For Funders: Racial Equity Challenges and Solutions Are Local

Janet Brown

I am inspired by the article in this 2016 fall issue of the Reader by Minnesota arts funders who for several years have been on a quest to further racial equity in arts philanthropy in their communities. Grantmakers in the Arts began our work in racial equity in 2012, and like this group, we slowly built our vocabulary, our understanding, and our vision for action. Minnesotans are doing the same.

I have become very aware that unlike GIA’s work in capitalization for arts nonprofits, arts education, and support for individual artists, racial equity in arts philanthropy is a multilayered issue with confusing vocabulary and few resources available for institutional instruction. What instruction we have is often discounted by those in power, mostly out of the implicit bias that many white folks carry with them from birth. Even this idea of implicit bias and white privilege is controversial with many liberal whites as they consider their “understanding” of how and why certain populations have not kept pace with white Americans and the institutions that they typically represent.

Add to this complexity the built-in power dynamic of philanthropy and grantmaking. And wouldn’t it just be easier to ignore the whole thing and just keep making grants the way we always have in the past? Maybe for some people, but not for this group in Minnesota.

As GIA recommends, they found each other as allies wanting to discuss the issue of racial equity in their grantmaking more deeply and with more specificity to their “place.” They began by forming relationships and sharing their own insecurities about navigating racial tensions. They were people of various ethnic heritages. They began by simply reading books, essays, and articles that sparked conversation. And they were people who weren’t waiting for someone to come give them the Ten Top Philanthropic Solutions to Racial Equity in Your Town.

I believe that all communities are self-determining, that the sustainable answers to collective problems come from the people who live in a place together, people who have a commitment and a stake in the outcome. Resources from outside are often helpful, but solutions from outside seldom stick. The Minnesota group has become a real community of practice in their attempt to understand and address inequities in their own grantmaking. They can now assess how past funding behaviors have furthered lopsided growth, favoring organizations performing and supporting primarily European art forms by white artists for white audiences.

Once the historic context is in place and we understand what has created the inequities, GIA hopes members will resolve to give African, Latino(a), Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA) art forms, artists, and arts organizations the extra support they need to be able to compete with long-standing, financially supported organizations. This takes intentionality and courage. This takes analysis and agreement. This takes not only money but time, education, and human resources. This takes people coming together and patiently working it out until they find a pathway to their goal.

And in that process, individuals learn and institutions are changed.