GIA Wrap Up and Thoughts on the Equity Social / Racial Issue

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on…………”

When I first got into this field, the dominant buzz was all about PARADIGM. Irrationally, I grew to hate that word. Over time our lexicon changes. Here is a summary of the GIA Conference in BUZZ WORDS (all of which I heard repeatedly during the three days):

Curate UNPACK  authentic  Cohort  Value mapping TRANSFORMING Social Justice EQUITY intersection RISK Agency CAPACITY BUILDING  story telling Conversations GUARDRAILS  2.0  challenges COMMUNITY of PRACTICE  DIVERSITY Sustainability TRUST Outcomes Recipe MARKETING  Collective Impact  excellence inclusion Transparency

Whew! Master these concepts and you too can sound erudite and informed at any gathering of the field! While some of these are actually helpful in framing discussions, one can only hope some of the more pretentious of these will be short-lived.

The 2014 GIA Conference was, I think, very successful. This gathering remains small enough to be intimate, but large enough so that the conversations are expansive. As the funding community continues to grapple with some very large challenges, as a body it is making steady progress on working together to, if not collaborate on every approach, at least coordinate some of what use to be very disparate and wide ranging approaches. Perhaps the word that ought to be included in the vocabulary above is the word “SHARING”. Increasingly this community is doing just that – sharing knowledge, practices, research and data, approaches, concerns and more; sharing all of that not just with each other, but across the field. The challenges all remain, with ever greater complexity involved. GIA is pitching a big tent, with notable success.


Several sessions dealt with the Equity and Racial / Social Justice Issue – detailing pilot programs that are beginning to develop tools and approaches to addressing the issue. I won’t detail them here, as they really are at the beginning stages. Suffice it to say, I think we are moving steadily, if slowly, from talk to action on a practical basis. What I hope is that we can ramp up and move faster.

Personal Opinion Piece: It strikes me that if we are to really move towards a future that corrects the mistakes and omissions of the past, we are going to have to abandon the idea that we can treat this as a challenge, and move to treating the issue of equity, of social and racial justice (within our field anyway) as an obsession. We need to move away from the dispassionate and detached position of observer to one where we voluntarily and eagerly move as committed activists to change – not in the long term, but now. This isn’t just another issue or challenge for us – this is a defining moment for us. We can’t simply treat it as business as usual and approach it as just another issue to deal with. It’s more fundamental than that.

It also strikes me that if we are to institute real change, and do it sooner rather than later, we need to find ways to move towards equity that will unite us, not pit us against each other. Thus, on the money allocation side of equity, we have got to find ways to convince those among us who are going to have net losses by virtue of a realignment to a fairer distribution of wealth that it is ultimately in their own best interests to support that realignment. I believe that to be the case, but we need to (here I am, OMG, about to use one of the buzzwords) unpack exactly how that might play out. We must, I think, avoid at all costs creating internal sector factions and the silo-ization of our field. We have to avoid demonizing any group, casting blame or boxing anybody into a corner. But saying that does NOT mean we have to now go very slowly so as not to upset any apple carts. Just the opposite, I think. We need to move as quickly as we can to reaching a situation where equity exists (remembering the point made in the pre conference, that equity does not always mean absolute equality.)

The questions for us are: Are we going to exhibit real leadership and foresight for our collective future? Are we going to make course corrections that will ultimately serve us all (painful to some as those corrections may be), or are we going to procrastinate and find ways to avoid any real movement? As I said, this is, I think, a defining moment for us. Going too slowly, too deliberately now is a mistake. While I am not suggesting we act with total abandon before we fully understand all the ramifications and nuances and potential impacts and consequences of the pursuit of a strategy, I am suggesting that, at this point, we pretty much understand those ramifications, nuances and potential impacts and consequences, and we need to boldly move towards implementation of a new reality. And that new reality is a fairer and more equitable allocation of resources and opportunities that will give voice (or a louder voice perhaps) to those who really haven’t been seated at the big table yet. This is just my opinion. Others can reasonably disagree of course.

