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
o 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.
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.