Opportunities Abound: Antiracism and Arts Philanthropy

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 24, No 2 (Summer 2013)

Justin Laing

While the title of GIA’s 2012 Thought Leader Forum — Racial Equity in Arts and Culture Grantmaking — may have left something to be desired in the excitement department, the content of the discussions that took place was such that the two and a half days we spent together in June and two additional days we gathered in November revealed principles/approaches toward racial equity that I hope will have value to colleagues. The goals of the initial forum were as follows:

  • To increase arts and culture grantmakers’ capacity to analyze how issues of race and racism impact their current grantmaking strategies;
  • To assist arts and culture grantmakers in the development of strategies that combat broader issues of racism;
  • To assist arts and culture grantmakers in providing equitable attention to the varied arts and culture needs of their communities; and
  • To increase the capacity of Grantmakers in the Arts to support its member organizations in addressing issues in this area through the development and dissemination of an essay on race in arts and culture grantmaking as well as the strategies and best practices that will be offered in the second Thought Leader Forum.

These goals were the result of conversations with an advisory committee that Janet Brown and I selected using the criteria of grantmakers and culture workers who have been working against racism in their grantmaking and who represented a range of ethnicities, locations, and grantmaking budgets. Once assembled, this advisory committee then recommended a number of consultants who could lead the first gathering of the Thought Leader Forum. After a review of applications, the advisory committee selected the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), an organization with a thirty-year history of fighting racism by focusing “on understanding what racism is, where it comes from, how it functions, why it persists and how it can be undone.” The committee then selected a group of thirty-plus grantmakers to invite to the forum using criteria similar to the ones that were used to select the advisory committee and agreed to hold the forum June 11–13 in Pittsburgh’s August Wilson Center for African American Culture. With a fantastic group of twenty-three participants who signed on almost as soon as they were asked, we were ready to go. Once this session had taken place there was almost immediate interest in a follow-up session to debrief this first experience and to discuss steps we might take as grantmakers in our own work. To this end we spent two days in November in a session facilitated by Melinda Weekes of the Applied Research Center.

When I first began this essay I found myself recounting the workshops themselves, but then reconsidered that approach for a couple of reasons: (a) the workshops are best experienced directly and are not done justice by simply recounting; and (b) the amount of space it would require would leave room for nothing else and still be incomplete. So, rather than try to present a historical perspective as to what has taken place over last year, I will try to elucidate a few key principles I gathered from this experience and try to make connections to the current work of the TLF participants, because there are some dynamic examples out there already that we could learn from as a field.

You’ve Got to Be an Organizer

Although they expressed it differently, a key principle of both workshop leaders was the idea that central to this work was the need to organize against racism, and while I have experience organizing I have not thought about my work in philanthropy in that way. Actually, what became clear to me was the way philanthropy organizes the arts and culture community through its RFPs, the language we create, etc., so, I am already organizing, but for what end? In the PISAB framework, racism is said to be maintained by an arrangement of powerful institutions, including both foundations and government, and this arrangement keeps people poor, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, and then materially benefits White and ALANA (African, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American) gatekeepers who are paid because of the need for a societal response to this poverty, but then are not accountable to the financially poor communities who make their work possible. In response, accountable power must be amassed in multiracial, multiclass formations, and other kinds of arrangements must be built to serve as alternatives to the racist ones. Clearly, a room made up of people who decide where dollars for arts go in their communities will fall into the category of the folks who stand to benefit from racism, but it was just as clear that personal choice is still, as it always is, an opportunity to make a difference and that at whatever level we operate we need to think about structures to hold ourselves more accountable. While accountability structures can be set up at any level (panels, better communications to the field, processes of inquiry), why not look at one set up at the most fundamental level (i.e., organizational structure) to set a high bar, knowing we can always make adjustments as required at the tactical level of an organization if necessary?

During our initial session, as well as in a session at the 2012 GIA conference, Denise Brown, executive director of the Leeway Foundation in Philadelphia, shared the story of that foundation’s effort to really take on inequities in the most fundamental of ways: looking at who controls the money. In the Leeway example, founder Linda Lee Alter and her daughter, Sara Becker, in collaboration with Philadelphia artists, moved the foundation to more fully live its commitment to social justice by changing from a structure of being led by one White family looking to address injustice to one in which ALANA people were integrated throughout the decision-making structure and to an eventual board made up of a range of community members. What I like about this example is that it exemplifies accountability, multiracial, multiclass collaboration, and principled White leadership. I think Denise’s work and her organization served to remind many of us what was possible in a foundation’s fight against racism. More could be said about the grantmaking strategy itself if there were space, but I encourage you to check it out at www.leeway.org.

Know Your History

Sometimes in conversations about race with White colleagues I hear an explicit or implied boredom or critique of hearing about “the history” of racism, but a centerpiece of the June and the November gathering was a reflection on history, and it really has helped me think about race and racism in the current moment. Key in the PISAB model is learning about the evolution of the concept of race and its role in racism as they teach participants about how particular European scientists developed a theory about Caucasoids, Mongoloids, Australoids, and Negroids as being of separate races and having distinct characteristics with, of course, Caucasoids being the most evolved and superior to the rest. While it may be obvious here that just the notion of race is racism, it still was illuminating for me to hear a definition of race that said it was a false classification system developed by European scientists to keep White folks at the top of the world power structure. While race is regularly referred to as “a social construct,” what I think PISAB does very well is eliminate euphemisms that are often used to help the speaker avoid having to name White people or particular ALANA groups in discussions of race. Joe Feagin, author of The White Racial Frame (which you may know from Roberto Bedoya’s blog on Whiteness — more to come on that in a moment), calls it “the invisibility of Whiteness and White people in discussions of the impacts of racism.” What I think is the pretty obvious inference from this history is that any invoking of race, no matter the intention, also will invoke this larger narrative of White superiority. Maybe just writing guidelines with race references in quotes would serve as a reminder of the falsity of the construct while recognizing its real-life impact?

