Monday, February 26, 2018

Getting to Equity - Step by Step

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

The field prioritized diversity, equity, and social justice goals five years ago, spurred on by a report from Holly Sidford noting the inequity in funding in the arts.  Many of us were disappointed in last year's follow up to the original report, showing no progress in that area, and, in fact, a slight decline in the equity of arts funding.

As part of the commitment the sector has made to addressing the goals of changing this dynamic, and promoting real equity, was / is the recognition of structural and systemic racism, white privilege, unequal playing fields and the need to inform, educate and engage everyone in arriving at solutions.  That awareness in calling attention to the challenge was Step One.

But because much of the challenge involved / involves deeply rooted attitudes, protocols, mechanisms and processes, and has for a very long time, things are not going to change overnight.  We need to approach the challenges methodically, build on an ever more substantial foundation, and embrace both the demand for speed, and the understanding of patience.

But we also need to acknowledge we are on the right track.  We are moving.  And things are changing.

So far, as Step Two, we have done a lot of introspection and self analysis to try to better understand the dynamics of the inequity.  Part of that process was to conduct trainings and education to increase our awareness of all the nuances of how inequity and the sins of bias and prejudice manifest themselves and to question our own role, perhaps unwittingly, in perpetuation of the conditions facilitating the systemic and structural racism underpinning all forms of inequity.  We've begun to do that - and continue to do it.  And its important to remember that each step we take in this effort will likely need to be an ongoing, continuing effort, even as we move to the next step.  Thus, we will need to continue our introspection and self analysis.  And the work in each of the succeeding steps.  But we're beyond the initial step.  We've followed it up with the next step -- serious trainings and ways to frame the challenge, solicit widespread involvement and recruit help.  From GIA to AFTA to NASAA to WESTAF, to national service organizations to foundations - to hundreds, if not thousands, of individual arts organizations - we have begun to try to address inequity by first doing concrete things to deal with diversity.

Change is always too slow for some, too quick for others.  We need to recognize that.

The essential step in moving towards equity and all the changes that implies and entails, is to diversify the decision making processes within our sphere.  We need not just a representative proportion of leaders to be diverse in terms of ethnicity, race, color, and all the rest, we need to move diverse people into positions of real power.  That includes organizational leadership, board leadership, philanthropic leadership, government leadership and even private sector leadership - at the top.

Because of the public and private structure of society favoring the dominant male white majority, moving people of color into positions of power has been a slow process, often met with purposeful opposition.  In our own world, we have long cultivated and encouraged diversity in the ranks, but until very recently the captains of our ships remained decidedly white.  The qualified and capable people of color from diverse backgrounds remained the crew -- many in high positions, with some authority; respected and valued -- but not yet in command.  That is changing.

Starting with big appointments of arts friendly supporters like Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation, Fred Blackwell at the San Francisco Foundation, and the recent appointment of Elizabeth Alexander to head the Mellon Foundation, - all leaders committed to social justice, equity and the arts - and with people in the arts like Pam Breaux at NASA, Eddie Torres at GIA, Javier Torres at the Surdna Foundation. Emika Ono at the Hewlett Foundation, Angie Kim at CCI among many, many others, we are now seeing more diverse people in decision making positions of authority.   This is a fundamental and critically important milestone.  It's not that diversity was wholly absent before.  We've had people of color in key positions - but now it seems like it's moving faster to cover a wider ground at the very top of our organizational structures.

Leaders of key organizations are usually a bundle of qualifications.  They bring with them to their new posts experience, knowledge, networks, vision, ideas and perspectives.  No one is the sum of just one perspective - leaders are an aggregate of what brought them to the point in their career trajectories where they are assuming the reins of power.  And that includes their own personal histories and backgrounds based on ethnicity, race, color, religion, education and more.  That sensibility and sensitivity informed perspective is essential if we are to succeed in creating equity in the arts.  It is very difficult for someone who has never experienced, at least indirectly, the sting of bias and prejudice, to fully understand the nuances and ramifications of what that means.  No matter how sympathetic, how schooled, how wise a white person is, they simply cannot bring the same understanding and perspective, the same sensibility and intuition that a person of color can bring to the issue of racism, of equity, of where and how fundamental fairness may be lacking.  If we want to address inequity, racism, bias, and prejudice, we need people at the decision making tables who are members of the groups who have been at the receiving end of the denial of equity.  We need that perspective - not as an adjunct but as the core viewpoint.

And having those perspectives at the helm of key organizations - funders in particular at this early stage - is very important to moving the field towards equity and helping to dismantle the structural racism, biases and prejudices that exist first in our own world, and then in the larger society.  Having more diversity will help us to move more deliberately, with more sure footing and quicker.  And you can see already in early moves by these leaders in setting agendas and positioning their organization's policy stances, movement towards the next steps in the battle.

To be sure we need more.  We need to see the movement these few appointments signify increased by  exponentially more similar appointments.  We need more diversity at the top.  And the middle too. And, as the next step, we need to see the trend expanded to include boards of directors. That will be the next step.  But it is an encouraging start.

And, of course, we're all in this together, and there is not only room for all of us, there is a place for all of us in working together to move forward.  Nobody ought to be excluded, even as we transition power to those who formerly had little.

A cautionary note:  On the shoulders of those at the forefront of transitions rests a great deal of pressure for performance.  While the pioneer leaders in the diverse cohort of new leadership in our field are very gifted, talented and smart - they are human beings, and not magicians.    The leaders at the forefront of this change are well known to us. We have been involved with them for quite a while.    They are friends and colleagues.  Their role is crucial as we move forward, but their success is wholly conditioned on how much support they receive from all of us. This kind of change is a process, more often than not, a long process, not without setbacks and failures.  It will require sacrifices from all of us of different kinds, and the best of whom we are.  It won't be easy.  But it will be worth it.  And we've begun to make some meaningful steps towards our shared goal - to make the arts equitable and just on all levels; to codify a system the hallmark of which is a fundamental fairness and an equal playing field.

I'm encouraged by the growth in diversity of our leadership at the top.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit