Creating Racial Equity in New York City’s Most Segregated Borough

Elizabeth Bennett

It started in Fall 2016, when Staten Island Arts — the local arts council for the fifth borough of New York City — was approached by Kerry McCarthy and Michele Kumi Baer of The New York Community Trust, Betsy Dubovsky and Laura Jean Watters of The Staten Island Foundation, and Karen Rosa of the Altman Foundation. This group of concerned funders had observed that Staten Island’s arts programming audiences weren’t racially diverse, and came to us seeking to partner on a program that would thoughtfully address the issue.

The Staten Island Arts staff recognized the need to address the problem, and it was a challenge we felt motivated to take on. But we were also (to be honest) nervous and scared. Very real issues — limited staff capacity, a lack of familiarity with community engagement practices, insufficient marketing support — would need to be addressed before the island’s cultural organizations could be equipped with the skills and knowledge needed to make diversity a reality. However, we also knew that many of those issues have historically been used as excuses to gloss over racism and segregation, both within our own organization and others. A lot of work and support would be needed to create authentic relationships and partnerships and transform the landscape.

By June 2017, we had launched Expanding Audiences and Cultural Participation on Staten Island, a multi-year initiative designed to provide professional development for the borough’s arts organizations. The goal was to diversify Staten Island’s programming for under-represented communities, and provide capacity building support so that they could be better equipped to embrace new strategies for change. But we quickly realized that community engagement wasn’t as easy as picking up the phone; the work to be done went deep into the realms of unconscious bias, White privilege, and institutionalized racism.

Over the last three years, community engagement and racial equity have become the focus for our work as an arts council — not only in this initiative, but in every aspect of our business operations. To paraphrase David Byrne, “Well, how did we get here?”

Let’s get a few stereotypes out of the way. Staten Island is much more than the “Forgotten Borough,” Pete Davidson, “Big Ang” and the Mob Wives crew, Tess McGill’s big hairstyle in Working Girl, or a docking place for the free ferry that carries 70,000 people across the Hudson River each day.

It is home to truly unique cultural gems, including the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art, housed in a replica of a Tibetan monastery; Snug Harbor Cultural Center, where stately limestone venues built to house retired sailors are set on a bucolic campus of gardens and woods, and are now used as cultural space by people of all ages; and the creative manufacturing hub, MakerSpace NYC, whose founders combined their experience in arts education, construction, metalwork, sculpture, and fabrication to offer community studio space, Industrial Arts-style workshops, and a mobile STEAM Wagon that enables kids and community members to engage in hands-on, project-based learning.

Staten Island is a borough of cultural entrepreneurs, industrial freelancers, and individual artists. Its scrappy, “can-do” spirit is fueled in part by the borough’s blue collar ethos and by the need to find creative solutions in a region lacking venues purpose-built for creating and presenting art. Most artmaking is not taking place within the structure of a nonprofit organization. The average staff size of local cultural organizations is 1.5 people, many of whom do their work on evenings and weekends while holding down day jobs with lengthy commutes. The result is a combination of renegade artwork in unexpected places and guerilla-style public art murals decorating buildings and storefronts, which exist alongside traditional still life paintings and portraiture, community theater productions, and countless choruses and small music groups.

And yes: Staten Island does have better pizza than Brooklyn. But there’s also incredible Sri Lankan and Indian food, regional specialities from Mexico, a West African market on summer Saturdays, and international nonnas who share their home cuisines at a restaurant up the hill from the ferry.

While 74% of the borough’s documented residents are White, there are BIPOC populations who receive varied levels of recognition and representation. On the island’s South Shore, the Sandy Ground Historical Society celebrates the oldest continuously inhabited settlement of free African Americans. The Wu-Tang Clan first made their music in the Park Hill neighborhood. Staten Island is home to a significant number of Mexican and West African immigrants and their children. It boasts the largest Sri Lankan population outside of the country of Sri Lanka. According to the NYC Department of City Planning, Richmond County sustained “the highest percentage growth among the foreign-born, increasing 36%” between 2000 and 2011.

But the problems are real. Staten Island Arts’ work takes place in the context of a borough divided by a perceived line between the racially diverse, densely populated urban environment of the North Shore — where 91% of our artist constituents live and work — and the dense greenery of mid-Island, or the more suburban, conservative, sports- and family-focused South Shore. The dominant narrative is about Italian Americans and Irish Americans. In 2014, Eric Garner’s death brought the island to national attention and the underlying tensions of race, economics, political affiliations, and social class surfaced in an unprecedented public way. Those tensions soared again in 2016, when 82% of the borough voted for Donald Trump in the presidential primary, highlighting and exacerbating the existing divisions based on social, economic, religious, and political affiliations.

