My post last week (Justice) prompted Jerry Yoshitomi to comment, “It seems that we must ask our Black colleagues to share some benchmarks/metrics that we as a field might strive to meet.” So maybe this could be the catalyst to get us past good intentions (the industry equivalent of “thoughts and prayers”) to action.
Long ago Barry Hessenius charged us to move from thinking of the pursuit of equity as a “issue” to making it an obsession. So, if “doing” is where we go now, what does the doing look like? It looks like committing to making substantive change and then making that change happen, not in some far future but in a timeframe we might live to see. Yoda was right. “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Jerry is right to suggest benchmarks. Benchmarks are not quotas. They are self-created targets to measure progress toward goals that are either concrete or abstract. They are achieved or not. They make equivocation much more difficult. Failure to reach them can be an opportunity to review, fine-tune, and improve processes. But failure to reach them should be crystal clear.
Jerry is also right that we should be led by our Black colleagues in establishing benchmarks. But in a desire to facilitate a discussion, let me suggest some categories by which the benchmarks/metrics might be organized.
Organizations should have a clear statement of commitment to justice and equity, one with no wiggle room. The statement I put together for organizations to use in committing to community engagement might be food for thought but it does not contain language nearly strong enough to be used as a template for one dealing directly with justice and equity.
The optics of group photos of our staffs and boards are not good. We’ve long acknowledged that. Greater diversity there is critical and targets for achieving it are valuable. Our vague desire to diversify has not led to significant change because, without real commitment, it is too easy to throw up our hands and say “We tried, but . . . .” There’s not room here to go into the many things that can be done, but let me just say that attempting to achieve diverse boards and staffs in the same ways we’ve always tried to fill positions is doomed to fail. We only know the people and processes we already know. Benchmarks can hold feet to the fire.
The specific benchmarks need to be vetted by our Black colleagues. What should we look for as minimums? And consider, when the time comes, that stopping at minimums means we’re not really committed. (While the immediate concern here is with African-American representation, we need to remember that we have similar issues with respect to Indigenous populations and other People of Color.)
Let me also say that the principal motivator should/must not be the optics. (More about this in a minute.) Lacking the perspective of BIPOC board and staff impoverishes our work in many, many practical ways.
Many staff and board members are insufficiently prepared to understand, address, deal with, and pursue the kinds of equity and justice with which this post is concerned. I’m not a big fan of training for training’s sake, but work needs to be done. Assistance in establishing metrics for initial and on-going work in creating equitable and just organizations is important.
Ah. The Third Rail of equity (and many other) discussions. Let me simply say that the “artistic canon” on which most of our nonprofit arts institutions is based is deeply rooted in European privilege and, as such, can be unwelcoming to many people. A church of which I was once a member was deeply concerned about diversifying its congregation but when asked what we would be willing to change to achieve that diversity–liturgy, hymns, service music–there was much hemming and hawing. The good news (to my mind) for our arts organizations is that expanded thinking about programming could open doors to truly valuable fresh air. See, for just one instance, Unlearning Musical Bias.
I am not here using the word “audience.” It’s a distancing word and especially in the context of community engagement (my principal field) it creates an unwanted barrier. I am also leery of establishing benchmarks here because there is a strong temptation to leap past the hard work of creating healthy relationships with new communities. There is also a self-serving element related to addressing “audience optics” that can crop up in this context. (The Self-Centered Pursuit of Diversity) That said, if the demographics of our community participants do not change, then something is very, very wrong.
There are certainly other important categories to be considered, but these are the ones I can think of right now. The benchmarks that fall in these categories are measurable. We can establish targets for each, but those targets must be created with significant input from the communities with whom we are seeking relationships. Indeed, seeking the input (and the acceptance of the advice offered) could be a significant element of a relationship building process.
There is absolutely no reason that the work to establish benchmarks in these categories (or, rather, at the beginning, parameters for those benchmarks) needs to take place in this blog or on any site with which I am connected. If you would like to support the work of moving this needle let the nonprofit arts industry know; or if you are already in the process of doing this (or are in a position to do so and are ready to begin), let us know and I’ll be thrilled to direct people to you. We can’t wait any longer.
Seek justice and engage!