The Greater DC Diversity Pilot Initiative, #1: Doubling Down on Small Steps as Meaningful Progress
The pursuit of forward progress in issues of diversity, access, and equity in the arts in America is a difficult and frustrating business. A conversation that starts with, say, a lack of racial diversity on an organization's staff can quickly move from hiring practices to a perceived lack of qualified candidates of color in the pool, to a discussion of the systemic devaluation of the arts as a career option in certain populations, which may or may not stem from systemic inequalities in the American education system surrounding arts education, which in turn is representative of a society built from bottom to top on the creation of privileged class predominantly defined by the unequal distribution of wealth and access to opportunity across hundreds of years and dozens of generations. And suddenly you aren't talking about a problem you can do anything about, and you feel either overwhelmed or off the hook. What can I do about that, anyway?
To make progress on issues of access, equity, and inclusion--whether you're discussing race, age, gender, economic status, education, or some of the many other components through which we categorize our difference--it is crucial to understand that progress is made up of a thousand tiny steps. Especially in this case, this terribly difficult, entrenched, entangled case--forward momentum is measured in individuals, slight adjustments, and progress over decades. At least, that is one philosophy--and that is the philosophy that we at Americans for the Arts, in conjunction with six local arts agencies in the greater Washington, DC, area, are currently testing out in a project developed with seed funding from the This initiative is supported in part through the generosity of The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and The Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation.
The Greater DC Diversity Pilot Initiative, in development for a year and now rolling out over the next 6 months, is a combination of research, community discussion, small-scale experimentation, and cross-agency networking. For our part, Americans for the Arts is providing specialized US Census profiles of how the populations of each DC Metro county have changed over the decade or more, distributing some definitional documents to help create a common vocabulary a starting point, and facilitating a series of convenings designed to surface a particular type of diversity-related issue: issues that can be at least partially impacted through incremental, manageable, measurable programmatic or research-based experiments that each local arts agency will conduct over the course of about four months.
These experiments are bookended by convenings -- a first forum in each county with about 20-40 constituents drawn together by the local arts agency partner and led by Americans for the Arts' Field Education manager, Abe Flores, and Local Arts Agency Services Manager, Theresa Cameron, along with me. A pan-county convening this coming March will include not only the agencies and their constituents, but a wide swath of DC-based funders who are interested in powering forward an equity agenda in the arts.
What are we looking to do? Well, that needs to be answered on two levels--what is Americans for the Arts pursuing, and more importantly, what are we helping out local arts agency partners to pursue.
To the first question: it is a chronic challenge of being a national organization that serves 4,800 localized communities to figure out the best way to empower change that is the best and most needed for any particular community. We have no illusions about who knows your specific community most deeply--it is you, your agency, and your staff. What we do feel we bring to the table, which we have attempted to craft the Greater DC Diversity Pilot Initiative to emphasize, is a research acumen, convening expertise, and body of knowledge that can be very helpful in setting parameters and creating forward momentum once the local issue to be tackled has been determined locally. This initiative is an attempt to create model--both specifically to tackle issues of equity and to more broadly tackle issues that are nationally important but highly nuanced from community to community--that allows us to bring our expertise and resources to the table without erroneously usurping the authority and expertise of our capable local partners.
On a local level, the goal of this project is to help six agencies, all of whom have joined this project because they are interested in tacking systemic issues of diversity, access, and equity in their arts communities, to do just that--with a full recognition of the limited time, money, and authority to create change that are often, almost always, the reality. We have artificially limited the timeline and resources in order to focus the project on actions that might, to the naked eye, feel minor and inconsequential, but which emerge from community need and signal the possible beginning of a deep and impactful set of changes.
This whole thing is an experiment--it may not work. But we are hopeful that it will allow these six agencies to think meaningfully about community needs, manageable outcomes, and forward-looking, incremental, manageable change over time. This work will be covered in a breakout session at the Annual Convention, as well a in a series of blog posts over the next months. We invite your comments and feedback, particularly about any experiences you have had in this type of effort, what worked, and what didn't.
Our deep thanks to our local partners (The City of Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks & Cultural Activities of; Arts Council of Fairfax County; Arlington County Cultural Affairs Division; Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation Arts and Cultural Heritage Division; Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County; DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities), our funders (The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation and The Max and Victoria Dreyfus Foundation), and the hundreds of community members throughout the DC metro area who are taking part in this pilot. Onward!