Cynthia Sharpe reflects on the 2019 SATE conference

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Cynthia Sharpe has been Thinkwell’s lodestar on all things educational and cultural for more than fifteen years. From hands-on research and testing for a science exhibit to providing one-on-one mentorship for early career Thinkwellians, Cynthia’s focus has always been on enabling those personal moments of connection that not only touch hearts and minds but offer the opportunity to truly change the story – whether for a guest or a colleague.

Here, Cynthia shares her insight and inspiration behind her most recent industry presentation at the TEA SATE conference.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the honor of speaking at a variety of conferences – the annual IAAPA Expo, the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) conferences, the Association of Midwest Museums, the Creative Economy conference, and the TEA’s spring Summit and fall SATE conferences. Increasingly, the lens I bring to these sessions is one of Diversity, Equity, Access, and Inclusion (DEAI) and Social Justice. From the more traditional areas in themed entertainment, I not infrequently get asked
why. These are issues museums are wrestling with, often quite openly; for instance, the AAM conference in 2017 was in St. Louis, a mere 9 miles from Ferguson, and its theme that year was DEAI. But what does that have to do with a fun day out filled with rides and spectaculars and IP-loaded merchandise?

I would argue DEAI has everything to do with it. The research on the economic value of DEAI is rather robust: simply put, companies that are above average on DEAI metrics far outperform those who are average or below on the same metrics. We’re not talking about a small audience, either. There are 850 million visits to American museums every year, give or take (data from AAM). The 2018 Global Attractions Attendance Report from AECOM and the TEA notes attendance at theme parks operated by the top ten groups broke 500 million for the first time. That’s just about seven percent of the world’s population. Seven percent of everyone on this planet seeing our stories, our heroes and our villains. Seven percent of humanity is being welcomed into our spaces – or feeling excluded from a lack of expansive, inclusive, accessible storytelling, technology, and places.

Seven percent. 500 million. They’re figures I can’t stop thinking about. It’s 500 million chances to flip the script. 500 million people to inspire and transform. And every time we, as an industry, don’t push ourselves on DEAI; on who we show in the artwork; on who we center in a story; on how we design our rides, our restaurants, even our bathrooms; on how we train our front line staff to engage the whole of the public respectfully and authentically; on how we hire and promote and coach; on who’s in the room when the ideas are being developed, playtested, pitched; we wind up telling stories and crafting experiences that don’t reflect and embrace the richness of the whole of humanity. We wind up designing rides where the teen in a wheelchair gets to use the compliant entrance to the ride but misses the immersive queue line that deepens the experience. We have a product mix where a young black girl struggles to see herself. We fall short. And that’s just for the seven percent who are coming. 

How do we fix that? The work starts internally – to us as individuals and as members of companies, institutions, and agencies. By embedding DEAI practice within our workspaces, we change not only our industry to be more inclusive and equitable, but we also change the culture – because we are the culture makers. We say who’s the hero. We say who’s the villain. We define what worlds people should aspire to. I hope the presentation from SATE 2019 and its associated resources help you see paths forward for yourself and your workplace, and encourage you to embrace this challenging but ultimately vital work.

As an industry, we can make a better world for the here and now and a better world to dream of and play in. I look forward to you being both ally and accomplice as, together, we roll up our sleeves and get cracking.

–Cynthia, Principal, Cultural Attractions and Research

See below for the full conference presentation and additional resources: