The Racial Equity Coding Project: Unpacking The “Why”

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Sherylynn Sealy:
Welcome to a podcast by Grantmakers in the Arts, a National Membership Association of public and private arts and culture funders. I'm Sherylynn Sealy, GIA Senior Program Manager. It is a matter of fact that there are large disparities between the grant funding received by ALANA or BIPOC organizations, versus the grant funding received by white organizations. And while funders do become increasingly more aware of this fact, it's been a bit of a challenge to get more accurate data around how things are changing for the better. So to get some answers to this GIA is participating in a Racial Equity Coding Project, which kicked off as a culmination of research, led by Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, with Callahan Consulting for the Arts. And so this work actually started back in 2018, and over time we've had the privilege of working with various funders who are also interested in more accurate data collection, as well as understanding how much funding really is going to ALANA or BIPOC organizations.

So today, we're glad to have Susan Feder, Program Officer for Arts and Culture at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Adam Fong, Program Officer in Performing Arts at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Maurine Knighton, Program Director for the Arts at Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. So as some of the catalysts of this project, they're going to kick off our podcast series, letting us know how the project started, and their lessons learned. So, welcome everyone. Thank you for joining us.

Susan Feder:
Hey, Sherylynn.

Adam Fong:
Hello.

Susan Feder:
Hi.

Sherylynn Sealy:
Hi. And so just to kick us off, let us know how you're showing up today. Let's take a moment, introduce yourselves please.

Susan Feder:
Hi, I'm Susan Feder. Thank you so much Sherylynn, for this introduction. I'm showing up with appreciation for GIA, not only for this podcast, but for calling the question of equitable funding support for arts organizations and artists of color. I'm also appreciative of Maurine, for acting on these issues and sharing in 2018, and then more of broadly in 2020. And to Suzanne Callahan, for structuring this project with such rigor and with such patience for us. I'm also showing up in a time warp because this has taken me back to 2018 and 2020, to review the materials and remind myself what it was we did in that period. Thank you.

Sherylynn Sealy:
Thank you, Susan. Adam.

Adam Fong:
Yes. Hello, everyone. Very excited to be on this discussion with you all. I'm showing up today with I think curiosity, that's been a thread for me throughout this project is believing we know something, and then really needing a way to discover together whether our assumptions were actually leading us somewhere, whether our intentions were leading us somewhere, and to have a way to make that visible and talk about it. So curiosity, I think in the context of reevaluation. And another thing that I hope comes through in our discussion today is just being happy to be in this work together, working collegially, and in a cohort. That's been really meaningful to me throughout this process, and so I'm glad to continue that today as part of our conversation.

Sherylynn Sealy:
That's great. Thank you, Adam. And Maureen.

Maurine Knighton:
Hello. You know, the curse of going last is other people say what you were going to say, and of course this time is no different. But I will add nevertheless, that I'm showing up with a great deal of gratitude. I'm grateful for the fields continuing commitment to progress in the equitable distribution of our resources. And equally grateful for colleagues at GIA, at Hewlett, at Mellon, and at Callahan Consulting for the Arts in particular, as well as the other funders who are participating in the current cohort of this project. But it's interesting, I started by saying, I'm grateful for the fields continuing commitment to progress, and that is 100% accurate. At the same time, I'm simultaneously encouraged by that, and impatient. You mentioned at the outset, Sherylynn, that this project started in 2018. That is accurate. But in fact, this work started, for me as an arts' funder, much for earlier during my board service at GIA. So we've been at it for a minute.

Sherylynn Sealy:
That's right. Yes. And I can't wait to more about that. And that actually brings us to our first question, Maurine. So why did you decide to embark on this Racial Equity Coding project journey?

Maurine Knighton:
Well, we work a few reasons, but all related to one another. We wanted to be accountable to ourselves first and foremost. We felt like we were espousing a set of values and intentions, but we weren't sure if we were bridging the divide between intention and result. So, as we explored that more, discovered we really didn't have adequate tools to do that in a meaningful, consistent, and appropriate way. And so we wanted to figure out how to do better within DDCF. We wanted to see where we were, level set, and then set some benchmarks against which we could take action for the institution. But also for us as funders, and individuals in the arts program at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. My program happens to be, out of the four of us, three us are women of color. And so we actually were very deeply invested in reliving our individual values about what we want to see in the world. But then also the final component was this notion of accountability to those we intend to benefit.

