The letter called on NIDA to “[forge] a campus where students from all walks of life can exist without issues of racism and can explore their stories safely in their respective practices and training.”
It said it was “deeply troubling” that the institute had not spoken more loudly on the Black Lives Matter movement.
“Your neutrality has been complicit in white supremacist and colonial violence, where you could have had a greater impact than the tokenism of the institute,” the letter stated.
In testimonials attached to the letter, NIDA alumni describe a culture where students of colour were sidelined and made to feel like they were fulfilling diversity quotas, speaking out about race and discrimination was discouraged and staff and directors were mostly white.
Wendy Mocke, a Papua New Guinean actor and graduate of NIDA’s acting program who sent the email to Hughes, said she had dreamed of attending the school since she was a teenager and was thrilled to be accepted in 2014. But Mocke said in her first year she realised the school had “systemic” issues with race.
Mocke said her teachers were mostly white, the canon of work performed was Euro-centric and requests for more support for students of colour were ignored.
When black actors ask her about auditioning for NIDA, Mocke advised them to “be prepared to navigate an institute that wasn’t designed for us”.
“It’s my duty of care to tell them exactly what they’re going to get themselves into,” Mocke said. “When they’re in front of me and I see that in their eyes, the same thing that was in my eyes only a few years ago, it’s just like – how can I not tell them the truth?”
In 2016, Mocke was interviewed for a diversity report spearheaded by acting teacher Kristine Landon-Smith. Despite repeated requests, Mocke never saw a copy of the final report or its recommendations. The letter calls on Hughes to publish the report.
When approached for comment, NIDA directed The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age to Hughes’ email.
In her email to staff and students, Hughes pledged that she would implement changes within four weeks once she had completed more “listening and engagement” and would start to work on longer-term strategies.
Hughes, who has been in the role since December 2019, suggested she would meet many of the alumni’s demands including diversifying student cohorts and staff, broadening the range of course materials in the curriculum, increasing access to support services and scholarships, introducing cultural awareness training and working on pathways to support prospective students from diverse backgrounds. The institute has also hired independent consultants to meet with students, alumni and staff.
Mocke said the letter to Hughes was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement currently roiling the United States and Australia.
“If there’s any time to blow this wide open and force people to have a conversation and to hold this institute accountable, now is the time,” she said.
The letter also calls on NIDA’s leadership to be vocal about black deaths in custody.
“We believe that the role of the arts is to speak truth to power, and your role as educators is to stand beside us in a shared struggle for a better world,” it says.
Organiser Enoch Mailangi, an Aboriginal and Tongan writing student at NIDA, said that “this fight is larger than the entertainment industry”.
“It’s about black lives mattering, and the arts actually caring about deaths in custody.”
Mocke and other organisers will meet with Hughes on Friday to discuss their concerns. NIDA board director Sandra Phillips, the associate dean (Indigenous engagement) at the University of Queensland’s arts faculty, will also join the meeting.