Beginning The Journey Toward Social Justice

Beginning The Journey Toward Social Justice

Baltimore. Charleston. Ferguson. How do arts education leaders respond?

By Renée Watson | Originally Published at National Guild for Community Arts Education. Guild Notes. Issue 2, 2015 | Photographic Credit; Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts), Chicago, Illinois, The Actors’ Gang, Culver City, California, Turtle Bay Music School, New York, New York, University of Puget Sound Community Music Department, Urban Gateways, Chicago, Illinois
To help answer this question, we recently spoke with Renée Watson, former associate director of professional development for DreamYard Project in the Bronx, who now works with organizations that are hoping to align their internal structures and practices with a justice-driven mission.

While Renée was at DreamYard Project – a creative youth development organization that provides project-based arts learning – the staff intentionally started applying a social justice lens to all aspects of its organization. Their work started in the classroom – with a focus on offering extensive professional development rooted in social justice principles to teaching artists and class- room teachers at their partner schools. But it grew to include a deep focus on examining and transforming the organization’s internal systems, policies, communication practices, and staff relationships in ways that fostered greater equity. Drawing on her experience at DreamYard, Renée discusses ways in which systemic oppression can manifest within our institutions and why a focus on organizational change is critical to achieving social justice more broadly.

Why is it important for organizational leaders to apply a social justice lens to all areas of their organization (e.g., fundraising, professional development, hiring practices, board recruitment, etc. as well as to curriculum/programs)?

In Beverly Tatum’s Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? she writes, “prejudice is an integral part of our socialization, and it is not our fault…[W]e are not at fault for the stereotypes, distortions, and omissions that shaped our thinking as we grew up. To say that it is not our fault does not relieve us of our responsibility, however. We may not have polluted the air but we need to take responsibility, along with others, for cleaning it up.”

The air is polluted. In 2015, African American churches are still burning; police brutality against unarmed black men and women is still happening; women are still being paid less than men; LGBTQIA youth are being bullied; the school-to-prison pipeline is real.

The smog is thick. It always has been and artists have always responded. Through poetry, song, dance, photography—artists have been the rebukers, the remakers. We hold up a mirror to society, show it its blemishes, praise and celebrate its beauty. If we can encourage this in the classroom—encourage budding artists to use their art to talk back to the world, to engage with the world—then we as arts administrators must do the same. Arts organizations need to practice what we teach. We can’t hold our students and participants to a higher standard in the classroom than we do in our boardrooms and cubicles.

I believe that even if we don’t work with under-resourced communities or marginalized groups, we ought to ask our- selves—individually and through our professional work—“How am I working to interrupt injustice?” This is because oppression is in most cases not an individual act; it is the result of the biases, practices, and assumptions that are engrained in existing social systems – social systems that we are often actively a part of. Arts educators everywhere can improve their organization as well as their community by embracing inclusion over exclusion and pushing back against systemic oppression.

How does systemic oppression manifest in our organizations?

Systemic oppression refers to the ways in which institutional policies and practices create different outcomes for marginalized groups. The institutional policies may never mention any racial group, but their effect is to create advantages for whites and oppression and disadvantage for people from other racial groups.

Examples include:

  • Salary differences between white staff and people of color with similar responsibilities and titles;
  • Silencing and/or overlooking people of color at meetings and giving more value to the opinions and ideas of their white counterparts;
  • Setting the norm for appropriate employee and participant behavior based on a dominant cultural understanding of what appropriate and respectful behavior looks like; and
  • Serving and working with ethnically-diverse communities without having a diverse representation on their board.

These manifestations are sometimes subtle, like the difference in language used to describe the behavior of people of color versus their white co-workers for similar attributes (“sassy and angry” instead of “confident and passionate”). As administrators, we must check our assumptions, biases, and stereotypes and be mindful of how they may taint the way we see our co-workers.

What are specific things arts education leaders can do— at the institutional level— to move toward equity and organizational change?

I think the first step is to assess where you are. At DreamYard we used an assessment tool called the “Continuum on Becoming an Anti-Racist, Multicultural Institution.” The tool is designed to help organizations identify where they are in terms of developing anti-racist, multicultural practices – actions that include a commitment to dismantling racism within the organization and the community, a restructuring of institutional rules to promote multiculturalism, and recognition of racial and cultural difference as valuable assets. The continuum includes six organizational categories – ranging from “exclusive” to “fully inclusive” – and details the practices that differentiate an exclusionary institution from a transformed, anti-racist organization.

Each staff member rated where he or she thought we were and, as a group, we discussed and brainstormed what steps we needed to take to continue to move towards being a fully inclusive organization. Developing shared language and goals was crucial to the buy-in and commitment of our staff, and the continuum tool helped us reach a group consensus on the terms that identified both our current organizational approach and the future that we hoped to build toward.

