Reflections on PCN from Katie Steger

It's been four weeks now since 3,000 activists, advocates, and policy makers (myself and the rest of the EPIP delegation included) descended on Downtown LA for a three day summit on equity hosted by Policy Link. Long enough that some of the beautiful nuance and nitty-gritty details from many of the sessions are sadly getting harder to remember. But also long enough that the most resonant themes have actually become more relevant, more profound, and more powerful as i see them illustrated, challenged, and clarified by my work and the news and events in the world around me. There were many of these themes, but the one in particular that stands out for me is about the complexity and interconnectedness of the issues at hand.

As a funder in the nonprofit arts, I am  committed to striving toward greater cultural equity both within the arts field, and in society more broadly through the work of the arts. In doing this work I participate in many meetings, conferences, panels, and forums on improving diversity in and through the arts.  I have learned important lessons at these events and met some truly extraordinary practitioners that have been working tirelessly for positive social change for decades. They inspire me to do more and do better, and I credit many of them for being critical parts of my journey to become an advocate for social justice.  But even as important as I find these opportunities, at times something can feel like it's missing.

When arts practitioners and funders gather in isolation to talk about cultural equity in the field, we are often missing the critical context of the structural racism and other inequities that pervade our social systems more broadly. Even when structural racism is discussed, we still often grapple with equity issues individually (a lack of diversity in organizational leadership and boards, insufficient access for low-income communities, inadequate representation of a plurality of voices on stages, and a chronic under-resourcing of organizations of color, to make a few). In doing so, we often fail to connect them to one another or to the complex systems of oppression that exist across sectors.  Those who recognize this shortcoming quite rightly point out that what we are trying to overcome is a problem in the arts, but it is not an "arts problem" either exclusively or at its core. So how can we expect to solve it in our own field without also working to address it across more broadly?

I approached the Policy Link 2015 Equity Summit with enthusiasm about a rare opportunity to immerse myself in this cross-sector work, considering issues that included education, housing, food and environmental justice, income inequality, wage and labor rights, politics and government, and more.  And here, the complexity of cultural inequity became evident time and again.

Two sessions struck me in particular. In the opening plenary, economist Raj Chetty shared some of his research on upward social mobility and its relationship to other community indicators like segregation and place of origin. In a visual mapping of the places with the lowest mobility and the highest segregation, the relationship to other factors (like history as slaveholding states, for instance) also seemed apparent. It was also clear that the research, while important, was only a snapshot of a single moment in time.  We can learn from it, but action items may not be relevant in the present moment in that exact place. The main takeaways for me from the discussion that ensued were: "local IS national", and "place matters, but place changes."

A separate session on the future of mass incarceration left me with three main takeaways: 1) The conversation is primarily about Black communities, but many other racial and cultural groups are affected and often feel they have no voice at the table. 2) The people trying to help may be subconsciously perpetuating the systems of oppression they seek to eradicate. 3) The causes and impact of mass incarceration are not just about the industry or the incarcerated individuals themselves.

So how does this all tie together and how might any of it change the work we do in the arts?

The big lessons of the first session for me are that, even as a national funder sometimes we need to value local models that can serve as examples. The idea that "local is national" doesn't mean we can ignore federal policy or national dialogue altogether. But blanket national solutions are not always more effective than starting locally, sometimes different regions have different needs and characteristics that must be addressed in their own right, and efforts to improve local ecologies can sometimes have widespread impact.

That said, if we take a place-based approach to work in any field, the idea that "place matters, but place changes" teaches us that an area cannot be considered as existing in a static state - economies swing, industries rise and fall, and demographics shift. The country as a whole may still struggle with things like income inequality, but those working locally must remain adaptable in their strategies.  And if in a field like the arts we are not paying attention to those shifting environmental and demographic factors, we may fail to remain relevant in programming, fail to provide support when local dollars dry up, miss opportunities to leverage arts and culture for social benefit, or inadvertently leave important voices out of decision making processes in our institutions and in the national conversation.