As we continue to talk about racial equity in arts and culture grantmaking, thinking about the foundation community’s historical role in creating inequity will need to be part of the process, an idea that was suggested by both facilitators. An example of how thinking about historical inequity helps us look at current equity strategies can be seen in the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s paper Fusing Arts and Social Change, which discusses the original impetus for arts grantmaking in this country, as well as in a story shared by one of the TLF participants, Justin Huenemann, about the work of the Northwest Area Foundation (NWAF).

At our second convening, in New York, Justin shared that as a foundation, the NWAF regularly acknowledges the connection of its philanthropic wealth to Native American people and their original homelands and the responsibility as a result to Indian Country. One image that has stayed with me since our convening is Justin’s description of a map on a wall at NWAF that shows the names and traditional areas of tribal nations before the arrival of European “settlers” and the establishment of state boundary lines. This history is then part of the rationale for the foundation’s commitment to Indigenous People in the Northwest as seen in this language in the organization’s letter from President Kevin Walker: “In 2011 we continued a practice of directing about one-third of our grant dollars to programs and convenings benefiting Native organizations and communities. In 2012, we are targeting 40 percent of grant dollars to Native initiatives in urban, rural and reservation communities.” Again, more could be said about the grantmaking of this foundation, but I simply want to reference its work at the moment to demonstrate how history can make a policy level change at a foundation.

Whiteness: The Most Damaging Concept of the Racism Paradigm?

The final issue that stood out to me is one that has been implied in the first two issues and that is the idea of “Whiteness” and its impact on the identity of White and ALANA people alike. As I mentioned above, PISAB describes race as a false classification system designed by European scientists for the purpose of developing and maintaining White people’s power over the rest of the world’s peoples, and they add to this a definition of racism as “prejudice + power.” As PISAB explains racism, one must have collective racial power to be racist. Thus, because there is nowhere that ALANA people have institutional power to determine the collective experience of White people, ALANA people cannot be racist, and, as the opposite is true for White people, all White people are racist. This idea was a very hard pill for many of the group to swallow and absorbed much of the group’s discussion after the session and the following morning, such that it slowed the group’s capacity to analyze how race and racism manifested themselves in arts and culture grantmaking. This is also not an idea that I have the space to interrogate, but I do think it brings White colleagues and White identity into the conversation in a way that challenges the normativeness of White people’s arts and culture experience that is often implied when ALANA work is referred to as “culturally specific” or “ethnic arts” or “folk arts,” as though White artists’ and arts organizations’ work is less specific, ethnic, or folksy.

While the notion of “all” was not one that Roberto Bedoya accepted or liked (his question was “where is the love?”), his blogs on Whiteness on Doug Borwick’s blog Engaging Matters this past spring have introduced some ideas into the national conversation that were not there previously. This false idea, Whiteness, is maybe the most damaging of all of the race-based fallacies because it plants deep within us the idea that White people are both separate and the standard; it’s a particularly harmful idea in our field that treats the best of White culture as classical not only for Europeans but also for the world. At the same time, how can it be addressed when for an ALANA person to raise it in arts and culture circles is to risk angering or offending White colleagues who too often have the power to inflict penalties for bringing the subject up in a way they find problematic? How does this idea manifest in the minds and lives of ALANA grantees and program officers and inhibit them from assisting the foundation in carrying out its stated mission? I see Whiteness as a silent killer in our field, but I also think many White colleagues in the TLF experience showed us great examples of alternative White identity formation. Hopefully the field will see increasing numbers of antiracist White leadership in the months and years to come.

One example I would offer in this area is GIA’s executive director, Janet Brown. While I have said to Janet at times that her privilege was showing and we have had some substantive disagreements in this process, I remain impressed with and appreciative of the way she has taken on this agenda and has incorporated the work of our facilitators into the future direction of GIA. An example of this commitment has been the work Janet has done with the GIA board such that it will work with PISAB for two days this summer and the next conference will have a preconference focused solely on racism and how we build relationships across and within “racial” groups so that a group can hold together through difficult work. The need for relationship-building work would be the fourth learning I would share, and in that context I would talk about the work of M.U.G.A.B.E.E. (Men Under Guidance Acting Before Early Extinction, led by brothers Carlton and Maurice Turner) and Mondo Bizarro and a project they call Race Peace, which focuses on relationship building and revealing what a group already knows about racism, so that it can benefit from the strengths already present in the group. However, here I am really out of space and thus I will simply invite you to come see their work at this year’s preconference in Philadelphia.

So, where do we go from here? The TLF participants will reconvene this year to work with one another and with members of their own organization/local community, so that efforts to undo racism at the local level can be further strengthened and maybe even connected. GIA has the tough job of connecting these ideas across its programming, so maybe we’ll see conversations about what a capitalization strategy might look like when an antiracism frame is laid on top of it? I’m not sure, but I am looking forward to the continued effort. Onward and upward!

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