So we really wanted some way to better tell whether what we thought was happening, was happening, and some of the reporting that we had seen was not encouraging in that regard. But it also was not adequately detailed to tell the whole story. So we saw an opportunity to try and build out a next level of scaffolding, getting to that full story.

Sherylynn Sealy:
That's great. Thank you so much, Maureen. And I actually want to kick it over to you Susan and Adam.

Susan Feder:
Sure. Well, the simple answer is I can never say no to Maureen, and I'm always better off when I say this. But I joined the GIA board later than Maureen. So I think the moment of profound eye opening came when I read Holly Siford's, the Helicon report, Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change in 2011, and started interrogating our own practices, vis a vis what that report just put out in stark black and white. But more profoundly the follow-up to that, not just money, I think was published in 2017. And there was a disconnect between the research saying the situation was getting worse. And my lived experience as a funder, we had an African American president, Ford Foundation had an African American president. I knew how these, the grant making was, is shifting at those foundations and at others.

And by then I was a GIA board member, and it just... The lived experience seemed so contrary to what the data were telling us. And knowing that Duke had undergone this initial research project, I thought that we had as much to learn about our grant making practices and that the field might benefit as well. I was experiencing a frustration also, that predominantly white institutions that were doing deep dives into racial equity work, either generally or specifically with a particular grant, weren't being captured. And I'll give us an example, the National Performance Network, which was administering for us our comprehensive organizational health initiative, which they called Leveraging a Network for Equity. And those grants weren't showing up, which suggested to me that there were problems with the data going in. And then like Maureen, to understand our trend lines with more nuance than had been available to us. And I felt we had a responsibility as a funder to educate ourselves in the field.

Sherylynn Sealy:
Sure. That's great. Thank you, Susan. And Adam, please do share.

Adam Fong:
Yeah, it's so fascinating to hear these reasons behind Maureen and Susan bringing their knowledge and expertise into this conversation. 2018 was the year I became a grant maker. Before that, I was working at a very small community-based organization. Most of my career had been spent in music nonprofits, and so I was well aware of these challenges for who gets the funding, and whose work is visible, honored, and appreciated. And I think working in that kind of context, it became really clear to me from firsthand experience, that advancing racial equity really brought in questions of power and questions of who has the sort of resources to advance the work and to make things better for people who are doing the work in the field. And so coming into this conversation, I think I was most excited, because it seemed like the best time possible for Hewlett, and for me as a new grant maker to engage in this kind of work.

We had to us refreshed our strategies in 2018, 2019. And we were in the process of implementing new directions for our grant making, that asked us to really focus on who the beneficiaries were of the organizations we were supporting, and to think really deeply about how those beneficiary groups, how those people related to the organizations and the work. So the way that the coding project gave us a platform to discuss those things in great detail, to learn from other colleagues, it was just really perfectly timed for where we were in our strategy development process.

Sherylynn Sealy:
That's great. Thank you for sharing that, Adam. And thank you all for sharing., So for this next question, I'm going to be asking about the by, for, and about measurement framework. And at Grantmakers in the Arts, we talk a lot about what is an ALANA organization, what is a BIPOC organization? And we think about the leader of the organization, we think about the community that's being served. And there's a lot of conversation about like, well, what counts as an ALANA, organization or not? It can get a little complicated, and you really got to kind of nail those things down when you're thinking about collecting data. So I'm kicking this over to you, Maureen. Can you talk a little bit about the framework?

Maurine Knighton:
Yeah, sure. And in fact, this actually was born at GIA during my time as a board member. And for part of that time, I was the Chair of the Racial Equity Committee. And one of the things that was a live conversation then was like, what is an ALANA or BIPOC organization? How do we know it was as thorny then as it is now as you have those conversations? And we decided that we would do well to consider the by, for, and about framework, which actually hearkens back to some of the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, in the last century. So it's not a new notion, but the idea was to say that to be an ALANA or BIPOC organization, the organization needed to have primary intentions, practices, and a mission, that were by and for ALANA or BIPOC artist, cultures and communities. And about those communities as well.

So we felt that it was not something you could say in a very simple way, but you had to consider different aspects and characteristics of the organizations to make a determination. And a combination of those, most likely would be what you needed to look at. So you wanted to look at not only a mission, as I mentioned earlier, but who the leadership is on the executive side, on the artistic front, and also on the board. You wanted to understand the programmatic content, and what is centered in that programmatic content. And you wanted to cast the critical eye at the artists who were involved, and the communities served, to whom the work of that institution is directed. So, some combination of all of that needed to be present and in significant measure, in order for an organization to be considered as an ALANA or BIPOC organization.

Sherylynn Sealy:
That's great. Thank you. And as part of the project, you've all had a level of experience with the framework, and you've kind of fine tuned it, had some thinking about it, like this is working, this is not. So, I'd love to bring you in Susan and Adam, and hear some of your reflections working with the framework.

Adam Fong:
Yeah. Thank you. I'm happy to fill this one first. I think building on what Maureen said, the nuance of the framework, I view it as a kind of invitation to see the work of artists and arts organizations in a different way. And I think when we talk about coding frameworks, the frightening thing is that I think people fear being reduced, right? No one wants to be a checkbox. No one wants to be a yes or a no. And my reflection after working with this framework, is that it really is a framework that rewards time. It asked us to think about our grantees in a different way to translate their work in a certain way. And that is an activity that at least for me, I found it demanded some time because it demanded some study, and some thinking, or rethinking, or questioning what we assumed was true.

But it also, especially when done together, and we have the luxury of working in a team here at Hewlett, and encouraged some really meaningful discussion. And so I think in that way, it lifted up some nuance about the ways that artists and organizations were relating to communities, what they thought they were doing with their work, or where they were drawing inspiration and meaning from. I think it led to those sorts of discoveries within the arts. And it also gave us a great platform to discuss across the foundation, how we understood racial equity was woven into our work, where we felt like we were maybe missing things, and where we really needed to learn. So, there is a context, of course, in this work in the last couple of years where there's incredibly heightened sensitivity to racial equity, and how systemic racism shows up in our programs, whether we're supporting communities through the arts, whether we're supporting the environment, combating climate change, protecting rights of various kinds.

And having a tool like this, I think allows us to bring in a lot of that context that in us, in our work, it's about at the bay area, it's about art specifically, the practices and the disciplines that we're supporting, the certain sizes of organizations. Those things can be alienating when we're talking about advancing racial equity across different sectors. But being able to have some language that's the by, for, and about, to have some sort of scale, to be able to quantify to some degree, and to show how that lifts up nuance in our field. That's a very powerful mechanism to show the reflective practice that we're engaged in, and to also challenge our colleagues in a way that helps us learn from the kind of rubrics that they're using for the similar types of analysis in their work.

Sherylynn Sealy:
That's great. Thank you, Adam.

Susan Feder:
I had a great deal of respect for the fact that this was a multivalent assessment tool. That said, I found myself occasionally, or maybe more than occasionally, challenged by the definitions and seeing how the fit into the grant making. I think that the by was very clear cut, and possible to identify an ALANA organization by the criteria that Maureen spoke about a couple of minutes ago. The about was fairly straightforward, but maybe a little less so. Does the fact that an organization is ALANA mean that the grant activity is oriented toward racial equity? Is that a rise out of the definition of being an organization, or is it have to be more exacting than that? We assessed generously, particularly with regards to organizations that were ALANA. It became more complicated with organizations that were not. If a predominantly white organization brought in leadership of color, who was charged with shift in the organization, or building on shifts that had already occurred, that was often racial equity work, but not necessarily ALANA-based. And so this aggregating ALANA and racial equity seemed important to us.

