Justice and Engagement

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. As frequently happens, the conference sparked a number of thoughts. Last week I began by reflecting on the meanings of the word engagement. (The Problem of “Engagement”)

In the opening keynote Carmen Morgan, a gifted diversity/equity/inclusion speaker and trainer, discussed the relationship between community justice and community engagement. She suggested that we should be focusing on community justice rather than community engagement. Part of her reasoning was rooted in the poor execution of community engagement that characterizes many arts organizations’ CE efforts. Her more important point was that the only way systemically privileged arts organizations (my term, not hers) can build relationships with non-privileged communities is by working toward justice for them.

That is absolutely true. However, one concern I have is that community engagement, as I use the term, refers to connecting with any community, not just those which have historically been excluded from access to cultural resources and social power. For the purpose of planning for engagement, I define community as any group of people with something in common. As an extreme example, thirty-year-old accountants can be a “community” in this sense. With some communities, then, issues of justice are not primary; but let me be clear, for many, many they are.

My other concern in abandoning community engagement for community justice is that some organizations might see that as being so counter to their mission they would avoid all relationship building. If effective community engagement demands awareness of and work toward justice (and it does), it should be possible to continue supporting community engagement without giving up the important need to work for equity.

In attempting to engage many communities, working for justice is critical. I know that I have a professional investment in “community engagement,” but I truly don’t believe that continuing to advocate for it in any way diminishes the need to work for justice as well.



Photo: Wikipedia By ChvhLR10 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4707069

The Problem of “Engagement”

In March I had the privilege of participating in the Intersections Summit hosted by Milwaukee Repertory Theater. It was a heady gathering of community engagement practitioners from theaters (mostly) across the U.S. As frequently happens, the conference sparked a number of thoughts. One has to do with the essence of the convening, the word “engagement.”

Engagement is a problematic word; the way it gets used frequently prevents people from appreciating the potential it offers. Simply put, when we use–or see/hear–it we need to be aware of what meaning is implied. Simply put, “Who is doing what with whom to what end?”

As I have mentioned before in this blog (Artcentric Engagement), I have seen “engagement” used to mean providing members of the community the opportunity to engage with an arts organization. In other words, in that use, the obligation is upon people outside the arts organization to come to it. That may not technically be an incorrect use of the word, but this meaning does little (or nothing) to expand the reach of arts organizations. Only the “already convinced” would respond.

Similarly, uses of the word where the arts organization is “engaging” with communities primarily for its own benefit–to increase ticket sales or donations–do nothing to make the organization more important to the life of the community. Indeed, many communities, observing such efforts, will conclude that the organization has no real interest in them. While both of these uses of the word are valid in a grammatical sense, I have long argued that the value of engagement lies in a deeper commitment to communities. What I’ve been advocating is effective engagement, engagement that serves to make an arts organization’s future more viable. The essence of such engagement rests in relationship building with new communities (since the “already convinced” do not represent a huge new pool of prospects) and the non-negotiable foundation for this is pursuit of mutual benefit and inclusion of those communities in the design and implementation of projects. (And, once again, not giving them what we think they want, but knowing them well enough to make suggestions of programs that might serve their interests.)



Photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Ben Terrett

Systemic Privilege Revisited

In Systemically Privileged, I floated an idea. I discussed the difficulty I’ve had over the years in describing the kind of nonprofit arts organization most in need of developing authentic community connections. My suggestion to myself went as follows:

Recently I have begun to experiment with a new label. The issue here is the historic preference given to presenters of a particular cultural tradition in the context of a rapidly diversifying society. Eurocentric arts organizations receive (and have received) the lion’s share of resources (financial, human, “infrastructural”). The system favors these institutions. “Systemically privileged” reflects that preferential treatment. It also names the issue in a fairly straightforward way. So, for the time being, I’m going to give this a whirl: systemically privileged arts organizations.

The post was fairly widely read and elicited a couple of very thoughtful responses. One, from a frequent contributor, Carter Gilles, questioned me on the difference between a label and a description. He buys “SP” as a descriptor but not as a label. He says, “The danger with using a description as a label is that we have captured only one of … many aspects.”

Another commenter, Edward Brennan, said, “’Systematically privileged’ comes across as a desire to shame the organizations and the donors into different actions. . . . The point is, the desire for the label appears to be confrontational. You want people to confront something and you want them to change. By desiring someone to change, you are saying that something about them or their organization is currently unacceptable.”

It’s often the case that respondents point things out that I had missed. My desire for a means of referring to these institutions is almost entirely pedagogical. In a workshop setting, how do I differentiate them from others, for instance culturally specific arts organizations? So I hadn’t given any thought to the label/description question. Indeed, in looking back at the post I see that I used them interchangeably. Although, to be honest, I’m still unsure about the functional difference between them. I’ve never thought of a label as needing to incorporate every aspect of a thing. To my mind, any label is necessarily selective. Otherwise it would not be a label but a treatise. For instance, “presenting organization” does not encompass a group’s educational activities.

