Why Equity Matters: New Ideas and Action Steps

Judi Jennings, Angelique Power, F. Javier Torres, and Holly Sidford

A new level of debate about equity began when the National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) released its report Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change: High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy, by Holly Sidford, at the October 2011 GIA conference in San Francisco. Many philanthropists and practitioners spoke out strongly, both for and against the report’s argument that arts and culture funding is not keeping pace with changes in demographics, aesthetics, civic participation, education, and economic development. Since then, new writings and learning experiences, some of which are highlighted later in this article, as well as activities on local, regional, and national levels, have raised further questions about equity:

  • Is equity about access, outreach, and distribution of philanthropic funds?
  • Or is it about the essential roles that art and culture play in public life and social well-being?
  • How does equity in arts and cultural funding relate to racial and ethnic equity?
  • What about equity in arts and culturally based economic development?

The four of us offer information and varied perspectives about what equity means to us and to our work. We include positive pathways for advancing equity in workplaces, philanthropic guidelines, and practices throughout the field. By reviewing important recent learning experiences and raising hard questions, we aim to inspire further discussion and actions about why advancing equity matters.

In December 2011, two months after the report appeared, Grantmakers in the Arts expanded the conversation by hosting an important Online Forum on Equity in Arts Funding. More than twenty bloggers contributed ideas, questions, and analytical comments. Justin Laing, arts and culture program officer at the Heinz Endowments, posed “the next question: What broad changes do ‘marginalized communities’ want to see for themselves?” Maria-Rosario Jackson, then senior research associate at the Urban Institute, described the importance of “cultural kitchens,” diverse spaces and organizations that nurture communities and help create a more just society. Assessing the range and depth of entries like these, Bill Cleveland of the Center for the Study of Art and Community concluded, “I’m thinking that we all have a lot to learn.”

In the spirit of continued learning and peer exchanges, a multi-voice article in the GIA Reader (Winter 2012) titled “Advancing Equity in Arts and Cultural Grantmaking” featured perspectives from five funders (www.giarts.org/article/advancing-equity-arts-and-cultural-grantmaking). John McGuirk, director of the Performing Arts Program at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, showed how “the new energy and commitment to this topic are revealing successful practices and new ideas to minimize disparities in accessible and relevant arts opportunities for all Americans.” Edwin Torres, associate director for the New York City Fund at the Rockefeller Foundation, noted that much arts and culture-based economic development is focused on increasing tourism. Yet, “Tourist dollars often don’t reach low-income areas,” he pointed out, and can displace “the economically vulnerable.” Carlton Turner, executive director of Alternate ROOTS, called for developing more partnerships among artists, cultural workers, schools, hospitals, and other community organizations to advance cultural equity and promote positive social change. Consuella Brown, then acting president of the Woods Fund of Chicago, argued that integrating arts, culture, and community organizing is “nurturing new avenues of change [and] means that individuals and groups can draw upon community organizing and popular education principles as well as creativity and imagination.”

Equity discussions continued throughout 2012; and when NCRP conducted a poll of its members (funders and nonprofits), it found that more than a thousand people had downloaded the report from its website over the past year. The report is being used as well as talked about: 33 percent of the NCRP survey responders who had read the report said they had used it to make a case to decision makers in their foundations or to inform their grantmaking strategies; 69 percent had shared it with someone at a nonprofit; and 46 percent had shared it with someone at a foundation. Numerous comments suggest that respondents to this survey are using the report in discussions with funders, community and cultural organizations, and community development contexts.

In September 2012, GIA conducted a poll of its members about the cumulative impact of these equity conversations and the new actions they have sparked. Of the 122 GIA members who responded, 63 percent had participated in formally organized conversations about art, social change, and equity in the past year. These conversations took place in organizations as wide ranging as the Aspen Institute, the National Performance Network, the National Arts Marketing Conference, and Sundance, and in locations across the United States and in Durban, South Africa.

The GIA poll results tell a rich story about how arts and cultural philanthropists are thinking and acting in new ways about equity issues. Yet the results also indicate there are still serious questions about whether funding streams can or should change. The survey responses show that:

  • 45.5 percent have changed the way they think about art, social change, and equity in the past year; and
  • 54.5 percent have not changed the way they think about art, social change, and equity. Sample comments include:
  • “We are on the brink of a radical re-making of the cultural sector.”
  • “I have become more skeptical of sweeping claims being made about (1) how little foundations are currently doing, and (2) how much social change can be propelled by the arts.”

New thinking about equity is also leading to new actions, as reported by 42 percent of the respondents. At the same time, a majority, 58 percent, have not changed the way they work because of the study. Although there are still debate and doubts about the concepts and applications of equity in arts and cultural funding, many respondents noted that there are multiple benefits from participating in conversations on equity:

  • “Arts philanthropy seems to be in a new trajectory toward case-making and national visions.”
  • “I’ve participated in more candid conversations among arts philanthropy colleagues. I think dialogue is a good place to start, and people are raising increasingly critical and complex questions.”
  • “I notice the conversation changing. It’s not so much an ‘us vs. them’ issue as ‘we’re all in this all together.’”

