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Interview: Nataki Garrett | Leadership Paths, Birth, Foster Care, Adoption, + Family Needs as Access

Artistic Director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival and PAAL Advisory Board Member Nataki Garrett shared her experience as a foster parent on her path to adopting. The conversation took place in 2018, before Nataki's appointment to OSF when she had just signed with an adoption agency and was working as a freelance director. The conversation quickly revealed how the realities of family formation directly impacts pathways to leadership, creating access, and what support should be.

What was your approach to parenting before you started caregiving?

I often approached parenting and caregiving with a lot of fear due to lack of resources. I'm of a generation of women that can say they tended to wait too late to have biological children or who expanded their family through adoption resources mitigate what your options are. An unspoken rule that artists have to figure out a way to do what artists have to do. That becomes a conversation about ACCESS. if you come from a resourced background, the sustainability of that also becomes a reality of ACCESS.

I have friends who have stopped working.

In the workplace, we hear a "sigh" before "maybe they can't do it" because you have to accommodate a parent or caregivers needs. [As a leader], be prepared to fight for them.

What were some obstacles that you experienced in your hopes to become a birth parent?

Lack of understanding. Most theaters and institutions are run by men. Often times my former boss could never really understand what this wife had bought them - he had a lifestyle of spousal support that not everyone has. In conversations about children, in policy, there's no adoption credit, nothing in the health insurance that supported ways of conceiving. You either have the resources or you're forced to go into serious debt to become a birth parent. Artist couples who can't conceive or able to conceive.

My next step, adoption was also about resources. I had no outside resources, no trust fund, etc. There's not a lot of conversation around what it costs and how to get started or prepare. Parents who have to find additional means to do it. Conversation tends to be, "oh well, too bad. There's no conversation around ways of supporting.

What were some obstacles that you experienced as a foster parent?

Foster caregiving happens instantly. No build up, no anticipation.

I have a friend who negotiated with the organization to find a way to be on campus some days and off campus other days. In emergency situations where she's needed, as part of her job to handle or when things came up that were not part of what they negotiated, it was thrown back in her face. There was inflexibility. She needed adjustments, and there was not always support for adjustments.

I was lucky because I dealt with a lot less than some of my friends because my boss was familiar with adoption and open to having negotiation and ways to satisfy needs and other needs when they were a surprise.

I have other friends who have worked for theatres where the surprise could mean their job. If someone's a single mother, if sitter got sick, had to find a sitter, it could mean termination. If you feel like you can say to your organization, "This is how I feel my life is about to change, these are my plans, I need us all to be prepared." Institutions should have a plan in place.

Is there opportunity for leave for foster care? Are they willing to negotiate the number of times you foster before you have a child that you can adopt. Parental leave is often available for birth parents, but not "baby is coming tomorrow"

Parents who adopt are often stigmatized as being privileged in the first place. Privileged means access to au pair or nanny - I couldn't hire a nanny - I had to organize life around not having a nanny.

What were some resources or support structures you had/you wish were in place while caregiving?

Negotiate working less hours. Being able to have that conversation with your organization is important.

When you're not connected to institution and working on the road - I just signed with adoption agency and doing homestudy [this interview was conducted in 2018] - I have to leave for whole weeks. So I had to plan for longer homestay (5 months versus 3). But the baby could come 3 months or 2 years - do you not take the gig and then not have the income? Or take the gig and just hope that there is support? My mother is trying to make arrangements to be an additional support. We're making sure there is a cushion so that going further into it, we're not starving while we're trying to raise our new blessing.

We just had a convo with a social worker about waiting 4 years for an open window. We have to figure out how to do it this way. How do we find anyone else doing this? You're cloistered into your own experience.

So I had to curate the conversation. I called each of the theatres I was working with in 2019 and said, this is my plan, and I need you to participate in flexibility. If I'm directing between now and next summer, most shows are being cast or already cast, we're in the design process. This is something we're working on, these are our plans, I need support and flexibility in how we're trying to do this. Otherwise, it's a call and forfeit.

Unlike pregnancy planning, with adoption there's no 9 month buildup. No 60 days off the books. We make money by planning 6 mo to a year ahead and putting all of our money coming in later on. You need flexibility on how you're building a family - as supportive as they have been for birth parents.

