Meditations on Equity and Advocacy: Part 2

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Article by Joanna Burke,  a graduate student in the MAAA program at SPEA. A second-year MAAA-MM student, she works as a Graduate Assistant at the Mathers Museum of World Cultures.

Social Inequity and “Public” Service

Beyond my own experiences, inequity issues like poverty, the achievement gap, practical disenfranchisement, and the prison pipeline are slowly becoming a more present part of our societal consciousness, especially in light of recent political developments and rising instances of racial violence.  It is regrettable and deplorable that voice isn’t given to these types of problems until they become an issue for the majority, but there’s no doubt that questions of diversity and equity are more and more on the minds of community and organizational leaders.  It comes as no surprise that this is a critical and prescient dialogue for the arts in particular.  Although we always want to believe that our work serves the public good, the nature of the arts is that they have historically served populations of a privileged socio-economic class, which is often inextricably tied in with race.  At the best of times, under the best of circumstances, arts organizations face challenges with reach and communicating societal value, but as our collective awareness sharpens, it has become clear that the challenges facing us in terms of both community and organizational sustainability run far deeper than that.  As administrators, we need to go out of our way to identify problems of access, as well as problems preventing equitable stewardship.

This will result in us having to ask ourselves some pretty uncomfortable questions, including, but not limited to:

  • Who do we think we serve? Who are we serving, really?
    • Or, alternatively, who are we serving now? Who do we need to serve going forward?
  • Are we putting our money where our mouth is? Why or why not?
    • What’s keeping us from doing what needs to be done?
      • Or, possibly, what are we afraid of?

The Symposium

This year’s Arts Administration Symposium dealt with many of these questions, albeit in the kind of indirect way demanded by problems that don’t yet have a proven or widely accepted solution.

Put in other words, the issue of social equity is not yet being so widely addressed that there is a set of best practices to start with.  As such, the speakers, while excellent, all tended towards framing their presentations through the lens of their individual experiences, in their respective communities.  This certainly isn’t a bad thing.  It was a valuable listening exercise, a primer for the honest, intimate conversations that need to happen for us to move toward actionable understanding.

However, as nonprofit administrators, you know we love a good set of best practices.  And when they don’t exist, taking ownership over dismantling such a widespread and systemic problem is a daunting task for seasoned and emerging professionals alike.  When I left Symposium, I felt like I had more questions than I did going in.  One being: “Where do we even start?”  As such, I thought instead of summarizing the symposium presentations, it might be more helpful to reflect on what some of my big takeaways were for my current and future practice as a nonprofit administrator.

Big Takeaways

I.    Open eyes and clean windows, a.k.a., bias patrol

I don’t remember where I heard it or what the context was, but at some point in my life someone told me that living with “open eyes” (i.e. an “open mind”) didn’t do you much good if you were constantly looking through dirty windows. In the context of equity, what that means is that even operating with the best intentions can be at best, ineffective and at worst, counterproductive if you’re not taking steps to actively inventory where your personal biases lie and what influences them.

     II.  It’s not a checkbox

I think the question of “why” is important here. Just as it’s important to figure out why you (either individually or organizationally) are predisposed towards a certain set of assumptions, it is necessary to ask ourselves why we undertake specific diversity and inclusion initiatives.  We commit ourselves so fully to the ideals of mission–shouldn’t we pursue the ideals of equity with the same sense of purpose?

     III. Don’t wait for permission to stand in the gap

I don’t think this was directly mentioned in the Symposium presentations, but the keynote speaker, Omar Eaton-Martinez, did a coffee hour with some of our Arts Administration students.  I was not able to attend, but received this information secondhand from a colleague and I include it here because I think it’s important, especially for those of us that are just beginning our careers and don’t have a lot of authority.

The question was: what can we do? How do we, as newbies to the field, stand up as advocates against a complicated and deep-seated cultural issue? The response from Mr. Eaton-Martinez was that you can’t wait.  You can’t wait for permission, and while you may not have much influence over organizational policy or the decision-making of higher administrators, you can still look, with your open eyes and clean windows, and if you see a shortcoming, or disservice to equity, or a “gap,” you can go fill it.  Just do it.  Stand in the gap.  Scary, yes, but also empowering and potentially the first in a long line of necessary, positive actions.

     IV.  Be prepared to mess up

This was a big one for me.  It emotionally significant to me in light of my personal experiences, but it was also a recurring theme across multiple presentations, this understanding that those of us who need to make intentional changes to our mindsets will have to figure it out as we go along.

It makes perfect sense, because anyone who has ever had an effective learning experience knows that failure is a prerequisite.  But at the same time, it’s not built into our culture to expect failure.  Despite the fact that we know, deep down, that it’s necessary for long-term growth and habit change, we live in a society where accepting (let alone expecting) failure connotes weakness or inadequacy.

But in this case, it’s non-negotiable.  These questions about equitable management practices are headed onto ground that is more or less uncharted, at least on an organizational scale.  But it’s also a pivotal function that we as nonprofit professionals and arts administrators are uniquely equipped to address.

So don’t be afraid. Stand in the gap.  If you fail, acknowledge it. Ask why. And then try again.

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