The Uncomfortable Truth
Posted by Apr 21, 2021 0 comments
One of my favorite books is “Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own” by Eddie Glaude Jr., a professor of African American Studies at Princeton University.
The first chapter of the book is titled “The Lie.” In it, Glaude explains:
“the lie is more properly several sets of lies with a single purpose; a ‘value gap’ of an idea that in America white lives have always mattered more than the lives of others, then the lie is a broad and powerful architecture of false assumptions by which the value gap is maintained. These narrative assumptions that support the everyday order of American life, which means we breathe them like air. We count them as truths. We absorb them into our character.”
I see the “the lie” in action every day, even in the arts and cultural sector.
The Arts & Science Council (ASC), the local arts agency for Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina, was caught up in “the lie” for nearly 60 years and engaged in practices that led to inequitable funding to organizations and creative individuals.
In June 2019, ASC’s Board of Directors approved a Cultural Equity statement. It creates a framework to set organizational policies and practices and offers external visibility for the organization’s commitment to cultural equity. It also guides ASC’s decision to cap operating support grants for large institutions to fund small and mid-sized organizations so they can build their capacity and thrive.
The board agreed that if it is committed to doing this work, ASC must report to the community on its progress.
In the summer of 2020, I led ASC’s internal Cultural Equity workgroup in the creation of ASC’s inaugural Cultural Equity report. Our intention and commitment were to tell the truth and acknowledge ASC’s historical failure in cultivating an equitable and inclusive cultural community; publicly assess the steps ASC has taken to dismantle inequitable systems and policies within ASC; and outline measurable actions we are undertaking to advance our values of cultural equity. Three ASC Board members, including the chair, also were involved in creating the report.
“History is not a GPS, but a diagnostic guide.” —Jon Meacham
It was important to the team to not focus the report on the “new and shiny” things ASC has been doing over the past eight years in the equity space. We wanted to share, as in the words of author, songwriter, and educator Alice Randall, “the untold story, the rest of the story, the suppressed story.”
Therefore, we went back to 1958, the year ASC was founded. We poured through data and documents that showed the steps and missteps of the organization. One example was firing its majority white board that represented affluent zip codes in 1992 to become more diverse, and sliding back to an all-white board. We also learned which organizations benefited most from ASC’s practice of inequities from 1991-2020.
It was important that ASC told its own story and not that of other organizations. Many are engaged in their own review of past practices and discussing how their organization should address longstanding inequities.
The report was not done in a vacuum. Experts in the history, equity, cultural transformation, philanthropy, and public relations space served as external readers. Their feedback was valuable.
When the report was published on February 24, 2021, it felt liberating.
“Whitewashing” the report
While I knew the facts in the report were startling, I never thought I would experience so intimately the uncomfortableness, the defensiveness, and the scaredness of white people reacting to the unvarnished truth.
I don’t know which upset people more—the words “white, Western, Eurocentric” to describe legacy organizations as they were when ASC was founded, or a visual showing how, from 1991 to 2020 and due to ASC’s inequitable grant making practices, nine institutions each received more in operating support than all ALAANA (African, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Native American) organizations combined.
One president of a legacy organization told me, “I’m all for changing inequities as it relates to access,” but when I asked their thoughts about changing inequities related to funding, I was met with a long pause. If ASC wants its funding to go further, I was told, it should invest more in legacy organizations with existing infrastructure instead of grassroots organizations.
This is “the lie” at work. Think about what was said through the lens of equity. Equity is about everyone having the resources they need to move along together.
Another legacy organization wrote a Letter to the Editor. Some asked why I did not include the work they are doing and why they could not have been readers of the report and provide feedback. I was accused of not being inclusive.
I kept thinking, “You are not reading the report. You are uncomfortable with the truth and being defensive.”
What I know for sure, based on their behavior and reactions, is they would have tried to whitewash the truth for their comfort.
I, nor the team, was not going to let that happen.
There is great fear with change and the truth, especially playing out in the public realm. As a Black woman leading a legacy organization, I know I am seen as the manifestation of that fear. They would not have felt as threatened by my white male predecessor. He would be met with “What are you doing? Think of the financial repercussions of this!”
I know because he told me.
“Beyond the Sound Bites”
ASC is preparing to have a series of Community Listening Sessions about the equity report called “Beyond the Sound Bites.” We are using that title because people are hanging on to sound bites like “8, white, Western, Eurocentric” and our apology in the Introduction section of the report, and are not reading the report. I look forward to sharing our learnings from those sessions in another blog post on this topic.