I also recommend setting aside time for mandatory profession- al development workshops that explicitly talk about the history and root causes of oppression, the ways in which organizations can work for equity and justice, and most importantly, how staff can collaborate with one another to better understand cultural assumptions and build internal trust.

DreamYard regularly brings guest facilitators to lead social justice workshops for both teaching artists and administrators. Year-round social justice pedagogy workshops for teaching artists help them use art-making in the classroom to respond to injustice and celebrate and honor cultural heroes that are often ignored by the mainstream media and traditional classroom curriculum. Workshops for administrators include sessions on understanding white privilege, what it means to be an ally, and understanding how to advocate for institutional and programmatic change.

At DreamYard, my former colleague Ama Codjoe, director of the DreamYard Art Center, and I also developed a shared learning model called the Learning Community focused on building knowledge about social justice as a staff. A group of administrators met regularly, on a volunteer basis, to read articles, watch documentaries, and do research on social issues with the responsibility of turn-keying the information and developing a workshop for the rest of the staff during our monthly staff meetings. The Learning Community impacted our organization in profound ways. Through these regular, focused learning exchanges, the organization’s co-executive directors, development staff, program directors and coordinators, and our facilities manager collaborated and grew together in new ways. New leaders emerged, a stronger community was forged, and a renewed commitment to our mission of igniting the transformative spirit of youth was catalyzed.

Alongside working with organizational staff, it’s also critical to engage your trustees in meaningful dialogue about issues of social justice and equity as they relate to your organization and programs. Over the past several years, DreamYard has invited its staff and teaching artists to facilitate art-making and social justice workshops with its board. A workshop about Ferguson and the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, used poetry and other artistic disciplines to open up key conversation about racial justice, while also demonstrating the power of DreamYard’s programs to do the same with the communities it serves. Site visits or field trips for board and staff also inspire and inform.

On a recent staff trip to Studio Museum in Harlem, DreamYard administrators engaged in art-making and discussion about an exhibit focused on the overrepresentation of African American men in the prison population. The opportunity to get out of the office and have this shared cultural experience helped us bond and gave us language/inspiration to talk about the topic’s relationship to our own work. Providing these kinds of opportuni- ties helps unite the organization and provides an opportunity for stakeholders to learn, grow, and move towards a unified goal in a thoughtful and intentional way.

What challenges has DreamYard faced in doing this work? What advice do you have for other community arts education organizations for meeting these challenges?

One of DreamYard’s biggest challenges has been meeting everyone where they are without judgment and with grace and patience. The staff has varying degrees of awareness and experience in talking about race, class, and gender issues so setting up workshops that took this into account was important.

My advice is to remember that there are no quick fixes, that even as your organization makes progress, there will be setbacks. Reminding myself that this is a process helps when I’m feeling defeated or overwhelmed with the gravity of what we’re up against. I recommend starting small and setting concrete goals. Sometimes, it’s fitting for the organization to have one big goal that everyone is working towards; other times it makes more sense for each department to set its own goal. Whatever you decide, commit to doing the work for the long haul. This can’t
be a fad or a theme for the year. There is too much at stake.

Understanding that this work takes time and courage, what advice do you have for arts education leaders for sustaining their motivation?

I encourage leaders to look to another organization that is further along in this work and willing to mentor and share best practices. The wonderful thing about living in the age of technology is the many ways we can connect across the country and around the world. Through Google Hangout, Skype, and of course, the old fashioned way—the telephone, organizations are able to “meet” each other and engage in conversation about the work at hand in meaningful and productive ways.

I also think taking a break from heavy conversations is important. Self-care is crucial. Setting aside time for the staff to create or experience art together has sustained many of the organizations I’ve worked with. These moments help to build community and also remind us to pause and reflect, to create and share.

About the Author

Renée Watson works as a consultant with nonprofits, including DreamYard Project and the Community Word Project, to support their efforts in establishing social justice practices and curriculum. As an author of picture books and young adult novels, Renée explores social issues and works to help young people cope with trauma.
Renée Watson is an author, performer, and educator. Her work has received several honors including a NAACP Image Award nomination in children’s literature. Her novel, What Momma Left Me, (Bloomsbury 2010), debuted as the New Voice for 2010 in middle grade fiction. Her one woman show, Roses are Red Women are Blue, debuted at the Lincoln Center at a showcase for emerging artists.

One of Renée’s passions is using the arts to help youth cope with trauma and discuss social issues. Her picture book, A Place Where Hurricanes Happen (Random House, 2010), is based on poetry workshops she facilitated with children in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and was featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.


Beverly Tatum, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race

Bread for the Journey: An Online Companion, “Continuum on Becoming an Anti-Racist, Multicultural Institution”

Chimamanda Adichie, “The Danger of a Single Story”

Peggy McIntosh, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”

This piece was republished by EmpathyEducates with the kind permission of the Author. We thank Renée Watson for her vision and for giving voice to what is too often hidden


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