The biggest challenges for us however, and I say this constructively not critically, we're with the for, because a grant... Who is the for? Is the grant the recipient of the money, or is it the communities and audiences benefiting from it? So we do a lot of fellowships. So if we were doing fellowships for black playwrights, for example, but they were working in organizations that were considered predominantly white, and that the work was being disseminated, was reaching new audiences there, that was a for that was community-based, as opposed to grant-based. But this going back to the differences between organizational intent, and grant activity intent.

Maurine Knighton:
If I could just add onto that, both your comment and Adam's. Susan, what's been so fascinating about this process is for me, at least as you start out with one set of assumptions, even though you consider yourself to kind of have a fairly clear idea of what's happening, and that you quickly get disabused of that originating assumption, as you start to think about these very nuanced questions like those that the two of you have posed. So, if you had done this process of sort of making assignments of grants before the working guide, and then redid them with the working guide and compared them side by side, I really believe you'd come out with some very different conclusions in many cases. So it has been deeply useful to me as an invitation to think again. And yet again, and with more care, with more well-rounded considerations. And perhaps different points of entry to thinking about your perceptions of a given institution, or grant that you've made. So this is a situation where the process is product in a lot of senses.

Sherylynn Sealy:
Right. Nuance is a big word here that keeps coming up. And Adam, I think you were going to chime in with something else.

Adam Fong:
In discussion around how we rated certain organizations, we would sometimes go to that space, you mentioned Susan, where there's what organization says or aspires to, and then there's what we know of its work. And of course our knowledge of any organization's work is imperfect. But acknowledging that there is that gap, that's part of, I think, what keeps people moving in this work. Like they want more, they want different, they want to see a world that looks different, and that's part of the creative impetus. But it also makes it tough for us to translate into a coding system. To what extent are they achieving this thing that they aspire to do? And I think that gap is scary only because I realized in this process, this tool helped me realize, that there is another gap in terms of what organizations say they aspire to do, and how we think about them in our strategies.

So, for example, at Hewlett, we have different strategic buckets that are intended to support communities in the bay area as the beneficiary group, versus artists of the bay area as a beneficiary group. And of course, for many organizations, their work benefits both. And they would probably say in their missions that neither is the core audience, there's a blend going on. And so these are not hard and fast lines, but there's always that tension I think, when we make grant decisions of trying to translate the organization's mission, and its programs, and how they're weighted, against how we are organizing our thinking in terms of how much are we investing to support certain communities, or certain groups of artists, and how do we make those decisions equitably. Whether we're talking about racial equity, or other forms of equity. So understanding where those gaps were, I think, is the type of realization that we would not have come to without working through with this particular set of guiding principles, of definitions in the rubric, and cohort-based support.

Sherylynn Sealy:
Thank you so much for that, Adam. And I love that you just said... Started talking about the guide, and I don't know if we would've known about the gaps without the guide. And there's this guide, right? Like, can you talk a little bit about the guide?

Maurine Knighton:
Sure. Well, great question, first of all. And so, let me start at the end, which is to say that the plan for the guide is for it to be widely available to the field of arts philanthropy. And the other intention is out of a recognition that it'll never really be finished, and that we are looking for it to be an open source document that undergoes continual refinement, based on people's application and experience with it. Having said that, we are still iterating in a little bit of a closed network to try and get to a place where we are ready to share it with our colleagues in the field. We've done three rounds as was referred to earlier. There may be one more. It's a little uncertain, but we're considering whether there is one more round, to be sure that we have done as much as we can do, before we open it up to others to make it better.

So it's not available right now for folks to find, but what we are hoping is if we are going to move forward with one more round, that there'll be multiple points of entry to active engagement with contributing to the working guide before we reach that point where we're ready to disseminate it. So stay tuned, and please respond to calls of interest as well. So if they're coming up at some point down the line, sooner rather than later.

Sherylynn Sealy:
That's great. And as you go through these different iterations, I'm sure there are big questions that you're still sitting with. So can you talk a little bit about some of those questions that are still lingering as you come to that sort of end point where you share out the guide? And this is for everybody.

