Robyne Walker Murphy

Is Your House In Order?

Posted by Robyne Walker Murphy, Apr 08, 2016 0 comments

Robyne Walker Murphy

I love Viola Davis for obvious reasons, but I’ll name some: she’s a brilliant, passionate actor who has used her platform to advocate for equal opportunities for artist of color. She gained even MORE of my love for what she said after winning the SAG Award this year:

Diversity is not a trending topic.

It’s really not. Diversity is not something that you prioritize because it’s the new buzzword. You know the others: inclusion, access, equity, etc. All of these words are wonderful and important when they are imbued with genuine action behind them. I was excited when many foundations began having the conversation on diversity in the arts. Some organizations followed suit. But, people of color have always been aware of this problem. It’s a part of privilege that folks are just coming around to this issue. Did they just look up one day and discover 78% of art managers are white? are white? I suspect not. In a “trending topic” culture we could “move on” from diversity when it’s time is gone. 

How can organizations authentically address issues of equality and racial justice in a manner that will have lasting effects?

Many organizations that are new to this way of working want to jump right in! How can we better engage the community? How can get more students of color in our orchestra, choir, music school, community center, etc. But, few ask themselves: What activities, people, spaces would invite folks to come and stay? How do we put marginalized people at the center? What does authentic action look like? Do we have our “house” in order?  ?

So, what do organizations need to do to get their “houses” in order? Here are some suggestions:

Let’s begin with a baseline understanding:

Everyone Has A Culture

I ask that you hold this understanding in your mind and heart: You are not “gifting” people with “culture”. You are not introducing people to “the arts”. People practice “the arts” all the time. Now, if you want to get technical and say that you are exposing them to “formal” training, then, OK.  But, informal arts education happens all the time and everywhere. As a New Yorker, I am constantly exposed to the brilliance of young people of color in the informal art setting: The New York City Transit System. I get excited when I hear the “call and response” phrase, “What time is it?  SHOWTIME!!” These young people are flipping, rolling, swinging, and moving swiftly through space and time on a moving train. This takes an incredible amount of rigor, practice, creativity and critical thinking. Often you can hear them give each other instant critical feedback after the performance, “You didn’t do the turn quick enough”, “Your pole swing was too low”, “More energy!’ It’s all I can do to not stand up and exclaim to my fellow passengers, “Do you understand how complicated and beautiful that was?” 

I say all of this to say, that, yes, your arts program provides many things, but these young people are coming to you with their own culture and relationship to the arts and artmaking. How can you build off of it as well as introduce them to new things? Dr. Bettina Love, Nasir Jones Fellow at Harvard, talked about this brilliantly in her keynote at this year’s New York Collective of Radical Educator's Conference.

Ask “Why?”

Why is this initiative important to your organization’s mission? I (Robyne) could come up with a million reasons, but it is important for you and your staff to be able to articulate it for yourselves.  Why is this important beyond “the moment”?

Anti-Racism Training

Stop!  Do not pass “GO”!  Get some anti-racism/anti-oppression training for staff and board. Hire professional anti-racism/anti oppression trainers. Microaggressions are real and you may be committing a few in your language and actions. Shout out to my dear friend and colleague, Ama Codjoe, Director of the DreamYard Art Center, for hipping me to this great resource on microaggressions in everyday life. Microaggressions are “subtle insults” aimed at people of color “automatically and unconsciously”. One way I have seen this show up in conversations in our field when people say they would so excited to diversify their program, but they are concerned with their ability to maintain a commitment to  how they can still have “high quality” word. I immediately am struck by this sentiment. First I think, “Did they just say that out loud?” And then I wonder why it never occurred to the speaker that they are insinuating that the presence of students of color equals sacrificing quality. 

Please, do not expect the people of color in your organization to educate you on race. Do not assume that they can provide you with a reading list of important texts. Some may want to, but don’t make that assumption. The people of color in your organization should be focused on participating in these trainings. We all have things to work through in this thorny road to racial justice. Give them space to do their work.

This is a journey. You will never “arrive” and be “done”. Personally, I have done 2 cycles on ant-racist training and I continue to learn new understandings that shift my thinking. If you are really committed, what you learn from these trainings should change the entire fabric of your organization.

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