The value of respectful debates about equity showed through in several sessions of the 2012 GIA conference in Miami. The four of us all participated in a lively conference session featuring multiple perspectives on equity. During the session, Angelique Power, on the cultural program staff at the Joyce Foundation and a new grantmaker, offered her own experience to illustrate how thinking and acting on equity has broadened and deepened her work over the last year:

For me the best way to begin is with an anecdote. I came to the NCRP report just a few weeks into becoming a grantmaker. Read it on my way down to San Francisco for GIA 2011, in fact, and thought it was a little bit of a no-brainer due to the Joyce Foundation’s funding. We focus on diversifying the arts, and a majority of our portfolio goes to support community-based, “culturally specific” (I’ll explain the quote marks shortly) arts organizations. While I was surprised to learn that 55 percent of the funding out here is going to 2 percent of the arts organizations — specifically the largest ones — I also didn’t really have an issue with this. I have worked in large art organizations, and I am a fan of the symphony, opera, art museums, dance, et cetera.

However, as I sat in GIA sessions and listened to the passionate debate taking place around me, I was stunned. One grantmaker literally shouted, “Death to the S.O.B.s!” (meaning symphonies, operas, and ballets), and my jaw hit the floor. Why are we fighting over pieces of a pie when we should be investing in a bakery? I wondered.

A few months later, a smaller group of funders who all focus on racial equity in the arts met in Pittsburgh. During an exchange where I was musing about the needs of “culturally specific” arts organizations, a colleague challenged me on my usage of “culturally specific.” I was annoyed. Was this the language police showing up? I was embarrassed. Was it out of fashion to reference institutions in this way whose mission revolves around articulating a particular culture and whose leadership represents that ethnicity and whose constituency is predominately of that race? Well, geez.

I pushed back, explaining how these larger art institutions (yes, the S.O.B.s) are not culturally specific. And I fought this notion in that moment because in truth large arts organizations do have people of color as stakeholders, from artists to staff, interns, and board [members]; and oftentimes these folks don’t want to just be seen as tokenized persons of color but as individuals in the art world. But after my protests died down, a light went on and it has been on ever since.

The NCRP report and the resulting conversations have allowed me to shine this new light on how systematized and baked-in inequity is to our systems. It is so well designed, in fact, that it is impossible at times to recognize it. My colleague was, of course, right — and while I have spent my career trying to connect diverse artists and audiences, I had begun to internalize the idea that big museums are better, that Eurocentric culture is “high” culture, and that anything that wasn’t reflective of white culture was the “other.” Even being a proud Black and Jewish woman, I had succumbed to this inaccurate and unspoken narrative. Let’s circle back to my above argument: A culturally specific organization is one whose mission revolves around articulating a particular culture and whose leadership represents that ethnicity and whose constituency is predominately of that race. Well then, yes, it isn’t the norm — it is one culture that is mostly represented in our large anchor institutions.

With the NCRP report as wind at my back, I’ve gone down the rabbit hole examining my practice and funding. With full support of my foundation’s staff and board, we in fact implemented a major change to our storied Joyce Award program. This program awards $50,000 to an arts organization to commission new work from artists of color. Beginning in 2013, we will award projects from any nonprofit organizations, not solely art institutions. This signals our commitment to honor artists of color where they are actively working and also makes more community-based arts organizations the arbiters of artistic merit — not just curators and artistic directors who are emerging from within this highly designed system.

There is much more to explore and discuss, but for now cultural pluralism begins with intentionality around funding to ensure we are not underscoring the issues we are committed to solving.

F. Javier Torres, a senior program officer at the Boston Foundation, offered his perspectives and experiences at the Miami conference session:

In the fall of 2011, I attended my first GIA conference. I traveled to San Francisco with tremendous enthusiasm, having planned the panels I would attend, reached out to leaders I admired, and pored through the NCRP report. Little did I know that the conversations at that conference would provide a series of new questions that supported increased accountability in my work.

Upon returning to my foundation and staying in touch with others across the country that are equally if not more passionate about justice work, I began to perceive a pattern in the challenges many of us face when implementing new strategies. This pattern, for me, is summed up by a single question, a question that I have asked myself repeatedly: Is equity the goal?

Most philanthropic institutions have an ambitious, empowerment-focused mission. Strategies are carefully supported with data and approaches and benchmarks support the ability to drive toward measurable impact. I have often found clearly articulated “problems” without explicit goals and approaches that can contribute to equity through the use of a systemic analysis.

I often ask: Am I working in a way that I can put me out of the job? As I approach my work, and I think about countless programs that seek to provide “access,” “education,” “outreach,” and “sustainability,” I restate a quote from a training I once attended: “If my work isn’t putting me ‘out of work’ because I have contributed to the building of systems and structures that support artists and residents in living more equitable lives, then am I only contributing to making people more comfortable with, and in, poverty?”

My individual commitment has been to create and maintain grantmaking programs, convenings, and strategic community partnerships that build two-way accountability in my role as a grantmaker. This includes informing a broader community about what it means to be a grantmaker, how decisions are made, and the challenges of making decisions and how limited resources are distributed. As professionals working in philanthropy, we are accountable to our employers. We represent their great vision, culture, and ambitious goals for the sector and individuals we seek to support.

