Getting Beyond Fairness

Posted by Ms. Karen Gahl Mills, May 25, 2016 0 comments

I grew up as a white kid in the middle class—and rather racially homogenous—suburbs.  My father is a minister (as were his father and his grandfather), and the lessons embedded in the biblical teachings of “love thy neighbor” were taken to heart in our house.  My values were shaped to include service, fairness, and the responsibility to help others, particularly those in need.  From an early age, I also was aware of the inequities that existed between races, and I sensed that people of color hadn’t gotten a fair shake.  But I truly believed that, if I loved my neighbor as myself, and if I ensured that my neighbor was given an equal chance to succeed, things would change.

It has only been in the last few years that I have begun to understand how equity—or, more precisely, a lack of it—impacts my work.  I am not proud of the fact that, as recently as this year, I had to be educated on the clear differences between equality and equity.  Well-meaning though I might have been, I was oblivious to what might be obvious: that giving our neighbors the same chance to succeed may not be enough.  If we really want our neighbors to succeed, we need to ensure that our neighbors get what they need to be successful.

Our field is coming around to the same type of awakening.  I applaud Americans for the Arts for deliberately and affirmatively stating what cultural equity means in their work.  We in the arts need to do a better job of connecting with the communities that we serve, and understanding and respecting cultural equity can only help us engage in a more authentic and humble way.  This statement provides all of us with a place to start the dialog and a set of ideas to work from, whether we are on the leading edge of the work or just catching up, as I am.

I imagine that I’m not alone in struggling to move from sympathy and empathy for the cause to actually making change happen.   As the leader of a local arts agency, I will be paying particular attention to how we can use this statement in our own work.  It has already surfaced some questions that I know we will need to address:

  1. As a public grantmaking agency, if we are serious about providing all in our community the tools that they need to succeed in our process, what will have to change that, until now, we have considered bedrock?  Our grant panels?  Our application process?  Our definition of what an arts organization actually is?   What are we currently doing in the name of fairness that is making it difficult for residents of our community to connect with us?
  1. How do we avoid the trap of sticking only to issues of access?  The statement talks about “equal access to a vibrant, creative life,” which is lovely.  And, here in Cleveland, I know that the agencies that we support are absolutely committed to increasing the public’s access to their work.  But how do we address both issues of access—giving everyone more ways to connect to existing cultural institutions—and issues of discovery—expanding our models so that we can discover and support the institutions and people who are already creating a vibrant cultural life for our communities but just doing that work outside of existing power structures? 
  1. If we are going to make change happen, we will need resources (human and financial) to bring the change from thought into action.  Where will those resources come from, and how do we think of finding resources not as a zero-sum game but as a way to grow our overall resource pie?

At Cuyahoga Arts & Culture, with another ten years of dedicated tax support in front of us, we are committing to a new way of operating through our newly-launched organizational planning process.  We need to understand how we can best use our resources to support the cultural life of all in our community, and we will get smarter about our grantmaking through a commitment to ongoing listening to all of our neighbors. 

Starting next month, we will host a series of listening sessions for area residents from all walks of life, to hear their ideas for how the arts can become even more central to the life and well-being of all County residents.  We acknowledge that there are many in the community who may feel excluded from our work, and we will dedicate time and resources to addressing that issue. We are even creating a new position on our small team to help manage this work because we believe it is so fundamental to our future.

We at CAC are committed to the cause of improving cultural equity, and we will use this important statement from Americans for the Arts as a rallying cry to push us from talk into action.  I hope that Americans for the Arts’ work gives you the same inspiration. 

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