Christine Acham is the first Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
Christine Acham, a professor in the Division of Cinema and Media Studies, has been appointed the School of Cinematic Arts’ first Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion. Acham, who received her Ph.D. from SCA and has been teaching at the School since 2013, has focused her research on African American film, television, and popular culture.
This past year, the USC Provost had requested a 5-year plan for diversity and inclusion from every school within the University. Part of SCA’s plan was establishing the deanship to provide leadership on issues of inclusion at the School. “SCA having an established division shows how SCA makes it a priority to see change,” Acham says. In a time when words like diversity and inclusion become buzz-words that are quickly forgotten, Professor Acham says her goal is to have “concentrated and sustainable change over time.” Acham says the focus of her new position is to make sure everyone has a voice and to do so in ways that aren’t combative. “The notion of diversity is not threatening, and the point of inclusion is that we are not trying to exclude anyone from the conversation. Encouraging change means including everyone, and my hope is that we have conversations across gender and race that reflect our diverse student body.”
The ongoing dialogue about representation, access, and change is extremely present and relevant in communities all across the country, and Acham sees SCA as a very unique place in the midst of it all. “We have been the number one film school for years. We are directly feeding people into the industry, and they are going to be the next writers, directors, producers, animators, and cultural creators. We have a responsibility to give these people new ideas and new perspectives on the history of racism, sexism, and how it all factors together.” Acham is also acutely aware that SCA exists in a multi-cultural epicenter. “In L.A. we are used to diversity on every level,” she says. “We can forget that people who want to make films come from everywhere, including places in the country where people don’t run into people of color or different sexual orientations.”
Acham, who originally hails from Trinidad & Tobago and came to the United States when she was doing her undergraduate work at Clark University, has spent her career analyzing the interplay of media and culture. “Our over-all society is changing, and SCA needs to change too because large portions of America still rely on media and popular culture for their views of other cultures,” she says. “We are a large school with many demands. We produce media. It is important that our students understand the issues of representation in all marginalized groups so that they are not just replicating tropes they have seen before in their work.” Having already taken climate surveys in which students have laid out some of the challenges for the Diversity and Inclusion Council, Acham wants the conversations around these themes to “be a part of the culture for both students and faculty all the way through.”
As part of her role, Acham teaches a class known as the Diversity and Inclusion Lab, which is a requirement for all graduate students. “Our lab is not only a lecture, we bring in guests to discuss the issues of race, gender, and sexuality they encounter in the industry,” Acham says. When asked about what advice she would give as the new Dean of Diversity and Inclusion, Acham points out that, “Change is always difficult.” She also stresses that everyone will be challenged to be more inclusive. “We need openness and willingness from our staff, faculty, and students. We are going to be doing things differently, don’t be threatened by it. We [SCA] are cutting edge, we do all these things differently from other schools, so we have to be cutting edge and embrace this [Diversity and Inclusion] and look at this differently too.” She also stresses patience: “Everyone hopes change happens faster than it does.”
For Acham, it is important that ideas around diversity and inclusion extend beyond race, gender, and sexuality. She is also focused on providing resources to help first-generation college students. “First-generation and non-traditional students [older students who have taken breaks between their education] have no tradition of family members who have done this before,” she points out. “They come here and are completely intimidated by USC as well as SCA. We have to remember that a lot of different communities are coming together here, and we have to be open to all of them.”
With plans to gather feedback from students, faculty, and staff, Acham says that this academic year is “going to be a real investigative year for what is going on.” Acham will continue to lead the School’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion which meets every month during the semester, with the current semester schedule currently review. There, students are invited to attend the second hour of the meeting, from 4 o’clock on, for an open discussion where they are free to bring up any issues they might have experienced in their classrooms or other parts of the USC campus. The council also sponsors events including the “Our Voices” series, which brings industry professionals like director Tim Story to speak to students about diversity issues in the professional world.
Despite the challenges of the job, Acham’s greatest asset is her optimism about what can be achieved at SCA. “Having a dean-level position is good because when you institutionalize something it means it won’t go away. It brings people together from all divisions, and gives student someone to talk to if there are any issues,” she says. “My goal is to create an environment that is normalized for everyone,” she adds.
Since her appointment, Acham has received support from the larger SCA community “I have talked to many of the chairs across the departments, and they have been very open about this new position. That trickles down into all of the faculty members. I have had a lot of support from the Dean [Elizabeth Daley], and am going into this with enthusiasm and hope.” Ultimately, Acham says her goal is “having the conversations to lead to awareness to lead to change.”
The new Assistant Dean of Diversity and Inclusion says she not only wants to “deal with issues and concerns” but also thinks it’s important “to celebrate our student body!”
By Phenia Hovsepyan