Hollins University President Mary Dana Hinton urged students, faculty, staff, and alumnae/i to “choose to see the bared humanity of one another and choose not to look away from the discomfort, but rather to lean into it” during the third annual Leading Equity, Diversity, and Justice (Leading EDJ) Conference, held February 23-24.
“I know there will also be moments of love and grace, of courage and compassion,” she added. “I ask that we lean into those moments as well.”
This year’s Leading EDJ Conference welcomed over 370 participants for roughly 30 sessions united around the theme of Barriers and Bridges to Access. “The theme reflects the holistic need to evaluate our policies, practices, programs, and this place,” Hinton explained. “We’re asking ourselves: How do we experience Hollins? How do we limit one another’s experience in this place? And most importantly, how can we turn barriers into bridges?”
Vice President for Student Success, Well-being, and Belonging Nakeshia Williams expressed her hope that attendees would come away “with new knowledge and tools, piqued curiosity, heightened self-reflection, increased understanding and compassion, and some very concrete plans for action and change” after “listening, learning, and connecting with one another as we work together to imagine, strategize, and create a more inclusive and equitable Hollins University.”
Lauren Ridloff, who portrayed the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first deaf superhero in the 2021 film Eternals, delivered the event’s keynote address. Ridloff, who is also Hollins’ Distinguished Speaker for Spring 2023, is a former Miss Deaf America who played the lead role of Sarah Norman in the 2018 Broadway revival of Children of a Lesser God and was nominated for a Tony Award. She subsequently appeared as Connie on the AMC series The Walking Dead and was honored in 2020 with the SAG-AFTRA Harold Russell Award at the Media Access Awards, which highlight and promote disability and its representation in film, television, and new media.
Born deaf to hearing parents, Ridloff told the conference audience that she grew up signing and speaking at the same time and had years of speech therapy. But by the time she became a teenager, “my parents began to realize that my sense of identity, my cultural pride as a deaf person, wasn’t strong. My mother is a proud, Black, female artist and my father is a strong, proud, Mexican musician, and they knew the importance of having that sense of belonging and understanding of cultural pride. They saw I needed to be around more people who were like me.”
In what she called a life-changing event, Ridloff spent two weeks at a sleepaway camp for deaf teens. “For the first time, I was free to express myself in my most native, natural language, which was sign language. This was the first time I didn’t have to choose my words carefully and I didn’t have to modulate my intentions to fit my speaking ability.”
Returning home, “that was when I truly came out, so to speak, to my family as this proud deaf woman who chose not to use her voice. I chose to use my hands. Now, I think, ‘Wow, that was a brave and radical thing for a young woman to do.’ I didn’t have any idea of how it would turn out, but I had to be true to myself.”
Over the next 30 years, Ridloff completed her education, embarked on a teaching career, and got married. “I found my joy and purpose,” she said. When she was approached to serve as a consultant to director Kenny Leon as he prepared the Children of a Lesser God revival, she jumped at the opportunity to share her advice and experience with the production and had no illusions of becoming an actor. However, another pivotal life moment occurred when she was asked to participate in a table read of the play.
“I would have to use my voice, and my feelings, my body turned upside down. Was I bending my principles of who I am as a person by using my voice? It was such a vulnerable moment for me, and I was terrified.
“But then I realized: What I’m doing is helping make a story happen again on stage, and that story is important. And I thought, ‘Other deaf actors would be able to take on that role and tell the story of Sarah.’ We started the table read and got to the scene where Sarah, who had refused to use her voice up until that point in the story, screams her words. And I just screamed. It didn’t matter if people understood me, it was about the feeling, the intention. And I think in that moment in that room, I found my voice. I learned how to push for storytelling that impacts change.”
When ultimately she was asked to actually play Sarah, Ridloff said she “couldn’t stop thinking about the irony of that. Here I was on stage, night after night, yelling words to the audience. Some people might have understood them, some may have not, but I claimed my power. And I screamed: ‘This is my perfect voice. This is exactly how I want to convey myself.’ Somehow, through the magic of storytelling, the audience found a connection with me. That’s when thought that maybe I could pursue acting.”
Ridloff landed her role in The Walking Dead a couple of weeks after her Broadway run ended, and it was during the series that she was approached about playing Makkari in Eternals. While both experiences were exciting, she nevertheless at times felt fear and frustration. As a deaf actress she had needs ranging from the appropriate number of interpreters to how to get cues from the director when she had her back to the camera. Yet, “I didn’t want to ask for too much. I was so grateful to work with these amazing, seasoned stars and I didn’t want to cause trouble. I just wanted to prove that working with a deaf actor is easy. To deliver the best work they could, other actors did not hesitate to ask for the things they needed, so I finally had to admit I had some challenges as a deaf actor. I had to advocate for myself.”
Currently, Ridloff is preparing to star in a new show for Starz in which she also serves as executive producer along with filmmaker Ava DuVernay (Selma, A Wrinkle in Time, When They See Us) and actor and costar Joshua Jackson (Dawson’s Creek, Fringe, The Affair). “I finally have a seat at that table in Hollywood where the important decisions are being made. I am so happy to open more doors for deaf talent. This show will include deaf actors and writers, which means authentic representation is happening not just in front of the camera but also behind it where the story is being created.”
When Ridloff looks back, she is “so glad I found my voice at that table read. I found a way to fight, and this is how I fight: by telling stories that mean something. By telling stories that make connections. I am ringing that bell, making sure stories are heard.”