If we dilly dally, and jibber jabber, and hesitate, we will only put ourselves in the position of “also rans”. The equity issue cuts across a wide swath of our entire culture. The change is coming no matter what. This isn’t a party we want to come late to. We need to get out front on equity and justice issues now. Because it is the right thing to do. Private funders and arts organizations need to convince their Boards, government agencies need to convince the decision makers, and the various parts of our field need to convince each other to act. We don’t want to be in the middle of the pack as the demographic societal shifts change the mechanisms by which our society runs itself. The Nonprofit Arts need to be at the forefront of this leadership. And the train is leaving (if it hasn’t already left) the station. All aboard!

What does that mean? To me, it means a significant shift in the allocation of funding. That shift does not necessarily have to be exclusionary to those that heretofore got the lion’s share, but it does mean a meaningful shift that now gives substantial resources to the smaller and mid-sized and multicultural organizations. And yes, that will be somewhat, but not entirely, at the expense of the larger, more Euro centric and established white cultural organizations. We should also bear in mind, that as to scarce and limited financial support, there are always two options. Just like in your own personal budgets you have two options when pressed for funds: you can spend less, or make more. The arts need to more deeply explore both – and especially the ways we can make more (including a state of the art (no pun intended) , world class lobbying (not advocacy) campaign to get a fair share of the government largess that we help to pay for. As I said above, we need to demonstrate to those organizations that will lose some of their base funding, that the positive benefits to them outweigh that loss. We need to identify what those benefits are, and make them an integral part of the whole approach.

What are those benefits? A rising tide that will raise all our boats. Inroads and connections to the Millennials for whom this is not even a debatable issue. New intersections, collaborations and potential windfalls for all of us. And new ways to work together to leverage our collective numbers. It may also yield us some new partnerships and the benefits that come with being seen as true leaders. The list goes on.

What else does it mean? It means we have to dramatically rethink our criteria for all the things we value and how that valuation is manifested. We will need to foster and nurture cross platform decision making and collaboration on a level that has nothing to do with programs or projects, and much more to do with conceptual thinking about how we can leverage the strength of our numbers. It means we can no longer sit at isolated tables when we consider both sector wide cultural policy and what is right for each of our organizations. It means we will have to build a level of trust and intimacy with each other that, quite simply, has never existed before. It means we will not only have to pursue, but succeed in that pursuit, at finding ways that when we say art and culture, the consensus meaning of that phrase is automatically all inclusive.

It will entail some very hard decision making both at the individual organization level, and at the sector level. It will mean that there is a general, if begrudging acceptance, that we are not going to solve everyone’s problems, and that we are not going to be able to meet everyone’s needs. That will be very difficult, but it absolutely, positively has to happen. And it means that we must redefine the reality as it exists and our relationship to, and acceptance of, the changing dynamics of the world – ours and the wider one (neither of which we have complete control over).

Can we do it? The more appropriate question is probably: can we not? Ebola has everybody freaked out now, and to an extent, rightly so. It is a dangerous and frightening threat. But it is manageable. What scares me about Ebola is that it may just be a test case. If (or perhaps when) a deadly virus mutates so that it is airborne, then we will face a real crisis that may endanger the world. How we handle the current Ebola threat is telling about how we may handle the future. I think the same may be true of the future of the arts: How we handle the big dangers to our thriving in the world right now, may tell a great deal about how we are able to handle some much bigger threats down the road.

The chief attributes we need to succeed as we remake our hierarchies and fundamentally shift from one (ugh, here it is again) paradigm to another, include, it seems to me, first and foremost mutual goodwill towards one another. It also will include bold action and vision, risk, hard decision making, and tenacity. It will involve sacrifice, compromise, and new thinking about how to proceed – together.

We, of course, need to proceed methodically – but not in the sense that methodical implies dragging our feet, or plodding along; methodical in the sense that we have thought things through and are willing to do what has to be done to emerge stronger, healthier and equipped to withstand the pressures the future will surely bring. This is about surviving and thriving – for all of us.

Have a great week.

Thanks GIA.

Don’t Quit