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Four Arts & Culture Organizers Speak Up on the Centrality of Equity in Their Work

Lisa Hoffman — Executive Director, The Alliance of Artists Communities
Mi'Jan Celie Tho-Biaz — Documentarian-In-Residence, Institute of American Indian Arts
Susanna Battin — Co-Director, North Mountain Residency

What can we do to foster and further amplify equitable ways of working, decision making, and engagement within the communities we serve?

At the annual conference of the Alliance of Artists Communities and in subsequent conversations with arts administrators, cultural organizers, and residency program directors, I have been thinking about this question.

Across The Rockefeller Foundation, equity is a core value in our work. We define it as “broad and fair access to resources and networks that facilitate inclusion of diverse people and perspectives.” We see equity—this broad and fair access—as one of the critical conditions for people, communities, and institutions to become more resilient in the midst of physical, social, and economic challenges. Contributing to this goal, The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center invites cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, and cross-sector dialogues.

At the Bellagio Center, we see the inclusion of diverse people and perspectives as a critical precursor to equitable thought—something that requires seeing from multiple points of view and fostering greater cross cultural and cross-disciplinary understanding. Very recently at the Center we hosted a Zimbabwean writer, a U.S. economist, an expert in public health from South Africa, a Filipino priest, a psychologist from the UK, and a Nigerian visual artist. We believe that this kind of cross-disciplinary and international exchange can and often does support greater fairmindedness—the ability to think and therefore to act justly and without prejudice. In 2017, we will continue to think about new and better ways to foster equitable and diverse dialogue because we truly believe in its power to bring about transformative thinking and social change.

In the spirit of open dialogue and learning, I asked three other cultural organizers and arts administrators—Susanna Battin, co-director of North Mountain Residency; Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, Documentarian-In-Residence with the Institute of American Indian Arts; and Lisa Hoffman, executive director of the Alliance of Artists Communities—to offer their perspectives on the place of equity in their work.

Susanna Battin, Co-Director, North Mountain Residency

As a white artist and administrator, I must deeply consider equity and the political roles I play regardless of the context I’m in. We learn that the personal is political, always. Whether we address it or not, it is in our every action, our very being.

Participating in the Alliance of Artists Communities Conference gave space for conversations about these key non-profit buzz words: diversity, inclusion, and equity. My most conclusive research was that no conclusive definitions could be given to these words; however, they each express a vast range of connotations rooted in different histories. The word equity seems to reach towards justice.

Being both college-educated and white, I’m prepped for opportunities that I consistently take for granted: being asked to speak on a panel, choosing to take that opportunity, being able to afford that risk, and even now, taking time in my evening to write this blog post to reflect on it—it’s called privilege. I now see that it’s not always about stepping up to the podium (or the panel) but stepping aside. A small side step may allow someone from a different center to move into a position of power, to express a perspective less heard. This action of stepping aside isn’t about up, or down, or any vertical notion of power, but creating a shared space—one where silence is not complacency, but the supportive platform for the unheard and unknown.

Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, Documentarian-In-Residence, Institute of American Indian Arts

During the fall of 2016, I attended an artist talk given by Bear Witness, from the music group A Tribe Called Red, while we both engaged in our respective residencies at the Banff Centre. Bear Witness remarked that art has the capacity to push boundaries on every level, and can do so in the most respectful and responsible ways. At first pass, this idea seemed counterintuitive. Pushing boundaries can be uncomfortable, risky work, often met with resistance. As I replayed Witness’ statement in my mind during the window of days that ebbed from the Banff Centre’s Truth and Reconciliation summit, into the United States’ presidential election, I realized that I had unconsciously equated discomfort with disrespect.

Now as I consider the question of what arts and cultural organizations can do to ensure equity, my tendency is to push the boundary of that question a bit further. Instead, I wonder: how will you and your arts institution be a strong, organized force for equity? What questions related to equity do you and your institution insist on asking, even—or especially—when the questions and answers make you deeply uncomfortable? Moreover, do you and your arts institution prioritize the active listening of marginalized community voices, which inform meaningful action that gets carried forward through reflective community leadership, programming, and engagement? In other words: Have you resolved to work for others, or are you wholly dedicated to building, belonging to, and working alongside community?

Lisa Hoffman, Executive Director, The Alliance of Artists Communities

I remember listening to an interview with Angela Glover Blackwell, in which she defines equity as just and fair inclusion. She further states it’s when all members of society can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. I share that definition, and add that we must think beyond equity and have the aspirational goal to achieve a society where all members can experience joy, passion, and the freedom to connect with others.

The Alliance prioritizes building a culturally diverse and pluralistic staff and board. There are many things that arts and culture organizations can do to promote equity. First, it is important to demonstrate a commitment to understanding in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, the history that has prevented an organization or community from achieving “equity,” and then work on specific strategies to not repeat the same actions. Specifically, arts and culture organizations can ensure that staff and boards reflect diversity and embed equity at every level of engagement. Organizations can work in partnership with diverse constituents (vendors, patrons, funders, and strategic partners) to ensure diversity is not only reflected, but welcomed, celebrated and championed. It is critical for arts organizations to create an arc of engagement that includes dialogue and consensus building. This work should lead to specific, intentional, and integrated actions that address issues around diversity and equity.

What do you do to foster and further amplify equitable ways of working, decision making, and engagement within the communities you serve?

We look forward to continuing the conversation.

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