Digging In: Cultivating Equity through Personal Responsibility

Posted by Ms. Pam Korza, Aug 01, 2016 0 comments

It’s gardening season. Everywhere, people are making beauty and growing nourishing food to grace the summer table. Never much of a gardener myself, I stand back and admire the results, not to forget the toil involved. It’s a lot of effort to grow things, sometimes only to see weeds or winds, heat or hail, or just plain neglect set the whole thing back. And…you have to get your hands dirty. 

I believe the heart of this work begins with the individual,
our experiences, stories, doubt, ideas.
Systems don’t change themselves.

As a white co-director of Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy program, I’ve been ultra-conscious of my whiteness. While our program has worked diligently over the years to engage artists and cultural leaders of color as advisors, contractors, and participants in every effort, I have had many moments of doubt and learning in public (sometimes hard learning) about what it takes to make equity operative. And what it means to be a white person who can’t ever understand from experience the inequities of people of color, people with disabilities, people who are LGBTQ, or people who are economically disadvantaged.

So I was relieved and excited when Americans for the Arts engaged board and staff plus hundreds in the field to articulate a cultural equity statement. The statement will provide a foundation to guide an internal process of examining our own policies, practices, and ways of working together as well as help us understand how we can better support our field as others move to do the same. I expect it will also deepen my understanding for Animating Democracy’s own work and my role in it.

An organization is made up of human beings, and at our recent full-staff retreat on Practicing Equity and Inclusion, I was most struck by the spectrum of individual realities present in the room; such diverse experiences and struggles around the topic. I was at once chastened and bolstered by Americans for the Arts board member Margie Reese’s reckoning with whether to commit her leadership to our equity efforts. She described, without mincing words, her exhaustion as a person of color carrying the burden of advancing diversity and equity in many contexts. I’m grateful she decided to stick with it and us. I was humbled by many young staff whose courage, conviction, and critical analysis got us to think about the blind spots, to name things, to speak to the tensions. These conversations reinforced my unearned privilege, as did the exercise to create a personal identity pinwheel. Mine, no real surprise, starkly visualized seven of eight privileged social locations that I benefit from.

As fundamental an exercise as it was, I appreciated digging together into a glossary for anti-biased language. Doing so opened up important discussion about white fragility and the changing social meaning of minority, as white people in the near future become the minority. I wondered if society will maintain the term minority in describing white Euro-Americans and what would be the implications of that. 

While some folks in the room were eager to get to Americans for the Arts’ institutional concerns and steps, I believe the heart of this work begins with the individual, our experiences, stories, doubts, ideas. Systems don’t change themselves. Equity can’t happen without commitment from the individuals who comprise organizations, communities, and society and understanding where each other is coming from. 

At our retreat, we began to scratch the topsoil to assess how we can grow and sustain a healthy internal culture of equity at Americans for the Arts. We have to dig deeper still. This retreat, a first step for us as a full staff, laid bare my own limited personal efforts. Unlike my reluctant gardener self, I can’t stand back and admire the work of others. The responsibility is with me as a white ally to engage in the toil and occasional setbacks for equity. I have to dig deep and be willing to let the soil get under my nails.  

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