Talking About Race in America

On June 11-13, 2012, thirty individuals met at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh for a Grantmakers in the Arts Thought Leader Forum on Racial Equity Grantmaking. They were all there because they were experienced arts funders working in social justice. Some are relatively new to their positions, others have been around for a while leading discussions in and outside of GIA on the topic of the arts, equity, and social justice.

The planning committee for this event decided that we would focus on racial equity and grantmaking. As we planned the event, it became more evident that we could not talk about how grantmaking could be more racially equitable until we had talked about the inequities in our communities based on race. This got more complicated and, actually, more interesting. We often seek simple programmatic answers to systemic issues in this funder business. I’m not sure why or who was most influential in this but we chose not to dive into solutions before we all had a unified vocabulary that defined the problem.

So instead of bringing in a facilitator to help us find solutions, GIA hired the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISB) including Ron Chisom, founder of the Institute, Dr. Kimberley Richards, Suzanna Plichik and Jowale Willa Jo Zollar, artistic director of the Urban Bush Women. PISB, located in New Orleans, does workshops on “undoing racism” around the country and have for the past thirty years. They’ve worked with a wide variety of groups. I had attended one of their two-day sessions in Seattle, which was specifically for early childhood educators. They didn’t come to help us change our grantmaking programs. They came to help us understand systems that have created the world in which we operate.

Race in America. Not simple, not without finger-pointing and blame. Not without systems that are built to keep the privileged in their position and those not so privileged in theirs; all these Americans that make up our communities and our states, the “hyphen-Americans.” Our discussion centered on how we became hyphenated to begin with and the fact that some of us, like me (white), don’t need to be hyphenated at all. So this is where we start. Talking about how race is a fabrication with seriously devastating consequences for some and positive consequences for others.

As with most difficult conversations, it became personal for those in the room, because we cannot separate, really, who we are from what we do. We talked race for two days. We didn’t come up with a list on the flip chart paper of how to solve the problem of inequities and racism in our communities. We decided that we needed to walk with this conversation for a while and then revisit how we will proceed. For funders, this was a brave and unusual step. For an old programmer like me who likes results and action, it was unsettling. But we did it.

I left Pittsburgh and travelled to South Dakota to see my family. South Dakota has a very poor history of white and Native American relationships. I found myself having a different kind of conversation with my friends and relatives there. One I had never had before; a more honest conversation about race and privilege and institutionalized systems. Then I started hearing from others who were in Pittsburgh and discovered they were having the same experience. These individuals were looking at professional challenges and opportunities differently and sharing those observations with colleagues, family members and friends.

So stay tuned. I don’t know where this is going and I don’t have the answers. But I know we have to create a common vocabulary for what we are trying to change before we can change anything.

I know we will bring this conversation to the GIA conference in some meaningful way. There were thirty arts funders who came together to understand race in America in a collective way and to somehow apply it to their work. This discussion will be manifested in several ways over the coming months and years for all GIA members. It was not easy or comfortable but I, for one, left feeling I understood more deeply and could articulate more clearly.

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thank you

Janet (and Lance) - Thank you for pursuing equity in a courageous, patient and assertive manner. I am thrilled that GIA is committed to this work - it is vital. Thank you for sharing your personal and professional responses to the work - your transparency will be contagious I imagine.

I, too, took a People's Institute two-day Undoing Racism workshop this past spring. I left feeling encouraged, sad, empowered, dismayed, guilty, proud and ready to work. As the (white) leader of an art service organization in New York City I know that it is crucial that we (like Lance too) "seek out and genuinely engage with "the others". It is "slow work" (like slow food) and we need to continually activate ourselves within it I think. And the more honest we all are, the better!

I look forward to hearing more from GIA about your process and how it impacts the work you do.

Jennifer Wright Cook, Exec Director, The Field (

Jennifer and Lance, Your very

Jennifer and Lance,

Your very thoughtful comments are so encouraging and helpful.  This is a journey that takes all our energy and focus.  We must all have this discussion together.  I think white people need to feel that this is their issue too. For too long, it's been a discussion about people of color between people of color and even the most liberal white folks sit on the sideline, sometimes afraid of the honest conversation that must take place. The discussion about how we distribute our funds has to be coupled with the understanding that there are institutional barriers in place that will always prohibit equity unless we acknowledge and find our way around them. 

We can do this but we must also be prepared to respect and honor the people whose communities we are engaging anew.  I appreciate both your comments. This begins as a personal journey and that personal journey becomes part of a movement for change. I am optimistic we are on the cusp of real change.  It's painful but it's possible.

Authenticity and Inclusion

Thanks, Janet, for your generosity regarding this sensitive subject. A group of us arts presenters focused on this and related leadership topics during a 2-week APAP retreat 25 years ago at UC Berkeley. Like grantmakers, presenters make funding decisions between many worthy opportunities. For many our purpose is to offer our communities cultural engagement otherwise unavailable. Authentically pursuing such a mission is truly fraught but IMHO essential to our responsibilty for envisioning and working toward a better future. After two weeks of these conversations we came to a consensus, that as individual leaders we must accept and authentically express our imperfections as you do in this posting; seek out and genuinely engage with "the others;" find ways to fund the ideas of our partners even when we haven't fully understood those ideas (and even when it would be easier to fund the conventional;) and encourage innovative structures and adaptive planning to support execution and continuity of partnership projects. Over the years some have found that difference is best addressed with transparency and inclusion as well as a diveraity of approach. This conversation is an essential element of a healthy, authentic cultural ecosystem in this increasingly participatory world. These are personal conversations reflecting our ethical behavior that further our institutional responsibilities. Thanks again for keeping the broadest range of people at the table.

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