You can negotiate design elements, budget, tech schedule, with a parent around their needs for their children, and you want to - because you want them to be able to come into your theatre fully supportive and what they need to do there. If they're not welcome, they're not going to be a good artist to begin with. As a parent, your focus is primarily on your children. There should be support for the way in which non-conventional parent might need to have an adjustment.

If you can negotiate the needs of a production, you can negotiate the needs of the parents creating that production. And if you can negotiate those things, you can negotiate with someone who is in the process of adoption.

What should our industry be considering when it comes to creating caregiver support? WHat things do you consider in creating access as a leader yourself?

My first friend to get pregnant was afraid to tell people because they wouldn't get work. There's a lot of fear around expressing what you're trying to do.

Another theatre lacked a real understanding on what a mother needs while they are breastfeeding.

Once in my own rehearsal room, an actress asked - begged - if she could take a couple hours in the morning to experience her daughter's first day of school. I can't imagine having to beg for that experience. Please don't beg. Why do I live in a world where it's normal for her to have to beg for that? It really bothers me. For my rooms, all you had to do was say what you needed, and I'll figure out a way to accommodate it.

Access is providing an open door - a way for people to communicate with you - with no retaliation -- whether or not you work again. You should be able to ask for what you need. Also have support for that and what you need, you're risking your opportunities. Literally how we eat - it's not a hobby.

The theater highlights ways to benefit the way others live their own dynamic life. As a leader, I've always operated that way. I'm totally down for that - as a parent, supporting your parents, if you need certain training, if you need to change your career, I want to support that.

There is a parochial way in which the theatre has structured itself in drawing these hard lines for people to live within. It's a generational thing, 40-60 years ago, the process was designed in a patriarchal way. The more leaders who are willing to expand their ideas how processes can go, who can be in those processes, and building the dynamic of who is in those processes, the more progress we'll make

This industry is inside of an actual world - the "make something great again" space - theatres end up closing rather than evolving their programming and marketing.

The American Theatre has to shift if it's going to survive. [I ask:] what do you need to live your most dynamic life and how can I help you?

Looking forward, what are the opportunities to continue to tell the story of how everyone can benefit if we're all allowed to live our most dynamic life. The president has currently limited the definition of trans and non-binary people. We need to ask, "How many trans plays have you done this year?" I'm more interested in responding before the fact - how many trans artists have you taught, trained, helped become inspired, how do you - in your particular way of working - are you helping those people live their most dynamic life instead of just responding to something?

I don't expect everyone to have those ideas. I think there are some people who are going to hold on tightly to the past. Some women who are looking at the way other women are going through [parenting and caregiving] as "I survived it and you should too - that's our life, it's unfortunate." My responsibility is to move me, and in moving me, I can help move other people.

How is race presented in the adoption narrative?

Storytelling is reflective - you're operating as part of a greater thing, a witness. People of color often experience very few stories about brown savior stories. It's more often about how white family comes in and saves brown child, but not very many brown savior stories in which we save ourselves or other people. The most common brown savior stories - like The Help - are not from a position of power. That's really important.

How do we make it a part of our normal conversation? I still hate the movie The Blindside [where a white family adopts a Black son] and The Help [where a white journalist records the heroism of a Black housemaid]. In both cases, the stories are about "how I make you better than anyone else like you." That's not how you raise children. It's about raising people to be grown, functioning, giving members of society.

Those [film] stories are really about making sure you have to be supernatural to do it. If there is a limited number of African American couples who seek to adopt - if that's the story that they're being told - and we don't have the stories that say "this is the normal thing to do" then maybe it is true.

I hold that as I try to negotiate this process [of adopting]. Who can I tell? How can I process it?

What advice do you have for people who relate to your story personally?

Essence magazine is the first to talk about black women and fertility issues. There is a stereotypical stigma around being a black mother in the first place. It's even greater that nobody believes that you can't just "pop out babies" - that's the story that people tend to tell, not the black women who become educated and then need different options.

Find a community who is having the same experiences.


This interview has been edited for clarity and economy only. All thoughts have been preserved.

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