[This essay is also posted on the Americans for the Arts blog, ARTSblog ]
There’s a line in Alfred Uhry’s play Driving Miss Daisy that has stuck with me for the last 30 years. In response to a well-meaning, but misguided (and forgotten) comment by Daisy, an elderly, White, Jewish, southern widow, to Hoke, her equally elderly Black chauffeur, Hoke replies, “How do you know what I see unless you can look out of my eyes.” I heard the play at least 50 times over several years serving as its associate lighting designer on numerous companies but that is the only line I remember today. I remember it because it is foundational to the development of my personal ethic of cultural equity. In one way or another, Hoke’s reminder that we all have unique, individual, and valuable perspectives formed by unique, individual, and valuable lives informs the way I interact with students, colleagues, board members, artists, neighbors, and all the other people with whom I interact who neither look like me nor believe what I believe.
“How do you know what I see unless you can look out of my eyes” were the words that sprang to mind unbidden when I was invited by AFTA vice president Clay Lord to comment on AFTA’s new Cultural Equity Statement and again a week later when I read about egregious statements made by the (now former) executive director of the National Association for Music Education. But an individual ethos can only go so far. We need to go up a level to organizations if we want to in turn change the system, which seems to be what AFTA and, previously, Grantmakers in the Arts, are trying to do in their public expressions of equity and inclusion policies. The GIA statement acknowledges a need to shift perspective: “Recommended solutions of the past, which have focused on diversity rather than structural inequities, have not resulted in successful outcomes in equitable inclusion and/or grantmaking.” The AFTA statement goes even further: “In the United States, there are systems of power that grant privilege and access unequally such that inequity and injustice result, and that must be continuously addressed and changed.” How, then, can we change the structures that undergird the system?
I don’t have the answer – or any answers. No one individual person can. It is only by listening inclusively and equitably to multiple diverse voices that answers can begin to surface. One voice that I “listened” to recently was Carlton Turner’s. His description of the setting for an arts leadership workshop as “a sterile windowless classroom listening to much older professors that don’t look like me lecture on business strategies, market segmentation and innovation” made me sit straight up and shout to myself “THAT’S ME AND I’M DOING EVERYTHING WRONG!” While in retrospect I understand that I’m not doing everything wrong, I can do much much better at executing the three principles Turner avows:
- Be aware of and acknowledge local cultural practices.
- Validate leaders who are responsible and accountable to their communities.
- Build coalitions by actively breaking down racial, ethnic, geographic, religious, and class barriers that separate communities experiencing the same struggles. [emphasis mine]
And, if I can do better, each individual in the arts ecosystem can also do better. That’s how change happens: each individual doing better to affect change in each organization to shift the way the whole system operates. For nonprofit organizations, that change has to happen at the board level, the seat of organizational power, with individual members whose perspectives reflect the rich diversity of our world. Actively break down barriers: get rid of give/get requirements; actively recruit underrepresented board members along the dimensions not only of ethnicity but also socio-economic and ability status; involve the audience/community in programming decisions (or at least dialogue); go out and meet the people your organization serves one-on-one in their own neighborhoods; hire people whose backgrounds are different than your own; find alternative structures for including all voices; and keep questioning when and why privilege is affecting equity. I can’t see out of Hoke’s eyes, but I can help make a place for him at the board meeting so he has a voice there.