Maurine Knighton:
Yeah. Well, I'll start by just saying... And actually this is maybe a little bit more of a answer that responds not only of what you just asked, but the previous thing about distributing the guide. And one of the reasons that we want to get it as close as possible, is because we aspire perhaps, if it's a useful tool, to see if it can be applied to other aspects of equity to which we are all paying attention, and about which we all care, like gender, equity, disability, and LGBTQ plus communities and so forth. So, that's one of the reasons we'll want to iterate one more time. And so that is one of the big questions. Is this tool going to be a tool that's not only useful for assessing racial equity, but the other areas of concern that we're all prioritizing and dedicating our time, and energy, and other resources to?

Sherylynn Sealy:
That's great. A good reason to take time to make sure all those things are included. Adam or Susan, any questions that you might be thinking about that might inform some of what happens in the guide?

Adam Fong:
Yeah, there's two that are popping to mind for me, that came up on our team. One of them, because we do work as a team, is the question of how much consensus there needs to be. And we have three very different program officers on our team, which we love. You know that diversity of experience and thinking really benefits and strengthens our work. But when it comes to coding something and building in institutional level accountability, that's a space where we hope to aspire to get beyond our personal perspective, into something that's slightly more objective, and then has a certain level of consistency. And I think that came up not just within our own team, but as we worked across teams, in instances where Duke and Hewlett, or Hewlett and Mellon, were funding the same organization, we wondered and had a look at, are we coding them the same way?

So I think as the tool becomes more broadly used, that's a great and live question that can help us grow together. And I wonder for the sake of the guide, and also for the sake of accelerating the work, to what extent the work needs to happen individually, with institutions, and to what extent the work can happen more collect with groups of funders working together, led by GIA or by other cohorts? So that's one question for me about how much consensus do we need to be assured that the tool is working as intended. And then the other piece I think of the puzzle, and maybe this is pandemic trauma talking, I think the working guide really helps us think about who is advancing racial equity? Where are investments pushing this cause forward in the world at large? And so we somewhat sidestep the question of who's working against the tide here, because those aren't efforts that we generally support.

But as we look out into things that are really suppressing culture, suppressing people of color, harming communities of color, I think a lot of what we've seen in the last couple of years is acknowledgement that those pressures are enormous. They come from other sectors that we don't engage with directly as arts funders, but we know that they influence the conditions under which all of our grantees work. Whether we're talking about housing pressures, cost of living in city centers, alienation from neighbors in the way that our cities, and towns, and counties have been built up, political alienation. These forces that work against racial equity in many cases are things that we can't address directly, but are so important to our context. And so I think we're grappling with understanding what is the suite of tools? The working guide can be one tool amongst many for us that addresses this really important question of how our work connects with, is influenced by, and contributes to racial equity.

So finding that context of where this tool is most useful and how we will sort of weave it into the many other things that we consider in our work, is a big open question. It's a scary one, but it's also a really important one, in my opinion.

Susan Feder:
Such important points, Adam. Thank you for raising them. Just that's real food for thought for me as well. One of the best recommendations the guide has is that there should be an orientation and a sample testing by the staff that are undertaking this project, and that there should be some consistency in the staff that are doing it. Just to try to get at the questions you were raising, Adam, about different program offices with different points of view about this work. That was very helpful for us. I want to take this in a slightly different direction, if I can, Sherylynn. Thinking about this racial equity project as a tool, this project counts numbers of grants. It doesn't count budget. And what percent of our portfolio is going to this work, and that allocation of funds can be on a case by case, grant by grant. It can be on a budget within a grant that some aspects...

We make multi-year grants, and very often our grants are funding multiple things. So how much of that grant, we can say is definitely going to what we consider to be racial equity work? And then possibly the most important is what the size of the grant is relative to the organizational size. That if you're working with a million dollar organization and making a $1,000,000 grant, it's much different if you're working with a $200,000 organization making a $100,000 grant. And I say that, mindful of the fact that many small arts organizations are not small by choice, and that their budgets seldom account for volunteer labor, or donated space, or other forms of activity that are not captured in their budgets. So even if we are saying that we are funding a relatively larger proportion of a small ALANA arts organization's budget, it may not be an accurate count either. So I think these are in sort of the version 2.0 of this work, or the version 3.0 are questions I would like to try to tackle. And it's immensely labor intensive.

