How to Be (or be an asset to) an Emerging Arts Leader of Color

Posted by Dr. Brea M. Heidelberg, Apr 26, 2016 1 comment

You have to be resilient to be in arts management. Period. This required resilience goes double for emerging arts leaders of color and the people who want to see them do well. As an educator and consultant, I am sometimes asked to speak about diversity in our field. After these talks I hear from two types of people: arts administrators of color who are on the spectrum of “I know, right?” to “let’s laugh together about this ridiculous thing that happened to me–or else I’ll cry” (I buy the latter drinks, when possible) AND I hear from potential allies who want to know how to be helpful.

What follows are a smattering of things that I have said to both groups–as the discussion for one group is usually an inverse image of the discussion with the other. I offer these lessons I have learned (usually, the hard way) as fodder for further discussion, and a moment for us to strategize before we go back out into the fray.

Note: I am going to stick with the term “potential ally” as I don’t have the space to address people with nefarious intent or who are just plain lazy about equity–I simply cannot be bothered right now. Let us all give them a collective side eye and move on.

Arts Administrators of Color: Let people know when they aren’t being helpful.

I know it’s hard to call people out–but think about this: what if they don’t know that their statements or actions didn’t really do anything? Have you ever worn one of you best outfits only to get home and realize that you had toilet paper on your shoe or your underwear was showing? We must let potential allies know when they have lipstick on their teeth. It doesn’t have to be confrontational–just a gentle “hey, you know what would have been more helpful. . .?”

Potential Allies: Do not expect credit for things that aren’t actually helpful.

You shouldn’t expect treats for doing the bare minimum toward being inclusive. My best/least favorite example: the person that stands up in the middle of a conversation about diversity and equity and comments on the lack of diversity currently in the room. Yes, thank you. We noticed–and now everyone is looking at me awkwardly (as one of the few people of color in the room). You will not be getting treats for counting–that ended in kindergarten.

Arts Administrators of Color: Be strategic about how you navigate privilege

There will be times where you are placed in situations where a clapback is necessary. Sometimes, a well-placed joke will do the trick. Other times, you may need to be quiet–silence is not always a loss, it can also be a strategic tactic. You will need to have a nuanced arsenal if you live in some intersectional spaces such as a woman of color or if you identify as QTPoC. Hone as many skills as possible for navigating the terrain when the privilege of others emerges in potentially harmful ways. This includes self care. Know when you are reaching your limit. You have to protect yourself: mind, body, and spirit, from being so depleted that you cannot do the work you love and advance your career.

Potential Allies: Weaponize your privilege

There will be times when your colleagues and subordinates of color are marginalized, overlooked for promotions and professional development activities, or the victim of daily microaggressions. You can weaponize your privilege to shield arts administrators of color or to push back. This can be as simple as asking someone why they are ignoring your colleague’s emails? Or to gently redirect someone when they are giving you credit for your subordinate’s work. These may seem like small things–but they do a lot toward letting the perpetrator of the microaggression know that you see what they’re doing and you aren’t having it.

It also lets your co-worker of color know that you see what the aggressor is doing and that you aren’t having it. This can go a LONG way toward helping them maintain some sanity. It is hard to operate in isolation and someone else acknowledging what you are experiencing helps you not feel so alone. This is something that can help you retain arts administrators of color as you work together toward changing your organizational culture–especially since speaking up as a marginalized person is often penalized. Don’t get savior complex, though–you are not starring in Dances With Wolves, The Last of the Mohicans, FernGully, Avatar. . . .you get the point.

This also applies to situations where your organization is engaging in tokenism. Tokenism is the poor man’s equity. Being inclusive is an ongoing process that should permeate every facet of your organization’s operations. If you see the organization trying to pass on the lion’s share of the work to one individual, especially an individual of color, it’s time to weaponize your privilege and speak up.

Arts Administrators of Color: You are not Google

Every once in a while, when working in spaces where I am the only or one of a few minorities, I am crowned Queen of the Minorities. There is a parade (of people asking questions about the practices of my race–yes, the entire race), a crown (of hands asking to touch my hair), and a gauntlet of deep and often insightful questions about race relations and the state of Black America. I try to answer some of the questions–but only when the questions emerge organically and not from a place of “I have been waiting for a person of color that I am comfortable around–let me ask you this list of questions I have been collecting since the mid 80s.”

And when I do answer, I make it clear that I am explaining my opinions and thoughts and not those of every person of color that ever lived.

Potential Allies: Do your Googles

Google is a wonderful tool where you can take all of those questions.

Arts Administrators of Color: Develop a Mentorship Plan

Counting on one mentor can be dangerous. Organizations need diverse funding streams, you also need a diverse pool of mentors. There is not going to be one person that meets your needs for professional development, fellowship and commiseration, and a safe space to ask questions about excel, mail merge, or poster design. Identify people that can meet those difference needs, and don't be afraid to walk away from a mentorship relationship that isn’t serving you – as long as you do it gracefully.

Potential Allies: Learn how Cross-Cultural Mentorship Works

There are going to be aspects of mentorship that are universal. All mentees want information, advice, and opportunities to grow. That said, there are particular aspects of cross-cultural mentorship (mentoring someone who does not share the same race/ethnic identity as you) that will be unique. There are a lot of resources to help you–most people just don’t know that this is a thing.

While this last one manifests itself in different ways, the rule is universal:

Never start a sentence with “I know I shouldn’t say this, but. . . .”

If anything in your brain, body, or soul says “maybe you shouldn’t say this aloud in a staff meeting/board meeting/open forum/conference” then DON’T. Once in a while, I hear people use it with a tone that seems to imply “I’m about to be controversial, but I think it’s necessary.” I can assure that never comes off as necessary after you have said whatever comes after the ellipses.

I caution against that particular collection of words because I have never seen this go well. I have seen people of color put themselves at unnecessary risk within their organization with the help of this phrase. I have also seen many a potential ally say something REALLY stupid behind this phrase – and by stupid I mean level 10–it comes out: racist/sexist/ageist/elitist.

Instead, take some time to think and feel. What is it that makes you want to say whatever it is that your brain is telling you not to say? Is your brain screaming “no!” because of what you were going to say? Or is the fear response related to the way in which you were going to say it? Are you agitated? Feeling attacked, angry, or marginalized? Do you perhaps need to take a moment before responding?

Making sure that emerging arts leaders have what they need to succeed is an ongoing concern for the field–especially in small and midsized arts organizations who are catching up to the HR capacity of larger institutions and those from other fields. It is important to remember that, as we are working to make sure that our audiences and board reflect the communities we serve–we shouldn’t forget about extending this work within our own organization. If it’s an uncomfortable process, you’re probably doing it right

This blog is part of the 2016 Emerging Arts Leader Blog Salon. We asked over a dozen emerging leaders to reflect and respond to this year’s Arts Leadership Preconference theme: “Impact Without Burnout: Resilient Arts Leadership from the Inside Out”.

Brea Heidelberg is a member of Americans for the Arts. Learn more about membership.

1 responses for How to Be (or be an asset to) an Emerging Arts Leader of Color


April 26, 2016 at 1:31 pm

Thank you for sharing this, Brea! Oftentimes I bear witness to a conversation from one side or the other of this relationship and they never acknowledge that the output of this effort is a reflection of what both parties put into it. As an EL of color I do not expect others to make it easier for me but I also do not think I need to make it easier for others. 

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