In May and June the Community Engagement Network hosted Conversations addressing the topic Benchmarking Equity. While we did not take the advisability of benchmarking as a given (Benchmarking? Maybe Not), the premise of the discussions was that without some form of accountability, statements committing to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion can easily be as toothless as “thoughts and prayers” about gun violence. For those interested, the notes prepared by participants can be seen here. That document is set up to receive comments from any who would like to weigh in on the topic.
The first Conversation began with the question of how to know if an organization is ready to think about benchmarking or, to be more accurate, how to know if an organization is really ready to begin any work on equity issues. There was near unanimous agreement that just because an organization came to think it should embark on becoming more equitable it did not follow that it was ready to do so. The notes on this part of the discussion are the most comprehensive of any and would be worthwhile for organizations to consider before jumping into the work. I was particularly struck by the observation that an organization is not ready unless it is “willing to make cultural changes to make underrepresented populations feel welcomed.” We will have more on the Ready or Not discussion in a future blog post. The other significant portion of this Conversation was the discussion of how to protect BIPOC stakeholders from further trauma in DEI work, especially in the setting of benchmarks.
The second Conversation focused more directly on what types of things might be benchmarked and what factors should be considered in setting them. One interesting observation was that setting benchmarks based on community demographics might be an issue in areas where little diversity exists.
The other big takeaway for me was how often participants came back to the relationship between community engagement and DEI work, although perhaps that should not be surprising since the discussions were sponsored by the Community Engagement Network. The basic point was that the principles of dialogue, relationship building, and mutual respect that are the bedrock of effective community engagement are also prerequisites for responsible DEI work.
In future blog posts I’ll be expanding on the content of these discussions.
Before I close I need to make a critical point about all of this. My only real role in this is as an enthusiastic advocate for the work. I do not have any expertise in DEI; and neither this blog nor the Community Engagement Network as now constituted has the breadth of scope or infrastructure to provide the support necessary to help make equity a realistic possibility in our field. We would welcome with open arms individuals or organizations who might be in a position to give this work the foundation it needs to make a difference in the life of the nonprofit arts in the United States.