Starting with a Different Story: Transforming practice to advance racial justice

This session shared findings from a partnership between GIA and the Cultural Strategies Council and the National Accelerator for Cultural Innovation to explore how non-arts funders can transform their practice to advance racial justice via cultural expression and the arts.

As another systems practitioner aspiring to transformational systems change (from the public health sector and local government), I greatly appreciated and enjoyed the breadth and sharpness of this panel’s expertise and analysis. First was the reminder by Kiley Arroyo of the Cultural Strategies Council that transformational change involves engaging multiple levers at once—at the foundational level, that of “deep culture” or paradigm change. What happens when we start by decentering the Western, settler colonial, extractive worldview? What happens when we start with a different story?

This is not new for the GIA audience, but I assure you we seldom hear this in most of the non-arts public policy sector, and we need to! It’s a catchy phrase to say that artists “imagine the future,” and most probably would give lip service agreement. But when Kiley spells out the role of the arts, I start to concretely see its central function in a holistic strategy of changemaking: “The arts supports new relationships, ideas, identities, behaviors to emerge. It creates space for individuals and groups to encounter difference productively, to engage in meaningful dialogue and develop mutual understanding and find common cause—including new ways to distribute wealth and well-being.”

Jen Cole, of ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, gave important context for the state of the public sector in this moment. We have been shrinking and will contract much more in the wake of the pandemic, at a time when the need for public services is greater than ever. Cities and counties are facing structural budget deficits across the board as tax revenues plummet, meanwhile, we must figure out how to come up with expanded COVID-19 testing and treatment, quarantine and isolation support for largely low-income communities hit hard by the virus, food and rent assistance to prevent growing economic hardship and the threat of large-scale housing loss. It’s both breathtaking and heartbreaking and so hard to see from the weeds how this can be both a crisis and an opportunity, as Jen posits. Yet, that is exactly what we must do—face squarely this long-term reckoning with corroded public trust in government, and beyond that, the question of our collective relationship to our government.

What I found most exciting was Jen’s insight about the “catalyst class” of public sector leaders—middle managers, many of them BIPOC women, who have been leading and driving change across sectors. I’ve seen this firsthand both in my health department, and as part of a health equity fellowship program with public health professionals of color in cities across the country. This really is the fertile ground for innovation and institutional and systems change inside government, and it really is nurtured through networks and relationships, often informal and project-based or “opportunistic” as my own boss likes to say. However, we struggle against institutional and interpersonal racism, with how to shift power and manage up for change inside hierarchical structures, with the limits of civil service career ceilings and also the fact that one-third of public sector employees will retire in the near future. Jen poses a bold and strategic question: What does it take to make this leadership wider and deeper, to support and advance these leaders in cross-cultural, catalytic spaces?

After nearly a decade in public policy work, this rings so true to me: “People lead and drive change. We need to build enough muscle so that the BIPOC leaders are driving conversations, and figure out how to support them in place, build networks and build the policy muscle. We need a groundswell of people who are resourced in networks for deep and generational change at a grassroots level.”