In March I participated in the Intersections Summit hosted by Milwaukee Repertory Theater. It was a gathering of community engagement practitioners from theaters (mostly) across the U.S. Prompted by the event, I have previously commented on the meanings of the word engagement (The Problem of “Engagement”) and concern for justice and equity in engagement work (Justice and Engagement). This time, a couple of comments from a question and answer session got me thinking.
On the Same Page?
In the Q&A following a presentation devoted primarily to issues of equity and justice, someone prefaced a question with “I know we’re all on the same page here.” I cringed. It would probably have been fair to say that most of the people in the room were sympathetic to the ideas presented. However, the session’s suggestions regarding the pursuit of justice were on the forward edge of anything I’ve heard at a gathering of arts professionals. I can easily imagine that some people in the room were at least a little uncomfortable with the implications of what was being said. In addition, “we’re all on the same page” can have the effect of minimizing the experience of others. People are on many different pages. In particular, I know that some attendees had high levels of frustration, pain, and anger about their treatment in the arts industry.
I have no idea who made the comment; they were sitting well behind where I was. However, it sounds like a statement coming from privilege. Whether or not that’s true, people with lived experience of being ignored, under-valued, or disrespected have a pretty healthy awareness of the many different ways by which people can be marginalized. This might make them less inclined to assume similarities than someone whose experience is little impacted by isms. I try to make it a point not to tell people I understand their experience because, except in the rarest of circumstances, I cannot. To me, the principle here is very similar.
Yes, it’s possible the statement was simply shorthand for acknowledging that there was no need to further justify the thesis of the session–the pursuit of equity as a core goal. The “same page” comment is often used in that manner. However, I suspect that there were, nonetheless, some in the audience who were put off by it.
In the same Q&A session someone noted that while there appeared to be consensus in the room about the importance of equity in establishing relationships with communities, it was community engagement staff members who were in the room. CEOs/Executive Directors and board members were attending another meeting at which the topics were fundraising and board governance, not justice and equity. That led me to wonder if adding community engagement staff supported a kind of outsourcing of concern for equity. That is their job so the executive staff and board don’t need to worry about it. There are many dangers in having a single staff member responsible for community engagement (One Wo/Man Band). This could be another. Only if all (or at least most) of the organization is committed to and actively supporting engagement will the work be effective.
The Summit was for me an extremely valuable professional experience. I’m grateful to Milwaukee Rep, the Summit sponsors, and the organizing committee for bringing together so many people dedicated to pressing arts organizations toward more and better community engagement.
Have a great Memorial Day week. Engaging Matters will be back in June.