Whether I call it a label or a description, I’ve often found it useful to present an idea that forces rethinking of assumptions. I’ll never forget the diversity workshop where I first heard the label/description “temporarily able-bodied.” As a professor, I had in my office an “upside down map of the world.” It had the entertaining effect of disorienting students and, when they said, “That’s upside down,” I’d get to engage them on the how a cartographer’s position on the globe influenced what we think of as up and down.

In the arts, Barry Hessenius in Barry’s Blog, once observed that if there were underserved people there must also be those who are overserved. (In typing this in WordPress, underserved is accepted. Overserved is highlighted as a spelling error!) My own phrase “European aristocratic cultural tradition preservation society” similarly highlights an issue in our field. (And, yes, I know that that one is pretty highly charged. I use it sparingly.)

I suspect that for many people the real issue about “systemically privileged” is its perception as being confrontational. Mr. Brennan even suggested that its intent, among other things, was to shame organizations and donors. I guess I can see that if it’s assumed that I’m antagonistic toward these organizations. But that is by no means the case. My background makes me a passionate supporter of the potential for good these organizations represent in a rapidly changing world. In particular, my concern is their long-term viability, a viability that, in my view, can only be maintained by fairly rapidly changing perspective. I would, certainly, like them to change, in small ways at first, for their own good. In response to Mr. Brennan’s comment about my desire for change, it’s not that I think things about arts organizations are “unacceptable.” Rather, with passionate concern for their future, my belief is that things as they are are “unsustainable.”

But while I’m on the subject let me point out that for many, other labels/descriptions we use are equally confrontational–mainstream, traditional, and legacy, for instance, all suggest a centrality, a Northern-hemisphere-as-the-norm understanding of the cultural landscape. What I am willing to cop to is the thought that at this moment in time, perhaps a little discomfort is not a bad thing in moving us to consider reframing our place in the cultural ecosystem.



Photo:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Dr Stephen Dann

Communities of Necessity

As part of the community engagement planning process virtually every arts organization has to make choices about which communities they want to seek out as partners. (We are talking here about new communities. Current stakeholders should, of course, be the first community with which to engage more fully.) In almost every circumstance it has been my practice to recommend minimizing the “degrees of separation.” That is, go first to communities with which some relationship–through prior programming or through board, staff, or volunteer connections–already exists. This is far simpler, more organic, and less invasive than “cold calling” on a new community.

However, in several conversations with engagement staff members during the last year I have come to realize that there are circumstances in which that advice needs to be tempered. The demographics of our cities, suburbs, towns, and rural areas are changing rapidly and, in some locales, new communities are becoming so important that engaging with them will be an existential imperative. If we don’t have relationships with them–many, deep relationships–our viability is questionable, sometimes in the near term. So, even if we don’t have any near contact, it is vital to begin the relationship-building process.

Doing so is extremely difficult. There is a very real possibility that communities with which we have no relationship will see such overtures as self-serving on the part of the organization–simple efforts to sell tickets or secure donations. The reactions can range from apathy to hostility. This is why I’ve advocated for first pursuing more closely related groups.

However, in some cases, as for instance where Hispanic/Latino populations are becoming majorities or near majorities, lack of relationships with those communities will inevitably lead the arts organization to become an irrelevant afterthought in shaping the future.

If there is no existing relationship with such a community on which to build, it is still essential to begin. [Of course, if there is no existing relationship, there are issues that are even deeper than “mere” engagement. Why is there no connection with a rapidly growing, vitally important community? But that is a much bigger question than that addressed here.] Regardless, the process will be an extremely long and delicate one, but it must be begun.

Find guides, ambassadors, people to provide introductions. Listen, learn with humility and respect. And don’t expect instantaneous results. This will take much time to bear fruit. But it’s critical to the future of the organization.



Photo: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by planeta


I know I’m the only person who is really interested in what I am going to say here, however, on the off chance that anyone notices, I’m taking a couple of weeks to sit on a beach in Belize. (Yes, the very one pictured here. It’s a photo I took myself some years ago.) Internet access is limited plus I just don’t wanna think all that much when I’m down there!

When I do choose to ruminate, I may give a bit of thought to the future of this blog and of ArtsEngaged. Engaging Matters has been in existence for almost seven years; ArtsEngaged is embarking on some interesting projects–Community Engagement Training and development of a Community Engagement Network for “community engagement experts, practitioners, enthusiasts, students, and idly curious bystanders.”

I’ll be back in a couple of weeks. Perhaps there will be things to report. Or perhaps I will have simply further developed my taste for Belikin (“The beer of Belize”) and for rum punch.