Letter on Discrimination in the Arts

Omonike Akinyemi
14 min readMar 31, 2021

This is a letter that hopes to be a catalyst, more than a scratch on the wall…in a room where so many have been hurt. I share this letter which I wrote to the attention of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation on December 8, 2015, after my experiences at Montclair State University’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programming:

I write to you out of great concern for the future of Dance for Film on Location at MSU. On November 19th I was informed that my tenure as the Project Coordinator for “Dance for Film” would be terminated and the position itself discontinued as of the December 31st, 2015. I feel that the reasons for the termination of this position are based on beliefs that are not in line with the mission of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to strengthen, promote, and, where necessary, defend the contributions of the humanities and the arts to human flourishing and to the well-being of diverse and democratic societies. It is my hope to make you aware of the discriminatory behavior my employer displayed which threatens the validity and overall success of this project.

Attempts to Break My Spirit:

The behavior my employer (Jedediah Wheeler, Executive Director of the Office of Arts and Cultural Programming, Montclair State University) exhibited, which I believe to be racist, included the constant cutting me off when I would speak during staff meetings. In front of my peers and the students whom I supervise as part of the dance film project, he would display a patronizing attitude, once calling me a “child” in front a visitor, my former dance instructor from the Ballet Hispanico Dance Company.

When others were not present, this behavior would take on the form of physical intimidation. In May 2015, Jed told me that if I could not find a location to shoot the present dance film on campus, my employment would be over. He used the motion of a hand cutting a throat to show me that it would be “over”.

At the start of staff meeting on October 19th, I attempted to find a seat. As I approached an area with a seat near where Jed was sitting, he reproached me and said that I should sit farther away from him. My fellow staff members, Carrie Urbanic and Amy Estes, who later apologized to me for what they saw as highly irregular, witnessed this open hostility.

During that meeting, I asked that the students involved in the dance film project be treated with greater respect and included in the dance film project more fully.

After a year of regular access to the editing suite, in October 2015 their access to the editing room had been denied. One of the students had been told that she was making an “illegal entry” when trying to enter her own access code at the key station and was approached by the theater Facilities Manager, Ryan Graves. I received a text message from the two student documentary crew-members, in which they stated they did not know how they would get in to access the equipment they needed for filming. After this incident, Jed also ordered Ryan to deactivate my own access to the editing studio.

Utilizing the personnel within the theater, Jed created an environment of tension, which was felt and witnessed by the Student Editors who work on the documentary clips of the dance film — Worovan and Laura.

He did not voice any encouragement at the 2015 Teaching Colloquium screening of their rough cut documentary on the Heidi Latsky dance project, “Into the Eye of Soliloquy” in May 2015 and seemed to use his displeasure at the incomplete status of the documentary, as reason to deny them further access to studio space downstairs.

When I stated, this October, that their final edit of the documentary would need a sound mix, Jed said he did not want to spend any money on a sound mix. While this may have seemed fiscally prudent, it seemed to me a slap in the face at the efforts of the minority Federal Work Study students who had invested so much of their time in the documentary. They were paid out of non-grant funds from Federal Work Study program; yet, the idea of honoring their accomplishments with the a quality professional sound mix on par with the mix that the main dance film received, seemed far from our executive director’s mind.

The documentary seemed to be seen as too much of a competing force that Jed did not want to steal the thunder from the main dance film, and yet, “documentation of the dance film process” is a key aspect of the Mellon Grant which the Office of Arts & Cultural Programming stated it would provide as a mean’s of sharing the project with the University community at large.

In 2014, Jed’s refusal to hire a student producer for the documentary, lead the student documentary director, Nicholas, to quit. Jed then asked me to “produce” the first documentary, not offering any additional compensation for my time as a producer. His actions showed me that he did not respect my time or understand the considerable effort which producing a documentary takes.

And now it seems that this year, even with new students dedicated to the project, the effectiveness of their input is being undermined by discontinuation of my role as their supervisor. I enlisted these students to participate when I asked that they submit their treatments on how they would approach the creation of three documentary clips on choreographer Nora Chipaumire’s film.

I was astounded by the promise of both Natalie Romero and Robert Getz’s treatments. Both students were also highly recommended by MSU faculty and staff. Natalie proposed a focus that would clearly visit Nora’s cultural heritage, showing how a Zimbabwean choreographer now based in New York City, could be involved in MSU life, and Robert proposed a focus on the idea of a superhero, relating his own personal experiences to the strength of the superhero in Nora’s “El Capitan”. It is my hope that these students will be given full support to make their projects come to light.

I am a filmmaker and hold an MFA in Film Production from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. I also hold a B.A from Yale University in Comparative Literature and African Studies. I have made numerous films that earned international acclaim including screening at the Cannes Film Festival, Torino Women’s Film Festival, and numerous broadcasters including PBS. In 2015, I spent hours and hours working with the students knowing that my efforts were not being adequately compensated, for the love of the art itself, and with hopes that the fullness of the ideas we were exploring in the main dance film would be presented to the university community in a clear and professional manner. To me the doc clips are not a competing force but a force that allows the process of making the dance film itself to be understood more deeply.

