As I mentioned in What Was Said, the report on the Community Engagement Network’s May and June Conversations on Benchmarking Equity, participants frequently commented on the relationships between community engagement and work in pursuit of equity. I’ve long held that without a commitment to community engagement an arts organization’s DEI efforts are not likely to succeed (Doomed to Fail). But the Conversations went way beyond that. In particular, they kept citing the essence of effective engagement–building trusting relationships with new communities–as the only path to equity.
So, in preparing to work toward equity, arts organizations could profit from considering basic principles of effective community engagement. The fundamental requirements (and to be clear, these are the same requisites for any kind of relationship building) are humility and respect. Knowing that there is much to be learned and that those with whom you are hoping to work deserve respect is essential. My mantra “You don’t know that you don’t know what you don’t know” applies: and the need for respect should be self-evident. No relationship succeeds without it. For arts organizations, humility and respect are especially important in working toward equity because of the history of our industry, the hidden (or sometimes not so hidden) pattern of arrogance about “high art,” and our association in the minds of many with wealth and power. In addition, every community has cultural assets about which we need to be aware and from which we can gain much. If we’re not prepared to see cultural expressions outside of the European aristocratic cultural tradition as assets we have no business even thinking about DEI work.
The first step toward actually working together is listening, really listening, to learn. One of the most persistent complaints BIPOC communities have about the white establishment is the unwillingness to listen to, and really hear, hard truths that it doesn’t want to hear. Until they are heard, there can’t be any change made, and change is essential.
When actually working together, the focus must be on mutual benefit. Certainly the arts organization must benefit; but in the pursuit of equity, the arts organization needs the social legitimacy that equitable behavior can bring. It is the community with which the arts organization is working that must see benefit from its own perspective in the work being done. (This cannot be simply that the presence of the arts is “good for people.” Remember the point about humility?) In addition, project design and implementation must be collaborative. Communities know their interests and what works and doesn’t work for them. Listen and plan together.
Finally, after a project is over, remember that everything is about the relationship, not the project. A plan for relationship maintenance must be in place. (See Relationship Maintenance)
Good practice in community engagement has much to offer in supporting steps toward equity; and equity is necessary for successful engagement with many if not most new communities. Let’s view them both as essential rather than separate, unrelated areas of work.