SCHENECTADY -- A former employee of Proctors’ School of Performing Arts has come forward in a Facebook video with allegations of racism that she said she both observed and experienced while working in the theater's education program.
According to the video posted by Zoë Lewis on Friday, she witnessed middle school students experience "microaggressions," or prejudicial treatment, from instructors and she received similar treatment from colleagues.
In response to Lewis' video, Proctors CEO Philip Morris apologized on Facebook, saying “Zoë, I’ve read your experiences, and I’m shocked and incredibly moved by what happened. I and we apologize. I also apologize for failings with any of our students.” Morris also vowed to make changes within his organization.
Lewis, who identifies herself as black and queer in the video, said she started working at Proctors in July 2019 when she was hired as the Acting Academy site manager and assistant to the director. This past March, she was laid off, as were 80 percent of Proctors employees due to COVID-19
In a Facebook Live video that has been viewed more than 21,000 times, Lewis discusses how while working at the theater she heard one colleague refer to a young black student’s appearance as a “thug." She also alleges that black students were reprimanded on a larger scale than white students.
Through tears and frustration, Lewis adds that in her first weeks at the company, a colleague told her “they were happy to have a black person there to think about all the race stuff so they didn’t have to because it was so stressful for them.”
In the 28-minute video, she also reflects on her fears about coming forward with her experiences working at the largest performing arts organization in the Capital Region. Despite these fears, a few recent events encouraged her to speak up. Last week, Proctors, along with many other companies, posted “We stand in solidarity. #BlackLivesMatter” on Facebook. In response, Lewis commented on the post: “What actions will you be taking to support this statement?”
According to Lewis, the following day, a member of the Proctors management team reached out via email to ask for her insight in moving the education program forward. Lewis shared her experiences working at the School of the Performing Arts with the manager and found the response to be “lackluster,” saying “The word 'sorry' is not in there. The word 'thank you' is not in there.”
Beyond the email correspondence, she was also encouraged to come forward due to the nationwide protests surrounding race and police brutality. “I’m not going to be afraid to say anything because I’ve been doing that my whole life. ... People need to be held accountable because that’s what this whole time is about,” Lewis said.
Zoë Lewis' Facebook Live:
"I think this current climate is allowing people to be able to talk freely," said Dr. Odo Butler, the president of the Schenectady NAACP. "In the past when black people or people of color or anyone [went] through those [types] of situations, they didn’t feel like anyone would believe them."
Jamaica Miles, a longtime activist and founder of All of Us Community Action, said that Lewis' experiences were all too familiar.
“These are common stories that have been told in businesses, corporations and non-profits for as long as I’ve been in businesses and probably before then. It’s not something new," Miles said. "Sometimes it’s extremely overt and other times, it’s those microaggressions or intentional holding of spaces. I have worked places where I was absolutely excluded and the difference between me and everybody else was a little bit more melanin in my skin."
While the experiences that Lewis spoke about weren't uncommon, Miles said, the video has brought opportunities for discussion.
"We’re in a situation of someone has to bear witness to the reality for other people to talk about it. Just like the videos of police violence and attacks that are happening," Miles said.
After watching Lewis' video, she called Proctors' response "crap" and reached out to Lewis to offer support.
"There is an entire community of people who are here for her in any way that she needs," Miles said.
Philip Morris' statement in response:
When contacted about the allegations, Morris would not comment, but in a Facebook comment to Lewis, Morris said, “Events of the past weeks have caused me and us to reflect more deeply on how we must re-imagine our organization to address the issues being raised with sustainable, meaningful action. This is more than continued diversity training or increased scholarship. I understand that. An effort of this magnitude requires deliberation, the input of staff, boards and the community.”
He went on to say that Proctors is working toward a plan to implement changes and will share it publicly in the next four weeks.