Sunday, April 1, 2018

As We Attempt to Diversify our Boards, Let's Not Forget Age and Socio-Economic Status

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

A frequent criticism of the arts, is that it is elitist.  It is run by and caters to the privileged class.

There is ample evidence that the charge is incorrect.  Art is made by people of every stripe - rich, poor, men, women, young, old, of every color and political affiliation.  The arts organizational infrastructure is varied and organizations earnestly seek to make their offerings accessible and available to everyone.  The field has made it a priority to be inclusive, to strive towards diversity and equity, to champion transparency and to improve the intersections and interactions with local communities and the issues that challenge us all.

But the fact remains that in many ways our organizations are elitist and governed by those with privilege.  When we seek to diversify our governance, our emphasis is on gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation: including more women, more people of color and LBGTQ.  Two areas seems to get short shift in those efforts: younger people and those of lesser socio-economic status.

Indeed, our staffs increasingly reflect the communities in which we operate.  But our Boards do not.  Larger, euro-centric mainstay arts organization boards are largely composed of an elite group.  Even in those cases where Boards have succeeded in recruiting people of color, more women and LGBTQ people, those individuals tend to be more highly educated, wealthier, and successful - from the privileged class.  And that's not surprising.  Many organizations depend on their Boards to both contribute and to fund raise, and those with wealth and networks of people of wealth, are far more likely to be able to both contribute and successfully fundraise.  And while smaller arts organizations are far more likely to have people of varying socio-economic status on their Boards, these organizations also seek the most successful and privileged from the available pool of recruits.

And what about younger people; people who may not yet have achieved a certain level of success and experience?  Our Boards, at best, have only token representation of the Millennial cohort.

Far too often, we do not consciously try to attract people who are not privileged, who may not have the highest level of community connections, who have not achieved higher levels of education, who are young.  Is that smart?  If we truly want to diversify and have our Boards represent our communities, don't we need people of lower economic status, more working-class people, and those who are young?  People without wealth, without the trappings of privilege, and younger people without that status, or even experience, may not bring with them all of the advantages and benefits of those that are older and in the upper socio-economic, highly educated classes, but they do bring with them certain kind of knowledge and perspective.  And don't we need that perspective if we are to truly diversify, if we are to really collaborate with our communities?

Nor do we consciously try to recruit people across the spectrum of political beliefs.  Successful, older, privileged people tend to harbor more conservative economic policy and political beliefs.  People who are younger, less economically well off and people of color, tend to be more liberal.  And the arts, at least at the level beyond the largest euro arts organizations, has its disproportionate share of people on the left.  But is that right?  Would we benefit from having people on our Boards, whose politics may be anathema to our own?

And so the question looms:  Do we really want representative Boards on our arts and foundation organizations?  Because the composition of our Boards - at every level - mirror what they have looked like for a long time.

The predominantly good-old-boy, white, male, wealthy, privileged Boards of the old line arts organizations, and many foundations, don't seem to want to include people of lower socio-economic classes, nor do they want younger people.  They invite people of color and women, but only those of the same upper class and age as are they.  And then only a few.

And the smaller, ethnic-centric, multi-cultural, newer arts organizations either can't recruit from the privileged class or they don't really want to share power with them anyway.

And neither the conservative old guard, nor the liberals, really want any balance of political outlook.  Like society itself, we silo in our camps, and our tribes eschew opposing viewpoints.

Now maybe this is just how it is.  And maybe even, it works.  But is it right?  And, if true, does it not make a lie of any claim we have to truly want to diversify?  Or are we changing and its just not yet readily apparent?

We would be better off if some of our conservative and older white Boards, were balanced more with liberal, younger people and those of color, and our organizations that are peopled with a more representative ethnic, age, and wealth cohort were more balanced with conservatives and those with privilege.

Otherwise, are we not just part of the problem that pits various tribes within society against each other?  Are we not guilty of perpetuating the divide that today seems to grow ever wider and ever more entrenched?  And isn't more expected of the arts?

How do we do that?  How do we get beyond the barriers of resistance to that inclusion?  Can such change be mandated, or is the only answer to slowly and patiently try to educate ourselves so as to welcome such a change?

Diversity has to be more than just about ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.  It has to include age and socio-economic status too.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit