Is Everyone in the Room?

I learned via twitter of a troubling occurrence at the recent TCG conference in San Diego. Rather than recount any details of it here, I point you to this piece by Guillermo Aviles-Rodriguez, and also to the comments that follow it. The crux of the situation described there seems to hinge around the dis-invitation of one group from an ethnically self-identified affinity group. The episode reminded me of an important takeaway from a leadership institute I attended years ago: “The right to aggregate does not imply the right to segregate.” So, yes, people who identify as [fill in the appropriate attribute] can and should declare their commonalities, but should not do so in a way the excludes those who might not be defined by those in the group as being a part of it. After all, if we self-identify, who is someone to tell me I’m not part of your group?

Artistic_representation_of_human_ageLearning of the TCG event came on the heels of my participation in an “Imagining Phoenix” session of the “United States Department of Arts and Culture.” [1] As a member of the Phoenix arts community and a believer in the arts as a catalyst for positive change, I was excited to be a part of this event. Looking around the circle of about 40 people, I couldn’t help but notice the observable demographics of the group – there was one African-American man; a few African-American or multiracial women; one man over 50; one or maybe two women in that over 50 group; there was nobody observably Asian; there was nobody in the circle under 18. Asked to write the one thing we’d like to see in Phoenix in 2034, the African-American man left the page blank. As we went around the room, he explained that he left it blank because he didn’t see anyone who looked like him in the room so wasn’t sure that he would be here to see 2034. I realized during a group improv activity that the future of Phoenix had been imagined for people who were like the people in the room: 25-35, predominantly White, and connected with the arts in some way. When it was my turn (and I happened to be the last in the circle), the circle improv concluded, “I woke up to realize that there was nobody living in this future Phoenix who is over the age of 65.” The ideas that people expressed were energizing and appropriate for who they are, but they were exclusive to them. They were designing a future Phoenix for who they are and who they are now, bringing home to me once again the importance of having diverse voices in the room and listening to those voices.

Please don’t get me wrong, the USDAC is doing great things to imagine a more participatory and culturally literate future. My point – and I’ve written about this in relation to board governance – is that when some voices are left out of the room, those in the room may not know what they’re missing.  Had the San Diego “dis-invited” been “re-included,” I can imagine a lively discussion resulting; as it is, we will never know. I don’t always buy in to ASU’s rhetoric 100%, but there is at least one ASU slogan that I can get behind 110%:

We measure our success not by who we exclude, but by who we include.

A note to my regular readers: Creative Infrastructure will be on hiatus until August.

[1] The USDAC is not a federally affiliated agency. It is an act of collective imagination.

[image of human aging from wikicommons, Creative Commons license]

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
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2 Responses to Is Everyone in the Room?

  1. Kara Roschi says:

    Thank you very much for your commentary, Linda. This has become a central concern of mine around this/these gatherings. It wasn’t apparent to me until I was in the room who the call to attend reached (or didn’t reach); I have a meeting on Saturday morning to specifically address this issue. As a creative space facilitator (with USDAC, with my business, and with my arts practice), I’m using this as a wake-up call to learn more about *how* to get these types of calls out to the WHOLE community, a community full of observable and non-observable diversity, rather than relying on general press releases. I hadn’t realized what a failure of reach/appeal the coverage of this event and its promotion suffered, and I’m actively seeking to rectify this on the local level, and the national one. At Saturday night’s first meeting, this exact issue was hopefully obvious to all of us in attendance– and I don’t think that this lesson could’ve been driven home in any more of an effective way than it was two nights ago. Needless to say, I’m very much looking forward to my upcoming meetings on this topic, to identify every roadblock to diversity in that first meeting, and to learning methodologies to engage EVERYONE in the community so that the next circles hear from more disparate voices. And I will say that, in hindsight, without now the performance pressure of ‘orchestrating the plan’, I wish I’d had the courage to derail the evening there at that solitary black man’s blank card, and have the conversation that needed to be had. Thank you again for your perspective, and for sharing in this dialogue.

    • lindaessig says:

      Kara – Thank you for the thoughtful response and for the work you are doing! I’m happy to discuss strategies and techniques off line. Keep up the good (and hard) work!

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