Bill Womack: A Trustee First
Jacobson, Lynn, American Theatre
Bill Womack is used to being a "first." As a person of color in the largely white profession of child psychiatry, he's accustomed to breaking new ground. Still, he wasn't quite prepared for the overwhelming isolation he felt when he joined the board of directors at Seattle's A Contemporary Theatre in 1987.
"I had no formal background in the theatre," he explains. "I wasn't rich. And I happened to be at that time the only board member of color. There were many times I felt very, very alone."
True to his profession, Womack is not a man who has trouble expressing his emotions. As he recounts his five-plus years of service at ACT, he leans heavily on the verb "to feel."
"I felt at the beginning like I didn't know what my niche would be," he recalls. He joined the board at the behest of managing director Susan Trapnell Moritz, whom he had met while taking dance classes at a local studio with his family. Moritz was impressed with Womack's "focus and clear-headedness." Womack in turn was impressed with the dedication of his new fellow board members, "but I didn't know them very well, and for a while I didn't feel I was doing anything of import."
Dealing directly with race
Womack attended meetings diligently, but resisted assuming a leadership role on the board. "After a while, I was beginning to wonder if this was the best way for me to be spending my time. I wasn't unhappy, but I didn't feel I was using my own skills and talents fully."
The turning point came when Moritz asked Womack if he would be willing to chair an annual croquet tournament that ACT sponsored. "I said to my friends: 'Can you imagine a black man dressed in whites running around playing croquet? It's absolutely silly.' But I did it, and it was fun," Womack recounts.
Then, in the spring of '93, Moritz told him about Theatre Communications Group's diversity workshop in Los Angeles, and--in Womack's words--"snookered" him into appearing on a panel there. "That gave me the opportunity to think about what my feeling had been over the past four or five years," he says.
Looking back, he realized there were some things both he and the other board members could have done to help him adjust to the role of "first board member of color." First, he could have been more resolved about what he wanted to contribute and accomplish. At the time he was worried about whether he'd have enough money, whether he would make friends on the board and whether other people would see what he had to offer. If he had to do it over now, he says, he'd worry less, and be more forthright about telling people what he wanted to do.
At the same time, it would have been helpful if someone on the board had asked. …