The Arts are a Strategy to Build Racial Equity

Posted by Mr. Randy Engstrom, Nov 21, 2016 0 comments

Today we are in the middle of an historic change moment in our country, our cities and our role in the field of the arts. Not since the 1950’s when highways connected and crisscrossed our land have we seen such a massive influx of population in our cities and immigration nationally and internationally. At a time when racial equity and social and environmental justice is being challenged at a national level we affirm our commitment to this work and stand in solidarity with our communities.

Seattle is a progressive utopia, but even here in a bastion of liberalism we have work to do to foster a creative community that benefits all people. Therefore the Office of Arts & Culture (ARTS) collectively created a Racial Equity Statement, affirming our commitment to anti-racist work practice and a mechanism to hold us accountable in all the work we do.

Racial equity is the defining issue of our time. How we deal with our past and our shared future will determine not only the health of our field, but of our communities. This is not a unique issue or conversation; every national cultural membership organization is also at the table and defining their commitment to racial equity and goals for the future.

Arts are how we can achieve Racial Equity in our institutions, and in our lives. They hold the power to capture, nourish and move us. They serve as a vehicle for radical social change, and are an effective strategy to address the pressing issues of our time. We believe that we need to center the arts in our strategy, but look beyond our field to affect change structurally, in partnership with the community, City departments, other institutions and jurisdictions, so we can help build racial equity in housing, criminal justice, education, jobs, the environment and more.

We approach equity and justice for all people through the lens of race because we know that across all measures and all of our complex social positions, one’s race is a salient and consistent indicator of life outcomes. For example, lived experience and research have shown that when it comes to jobs, housing, arts education and many other areas, women of color fare worse than white women, LGBTQ folks of color fare worse than LGBTQ white folks, and poor people of color fare worse than poor white people.

Rev. Starsky Wilson has said that we need to address not just funding and philanthropy, but policy as well. Racial Equity policies combined with practice will shape and define the future of local arts agencies and we are already seeing some of those changes. We must ask ourselves:

  • How will we as local funders be accountable to communities past and present?
  • How will be accountable to each other as funders and in our field?

Our programs centering racial equity and social justice began in 2004 when the City also adopted the first ever Race and Social Justice Initiative in government. In conjunction with Office for Civil Rights (OCR), ARTS has increased our resources and commitment to centering race in all our work practice. From commissioning racial equity trainings (White Fragility with Robin DiAngelo and Centering People of Color in the Racial Equity Movement by Carmen Morgan), equitable access to arts education in public schools (The Creative Advantage) a shared staff position with OCR, focus groups specifically for artists of color (Artists Up) to a learning cohort for arts organizations to expand their own understanding and commitment to racial equity (Turning Commitment into Action), we have consistently sough to increase our capacity and that of our community.

Creating a racial equity statement is a result of this work and provides a path into our future; holding our office and our field accountable to our community.

Excerpted from a presentation by Randy Engstrom, director of Seattle Office of Arts and Culture, at NY Community Trust Nov. 16, 2016. Learn more about the program and the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture here.

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