Last September I presented two workshops on community engagement for ArtsFund Seattle. One was for board members, the other for staff of arts organizations. It was only recently that I was provided feedback from the evaluations. The board workshop was very well received. The responses about the workshop for staff were, as we used to say in academia, bimodal. The number of extremely enthusiastic and highly negative comments was similar.
In debriefing with staff members we discovered that a good deal of the negative reaction was rooted in assumptions people made about my beliefs with respect to programming (some thought examples I gave of work by white men was an endorsement of such works as good practice and an example of my bias, unconscious or otherwise) and my blind spots about equity and inclusion.
To a considerable extent, these responses were a surprise to me. While there are many areas on which I need to work, readers of Engaging Matters or my books know that I devote a good deal of time to pressing the nonprofit arts industry on issues of equity and expanded awareness of our blindness to the lived experience of communities with which we have little relationship.
By the conclusion of my conversation with the people at ArtsFund, I realized that a source of at least some of the negative feedback was my failure to explicitly state the frames of “where I’m coming from.” Since these are also foundational for this blog, let me do so here.
There are two basic facts I must acknowledge in my work:
- I’m an old white guy. My personal and professional lives have benefitted from extreme privilege. While I can never truly understand the experience of those from other backgrounds, I am working to maintain awareness of the difference and continually learn ways to address the inequities that exist in our social and cultural systems.
- My work is almost solely focused on bringing systemically privileged nonprofit arts organizations to understand the moral and practical importance of community engagement and provide them with support in becoming effective in such engagement. My background supports me in this. I do not presume to be able to advise other categories of arts organizations except in that the basic principles of relationship building that support effective community engagement apply to any group seeking to engage with new communities.
I suspect that if I had explicitly stated both of those things at the beginning in Seattle there may still have been frustration with me, but there may also have been less anger. Lesson learned. Future workshops and trainings will include this introductory framing. And I am going to add this to the overview that introduces this blog.