A.W.E in Portland: Arts Workers for Equity

Posted by Jenny M. Chu, May 10, 2018 0 comments

The prompt, “my power to create change in/through the arts is…”: absolutely nothing without community.

In work, in art, and in justice we believe too much in the myth of the individual: the influential leader, the innovative changemaker, the brilliant artiste, the fearless social justice warrior. It’s not that these individuals don’t exist, but they never exist out of context or out of community. The power of a movement is only possible when it is expressed in its people, not concentrated in a single person or an organization.

We know that institutions are driven by invisible white-dominant structures and norms. We know that this has privileged those of the dominant culture over cultures of communities of color.

I work in the nonprofit arts sector in Portland, Oregon, which is 76% white despite the growing racial and ethnic diversity in the country. This whiteness was deliberately designed. In the 1800s, exclusionary laws were ratified into the Oregon constitution and the language wasn’t officially removed until 2002. This history is reflected in who lives, works, and plays here, including the demographic makeup of who runs our cultural and artistic institutions.

In 2016, a group of us arts administrators came together with the evocative question: “Why are the arts so white?” A truly grassroots operation, Arts Workers for Equity (AWE) is a collective of ten individuals who represent a multitude of intersectional identities: POC (people of color), multi-racial, white, intergenerational, queer, program coordinator, development director, consultant, assistant, manager, curator, teacher, artist, singer, writer, dancer, organizer. Alone and individually, we had limited power to effect change. But collectively we’ve influenced Portland’s nonprofit arts sector, citywide.

In the spring of that year we hosted a “Think Tank on Racial Equity in the Arts” to assess general perceptions around racial and ethnic diversity in the Portland arts nonprofit world. Roughly 50 emerging and established arts leaders gathered in an overly warm theater to have an open dialogue. AWE collated and published the findings in a Pulse Report.

That following summer AWE hosted another event called “Real Talk: People of Color Speak Out About Working at Arts Organizations.” AWE collected stories from arts and culture workers of color. We received personal experiences about the application and interview processes, of being hired, and how it felt to be often the only person of color on staff. Most individuals shared their stories anonymously, some for fear of retaliation or termination from their jobs. AWE created a Prezi Recap of the event. The full stories can be found on the AWE website.

These inequitable work dynamics had gone unnoticed for years in our most hallowed and respected arts institutions. Both events helped to facilitate a baseline understanding of the landscape of racial and ethnic inequity in the Portland arts sector. And for the people of color working in the arts, who had felt alienated and silenced, subdued and suppressed into assimilation and obedience—it was an opportunity for them to know that they were not alone.

Last spring, AWE targeted our efforts on the Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) executive director search. After thirteen years, the executive director seat was open. RACC receives funding from public and private partners to serve artists, arts organizations, schools, and residents throughout Portland and the tri-county area. In 2017, RACC awarded $3.4 million to artists and nonprofit organizations—the impact that RACC has on the local arts scene and the community is substantial.

In May of 2017, AWE published this public statement:


The Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC) is currently in the early stages of a search to replace longtime Executive Director Eloise Damrosch, after thirteen years of dedicated service to the local arts community. A survey has been distributed asking for community input. We recommend that all artists, arts administrators, and community members complete this survey, placing equity as the number one priority to consider in RACC’s search for a new executive director. As a community, we have the unique opportunity to rally, to push, and to hold RACC accountable for real change in the arts sector.

Currently, there are few details that are public about the nature of this hire. A Search Committee has been convened within the RACC Board of Directors, and the members of this committee have not been publicized.

What We Want

We want the composition of the Search Committee to be made public and to represent the entire diversity of our greater-metro by including members from communities of color, immigrants and refugees, and people with disabilities.

We want RACC to lead by example and show that equitable hiring practices make organizations stronger at ALL levels. RACC has the opportunity now to prove that they are sincere in their belief for a more equitable and diverse arts sector, and that their equity statement is more than just lip service.

Closing Thoughts

Change does not happen without discomfort. Change does not happen without intention. Organizations and individuals who have power, privilege, and access to resources must examine their own practices and how they operate, including how and whom they hire into leadership roles.

Our region’s history is racist and inequitable. This country is racist and inequitable. We demand a better and just future for our communities, and we demand that RACC put their equity statement into action.

As arts administrators, arts lovers, and arts practitioners, we know that art is inextricably linked to culture; that it acts as a critique to history, as a mirror to humanity, and an instigator of critical discourse. It is in this vein that RACC must make diversity and equity their utmost imperative, because the vibrancy of our communities demand it.

RACC responded. They requested a meeting with AWE. The conversation was candid, open, and tense. After, RACC extended an invitation for me to join the executive director search committee. With AWE’s support, I was able to shift the search process at key decision-making moments. The committee reported our progress regularly to the public. After a year, we made our final recommendation for hire to the RACC Board of Directors this month.

Right now, AWE is currently facilitating a “Racial Equity in the Arts Learning Circle.” Thirty people from fifteen different arts organizations ranging from budget sizes of $0 to $19.6 million, from all around Portland, convened to take the pledge to further racial equity in the arts.

All of these efforts have activated our community in specific and outward-rippling ways. It has to happen all at once and no one can do it alone––but when we move together, we change.

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