Guest Post: Createquity on the question - "What do we mean when we say Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?"

This is a guest post by Createquity's Fari Nzinga.

It seems like everyone is talking about diversity, inclusion and/or equity these days. But who knows what that means? And how do we get there? Are we even speaking the same language?

Research that my organization, Createquity, has conducted over the past six months suggests that there is actually quite a bit of diversity when it comes to definitions of diversity, inclusion and equity. This helps to explain why these issues seem to have come up over and over again for the last four decades with only sporadic progress. While our research focused in particular on the field of the arts, much of the work is relevant to other cause areas as well.

At Createquity, we are on a long-term mission to investigate the most important issues in the arts and what we can do about them. Yet in order to use research and evidence to help our sector move forward, we needed a clear, and shared, understanding of what success looks like. And therein lies the rub: the further we delved into the literature around cultural equity, and the more we consulted experts and connected with some of the activists who precede us, the more we came to realize that shared understanding simply doesn’t exist.

That there are different visions for cultural equity is clear. Where exactly the lines are drawn, however, is not. Recognizing that any attempt to develop a taxonomy will have its flaws, in our own conversations, we found it helpful to distinguish between four archetypes:

  • The Diversity vision for cultural equity calls for so-called “mainstream” institutions–a community’s big-budget nonprofit symphonies, art museums, presenters, etc.–to become more reflective of the communities they serve.
  • The Prosperity vision takes Diversity’s belief in the power of organizational scale and applies it to institutions started and led by artists of color. These institutions follow the standard model of nonprofit growth–cultivating a wide audience, a fundraising board, diversified streams of income, and professional staff–all with an eye toward long-term sustainability.
  • The Redistribution vision argues that people of color, rural communities, LGBT communities, and others are socially and economically marginalized by our society and therefore have less access to wealth to support their work. An equitable distribution–a redistribution–of funds towards organizations originating in and serving marginalized communities is the best way to address this imbalance.
  • The Self-Determination theory of cultural equity calls for full participation in and expression of cultural life for communities of color through models that are organic to those communities, and that look beyond established nonprofit arts funding and advocacy tactics.

Importantly, the differences between these visions arise from disparate assumptions about how the world works. When those assumptions go unacknowledged, they can create tensions between parties that claim to want the same thing. In our research, we documented several public cultural equity debates that can be understood in retrospect as contests between the archetypal visions above. For example, El Museo del Barrio, a museum originally founded to showcase Puerto Rican artists and culture, pursued an aggressive growth strategy in the 1970s that involved broadening its mission to include other Latino cultures and recruiting donors and board members from outside the Puerto Rican community. The strategy ultimately resulted in a new location on Manhattan’s famed Museum Mile and stable city funding. Yet El Museo leaders faced criticism for shifting focus away from the museum’s Puerto Rican roots in the quest for success by mainstream, capitalist standards. In this clash between the Prosperity and Self-Determination visions, Prosperity won out.

In our efforts to leave the world a better place than we found it, we at Createquity strive to articulate our own values and assumptions with maximal clarity. Doing so has led us to the emerging scholarship on wellbeing and quality of life, which strikes us as a promising (albeit still developing) attempt to unify disparate ideas of progress under one roof. This body of knowledge could help build consensus across different visions for cultural equity and the ideologies they represent. Research on human happiness - if we can agree that the goals of cultural equity mesh with a vision of a happier and more meaningful life for all - might be the gateway to a path forward.

What does this mean for philanthropy? It means that it is imperative for philanthropists and the people/organizations they fund not to assume that by using the same words they mean the same things. We recommend grantmakers and grantees have open conversations about what their visions for success look like, their definition of cultural equity, and the best way to achieve it. In order to meaningfully address these issues, white people in particular must be open to challenge and critique when it comes to their assumptions and how they view the world. One of Createquity's working assumptions is that people of color are more likely to create meaningful and engaging opportunities and programming for themselves than white people will. Accordingly, grantmakers and philanthropists might consider funding opportunities for people of color -- both individually and institutionally -- to take the lead on articulating and implementing their own visions of success.

About the author. Fari Nzinga was born and raised in Boston, MA and graduated with a BA from Oberlin College in 2005. Fari earned both her M.A. and Ph.D in Cultural Anthropology from Duke University. Having lived in New Orleans since 2009, her dissertation explored Black-led, community-based institutions using art and culture to help achieve their social justice-oriented missions, as well as the political-economic landscape in which they operate. While conducting fieldwork in post-Katrina New Orleans she worked for a theater production company with organizational roots stretching back to the civil rights movement. In addition to serving on the Createquity editorial team, Fari is an adjunct professor at Southern University at New Orleans (an Historically Black University) in the Museum Studies program.

About the organization behind the guest post. Createquity is a think tank and online publication investigating the most important issues in the arts and what we, collectively and individually, can do about them. Our combination of rigorous evidence review and ambitious nonfiction writing represents an exciting and unprecedented model. Rather than 100-page PDFs, we present our insights in engaging, long-form multimedia articles that bring the stories and challenges of each topic to life. In addition, we offer subscribers roundups of the important news stories each month, regular reviews of new and notable research reports, and a transparency initiative that shines a light on our investigations as they take place. Createquity’s 10,000+ followers and regular readers include a who’s who of policymakers, funders, thought leaders, administrators, and artists from around the world. Join them today at