Understanding and Undoing Structural Racism

By Janet Brown from her blog Better Together

My first year at GIA was 2009. When I travelled the country to meet members and learn about their work, I was surprised by my conversations with most private funders. These funders said their work was different from others because they were focused on small organizations; African, Latino(a), Asian, and Native American (ALANA) organizations, artists or communities; issues of equity; and the changing demographics in their communities.

Everyone assumed that GIA’s core membership primarily supported large professional arts institutions and those that diverted from this were isolated cases. It seemed everyone I talked to was “different,” which made me believe that there was a growing trend in arts philanthropy that was not being openly discussed. Most funders viewed their peers from an historical perspective. Instead, I recognized a collective movement in process, and a need for the coordination of shared best practices and experiences.

At about this same time, social justice funders were creating a standard of operations for themselves within GIA. Most significantly, at the Taos conference in 2007, there were two sessions organized by Claudine Brown from Nathan Cummings entitled Arts & Social Change Work Group Part 1 and Part 2. In 2008 in Atlanta, the group had its first preconference, and there has been an equity or social change preconference every year since. The 2011 and 2012 conferences focused on equity as a theme and saw an increase in submissions for sessions dealing with issues of equity and community building through the arts. In 2011, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy published its report on arts funding written by Holly Sidford, a well-known and respected arts philanthropy consultant. The report, which received great traction, called for greater equity in funding for small organizations and groups with what the NCRP defined as “marginalized communities.” Sessions at the 2011 and 2012 conferences dealing with issues of equity in ALANA communities and organizations, including funding in these communities, were among the most well-attended sessions of the conference.

I see the new or renewed passion among private funders for supporting artists and people who work and/or live in ALANA communities as a great opportunity to explore how the arts and artists play a role in community livability, justice and democracy, economic development, education and community pride. However, we cannot deny that there are many instances of poor grantmaking in these communities, instances of money wasted, people who are psychologically abused, system failures and communities left feeling angry, often criticizing philanthropy for its failures. From the funder’s perspective, the communities or organizations that were recipients of funds are sometimes labeled as poor grantees and the community is deemed “not worthy” of or ready for help. The idea of doing good does not always prepare funders for the hard work of knowing a community, respecting its culture and people and allowing them to share the power that comes from supporting change in their community.

GIA’s antiracism work is inspired by this field-wide equity funding trend, as well as the knowledge of GIA board members and the social justice funders who have long worked in this area. There is also a need at this moment to go beyond the kinds of conversations we’ve had in the past, which for the most part have not dealt with systemic problems. The recommended solutions of the past have not resulted in nationwide successful outcomes in the areas of diversity and reaching ALANA artists and audiences. Our attempts to require board diversification, education programs for underserved children and outreach by arts groups into ALANA communities have been largely unsuccessful in changing the faces of audience members attending traditionally white-serving nonprofit arts events. From another perspective, we have also not been broadly successful in supporting the arts and arts groups of ALANA communities.

Our antiracism work fits the definition of “core” fieldwork. It is our role to assist our members in understanding concepts and practices that they can adapt to their own specific situations. I see our work in education, nonprofit financial health and understanding structural racism as providing fundamental information and cohesion to a field that is attempting to seek collective impact on issues that have been systemically problematic. We want grantmakers to make change in communities of need using tools that will better inform their decisions and their practice. Having an understanding of how systems are influenced by a structure put into place to maintain status quo and reject change can help us come up with solutions to finally break those barriers.

GIA’s work with understanding power and structural racism in America is vital to creating new practices and solutions as our members fund more ALANA organizations, immigrant communities, long standing ALANA communities and a growing number of non-white art forms and audiences. It is “core” fieldwork and we are inspired to integrate it into all our programming areas, from education and capitalization to cross sector work in health, aging and other areas.

This July, the GIA board of directors will participate in an “Understanding and Undoing Racism” training facilitated by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond with a follow-up session in November. We anticipate this training will provide a common understanding and vocabulary that will inform GIA programs going forward. We will also host a third gathering of social justice funders who have been discussing how we might create opportunities to broaden the work for GIA’s membership. There will be a preconference on racism at the GIA conference in Philadelphia in October. This is not easy work, nor is it work quickly finished. But, from my personal perspective, it is life changing. It is work that is at the core of all of us.