Diversity, equity, and inclusion are–rightly and way too belatedly–important topics in the nonprofit arts world right now. I heartily applaud the focus.
However . . . I worry about the way the topics are being approached. If an arts organization attempts to incorporate DEI awareness and efforts without a deep, mission-level commitment to being of the community; to forming mutually beneficial, lasting relationships with new communities; to seeing its work as being a resource for improving lives, then there is no foundation upon which to build. There is also a real danger that the motivations behind some of the desire for DEI in the arts is to feel better about ourselves. As I wrote some time ago, pursuit of diversity for its own sake is highly self-serving. (The Self-Centered Pursuit of Diversity) This is even more true for the suite of work we refer to in DEI.
If the focus of the organization continues to be on the art rather than the arts’ connection with and impact upon people, DEI work will be at best surface deep and fleeting and at worst will, as the result of failures, deepen the rifts between the arts and the communities with which they are attempting to develop relationships.
Without significant commitment to substantive community engagement (which is rooted in the group of commitments I listed in the above), DEI efforts will probably not bear a great deal of fruit. It may be a bit of hyperbole to say they’re “doomed to fail.” It also may not.
There is no question that community engagement and DEI work are not the same thing. But they are often closely related when engaging with communities that have little or no connection with the arts. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital to the future of the arts. The commitment to community that community engagement requires (along with the mindset and skills to go with it) is an essential foundation upon which to build efforts in DEI.