How could they embody the change they wanted to see, not only in the arts world, but also in the world at-large?

Building an inclusive equity framework

By Dia Penning

Over the last 4 months, I have worked with the Co-Directors of EAP to develop a cultural equity statement and framework for the EAP fellowship and the organization.

To really look at how equity or inequity unfolds, you have to examine your relationship to power and history. It is a complex process, which shines a light on all the ways that we seek to push away discomfort and hold onto the areas in which we feel most confident.  Many organizations go through the process of creating an equity framework or statement, though when thinking about the intent of their work and the impact they will have, very few consider what that frame means for the way that they do business every day. This is the space of discomfort, where the hard questions get asked. How does the power of large arts organizations eclipse the questions that small organizations ask about money and access? What role does art history play in recognizing who is considered exemplary, and why? In what ways do producing or curating works that highlight what it is like to LIVE as an artist of color get confused with curating or producing works that are BY artists of color. The Co-Directors took time to look at their own bias and assumptions related to their lived experiences and also to their location in the art landscape of the Bay Area.

When looking into transformation, one must be willing to examine what is failing, both within an organization but also within a field or even a culture. So much work seeks to fix things that are broken without examining why they no longer work or the impact they might have on a larger whole.  They miss how ideas can be tied to beliefs or actions that will never allow the new concepts to flourish. Sometimes it is the language that needs examination, other times relationship constructs or power dynamics; sometimes it is all things at once. With EAP, we dissected every word that we choose, picking apart terms like equity, empowerment, justice and bias. We examined what “marginalized” meant to those at the table, how a diversity in opinion is not an example of marginalization and how centering those that are at the far edges (example: poor, dark-skinned, rural) would help to create a stronger organization. We examined the idea that an organization might meets the needs of all by focusing on the few. Assumptions were questioned and poked at. One that came up often was, what does it really mean to live in the Bay Area? How might our frame of reference be different from other parts of the country and how could we open up our thinking to consider varied points of view? We took time during our sessions to ask hard questions in order to get to a place that felt illuminating for all of us.

Of course, as in any hard conversation, there were disagreements, about terms and theories, but very little question about intent or intended impact. The Co-Directors held that EAP was an inclusive organization with the mission to build alliances. The Co-Director’s central focus, during our meetings, was how to leverage the power of the arts to support the aims of equity and social justice. How could they embody the change they wanted to see, not only in the arts world, but also in the world at-large?  We focused in on the words—assumption, representation and inclusion–how our process of sharing power and questioning could be a model for what EAP has to offer in the world.

Developing new ways of thinking is messy; it takes time and energy.

To embrace the living document of an equity framework takes courage and the ability to recognize that your work is never done. Like investigating bias or privilege, building an organization around equity means having to reintegrate as time passes. It means, that you are part of lived history and you breathe social movements as they happen. For an arts organization this can be difficult, almost impossible.  When the focus needs to be on raising money or getting bodies through the door, focusing on inclusivity can seem distracting. What EAP is committed to doing, is all of it at the same time. The creation of strong programs, a healthy bottom-line AND strong equity commitments. Which means that it will be imperfect, as all things are. And, that they are making the commitment to examine what works and what doesn’t and how to get as many voices at the table to build an arts community that is not only inclusive, but also responsive.

EAP is trying to build a new way of being the world, one that really looks at ideas behind transformation. The current narrative that claims you can create change in ecosystems that are failing, or organizations that no longer serve the communities that they intend to, that you can add to them, and prop them up. In doing that you help the organizations to expand ideas of inclusion and empowerment. Or, you look at models that operate outside of that system, connect with others that seek to create something new. EAP is seeking to do both. By doing both at the same time, it’s more likely that the needs of your constituents get met and at the same time you are setting yourself up to be nimble and collaborative in order to meet the changing landscape of the world.