In October 2015, Jed yelled at one of the MFA graduate students, Robert, asking him to get off the computer. Robert was working at a computer station also used by the new production assistant to the Executive Producer. At a prior staff meeting it had been determined that the various new assistants would “share” the use of the computer station. Jed immediately blamed me for Robert’s being present at the workstation.

Robert felt responsible for Jed yelling at me after the incident. I and another employee, Amy Estes, later had to explain to Robert, that the behavior he had witnessed had nothing to do with his own actions.

Jed asked me to supervise the students from then on, saying he did not want students to be in the downstairs office by themselves, but he did not provide them with any feasible space in which to work either.

In November 2015, the editing room in the basement was turned into a break room for the production of “El Capitan”, leaving the students with only my office as a space to convene and edit. This created a situation of greater tension, with the students witnessing more of Jed’s openly hostile behavior towards me. Worovan decided to resign from her Work Study position as Student Editor on Thursday, November 19th, stating that she could no longer take the tension in the office. She promised to complete her present edits, but stated that now that they were working upstairs; there was no barrier between the outbursts. She said she had confided in her mother who suggested she leave the job.

On November 5th, two days before the 2015 production was to begin, Jed insisted that we wipe all necessary hard drives clean in order to have a hard drive available for filming. Worovan was faced with having to stay in the office until after 6pm in order to complete the task. She felt pressured and was made vulnerable to the whims of our Executive Director’s actions.

After my suggesting on 11/18/2015, that Nora Chipaumire, the dance film choreographer, consider a reputable editor who happened to be from Cameroon, Jed Wheeler came into my office and asked me to not give any more creative feedback. My suggestion to Nora came after detailed conversations with her about a need to have participation of women in the film project. Nora had also expressed an interest in meeting a wider selection of editors, which she wished would include people of African descent.

Jed followed up with discontinuing my position as the Project Coordinator the next day. At this last instance, he entered my office and asked all of the students in there at the time to leave. While they stood outside, he spoke to me. He gave no reasons for my dismissal other than the “relationship” was not working.

In times of slavery, “breaking a person’s spirit”, was often seen as a necessity in order to make a slave take orders without talking back or acting out. I see my dismissal as the ultimate aggressive act my employer took towards silencing me.

The Role of Project Coordinator: First In, Last Out.

I wore three hats as project coordinator — that of coordinator for the main dance film by the selected choreographers (Heidi Latsky and Nora Chipaumire), supervisor (and first year producer) of the student driven documentary, and distributor of the first dance film, assigned with the task of researching and submitting the Heidi Latsky dance film, “Soliloquy” to festivals. While the last dance film to be choreographed by Doug Elkins has not yet gone into production, I also created a timeline to he direct the future planning of the development, production, and post-production. My position could easily necessitate full-time compensation.

With the production of Nora Chipaumire’s film, I was excited to see a choreographer of African descent, selected to direct the second dance film. While I did not choose this choreographer, I encouraged the executive director to consider diverse choices and throughout pre-production made numerous efforts to make sure Nora’s voice was heard.

I encouraged her to get to know the camera during the rehearsal process and to consider a wide selection of choices for filmmaker when it became evident that MSU could not afford to bring her preferred filmmaker of choice from France to MSU.

On set, I was the first one in and last one out — as my duties also included making sure the hospitality table was set up by myself or a production assistant and the final clean up of the set at the end of each day. While this task did at times seem to feel like one of “servitude”, I saw it as necessary as the mopping a floor after a show. In July 2014, when it was clear that the expense of paying for meals would be a hardship on the budget, I managed to secure donations of lunch meals from a variety of vendors in Upper Montclair Township.

I also found and secured the resources within MSU to make the project happen, selecting members of the film department such as Tony Pemberton (Associate Professor, BFA Film Program) to help with production management in 2015, and securing help from Nicholas Tzanis (Director of Technical Operations & the Broadcasting Center) to secure necessary equipment from outside vendors in 2014.

I also set up preliminary contact with organizations interested in connecting their students with the Dance Film Project, such as the WAE Center in Montclair, which seeks to involve its students with intellectual challenges in the film-making process of the second dance film. Community within and outside of MSU has responded favorably

to the dance film project, seeing it as a space for diversity in participation.

Not wanting to deal with my intellectual capabilities, undermining my authority, resisting diversity:

I understand how to take orders, but often in this position, I was asked to execute an order that did not make sense in terms of the conventions of film-making and if carried through would undermine the stated goals of the dance film project — to bring the tools of digital communication to innovative choreographers.

I stated early on in production development that providing meals for crew and cast members was an important part of any production — no matter how big or small — however, it was not until this needed was also stated by MSU Film Professor, Tony Pemberton, that Jed took this need into serious consideration. Similarly, the need for the choreographer to get familiar with the camera and not rely totally on the camera crew was one that I stated as necessary, during our October 2015 production meetings. Rather than listen to my suggestion, Jed chose to ignore it. And yet, during production, the choreographer expressed that she really wanted a camera she could hold.