The first takeaway for me from the session on mass incarceration is really about the need for plurality on the way we consider the issue. Just as people are compelled to see issues of incarceration as primarily black and white (in terms of race and theory), there are many areas where multifaceted issues are framed in binary terms.  For example, if we only think about things as black and white, we overlook the inequity that exists for people from all non-dominant races, colors, cultures, genders, abilities, sexualities, and religions. And if we only think about racial equity in the vein of white and all other colors combined, not only do we deny the wide variations in experience that exist among different races and the many individual cultures they comprise, but we also miss an opportunity to make space for interculturality and cross-cultural understanding between them.

On the second point, it is critical to be sure that the programs, grants, and institutions we sustain are not creating unintended negative consequences, supporting interests that are in direct competition either the ultimate goals we aim to achieve (and in this case specifically, perpetuating systems of oppression).  As an example, a foundation leader spoke of programs he was supporting against the prison industrial complex, only to find out that the foundation's endowment was held in financial instruments that were invested heavily in the very same system he was working to dismantle. A reason to work across sectors is to be sure you understand the broad array of areas and issues related to cultural equity so you might identify the activities that could undermine or be in conflict with your mission. Even looking exclusively within the arts it is possible where such conflicts of programming might occur - for example, funding low-price ticket programs to encourage greater access to events, but only making those tickets available to those who can wait in line during normal business hours the day of a performance (thus excluding those that have jobs they cannot leave at that time). Imagine how many conflicts could be uncovered if we  examined how far all the tentacles of our work stretch.

On the last takeaway, there was a lengthy discussion in the session about how important it is to remember that prisons and the people held within them do not exist in a vacuum. They are about a great many things other than the direct relationship between crime and punishment, and they have effects that extend far beyond those who are sentenced, held, or released. They are about redlined, economically gutted, mis-policed communities with limited opportunities for jobs and under-resourced education. They are about capitalism and business and jobs that benefit other communities. They are about state and federal policies that dictate mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenses, and restrict rights for low-income housing and food assistance, even as requirements to divulge criminal histories on job applications severely limit the likelihood of employment for formerly incarcerated citizens.  They are about the people who are left behind that are shunned from communities, and the ones who lose their housing for associating with a person convicted of a felony on or near their property, having committed no crime themselves. They are about making it harder for people to vote in the communities most affected, limiting their capacity to effect necessary change and advocate for their own rights.  And on, and on. The first lesson here for me is that all systems are complex, and an attempt to touch or change something in a system is often challenged by something else that also needs to be addressed. When talking about mass incarceration, this may mean removing mandatory minimum sentences and disinvesting in prisons facilities. But for this effort to be successful it will be equally important to deal with implicit bias on police forces, reform housing policy so formerly incarcerated people can have a place to stay upon release, and improve education and employment opportunities in low-income neighborhoods so people can earn a living without resorting to illegal means.  There are certainly similar examples of complexity in the field when I think about trying to improve diversity in arts organizations. But there are also areas that cross over. If you want to encourage diverse artists and arts leaders, in addition to addressing inequitable recruitment practices and a lack of art programs in schools, you need to improve education opportunities more broadly.  You need to address issues of mobility and income inequality so that practitioners who care about the arts can relocate and afford to take the low-paying internships that their wealthier peers access and leverage into future opportunities. You need to address compensation so that people can afford to stay in the field. And you need to address transportation so that staff and audiences from isolated neighborhoods can reasonably access your space. And on, and on.

Sure, there are issues that are specific to my field that will still warrant the convening of arts practitioners to collaborate and plan solutions. But many of them aren't as unique to us as we think, and we could likely take a lesson or two from another field as an alternative to reinventing the wheel. Cultural equity and social justice are not small issues nor can they be examined in isolation. They are among the wickedest challenges facing humanity, and we can only hope to resolve them by working across sectors, fields, and disciplines to create multifaceted solutions. I'm grateful to Policy Link and EPIP, for the reminder, for the leadership, and for the opportunity to come together and learn.