Monday, May 30, 2016

Americans for the Arts Statement on Cultural Equity

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on............."

Americans for the Arts is touting its newly released Statement on Cultural Equity, a major effort culminating "a year of work and consultation with members, advisory council members, stakeholders in the arts field, board, staff, and partners throughout the nonprofit sector."

Here is the statement:

"To support a full creative life for all, Americans for the Arts commits to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable nation."

It might seem that such a simple statement would not have taken a year to draft, but in this area it is incumbent on every group trying to establish a context for a high bar that will address the very complex and challenging issue of cultural equity to do due diligence in insuring that all viewpoints are heard.  So AFTA consulted with scores of people in the field to try to include diverse perspectives and thinking.  Even still, one can bet there will be criticism and detractors.

To give context on their process and to the Statement itself, AFTA included on its website the following additional materials: (There is even more information at their site:  Click here )

Definition of Cultural Equity

Cultural equity embodies the values, policies, and practices that ensure that all people—including but not limited to those who have been historically underrepresented based on race/ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, geography, citizenship status, or religion—are represented in the development of arts policy; the support of artists; the nurturing of accessible, thriving venues for expression; and the fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources.

Acknowledgements & Affirmations

  • In the United States, there are systems of power that grant privilege and access unequally such that inequity and injustice result, and that must be continuously addressed and changed.
  • Cultural equity is critical to the long-term viability of the arts sector. 
  • We must all hold ourselves accountable, because acknowledging and challenging our inequities and working in partnership is how we will make change happen.
  • Everyone deserves equal access to a full, vibrant creative life, which is essential to a healthy and democratic society. 
  • The prominent presence of artists challenges inequities and encourages alternatives.

Modeling Through Action

To provide informed, authentic leadership for cultural equity, we strive to…

Fueling Field Progress

To pursue needed systemic change related to equity, we strive to…
  • Encourage substantive learning to build cultural competency and to proliferate pro-equity policies and practices by all of our constituencies and audiences.
  • Improve the cultural leadership pipeline by creating and supporting programs and policies that foster leadership that reflects the full breadth of American society.
  • Generate and aggregate quantitative and qualitative research related to equity to make incremental, measurable progress towards cultural equity more visible.
  • Advocate for public and private-sector policy that promotes cultural equity.
Whereas GIA's Statement of Purpose on Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy released last year put the emphasis on race as related to equity, the AFTA Statement tries to be broader and more inclusive - really all things to everyone.  

There is both an advantage and a danger in trying to be all inclusive in fashioning a position on equity. The advantage being that (hopefully) the field will be able to use it -- not necessarily as a replicable template, but as a starting point for their own version of a policy statement and approach to addressing equity issues (and therein lies, I believe, the value of AFTA's effort).  The danger is that in trying to be comprehensively suitable for everyone, it risks being too generic and thus not pointed enough.  Indeed, I would think there will be some criticism (not of the effort) but that the final product doesn't forcefully enough center on the injustices of the long standing inequities in cultural policies, funding, access, support and valuation - particularly due to the ongoing structural racism prevalent throughout the whole of society, and indirectly present to an extent in every field, including the arts and culture ecosystems.   

But it is indisputable that inequities impact a range of communities beyond racial and ethnic ones - including disabled people, LGBT and more.  Equity ought to be a universal right, as the consequences of inequities know no limitations and bounds.  

The attempt to address equity as a large, systemic ecosystem in and of itself, and not zeroing in on a sub-strata of that system (e.g., structural racism, or funding inequities) makes the AFTA statement both a useful tool and starting point for discussion and consideration by individuals and organizations (a good thing), and a simultaneous failure to advance actually doing something as just that much more "talk", with little emphasis on action - especially action now, not later. 

I don't mean to criticize this effort.  I think AFTA has done a service to the sector - both by the statement and supporting materials, and by encouraging the field to address the issue and do something.  And I applaud their effort and leadership on the project.  It's a worthwhile effort and good start, but it's only a start and frankly the time has passed to move beyond the starting point.  I hope AFTA's moves inspire others to move too, and that the field as a whole can finally make some corrections.

For some the issue of equity is about cultural respect.  For others it's about valuation (and indeed, the very use of terms like underserved, implies the inequity of favoring the overserved.)  For some, it's about access and the doors open to privilege, and the same doors closed to those without it.  For some it's about race. For some, it's about doing' the right thing and simple fairness - about justice.  For some, it's about power and the lack thereof. For others, it's all about the inequity of the allocation of the Benjamins.   Some will argue that all of the above perspectives and many, many more have at their core the structural and systemic racism, bigotry and prejudice that inequity is often built on.  Some will argue that it doesn't matter the underlying cause. What matters is making change.  Some say attitudes need to change first, some say to hell with the attitudes, change the system now so those negatively impacted by the inequities - whatever one's perspective may be - can begin to enjoy the advantages denied them.  

