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.