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Q&A with Francis Tanglao Aguas, Westphal’s Inaugural Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Francis Aguas Photo by Stephen Salpukas

February 09, 2023

The Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design is excited to introduce our inaugural Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Francis Tanglao Aguas. Joining us from William & Mary College in Williamsburg, VA, Francis has already brought energy and ideas into our community as we strengthen a culture of belonging.

Associate Director of Communications Laurel Hostak Jones sat down with Francis in his first few weeks to learn more about his background, aspirations, and curiosities about Westphal.

Where are you from? 

In the most immediate, I am from Williamsburg, Virginia where I have lived and worked for the past 18 years. As an immigrant and migrant, the American South is where I've lived in for the longest period so it's informed my work quite deeply on justice, equity, diversity and Inclusivity. Before moving there, I taught for a year each at Kenyon College in Ohio and Georgetown University in DC. 

US-wise, I am a Californian, having spent my teenage years in Mountain View, California. As an adult, I consider myself an Angeleno since my time at UCLA is the first time I decided on my own agency where to be from: Los Angeles.

Before moving to the United States, my family first moved to Nigeria in search of a better life. So I graduated primary school in Abuja, where my parents worked as part of the economic boom building Nigeria's new capital city.

Finally, where I am from from, so to speak, is the Philippines, one of the most frequently colonized locations of the world. The Spanish controlled my home country from 1521 to 1898, but the British, the Dutch, the French also colonized it prior to the 20th century. The United States colonized the Philippines as well from 1898 to 1947, and would have held on to it were it not ravaged by World War II, when Japan colonized it from 1944-47.

What has you excited so far about living and working in Philadelphia?

First, the food, because I love to eat and so does my family, so we are all very excited to have access to the global cuisine being created in Philly. Second, is the beauty of the city, its history and the diversity that forms its many neighborhoods.

Let me tell you a quick story: after I interviewed for this job, I kept taking pictures of restaurants while passing by. I have family in New York, so we like Shake Shack, and because we’re Asian American we also like boba tea. I saw a theater, and I sent a picture to my family and said “look there's Shake Shack and boba tea! When we go to the theater, we can get a shake shack and boba tea!” It ended up being the Mandell Theater, which is my home department.

Philly has multicultural communities, is diverse, and international, is a city with all the issues and stories that are important with my work, in theatre, film, and performance. I'm very excited to be in all these communities that produce food, cultural and performance art for the people that live here. You can’t just create something and move on. It's really about building a community, an urban community, and I’m very excited to be a part of that.

What’s the last great book you read?

I’m always reading so, right now I’m in the midst of this gift from Laura-Edythe Coleman (director of the MS in Arts Administration & Museum Leadership) called Beyond Diversity, which is about -obvious ways to build a more inclusive world.

My favorite book in the whole world is by Arundhati Roy, called The God of Small Things. Every sentence is like butter.

And contemporary-wise, let's go to Philly: Crying in H-mart by Michelle Zauner from the band Japanese Breakfast. She’s from the area. Right now it’s at the heart of contemporary literature.

In your first weeks at Westphal, what are you most curious about in the College?

I am very excited to watch, read, see, touch, use and wear as much as I can of what the Westphal students have created. It is amazing to be in these spaces of creativity, artistry, innovation and ideation.

In the coming days, I have the opportunity to meet all of the faculty and staff, so I am very excited. I also hope to hold town halls or group meetings with students because they are really why I came here for, as did my colleagues.

What is your foremost imperative as the inaugural Associate Dean of DEI at Westphal? 

I have five focal points of action in my new position, and they are rooted in the recruitment and retention of faculty, staff, and students. To sustain and expand Westphal's diversifying community  I hope to build partnerships towards collaboration and hopefully support, in building on our inclusive culture where everyone feels they belong, so we can all flourish and thrive. So far, I see great potential and willingness from my colleagues whom I have met.

In your opinion, what’s the role of the creative disciplines in DEI work?

Media arts and design places all of us at Westphal in a unique and prime position to be leaders towards a more diverse, inclusive and equitable institution. We are the humans who design and build spaces that can make everyone feel welcome from the outside to the interiors where we may all feel embraced, surrounded by art, film, and theatre that tells new stories that make us feel like we belong, wearing fashion that expresses and explores cultures we are connected to, using products and playing games that take our unique and diverse traditions into consideration. In short, it is artists and designers who will build the world that truly embraces justice, anti-racist equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging.

What drew you to leadership in DEI?

Having moved around the world as a child, I know full well the experience of marginalization and alienation. But even before my family's migrations, as a theatre person since kindergarten, community building has been at the core of my purpose, because theatre is about building new families through storytelling. 

In addition to your role in Westphal leadership, you’re a professor of Theatre. What do you hope to achieve in the Performing Arts department?

I look forward to sharing the powerful and exciting diverse playwrights and filmmakers from various communities I've worked with and the dynamic global performance practices, especially from Southeast Asia, that I've had the good fortune of learning. I am also excited to recruit and develop students who want to be leaders through the arts who are invested in innovating and creating towards greater inclusivity and belonging.

My first courses would be in acting fundamentals, to get to know the entry level students. In the future, we are working to create a variation of my course called “Diversity in Drama.”

What would you like students to know about you?

I have learned from my students possibly more than what I was able to teach them, because they are the ones who are truly shaping this world. So I want them to know that teaching and learning in spaces I facilitate, is a multi-way street.