What You Gonna Do When the World is on Fire?

Reflecting on: How can funders apply an equity framework in this moment that’s based on need, lack of access to resources, etc.? Is this moment inherently different from responses to previous crises?

Earth Day 2020. I am sheltering in place in Minneapolis, MN, working from home. I have a Zoom meeting coming up on my calendar, but there’s time to squeeze in at least half of the Facebook Live event for Toshi Reagon’s concert version of Octavia E. Butler's Parable of the Sower, produced by New York University Abu Dhabi. Toshi begins softly chanting “What you gonna do? What you gonna do? What you gonna do?” The chanting builds to the song “What You Gonna Do When This World’s On Fire.” A perfect exhortation for this time.

Before COVID-19, I had planned to be in New Orleans on this day with my partner, taking time away to memorialize the one year anniversary of my mom’s death and immerse myself in my community of family, friends, and artists during Jazz Fest. NPR reported that Coronavirus is now responsible for more deaths in Louisiana than when the levees broke after Katrina. I can’t help but think that what the 2005 flood revealed about America’s epic lack of preparedness, government dysfunction, failed leadership, and entrenched racism is mirrored once again in our response to this pandemic — not just for New Orleans, but for the whole country.

What you gonna do?

As the reality of Coronavirus dawned, we as grantmakers collectively and urgently jumped into action to provide emergency support to grantees: sending emergency funding out to artists and arts organizations; changing project support to general operating support; dropping matching requirements; expediting payments; extending deadlines; and shifting timelines for reporting and implementation.

Many of the relief funds being launched are prioritizing support for the communities most impacted by COVID-19, including African, Latina/o/x, Asian, Arab, and Native American (ALAANA), disabled, immigrant, and women-identifying artists, as well as those at high risk, including elderly and immunosuppressed artists. While these measures are providing support for many, many artists and arts organizations, it is important to remember that the majority of philanthropic dollars are not distributed equitably.

My question for grantmakers is: how can we fully build an equity framework into our work, both during these times and beyond?

What you gonna do?

Acknowledge and Validate the Reality of Inequity

Economic disparities, a lack of access to healthcare, housing, and food, and the politics of racism and xenophobia all mean that artists of color, native artists, and immigrant artists — as well as the arts organizations by and for these communities — are facing disproportionately devastating effects from coronavirus, from racist incidents to higher rates of contagion and death.

Racial inequality is rooted in historic and systemic discrimination and further perpetuated by policy. The gaps in resources are not accidental, and are not due to any one individual or organization’s behavior. As our sector responds to unprecedented unemployment and extended closures, it is more vital than ever before that we ground our efforts in equitable racial justice practices. Organizations and artists that have been chronically under-resourced are deeply vulnerable — we need to value them as essential contributors to our cultural landscape.

What you gonna do?

Participatory Decision-Making

Conversations among grantmakers are already moving beyond relief to recovery. We know the pandemic will require long-term investments and new infrastructure from government and philanthropy. We know that the way out of this will require extraordinary measures. We know that there is no “return to normal.” We must engage the people most affected by inequity as decision-makers in our efforts to solve the problems in front of us: Nothing about us, without us, is for us.

Arts leaders of color and Native leaders are speaking directly to concerns and needs across many online platforms. Artist Rania El Mugammar facilitated a Town Hall on Equity & Access in the time of COVID-19 organized by Jennifer Kessler, from International Contemporary Ensemble. She challenged us to confront:

  • The notion of inevitability, that "inevitably" organizations will fold, that we'll run out of money, that some places won't survive.
  • The myth of scarcity, that there isn't enough money to fund innovation, creativity, the arts, and artists.
  • The illusion of objectivity, which discounts the experiences of communities not in the mainstream.

These paralyzing approaches serve to divide and dispirit us. Trust that artists and arts organizations have tools and knowledge — resilience and resourcefulness are standard operating procedures for artists of color. Don’t give in to inevitability, helplessness, and resignation — now is the time to activate, to partner, and to create the world we want to see.

Though not arts specific, the NAACP’s Equity Implications offers a powerful call to action with key considerations and documentation of specific concerns. Deepa Iyer from Solidarity Is and the Building Movement Project recently hosted a webinar with four women of color leaders to hear how COVID-19 affects communities of color and immigrants; to understand how organizations serving these communities are pivoting and what is required from government, policy makers, and philanthropy; and to imagine what a post-COVID-19 society could look like.

What you gonna do?

Amplify the Power of Arts and Artists

Artist Favianna Rodriguez from The Center for Cultural Power eloquently expresses the vital role of artists during this time:

“We live in a contentious period defined by a clash of grand narratives: on the one hand, a narrative of fear and national decline, and on the other, a narrative of hope and national becoming. What is at stake in this current iteration of culture wars are opposing visions that describe how we will learn to—or refuse to—live together. The narrative of fear and national decline is largely perpetuated by think tanks, media conglomerates, corporate interests, and other top-down institutions interested in maintaining their power. But those of us who believe in justice and liberation have just as much ability to impact culture and corresponding social behavior if we turn our attention to it, investing in cultural strategy as a real field. Our nation urgently needs the infrastructure, pedagogy, practices, ideas and frameworks for a sustained and vibrant cultural transformation. Artists and storytellers can lead the way.”

The case-making for the value of arts and culture needs to be centered in racial equity, amplifying the narratives of oppressed communities. Beyond funding, grantmakers can use our non-monetary resources, including networks and social position, to advocate for the leadership of artists and the resources they need to do their work.

What you gonna do?

Engage in Radical Action — No Business as Usual

When I first started work for a foundation (following 25 years of work in non-profit arts), one of the most startling realizations was the complete lack of trust in artists and arts organizations by people working in the field of philanthropy. Equity conversations frequently center on moving from transactional interactions with grantees to relationship-based connections — survival mode requires an accelerated but nevertheless authentic speeding up of trust. There is no time to carefully tread the waters of equity; we need to be fully immersed, all systems go. Our emergency responses — relaxed requirements and expectations, simplified applications, prioritizing people over profit and control of the money — required grantmakers to make the leap of trust. Let us hold onto this beyond this difficult moment and move these practices forward. Let us make radical trust for the artists and arts organizations we serve the new normal.

What you gonna do?

Just before I had to leave Toshi Reagon’s live stream for my Zoom meeting, she and the stellar ensemble of performers started singing “There’s A New World Coming!” a song originally written and recorded by her mother, Bernice Reagon Johnson.

There’s a new world coming!
Everything’s gon' be turning over.
Everything’s gon' be turning over.
Where you gon' be standing when it comes?

A new world is coming. It is hard to know, at this moment, what this new world will bring for artists, but I do know I want to be standing with them. As GIA’s President Eddie Torres stated so eloquently, “Our consciences should be the guide for distributing the future more evenly.”