indigenous folks who have had a varied experience with OSF and the theater.”
OSF as part of the arts ecosystem
Asked to describe how she envisioned her work before she arrived, she explained she saw “OSF as being like Lithia Park, that everyone feels like they might have a special bit of OSF that’s theirs, that they connect to. I have some favorite spots in Lithia Park, as I’m sure most people in Ashland do.
“What I’ve come to realize is that it’s a much more complicated and nuanced situation than I was giving it credit for. I believe there is a lot of conversation that needs to be held in our community just to unpack what does it mean when people say we’re not offering shows that you want to see?
“What shows do you want to see? Have you seen what we’re presenting? Have you seen what the other theaters in town are doing?
“I bring a belief in the sense of theater being a community-based art. That the stories we tell have some universality to them, but there are specific stories that we can connect to. Not everyone reads mysteries or biographies. Theater is the same way.
“How do we look at it as an arts ecosystem of which OSF is part, versus OSF must represent the entire ecosystem of theater that’s available in America?
“What’s unique about OSF is that what’s happening onstage is more diverse than the community. For most large regional theaters, we see the opposite. In traditional regional theaters, we see largely white casts playing to largely white audiences in cities that are racially diverse. Here we have a less diverse community and more diverse stories happening on stage. The bridge building is different here. We need tools about race and race equity.”
Reaches out to SOU, Tudor Guild
In the vein of bridge building, Houston met with the Southern Oregon University Social Justice and Equity Center and the Office for Equity, Diversity & Inclusion, asking, “If OSF could provide anything, what would it be?” She learned SOU has a difficult time attracting and retaining faculty and staff of color.
“OSF folks,” Houston said, “have also had difficulty in finding a home in this community, so some of what I’m interested in is how do we build networks of support for those who have moved to this area.”
She met with the Tudor Guild, with whom OSF’s relationship has been strained since the closing of the Tudor Guild Gift Shop and the way it was announced.
Longtime Guild member Susan Rust said about Houston’s meeting, “For the first time I really felt hopeful. Tara is young, with a diverse background, including theater. She pays attention and her understanding of community involvement is critical. Being in that room where people felt encouraged, I thought, ‘people will volunteer, including me.’”
Barry Vitcov, who attended an OSF Volunteer listening session, said, “Tara is a particularly good listener and has a good background in equity and inclusion.”
Vitcov learned what the volunteer coordinator is up against. “It’s remarkable that no one (at OSF) has the list of former volunteers,” he said.
Vitcov left the session with “confidence in Tara and an optimistic view for realities in the future. The listening session gave me hope.”
Houston comes to Ashland from Baton Rouge well-equipped for this work. Serving at LSU as Associate Dean of DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), she ran training programs plus community conversations. She also has a degree as a Master of Fine Arts in Scenic Design, and she is an educator.
She says her family heritage plays an important role in this work as her maternal family is Mexican American, which she credits for her love of community. Her grandparents hosted outdoor gatherings where “anyone who wandered by was welcome to the party. There was so much warmth and vitality on my mom’s side that that is where I gravitate. The part of me that felt included.”
When asked about how the recent staffing cutbacks at OSF changed her job, Houston expressed her concern for others.
“The changes mean a reprioritization for me, but I am still employed doing work I care about,” she said. “There are people who have lost their jobs, and it just rings a little sour for me to talk about changes in job responsibilities when there are dozens of folks out there looking for work.”
Despite increased internal job responsibilities, Houston is “hoping that I’m building structures to support this work so here I can do more community work.”
What’s Houston’s impression of her community work so far?
“I appreciate how honest people have been in their interactions with me,” she said. “And, specifically talking about OSF, what they center on is how much they care about this place. That’s a good foundation to begin an institutional friendship.”
Contact Ashland resident Elizabeth Fairchild by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was written for Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) Community Journalism at Ashland.news class during the winter 2023 quarter.