Sherylynn Sealy:
Yeah. Well, I appreciate you sharing that, Susan. But to bring us to a close, are there any final thoughts that you'd like to leave listeners with for today?

Maurine Knighton:
One of the things that's been a really important revelation for us is the fact that this has as more steps to it than we thought it did. Susan just very eloquently described one of the steps that we haven't even gotten to yet, in terms of the dollars. But also, when we embarked on this, we just thought, oh, well, we just need to take a finer grain look at the candid data, and then we'll be able to see what's going on. Well, what we learned is that, it's not there. And it's not there for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is our responsibility as grant makers, and what we are reporting out, the completeness and quality of the data that we are giving to candid. Then there's also the structure that they have processing that data. Even though they are in the process of revising their taxonomy, it still won't have nearly enough granularity to give us the kind of information that we are surfacing through this project.

So there is a bridge to cross from here to there. But first, we got to get us better as arts grant makers, at reporting the data that they do accept to candid. And then we have to build on top of that with regard to racial equity. And then we're looking at how does it play out when we start to look at other important concerns, as I mentioned earlier. Like gender equity, disability equity, and other areas. And then the dollars that Susan mentioned. So, I guess the upshot is that we have a long way to go. We have established a good body of work, but this is the kind of work that's going to require stamina, and ongoing commitment from us as an entire field over time. It's not one and done. And much in the way that the societal questions that we are grappling with in this country around racial equity, are not going to be one and done. They took many years for things to get to where they are.

And yet, oftentimes we don't have the concomitant patience and discipline to really be dedicated to addressing the societal ills that are really required to make a difference. So that's a lesson learned from my perspective.

Sherylynn Sealy:
All right, thanks, Maureen. Adam, Susan, lessons or final thoughts?

Adam Fong:
Yeah, one lesson. And I think this is one of those things that as a sort of newbie grant maker, I grapple with on a weekly basis, is given the time and the energy that I have as one person, how much do I invest in using the power I have to make the change that's possible now, compared with investing in using the power I have to make possible changes in the future? And I think that's the kind of stamina that Maureen is referring to. There's always opportunities to change things in the short term, right? But building a system like this, doing the hard work, taking a few steps back in order to go a few steps forward, it's an institutional commitment, and yet that is the only way to get to institution level accountability. So that's a lesson that I learn in so many instances, and I think it's a part of what people refer to as the art and science of being a grant maker.

Sometimes coding just sounds like science, but the more that we work in partnership with other funders, I can see the tools like this, they have room for both. There's room for human interpretation in this guide, and yet there's a rigor that draws from scientific approaches that really helps our decision making. And I think that's where we can improve over the course of years, is to acknowledge that there's always going to be human elements to this, that the road is long, but this is a platform in which we can contribute to that broader institution level change, by bringing our own personal wisdom and experience into the process.

Sherylynn Sealy:
That's great. Thanks Adam. And Susan, close us off.

Susan Feder:
Coming up last, not enviable. I was also going to talk about our responsibility as funders, but Maureen, to report the data out better to candid and to work with them, to try to find those points of alignment. So, when you'd asked us earlier before the podcast, about whether this could be a useful tool for funders that weren't foundations. And I would like to answer in the affirmative, the strong affirmative. So I think the more of us that are thinking about these pieces, the more rigor we will approach racial equity in our grant making. I can speak for myself and say, it's been very helpful to see these trend lines longitudinally, but I would add that it's labor intensive to do them retroactively. And it's even harder if the people who made the grants are no longer with the foundation or the institution. So that's a minor caveat, but in a strong endorsement for this work.

Sherylynn Sealy:
Well thank you all for being here once again. This is just the first of a three-part series where you'll get to learn more about the Racial Equity Coding Project. So stay tuned and we want to keep having these conversations, so be sure to keep visiting our website. And if you have questions, feel free to reach out to me, Sherylynn Sealy, at sherylynn@giarts.org. Thank you so much, everyone. And I hope you have a lovely day.