We also are asked to represent an entire sector when advocating for resources within our institution. Do the artists, audiences, students, and others for whom I speak have mechanisms to hold me accountable if they are unhappy with how I represent them? I was not elected to my position; nonetheless I am asked to represent a large population with diverse needs, wants, and perspectives on a daily basis.

Thanks to the great leadership of my foundation’s staff and board, we have implemented a series of programs that will support us in answering some of these challenging questions. Two of these initiatives I highlight here:

In the summer of 2012, thanks to the generous support of ArtPlace America and the Kresge Foundation, the Boston Foundation successfully launched a cultural economic development pilot. In Upham’s Corner (one of the many “village” communities in a [Boston] neighborhood called Dorchester), we have committed to investing more than half a million dollars over the course of eighteen months to support creative placemaking activities. As a foundation, we knew the neighborhood was ripe for this type of investment, and we also knew that the leaders best prepared to develop a plan and distribute resources for lasting impact were the residents, artists, and businesses that already lived there. We supported the creation of a resident-led committee that has guided the development of an eighteen-month plan that builds the infrastructure for long-term cultural economic development through an asset-based approach. This work seeks to build the local assets of the existing community over time to minimize displacement. Over the last six months, residents, business owners, and volunteers have learned what it means to be a grantmaker, how to pick partners, how to leverage relationships, and the power of convening groups of passionate community members.

Just this fall, my foundation released a small request for proposals (RFP) called Expressing Boston. Following in the footsteps of the Knight Foundation’s great “Random Acts of Culture,” Expressing Boston seeks to elevate the more than 140 cultures/nations represented in Boston residents. The program will provide small grants, $2,500 at most, for what we are calling “cultural flash mobs.” By translating the RFP and accepting proposals in the seven most frequently spoken languages across the city, this process has opened the door for us to build relationships with the cultural practitioners typically disengaged from our processes. It has built a movement of artists now interested in learning more about all that the foundation has to offer, how they can organize to support our efforts. They have joined the fleet of individuals and organizations that not only inform my practice but also hold me accountable to my community in my work.

So in the last year, we have come a long way as a field of funders trying to understand and move toward greater equity. Yet, as Bill Cleveland noted, we still have a lot to learn. An online discussion hosted by GIA’s Indigenous Resource Network is an important case in point. In it, Justin Huenemann, program officer of the Northwest Area Foundation, has pointed out that “in 2009, 1,400 foundations were surveyed by the Foundation Center regarding their giving to Native causes and people. Incredibly, 1,149 of these foundations gave zero grants to Native causes and people.” That’s the bad news. The good news is that in 2012 the Northwest Area Foundation took a big step toward addressing this inequity by dedicating 40 percent of its overall grant dollars to programs to support poverty reduction and prosperity building among Native Americans.

But those who want to advance equity have even more to do.

The 122 GIA members who responded to the equity poll provided some great suggestions for what is needed in the way of research and knowledge building to understand and address issues of equity and social change:

  • “More information from ethnic communities rather than about ethnic communities would be helpful.”
  • “Develop a language for us to discuss this. Current words are limited and not quite right for the nuances and realities of the work.”
  • “More information on how to evaluate/understand the relationship between art and social change movement building, and how to show its contribution would help.”
  • “How do we make the link between culture and equity clear for skeptics and make an effective case?”

Some of the ideas that emerged from the GIA conference session would propel action forward:

  • Document and share the mistakes! We all learn more from our failures than from our successes.
  • Document and disseminate examples of communities working together, funders working together to achieve equity goals.
  • Do a power analysis session at the next GIA conference, or through a webinar; teach this tool to funders and arts groups alike.
  • Publicize examples of effective capacity building.
  • Share more information about what is going on in small and mid-sized organizations, especially in communities of color — the realities of their lives/capacities, basic survival.
  • Look at models from other fields, such as health care or ecosystem ecology.

The last point directing attention to cross-sector work seems especially pertinent given the fact that, as noted in the NCRP report, “every year, approximately 11 percent of foundation giving — about $2.3 billion in 2009 — is awarded to nonprofit arts and cultural institutions.” That means 89 percent of foundation giving is not going to arts and cultural organizations. Given the unique power of art and culture to create new ways of looking at the world and inspire action for social change, shouldn’t we reach out to colleagues and allies in education, community building, and economic development who share our goals and would welcome collaboration?

We hope that many more of our colleagues in arts and culture philanthropy and other fields will want to join this important conversation and help develop the new thinking and action necessary for creating greater equity and a better world. We know that many members of the GIA community have questions, examples, stories, and fears that would benefit others if shared and discussed. We are especially concerned about the centrality of racial and cultural equity as we go boldly forward toward a vision of arts and social justice philanthropy that engages the widest possible range of creators and participants. You can join this national conversation by talking to a colleague in your office, organizing a discussion in your community, or writing an article or blog for widespread distribution. Speaking out and taking action about equity are contributing to the vitality of our field of philanthropy and to a greater understanding of the powerful relationships among art, culture, and social change.