In the first phase of the program, 34 Staten Island-based cultural organizations experienced training in the areas of audience development (including community engagement, social media, marketing, program development) and professional development (grant writing, relationship management) that expanded their thinking around audience development to achieve a broad reach on the island and beyond. Photo: Hart and Sol Photography.

These were the conditions when the original funding cohort for what became the Expanding Audiences initiative approached us in 2016. By the time we launched in June 2017, more local artmakers seemed motivated for change than ever before. We saw artists activated by the outcome of the 2016 federal election, and a growing awareness of inequities, including lack of access to health care and insurance, food inequity, and recognition of the lack of visible local representation for BIPOC communities because of institutional racism. The release of New York City’s first-ever cultural plan, CreateNYC, focused citywide attention on the disparities in racial demographics and disability access at cultural organizations in all five boroughs. We forged ahead.

But how do you create racial equity in a historically segregated area? One whose demographics and challenges have more in common with rural upstate areas than the urban metropolis found on the other side of the water? On a timeline tied to meeting goals and reporting to funders? In a powder-keg atmosphere where questioning someone else’s long-held views might set off a fiery explosion?

Our answers: identify consulting partners who could provide high quality services; earn the trust of extraordinarily supportive funders; provide as much support as possible so people will want to do the work of undoing racism; let the resistors fall away; talk with your allies wherever they might be; listen and learn all you can. Breathe. Understand that racism can’t be undone in a year or two. It takes time, persistence, and patience. It might be the most important work you ever do.

Our staff originally envisioned a layered program, structured to address skills expansion and best practices as the means to build organizational capacity for audience development. Working with the island’s formally structured entities seemed like the most productive way to address ongoing capacity issues, and to familiarize cultural workers with the type of practices that create authentic engagement between members of communities and racial identities who might not ordinarily intersect with each other. We structured a three-month-long series of professional development workshops, followed by a competitive grant application process to award funding for strategies that addressed audience development through programming, marketing, and organizational capacity. The organizations would have a year to utilize what they’d learned by implementing programs that would create change as they each defined it.

We hoped for a cohort of learners who would support each other as they tested out and adopted new practices. Thirty-four of the island’s recognized sixty-seven cultural organizations responded to our open call for participation in the program. They ranged from the two-month-old online community radio station, MakerPark Radio, to the seventy-two-year-old Richmond Choral Society, to the stately Snug Harbor Cultural Center, which boasts an operating expense budget of close to $5 million each year. The participants’ needs ranged widely, but were bonded by the desire for greater levels of engagement with new audience members — particularly from under-represented communities and people of color.

Donna Walker-Kuhne, and her team at Walker International Communications Group, lead Audience Development Initiative (ADI) grantees in their first meeting. The ADI, through Expanding Audiences and Cultural Participation, was designed as a new initiative to provide professional development and regrant funding to support local cultural organizations (from emerging to established) to better market their work, build strong relationships with both existing constituents and unfamiliar communities, and welcome new audiences. Photo: Hart and Sol Photography.

As a staff, we talked with the participants and external stakeholders — including a funding cohort that came to include new relationships with the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and Time Warner, along with our much-valued ongoing supporters at the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, New York State Council on the Arts, and the NEA — about the overall problems of audience development on Staten Island: how information is communicated, what neighborhoods art is being made in, the transportation issues that prevent people from attending arts programs, and limited financial and human capacity. We lamented as local residents willing to dress up and head into “the city” for Broadway shows or big concerts didn’t think to look at their local entertainment resources. Everyone took a hard gulp when we recognized that there’s a large percentage of the local population that simply isn’t interested in the arts.

To carry out our plan, we wanted our creative community to have the best leaders for audience development practices. And we got it! The funders’ generosity made it possible for Staten Island Arts to create a long-term consulting contract with Walker International Communications Group. We were proud to have brought Donna Walker-Kuhne — the founder and owner of WICG — and her team to Staten Island; their services would normally be beyond the reach of the small arts organizations who could most benefit from Donna’s experience, wisdom, encouragement, and questioning spirit. Donna has been our lead consultant on community engagement and partnerships; Toni Hendrix led workshops on marketing strategies, organizational marketing plans, metrics, and human resources; and Richard Pelzer focused on digital platforms, analyzing each organization’s website, social media platforms, and online presence. Their energy, knowledge, humor, and position as outside ambassadors to nationwide networks and resources have been crucial to the success of Expanding Audiences.

Talking about expansion of audiences — Donna has made public presentations about her work on Staten Island at countless conferences, and Expanding Audiences is slated to be a case study chapter in the book she’ll be publishing in late 2020. Richard helped connect the Alice Austen House — a photography center in the waterfront cottage that was home to one of America’s most prolific early female photographers — to Stonewall at 50 events, celebrating Alice’s lesbian identity and the House’s brave decision to tell the story of Alice and her longtime partner, Gertrude Tate. Our WICG partners have also been great friends and ports in what were sometimes stormy seas as we made responsive changes to the initiative’s scope, focus, and requirements.