Throughout my tenure as a project coordinator, it seemed to me that Jed was resistant to listening to my ideas, out of ignorance of the task ahead. His decision to terminate my position less than 6 months before the April screening of the current dance film in post-production, with technical problems still looming with the computers used by the documentary students, speaks to this ignorance.

The students whom I supervised and helped with technical issues now no longer have a supervisor. The choreographer who has relied on me for help in understanding the film-making process no longer will find that support. She may be given a choice of editor for the film project that the executive director deems as most appropriate, whether she agrees on this choice or not.

The vision I have had of seeing the students’ efforts to document the process of making the dance film, as an important, necessary, and creative contribution, does not seem to be on Jed Wheeler’s list of priorities.

In a racially homogeneous office, it is only the Dance for Film on Location at MSU project, which brings people of all colors, people with disabilities, and graduate and undergraduate students alike together to create films.

I see Jed’s move to terminate the project coordinator position as an effort to thwart this movement toward there being as much diversity “behind the camera” as in front of it.

I am presently the only person of visible African descent in the administration of the Office of Arts & Cultural Programming. It seems to me that the message being sent in dismissing my position is that the notion of diversity in the office does not need to be respected and that diversity can be avoided by regulating minority employees to Part Time Per Diem status.

During my tenure as project coordinator, I have also listened as Jed referred to the African art work in the lobby of the Kasser theater as not indicative of who “we are” and refer to the group of grown African male performers in the Robin Orlin/Jant Bi performance as “boys”. He seems, at times unaware of the insensitivity of his remarks and how hypocritical they seem when the Kasser Theater regularly presents art created by people of African descent.

An attitude of indifference towards my own hardship and the hardship of other people of color involved in the production:

I was repeatedly reprimanded for bringing my child to the office when I had no other means of childcare for sick days and school staff holidays. This policy towards me was a double standard as I witnessed both Jed Wheeler, himself, and the Executive Producer of the Kasser Theater, Jill Dombrowski, bring their children to the office without any reproach. I also witnessed the Executive Producer leave mid day in order to care for a sick child.

It seemed that only I was not to bring my child into the office.

When I let Jed know that I could not afford the University child care center, and therefore had to rely on childcare with limited hours, he made no effort to find a means of addressing this by lessening my hours or offering more pay.

Instead, in the week of October 1st, he insisted that I be present for all of the students editing sessions, knowing that our schedules could not always intersect. In an email dated 10/1, he asked me to be present 5 days a week and weekends if filming was taking place, knowing well, that I am a Part-Time per-diem employee. This went against the hours I was told I could maintain during my hire interview. Then, I was told that I would not need to work more than 3 or 4 days a week.

When I voiced concern that one of the cast members of the current dance film could not afford to stay on campus, Jed Wheeler suggested I get on the phone and call a homeless shelter in Newark for this cast member, if necessary. When it was finally agreed upon that the cast member’s salary would be increased by $500 in order to allow for him to pay for 2 weeks housing in Montclair and transportation, Jed Wheeler, insisted that this be paid upfront, knowing fully that this might be an increased hardship for the performer.

When production began, on November 7th, I was faced with the consequence of this action. I had to lend the performer money to get to set. I absorbed this responsibility as project coordinator knowing that expressing the performer’s continual hardship would not be well received. I also did not want tension to form between this performer and his colleagues. Due to errors in processing, the performer did receive a check until the last day of production.

I also now await needed reimbursement for monies I spent to pay for gas for the truck and generator, and tolls to get equipment back to vendors in New York City. The responsibility of finding petty cash for the production from my own salary is one, which I bore, understanding that the University system could not provide this. I call this responsibility the heart of producing a film. I have made personal monetary sacrifice to make sure these films get made.

The Dance for Film project coordinator position has been an experience that combined two of the art forms I have largely dedicated my life to.

For the opportunity to explore film and dance movement at MSU, I am grateful; however, I feel that the experiences I have had to endure under Jed Wheeler’s guidance are riddled with bigotry. I am being pushed out and feel that the validity of the project itself has been damaged by the Executive Director’s guidance and decision to terminate my position as Project Coordinator.

While I was not on the committee that presented a grant request for the Dance for Film project, I, as project coordinator, have been the architect of the project. From creating the budget and preparing the choreographer in the development process, to selecting equipment needed to create an editing studio and supervising the student film crew, it has been my task to build and select others to help build a strong project that not only represented Montclair State University but also upholds the Andrew W. Mellon foundation’s core values at heart.

It is my hope that the Mellon Foundation will find a way to make sure that these values are continued as the Dance for Film on Location at MSU project moves forward. I ask that you also consider supporting my request that MSU grant me a form of severance pay for the duration of the time I expected to be employed and in the event that there is opportunity for me to work on the project again, consider revising my title from Project Coordinator to Project Producer, in acknowledgement of this role which encompasses both the responsibilities of a Line Producer and Creative Producer.

I thank you for your time and consideration and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Omonike Akinyemi

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Omonike Akinyemi

Omonike Akinyemi is a dancer/choreographer/film-maker who holds an MFA in film production from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.