For some in our sector, equity is a community issue beyond the arts, that the arts can, and must, play a part in addressing.  To some of them, the equity question has to do with the advantages and benefits of art and culture being available to all; that the arts can play a meaningful role in getting away from inequities and to a more universal equitable society.  For many, cultural equity is a human right and a value of its own that needs to be championed.  For some in our field, inequity should be first dealt with within the field before we move to consider our role in addressing the issue in the wider community.  

If equity is at least partly about justice, then every tick of the clock where the inequity is allowed to continue is an unreasonable delay, and justice delayed, is justice denied.  But history and experience clearly indicate that equity is not something that moves quickly.  

AFTA's definition of cultural equity above is, I think, more the meat of the statement, than the statement itself.  The concluding words of that definition:  "the fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources" seem to me to embody the crux of the practical side of the equity issue for our sector.  Increasingly, there is consensus recognition that the distribution (of certainly the programmatic and financial resources) has not been equal, and thus not fair.  It may be moving in the direction of being fair,  but that movement may be far too slow for many. And, of course, people will define what is "fair" in different ways.  Consensus ain't easy.

And so the question that really needs to be answered, and soon, is what do we do about it?  What can we do, and when can we do it?  In that sense, I echo AFTA's second bullet point under their "Actions" section:  "Acknowledge and dismantle any inequities within our policies, systems, programs, and services, and report organization progress."  While there is no mention of a timeline, I think one ought to have been included.  True, the dismantling of any inequities can't happen immediately; first, you have to identify the inequities.  The process of dismantling will take its own time.  And entrenched special interests are likely to be barriers and obstacles as they pursue, not inequity per se, but protection of their own interests - the result of which might be inequity to others.  

But if the will is there, that ought not to take an indefinite period of time.  Is the will there in the arts?  I don't know.  Like everywhere else, we talk a good game.  But more talk doesn't breed confidence or trust, let alone hope, and while it may be a precursor to action, it is also a hinderance.  As the current national presidential election has shown - people (on all sides) are fed up with talk.  They may not agree on what they want or how to do things, but there is widespread frustration with the failure to act.  The process of the dismantling the inequities in our field needs to begin, in earnest, sooner, rather than later.  A timeline of some sort would be helpful and perhaps speed up the process somewhat.  So too would have been accompanying specific steps being taken now to dismantle specific inequities identified thus far.  Even if incomplete and preliminary.  

Diversity is important, particularly the diversity of representation in decision making processes.  But diversity, by itself, isn't equity.  You can have diversity, and still not have equity.  So we are really talking about two separate, but related and perhaps interdependent threads.  The priority, I think, ought to be the equity question, but the fact is that shooting for diversity is easier.  Yes, the field needs top down, Boardroom leadership, and diversity in that room would be helpful.  And we need diversity at every staff level as well. But neither are essential to movement.  Current Boards, even non-representative ones, can move towards equitable policy and practice right now - if they choose to do so.  That many may not so choose is commentary on the nature of the structural problems that foster inequity and its ongoing existence.  

Very likely there will never be absolute equity.  As individuals, as a sector, as a society we all need to live with that reality.  And equity doesn't necessarily mean absolute equality. Rather it means policy and practice that is fair and just.  That doesn't mean that progress doesn't need to be made where it can so that we get to a point where we are closer to equity.  And I think more people understand that we remain too far away at this point in time.  We have to do better than we have.  

The problem with striving towards equity, is that by its very definition, inequity implies that some are receiving something that others are not.  Take money as the example.  Funding has long gone (disproportionately as to the current overall population) to the larger, Eurocentric cultural institutions.  To achieve equity, more funding ought to go to those "underrepresented, underserved" organizations who have gotten, and continue to get, the short end of the stick.  But that means that those who got the big end of the stick will end up getting less because the total funding pie is only so big.  Putting every consideration aside, that isn't easy for the funders, nor those who benefited unequally.  But that is exactly what must happen if the commitment to equity is real.  Moving towards Equity is messy.  It won't be easy.  

I think AFTA's Statement is a good  beginning, to be applauded.  One hopes they will succeed in using it to jumpstart a larger dialogue that will result in action steps - for them, and for others.  And that arts organizations across the country can use all or part of their effort to customize their own approach to addressing the equity issues.   It would be unfortunate if the net result was later seen as merely an invitation to more talk.  

In the final analysis, there are two distinct groups that must consider this (and other) Statements on Equity and figure out how they are going to address the Equity question:  those who have benefited from the way things have been, and those who have not.  One hopes they can work together.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit