Last week I had the privilege of participating in a conference presentation at TCG’s (Theatre Communications Group) Audience (R)Evolution Convening addressing the Ethics of Engagement. I was one member of a panel of four including Martha Lavey, Artistic Director, Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Seema Sueko, Associate Artistic Director, Pasadena Playhouse; and Shay Wafer, Executive Director, 651 Arts. Facilitator Michael Rohd, Founding Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre, devised a brilliantly concise format that allowed numerous participants at the Convening to contribute. What follows are some reflections on the topic.
Before considering the ethics of engagement it’s valuable to highlight a few relevant good practices in engagement. First, “engagement” implies relationship building. The best metaphor is that of developing friendships. If in doubt about what to do, ask yourself how you would approach the situation if you were trying to make friends (or maintain a friendship) with an individual.
Second, effective engagement needs to serve mutual interests. The arts organization (and art itself) needs to benefit from the relationship. The community needs to benefit as well, in ways that they recognize as benefit to them. (Being “enriched” is not such a benefit if enrichment is not viewed by the “enrichee” as a benefit.)
Third, engagement is not charity work. If an organization views it as such (consciously or unconsciously) it will not connect. It will appear to be (and it will be) paternalistic. This does not mean that charity work is unworthy. It is simply not engagement.
Finally, it is important to remember that there are divisions of expertise to bear in mind. Arts organizations are expert in art and the artistic process. Communities are expert in their interests and what works (and doesn’t) in their environment. Community engagement is not “giving people what they want.” It is developing a sufficient understanding of their interests to be able to suggest work from the cultural canon that will speak to them or to assist in the creation of new work that does so.
With that introduction, here is the basic outline of my thoughts about ethical issues around engagement.
The nonprofit arts industry is the beneficiary of a huge outlay of societal resources to develop and support its infrastructure. As a result there is a moral obligation to utilize that investment in ways that maximize the impact of our work in people’s lives–far more than is the case currently. (As our political demographics change dramatically over the next generation this is a “chicken that will come home to roost” sooner rather than later with respect to public funding. But that is as much a pragmatic consideration as an ethical one.)
And, directly related to that historical support, the industry represents unearned privilege in the minds of almost everyone who is not on the inside of it. Using privilege for good (thanks Carmen Morgan) is an imperative for us in the arts. As a reminder, it is not necessary to feel privileged in order to be privileged.
Finally, engagement must be a two-way street based on mutual benefit and mutual respect. The concept of “with” not “for” is important. We must not attempt to inflict art upon an unsuspecting community.
With those principles in mind, we must ensure that our practices reflect them. Does our governance and management reflect equity and respect for communities? Who is “allowed” at the table? Barry Hessenius (Barry’s Blog: http://blog.westaf.org/2014/10/gia-wrap-up-thoughts-on-equity-racial.html) has said that commitment to diversity must move from being considered a “challenge” to being an obsession. This is true of both our board membership and our staffing. Does our programming reflect our growing understanding of the communities with which we engage? Importantly, what is the root of our pursuit of excellence? Is it for art’s sake? Or is it rather because the communities we serve deserve it?
On one last note, let me also observe something about a question that is often raised in considerations of engagement. When we engage with communities, how do we “exit” the relationship? Simply put, we cannot, we must not. We are an event-focused, event-driven industry. We complete one and are then compelled to move on to the next. This does not, however, fit well with engagement. Using the personal relationship metaphor again, we run the risk of leaving in our wake a series of jilted lovers, upset at what they view as our habit of “one-night stands.” We must devise methods of relationship maintenance. One option for doing so that does not involve inordinate staff resources is the identification of community ambassadors (members of the community who have developed trust in your organization who are willing to serve as on-going liaisons between you and their communities). Related to this could be the formation of a Board of Engagers, the collection of community ambassadors who together are your eyes, ears, and legs in the communities they represent.