Translating the practice of social justice into the arts and culture field

What is Collective Impact? How does it translate to the arts and culture sector? And how do you take amazing lessons from a great conference experience and make them actionable when you get back to your desk?

Thoughts and actionable steps on this from Liz Alsina following her experience in the PCN delegation at the Policy Link Equity Summit.

 It’s happened to all of us.  We come back from an invigorating conference, eager to apply the lessons learned to our work and sometimes even to our personal practice.  When you come back from places of inspiration like the October 2015 Policy Link Equity Summit (which I attended as a delegate of the People of Color Network), one might especially be brimming with new approaches, models, and perspectives.  Then we get back to our workspaces and get stumped in the implementation of the lessons gleaned, and how to integrate the hard, but important, work of building equity all around us. 

The process of translating the expertise at Equity Summit 2015 becomes all the more difficult when you work in something of a social justice outlier: arts and culture.  In my pre-philanthropy life, I was a producer and fundraiser in the performing arts, making the switch into administration after going the conservatory route to train as a classical singer.  Now, when not serving on EPIP’s NY Steering Committee, I am on the programming staff of the Arts and Cultural Heritage program at The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  To put it succinctly, I am an arts and culture specialist; creative expression is my home and it is the lens through which I often see the world.  

Yet I have been acutely aware that the symphony halls, black box theaters, and opera houses I treat as my second living room are the same spaces that can intimidate and unintentionally exclude local communities, particularly those of color.  Luckily, I am amongst many that recognize these disparities, with philanthropy, artistic directors, and advocates calling for greater diversity and inclusion in the arts, and equity finally entering the lexicon of arts practice.            

But the intersection of the arts and equity is a relatively new conversation and, while the dialogue shows signs of life, my interest in attending Equity Summit 2015 was to find points of translation and disruption from social justice practice.  What I came away with:  systemic change can only come to fruition through collective action

Michael McAfee’s pre-Summit workshop on the Collective Impact framework overwhelmed me with the possibility of its application in the arts and culture field.  What would the five conditions of collective success—a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations—look like in the arts sector?  What follows are some of my ruminations:

  1. Common Agenda.  Inequities in the arts exist throughout the practice of the field, ranging from key internal and external stakeholders such as staff, board, audiences, and artists, to programming and the ways we interact with local communities.  Given that we cannot do it all at the same time, perhaps the most organic point of consensus is to call for a fundamental change from within:  a field-wide commitment to increasing the cultural competency of arts institutions through baseline sensitivity training and implementing customized diversity plans that ensure inclusive internal policies. 
  2. Shared Measurement Systems.  It is critical that we measure and report on success in reaching our common goal.  Perhaps the place to start is by acquiring baseline national data.  What if National Endowment for the Arts applicants were required to complete a baseline report that measures organizational cultural competency?  The template developed would then be used to measure progress within the set timeline.
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities.  The arts ecosystem is vast, capturing institutions that prescribe to affinities based on discipline, cultural explicitness, target audience, or regional identification, among others.  Collective Impact requires cross-sector participation in order to create shared accountability, and to learn from other models.  What if, in addition to attending the annual service organization conferences, the arts field has a chance to convene across sectors, perhaps hosted in conjunction with social justice leaders like PolicyLink or RaceForward?  The work of building equity needs to be reinforced and examined in a systematized way, and convenings offer opportunities for the field to dig in and learn from a broad knowledge base.       
  4. Continuous Communication.  This is a long and thoughtful road, and the end game may take many years.  How do we keep the field motivated, especially when results are much further down the line?  Informal and formal communication channels are key alongside regular meetings.  In addition to the annual or biennial convening proposed above, regional delegations and meetings can be especially helpful to keep communication open and place-based.  Organizations like state arts councils can be natural pillars for supporting these kinds of conversations. 
  5. Backbone Support Organizations.  I think of this as the institution that is the lighthouse—a central purveyor of resources, communication, data, infrastructure, templates, and urgency to drive us towards our common agenda.  In a solution akin to a Big Audacious idea, could we imagine a new organization, perhaps modeled on the multi-funding structure of ArtPlace America, to focus on re-granting and supporting arts organizations as they work on their path towards equity?

Social justice is as much an ideology as it is a practice.  As the arts and culture sector moves beyond expounding on the value and promise of the diversity, equity, and inclusion spectrum, it must work towards a systemic solution, and eschew band-aid approaches.  This is hard work, and a new practice for most, but I take comfort in the resources and models of our family in the social justice sector to illuminate collaborative approaches that have a real chance at making art—something so intrinsically humanistic—belong to all of us.      

|Liz Alsina