Lessons Learned So Far on GIA’s Journey toward Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy

Janet Brown

Grantmakers in the Arts released its Statement of Purpose for Racial Equity in Arts Philanthropy in March 2015. It did not spring from thin air. Members concerned with social justice have been active within GIA for nearly a decade. Over the past six years, members have shown an overwhelming interest in equity issues facing their communities. Racial equity was deliberately selected four years ago for a thought leader forum in order to go deeper into one area of social justice. Two years later after several convenings of the social justice forum group, the GIA board of directors adopted racial equity in arts philanthropy as “core field work” and began its own training and preparation for a public statement and actionable steps.

Racism and the disparity of opportunity are issues Americans are grappling with in every community and every sector. GIA staff, board, and members have been on a journey of discovery, and we have learned many lessons. We also have many lessons yet to learn. This is a process with no single solution. It is complex and full of emotional volcanoes waiting to erupt. It is a topic that we are used to talking about in code, different codes for different folks. It is deeply personal and takes time to move from personal into the institutional in order for change to occur. We are far from done. We have just begun, and we predict our course, our messages, and our organizational goals will progress as we move forward.

But we have learned a few things so far. Here they are:

  1. Use experts in structural racism to provide a common vocabulary. Even among our small group of social justice funders, there were communication issues. I had trouble communicating with members of the planning committee, and they had trouble communicating with each other. Code talk was prevalent, honest talk was sparse. We turned to specialists in the area of structural racism to help us. We selected People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISB). Their two-day training helped give the small group a foundation of understanding and a vocabulary to use. This was, for me, personally, as a white woman, absolutely essential. It became obvious immediately that I was not alone. We trained the entire board and staff of GIA and will continue that training for new board and staff members.
  2. Take time. The best advice we got from PISB was to take time. In our field, both philanthropy and arts, we are so used to going to a meeting or conference and getting the ten points on the flip chart that are actionable tomorrow. GIA was pressured for our “solutions” or our “recommendations” after a year of convenings with our small racial equity group. But we needed time to understand how we could make an impact and to bring the board and membership with us. We were not ready to be the experts and ultimately realized that we would never be experts. We are a group attempting to make positive change within our own sphere of influence.
  3. Stay focused. There are many distractions and complexities in racial equity work. We discovered that everyone came to the table with their own personal stories and passionate beliefs. Our focus was racial equity in arts philanthropy, an institutional goal that was easily put at risk by miscommunication, personal agendas, and the general messiness that comes with attempting to get people in a group to agree. Here are three “easy pitfalls” to avoid (suggestions from a GIA board member):
    • The language police. We know language is important, but some people believe fighting over semantics is an endgame in itself. It is not. Come to some compromise and move forward to action.
    • Focusing externally. Railing against the others who have made this so, rather than owning your own power and privilege and role. Yes, others have contributed to this, but we have all been a part of inequities. When conversations turn to finger wagging and tongue clucking, we have lost focus.
    • The déjà vu excuse. Bemoaning that this conversation has happened for twenty years and always goes nowhere. Replace that with three things you can do to change this at your institution today.
  4. Send a consistent message. Despite the fact it took us four years to come out with a public statement of purpose, it was clear to GIA’s membership that the board was committed to racial equity in arts philanthropy as a major focus area of the organization. We were deliberate in promoting racial equity discussions and values through our communication and education platforms. Sessions and keynotes at our conference, articles in our publication, the Reader, web conferences, research, and news feed articles were available to our members and the public. The interest in the topic and our work grew over four years, making the public statement expected and anticipated and not a surprise to our membership.
  5. Be inclusive, and in this conversation that means include white people. For most of my career, when I attended sessions on multiculturalism, diversity, inclusion, social justice, and racial equity, the room was filled with Asian, Latino(a), African, Arab, and Native America (ALAANA) folks. The people presenting identified as ALAANA, and the people to whom they were talking were also ALAANA people. It seems to me that for the longest time, racism and the effects of racial oppression were the burden of the very people being oppressed. For us to truly make a difference and to make a change, white people need to be an active part of this conversation. They need be part of the presenting team, and they need to be in the audience asking questions. They need to understand the role of privilege and use it to help make systemic change for greater equity. Other critical components of success are honest conversations and active listening. Everyone has a story to tell. We cannot understand their stories if we don’t listen.
  6. This work is not easy, but it is rewarding. GIA has been blessed with individuals passionate about bringing this work to a meaningful level in the organization. There have been tense moments at forums and board meetings. There were people feeling some were pushing too hard while others were not pushing enough. It is not easy work, and there will be moments when giving up or giving in seems the solution. Stay the course, be honest in intentions and language. It is worth it.
  7. And the work goes on.