A few months into our work, Kerry McCarthy introduced an element that brought everything radically into focus: racial equity. Community engagement and audience development were goals to be worked toward, but we had to get to what lay below the difficulty most Staten Islanders were having in achieving diversity — prejudice and racism. Discomfort, a lack of even transactional (much less authentic) relationships between BIPOC and White populations, and a general ignorance of unconscious bias and microaggressions were rampant in our community. They are what likely prevented more familiar relationships from developing between people of color and the White majority on Staten Island. Creating a safe space for dialogue, information sharing, awareness, and understanding was — and still is — much needed.

Kerry’s suggestion of introducing racial equity training as part of the program remains one of the most catalyzing moments Staten Island Arts has experienced in its twenty-eight-year history. Not just because of its impact on the initiative, but because equity has taken priority for us. It is the goal and value by which we, as an arts council, make our decisions, from vendor choices to staff hires to partner possibilities to new board members. One of the metrics of internal progress we are most proud of was the outcome for the 2019 Regrant Application process. As a result of a new Outreach Plan created by Deputy Director Gena Mimozo and myself, the racial diversity of the applicants seeking public regrant funds skyrocketed — 31% identified as BIPOC, compared to less than 1% for the 2018 pool. This is tremendous growth, especially considering it was achieved in a single year. We have also been proud to change the conversations within our application review panels: panelists are no longer accepting false claims over diversity goals, and we’ve seen a decrease in proposed projects that give lip service rather than real commitment to racial diversity and equity.

We’ve supported anti-racist thinking by contracting artEquity to work with Expanding Audiences participants since November 2017. Founder and Executive Director Carmen Morgan and Deputy Director Michael Robertson have brought extraordinary energy and patience into our training spaces, asking probing questions, introducing new concepts and practices, and providing the perspective of outside consultants who can objectively observe patterns, epiphanies, and change.

The workshops have been challenging, exhausting, upsetting, mind-expanding, life-changing, and exhilarating. We’ve needed more frequent sessions than we can afford — but also recognize that it shouldn’t take flying in a training team for our participants to have the hard internal and external examinations that the workshops make possible. We are fortunate that Deputy Director Gena Mimozo is a highly motivated arts activist and warrior for equity; in Fall 2019, Gena completed Facilitator Training with artEquity and is now part of a national network of changemakers.

Participation from the original cohort of thirty-four organizations has ebbed and flowed over time. Since March 2018, we’ve worked primarily with ten organizations that received $301,800 in funding for new initiatives, including intergenerational storytelling and photography workshops for SAGE elders and LGBTQ-identifying teens (Alice Austen House); internal racial equity training for staff, board, and volunteers (Staten Island Children’s Museum, Historic Richmond Town); and the presentation of free, live public programs that create dialogue and amplify the voices and talents of Black and Latine artists (MakerPark Radio, Staten Island Museum).

Simultaneously, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs began to require that members of its Cultural Institutions Group participate in racial equity training and create and adopt Racial Equity Action Plans for the agency’s review. The timeline for completion was breathtakingly fast, but three of the Staten Island-based CIGs had already been engaged with racial equity through Expanding Audiences, and were ahead of the game. We’re proud to have been a part of that level of systemic change.

An additional $124,900 was made available by the funders, and we’re now two years into the implementation phase for programming. WICG and Staten Island Arts have used this year to focus on accountability for making the changes, programs, and practices fully operationalized and institutionalized. We’ve seen some organizations overhaul internal policies and practices, some who have fulfilled long-held plans of expansion or the re-calibration of programs, and some who have significantly changed how they engage with BIPOC populations on Staten Island. Some organizations merely checked the diversity box and continued operating as they have for decades. Some couldn’t deliver on their measurables, even after having received extensive personal and group consultations with WICG and our staff; we made the tough choice to eliminate funding for the three organizations unable to meet the initiative’s goals. But we see and hear changes around us. We’re seeing the impact in action.

By the time this GIA Reader lands in your inbox, we’ll have disbanded the formal structure of Expanding Audiences. We’re taking off the training wheels that we gave the participants. When I next write to you, I’ll be sharing out our Top Takeaways, which might guide your work or the work of the organizations that you fund, particularly those in predominantly White regions. As we’re reflecting on what’s been accomplished, the Staten Island Arts staff is using what’s been learned as a means to determine what shape the next phase of our racial equity work will take. This is work without an end date in sight: we will persist until there is true cultural equity on Staten Island.