From Here to There

YouAreHereLast month I promised (some might say threatened) to begin a series on the potential for mainstreaming community engagement. That is, understanding that we don’t have resources to do more than we are already doing, how might we reorient the things we already do in ways that serve engagement?

But before I begin, it would be incredibly myopic not to acknowledge that there is much relevant discussion going on about transformation in the field. Nina Simon has written that the Irvine Foundation is having difficulty getting strong proposals for its Exploring Engagement program. Clayton Lord has presented several concerns about the difficulty of institutional transformation, especially with respect to diversity as defined by race. (Diversification as Disruption and The Weight of White People in the World). And Diane Ragsdale has weighed in with On coercive philanthropy and change, acknowledging that funders and organizations need to be honest with themselves and others about the time and money required for significant institutional transformation. (And since I drafted this a bit over a week ago, Barry Hessenius has joined the fray–Coercive Philanthropy? Legitimacy v. Wisdom as has Ian David Moss–Why aren’t there more butts of color in these seats?  Ian always gets style points for his titles.)

There are so many elements to this. It’s tempting (and would be debilitating) to try to address them all. Mr. Lord’s discussion of  the difference between valuing and managing diversity is helpful and important to bear in mind. Mr. Moss is particularly on point in acknowledging that much, if not all, of this chatter is coming from white liberals. Guilty, guilty, guilty!) However, let’s not lose sight of the fact that race is only one element with which we must be concerned. Beyond that, my work, other than my cheerleader advocacy for community engagement, is focused on helping sort through how to get from here to there, once the decision is made to travel. That decision must ultimately come from inside the organization. It is my thesis that such a decision is one to be made not just for moral reasons but for self-preservation, taking a long view. The commitment to engage is, then, the essential first move. Indeed the first two steps on my Eightfold Path to Community Engagement are:

1. Belief: know and trust that engagement is good for the arts and good for the community
No work in this field can be successful in the long term unless those involved truly believe it should be done. This cannot be entered into as “window dressing.” It must be and seem real.
2. Commitment: provide, ungrudgingly, the time and money that engagement requires
The early stages of relationship building should not immediately yield big projects. Be patient. Persevere.

So, what I will be addressing in successive posts are how our work in the areas of programming, governance, and development (marketing and fundraising) can be altered in the service of engagement while using existing resources. That said, I think it’s important, before I begin to share the caveat I include in almost all my workshops and trainings. To deal with diverse populations (and that includes all kinds of diversity) it’s important first to know that there are worlds of things that one does now know, second, find out what you can, and third, learn the things you need to learn. Here’s my partial list of categories:

  • Cultural Humility
  • The Understanding of Privilege
  • Communities and Community Organizing
  • Discussion of Difficult Issues
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Self Knowledge
  • Strategies for Engagement
  • Learning Styles/Teaching Techniques
  • Interdisciplinary Knowledge

Not everyone involved in working with communities needs to be expert in all of these (who could be?), but organizations in transition need access to these forms of knowledge/wisdom in their interaction with new constituencies. And, if you don’t think it’s an arts organizations job to undertake any of this, don’t do so. I’m clear it’s not part of the core mission. But I believe, for reasons of self-interest if no other, more and more will see this work as vital to their future. Sustainability in the long term is going to demand it.

Engage, with eyes wide open!


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