Equity Strategies

by F. Javier Torres (bio), senior program officer for arts and culture, The Boston Foundation

I arrived in the world of philanthropy in 2011 after almost six years overseeing a multidisciplinary art program that is part of an affordable housing community, Villa Victoria. Those years working side-by-side with residents afforded me an amazing education and have been some of the most rewarding of my career. I attended my first Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) conference this year, where a publication commissioned by the National Center for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) highlighting funding inequities in the arts: Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change (Holly Sidford, Helicon Collaborative) was shared. Although I am grateful to see data and research that publicly reinforces the need for equitable funding in the arts, I agree with others who have said that data will not solve this issue. So how do we as arts grantmakers take action?

To answer that question, I reflected on a speech given by Dr. Manuel Pastor. Dr. Pastor shared his theory of change through a comparison of chess and jigsaw puzzles. He shared that our communities (and as a result our nation) continue to play too much chess. Chess is a black and white conversation; in chess each piece has its predetermined level of power, and in chess, we play at taking over other people’s territory. Dr. Pastor challenges us to play more jigsaw puzzles. In jigsaw puzzles there are a myriad of colors and every piece is as important as the next. True success is only found in jigsaw puzzles when each piece is in the right position and they are placed together so seamlessly that we can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. Each piece has equal importance.

I am simultaneously reminded of the significance of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the reality is that “race [still] matters.” Colorblindness does not exist in our culture. Complex structures and systems have been deployed (and continue to be built) to keep certain people in power and others “power-less.” Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change takes two steps that advance CRT objectives: 1.) It continues to unmask and expose racism in one of its many permutations and 2.) It provides practical departure questions that may lead to actionable steps.

Returning to a series of readings on CRT reminded me that “supporting civil rights” has rarely stimulated an increase in equity or access. Historically, “interest-convergence” (D. Bell, Shades of Brown: New Perspectives on School Desegregation, 1980) has proven to be a more effective tool to catalyze movements that reverse traditional racist structures. In other words, where do your needs and my needs intersect? We must make philanthropic investments in marginalized communities the “easier” choice and make clear that they will yield the greater “return on investment.” That is the basis of my recommendations to the field.

As private foundations take steps towards investing in marginalized communities, here are several points for consideration: we must listen more than we speak, remember that institutional and community relationships built on trust take time. We must understand that we do not always have the best answers, that we can ask for help, and should be held accountable for upholding equity. Finally, we must identify experts within those communities we wish to engage, and be prepared to be uncomfortable.

As a grantmaker I aspire to integrate this philosophy into my work and include everyone from the receptionist, the donor, the grantee, and the board member in what I do. Each of us has a role to play in the realization of a community vision. We must listen to others’ needs, find value in their strengths, and provide opportunities for success in order to make incremental change.

As funders we need to analyze our relationship and relevance to the communities we serve as part of our mission. Our ability to do so will play a vital role in advancing the transformation necessary for arts and culture to thrive. There is no “silver bullet” that will solve the challenges articulated in this report. This process will require each of us to examine our own biases and privilege. Staying dedicated to the process through that pain that is “… the breaking of the shell of our understanding” (K. Gibran). It is essential to achieving real equity across all segments of our field.