Change The Story. Change The Equation. Change The Game.

Posted by Bryan Joseph Lee, May 11, 2018 0 comments

“What is our power to create change through the arts?”

I remember when the Emerging Leaders Council (ELC) settled on this prompt for our Spring 2018 Blog Salon. As one of the Council’s newest members, I was thrilled to jump headfirst into conversations about justice, equity, and empowerment in the arts. But it didn’t take long for my enthusiasm to shift to deep skepticism. Here we were, a young, diverse group of emerging leaders expounding about “power” and “change” in a vacuum. As excited as I was to join a cohort of brilliant creatives from around the country (and let me tell you, they really are the best of the best), it’s so easy for these kinds of brain trusts to flare with intensity and fizzle just as fast. All talk, no action. As much as I was provoked, I wondered if the ELC and Americans for the Arts really understood how to dismantle systems of power and galvanize change.

In his exceptional book “You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen,” Citizen University Founder and CEO Eric Liu outlines three core laws of power that govern our engagement as citizens. First: power compounds. Those with clout gather more clout (i.e. the rich get richer), and those without clout are left behind. Second: power justifies itself. Much of what we assume about who wields power is actually driven by narratives and storytelling we’ve all agreed to be true. Finally: power is infinite. And because power is infinite, it can be generated, out of thin air if need be, by collective organizing.

Liu’s model gives clear steps to shifting power structures. If power is constantly self-justifying, and you need to break a false narrative about who wields it, you have to change the story. If power is infinite, but current power structures are imbalanced, you have to change the equation. If power compounds upon itself, and you want expand who has direct access to it, you have to change the game. These three simple ideas can help us frame a theory of change for the arts and culture sector in America, specifically with regard to racial equity and inclusion.

Throughout this Blog Salon, you’ve heard testimony from arts leaders across the country: creatives working in street symphonies and theater companies in LA; administrators building community practices in Florida and Boston; artists and curators invested in equity work from Portland to Washington, DC, and all points in between. By using this Blog Salon as a platform, the ELC is combating the dominant narrative that power in the arts exists only in the hands of a historically white, historically male, historically wealthy minority. We’re collectively organizing our experiences into a larger tapestry to change the story.

Another intention: all of this year’s contributors identify as People of Color (POC). By centering experiences of POC who are artists, administrators, and experts, we’re attempting to course-correct decades of exclusion, disenfranchisement, and marginalization our communities have experienced working in the arts. Think of all the panel discussions, think pieces, and critical essays that have centered the white cis-male experience without an eye towards intersectional identities. Think of all the stories that were silenced. In order to counterbalance this legacy, we’re tipping the scales in our favor and changing the equation.

Working backwards, I believe that changing the story and changing the equation are the only real ways to change the game. The arts cannot truly embrace equity and inclusion until we confront the roots of a deeply supremacist, deeply racist, deeply exclusionary system. Until then, as we sow, so shall we reap.

Change may seem hard, in part, because we assume change must be gradual. But what if change, real systemic change, depended on robust and direct action? As a person of color working in the American Theatre, I fight for a future that dismantles white supremacy. I want more POC in executive leadership and on our boards. I want more POC as administrators, directors, designers, and playwrights. I want entire theater seasons featuring POC/Female/Queer writers (with a specific focus on intersectionality). I want audiences completely full of POCs, authentically engaged with The Work. I want it to feel like church. And I want us to see that focusing on POC/intersectional voices does not compromise artistic quality or financial security.

I don’t just want to diversify the arts. I want to Blacken them. To Color them like the world is colored. To intentionally Queer them. And I want it to happen NOW. TODAY.

This isn’t some abstract, far off, “I believe the children are our future” type of dream. There are real, tangible, immediate steps we can take to deeply interrogate and radically shift the status quo. Imagine if a major regional theater company programmed an entire season of POC voices with nary a dead white man in sight? What if an entire city committed to producing a festival of Voices of Color in the same way Washington, DC did for female-identified playwrights during the Women’s Voices Theater Festival? What if every playwright adopted an Inclusion Rider mandating their creative teams include POC/Queer designers? What if every casting director agreed to call POC for every racially non-specific role—and even those that are typified as “white/American”— rather than assuming whiteness as a default? What if funders mandated that their grants only go to organizations that have completed anti-racism training (like this one from the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond)? I could go on and on; start to pull at the threads and our assumptions and biases begin to unravel with shocking speed.

I want to interrogate our assumptions around white supremacy as completely and globally as I can, in unison with all my brothers and sisters who have been historically marginalized in the arts. The urgency is real. We need to represent, and overrepresent, to change the game.

With these ideas in hand, the Emerging Leaders Council has moved our conversation about “power” and “change” out of a vacuum and into our community. So, what is your power to create change through the arts? How can you add your voice to our tapestry, tip the scales towards justice and inclusion, and help us change the game once and for all? I guarantee you: asking the question openly and thoughtfully is half the battle.

The blog salon “Our Power to Create Change Through the Arts” is presented by the Seattle University, College Arts and Sciences.

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