Reflections from the Racial Equity Preconference at Americans for the Arts, 2017
by Sheena Ghanbari, Rising Arts Leaders San Diego Chair
Scattered across a room, we walked wall to wall to show how much we agreed or disagreed with the following statements: “hiring and promotion decisions should be based solely on merit;” “art is a necessary catalyst for social change;” and finally, “I believe we can end racial inequity.” I never made it to a hard yes or no, but found myself staying in shades of gray and able to argue different sides of each statement. What was clear to me after hearing from individuals at opposing ends of the spectrum was that our interpretation was largely based on framing. The more I listened to people on different sides of an issue, the more commonalities I found in our collective positionality.
In my experience, conversations about equity and social justice require a level of mental toughness—this type of dialogue can be messy and create heightened (and justified) emotions. Despite my upbringing as an Iranian-American and engagement with arts and equity research, personalizing and vocalizing diversity-related issues are challenging for me. It seemed fitting to confront my discomfort head-on at the 2017 Americans for the Arts Racial Equity Preconference by the Center for Social Inclusion. The experience proved to be a thought provoking two-day workshop that explored early experiences with race and integrated hands-on scenarios that exemplified systemic inequities.
panel on advancing the arts
The first day was largely exploratory. We looked at the history of disparity, learned definitions for racism, and began to apply this knowledge in different contexts. One tangible takeaway was a Racial Equity Tool, a way to integrate equity-minded decision-making. The tool is recommended for several different groups including elected officials, government staff, and the general community; below is brief summary of this iterative process.
Racial Equity Tool:
What policy/practice/program is under consideration and what are the desired outcomes?
Analysis of data
What data can we gather and what does it tell us?
How has community been engaged and how can we expand these efforts?
Strategies for racial equity
How can you mitigate unintended consequences?
What does this plan look like?
Communications and accountability
How will you ensure that you are able to communicate and evaluate results?
This decision making instrument can be tailored to an issue and is something I look forward to finding avenues for implementation.
I left the first day with questions. How can I authentically integrate a racial equity tool at Rising Arts Leaders of San Diego? Would this impact our membership—how? I took these thoughts with me to the Americans for the Arts welcome reception at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
Americans for the Arts welcome reception
Members of the San Diego arts community at the Americans for the Arts welcome reception
Anjanette Maraya-Ramey, Victoria Hamilton, Alexandra Kritchevsky, Annamarie Maricle, and Sheena Ghanbari
Day two integrated a practical approach for communicating about race. We spent some time to bring the “ACT” (Affirm, Counter, Transform) strategy to life. This is where you find common ground with someone who presents a racially charged or biased perspective with the hopes of ultimately shifting their thinking. This practice felt like an introduction to diplomacy and a useful way to engage people with contrasting perspectives who can be combative and resistant. After this exercise, I was excited to tackle the issues or questions we identified yesterday. We broke up into smaller groups and discussed an outcome that we each hoped to achieve in our networks or workspaces. If I had any suggestions for future adaptations of this preconference it would be to allow more time to flesh out and collaborate on our approaches to our distinct racial equity-related issues.
My long-term professional objective is to begin the process of assessing any impact that Rising Arts Leaders San Diego has had on creating an equitable local arts community. I hope to chip away at this lofty goal by working with our team at Rising Arts Leaders to learn more about our members. Who do we serve? Who are we missing? Why? Once we have a clearer and deeper understanding of our membership I think that my colleagues and myself will be better poised to see how we can do our part to create equitable programs and serve diverse audiences. I walked away from this experience with appreciation for differing perspectives, respect for our gracious facilitators, and a clearer perception of how Rising Arts Leaders can remain loyal to our mission while addressing issues of racial equity.