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Second City Outreach and Diversity Director on Comedy: ‘There is room for everyone’

By Amy A. Ross 

When Dionna Griffin-Irons began to pursue a career in acting and writing, the future she envisioned for herself in the creative industries had little to do with social activism and its intersection with art and entertainment. However, as her career developed, she inevitably found herself putting on a large and proud “diversity hat,” which eventually crystallized into her current position as Director of Outreach & Diversity at the legendary comedy theatre, The Second City, where she promotes accessibility and inclusion regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.

“The obstacle I overcame was letting go of everyone’s perceived expectation. I did not have to run in and fix every “race” issue. I needed to listen and provide a space for others to be heard and included, she said. Addressing discrimination in the world of comedy can be challenging, as comedians and improvisers frequently rely on stereotypes in constructing humor. However, for Griffin-Irons, stereotypes can be exploited to arrive at truth.

“We know that all black women are not (fill in the blank) … just as we know that all white women are not (fill in the blank), but it is good fodder to exaggerate that notion in comedy,” she said. “My job is to empower every student and actor to use these interactions as “gift moments” and ask what if or how come? If we start to question, we dismantle the ridiculous nature of stereotypes. It’s an inroad to the truth,” she added. Griffin-Irons has taught over 200 workshops at colleges, women’s shelters, South Side Chicago public schools, and corporate boardrooms, and worked with the United States Embassy to introduce improv workshops in Norway and Latvia as a tool for social change. The world’s largest comedy improv theatre, The Second City committed to inclusion over two decades ago, after CEO and founder, Andrew Alexander, witnessed an all-white resident cast struggling with how to address the Los Angeles race riots at the beginning of the 1990s. Last year, The Second City launched its Bob Curry Fellowship program, awarding 16 fellow recipients comedy fellowships to train with them. NBC Universal came on board as a partner and the program kept growing.

They hired 14 fellows in various divisions including touring, theatricals, resident stages and outreach. “Well, I can’t speak for all the ‘minority groups’ represented, but I can say when you see all of the world reflected in prime time, we are doing our job and have come a long way,” she said. Letting go of fear has been a big part of Griffin-Iron’s journey towards success. Releasing fear, she said, allows you to tap into your power by trusting your instincts and intelligence. When teaching, she often urges students to give themselves “permission to play” and discover the ways in which they can recreate their own experiences, without censoring or judgment. Griffin-Irons advised upcoming artists to create opportunities for themselves by surrounding themselves with the best people, working hard, and researching the industry. “The best way to break barriers of discrimination is professionalism, persistence and a positive attitude. “There is room for everyone. Don’t let anyone make you think otherwise. Give yourself permission to do your best work,” she said. 

5 of Griffin-Irons’ favorite promoters of diversity in the industry

Michael Key and Jordan Peele, creators, writers and actors for Key and Peele: “Their brand and perspective is timely and progressive. If you can create great synergy with a partner, go for it.

Robin Thede, Head Writer for Larry Wilmore Show:”Her passion, creative wits and ingenuity is unstoppable. Having a theatre background and working as an actress gives you incredible perspective.”

Shonda Rhimes, Screenwriter, director and producer: “Her powerhouse writing and casts are taking us to new places that was once dominated by white males.”

Issa Rae, Creator of The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl: “Issa is one gal who is hugely successful in creating a web series (20 million You Tub views) and telling more of our narratives. She also founded a grand initiative Color Creative TV to create more opportunities for diverse writers.”

Justin Simien, Director and Writer of Dear White People: “His box office success is really opening up a new niche and narrative that we’ve been waiting for a long time.”