Why we can’t achieve cultural equity by copying those in power

By Carlton Turner

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The memory is as clear as cellophane. I sat in a sterile windowless classroom listening to much older professors that don’t look like me lecture on business strategies, market segmentation and innovation using slideshow presentations full of dated animated clipart and colorful charts and graphs. Their monotone voices overflowed with confidence in their pedagogy and its ability to save their students from the perils of mediocrity and low profit margins.

But this wasn’t my college days of the early nineties before the iPhone, self-driving vehicles and Skype. It was a leadership program for arts professionals just a few years ago, meant to turn us into leaders, preparing us for the challenges of today’s non-profit arts world.

This is not the first time I’d encountered this kind of one-size-fits-all leadership development program that assumes success is just a few workshops away. A year earlier I sat in a dimly lit studio space in the historic LaMaMa Experimental Theatre in the East Village as a participant, alongside nine other arts organizations whose primary audience and community are people of color, listening to the development director of a major arts institution with a dedicated development staff of more than fifty lecture to us on how to model our development strategies to be effective in the non-profit arts world. I sat there with my board chair and development director, who on our small staff of four full time employees also served as marketing director, chief grant writer, and taker-out-of-trash when necessary. The lecture was lost in translation. If the intent of the program was to support our organizations in breaking the chains of foundation dependency, then ignoring the realities that we face on the ground as organizations living missions that prioritize forgotten and excluded communities won’t get us there. To say there was a disconnect between the prescription and the ailment would be a tremendous understatement.

The workshop lecturers quoted the stats that most organizations serving communities of color have less than 10% individual giving in their annual budgets. This is seen by the larger nonprofit arts field as a deficit of fundraising ability and is countered with training that suggests mimicking fundraising structures that have served institutions of much greater size serving much wealthier patrons. What isn’t talked about is the history of income inequality that is responsible for the gap in generational wealth across race lines. According to the Pew Research Center in 2013 the gap was 13:1 for black families and 11:1 for Latino families in comparison to white families, or as Nicolas Kristof states, “the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during apartheid.”

Organizations with a dedicated mission to serving communities of color are struggling to stay afloat not because of mismanagement, lack of capacity or inferior artistic products. They struggle to stay afloat because of the history of inequity that exists in our society at large, a phenomenon that also impacts the distribution of funds in the cultural sector. We continue to struggle with issues of inclusion, diversity, and equity in the nonprofit arts and culture sector because our society continues to struggle with them.

As we work to understand and develop solutions to these problems as a field we cannot do so disconnected from the larger social context. And yet so many of the professional development programs offered to build the capacity of artists and organizations of color are ignorant of these issues at best, and actively reliant on the perpetuation of them at worst.

In my years as part of Alternate ROOTS, an artist-centered and artist-led organization, the strongest leadership models I have witnessed have come from within our membership and other peer organizations working at the intersection of arts, culture and social change. I became involved with Alternate ROOTS fifteen years ago as a young artist infected with the idea that artists could change the world. ROOTS was founded on the idea that it was not only a possibility, but a responsibility. To my fortune, I was adopted by John O’Neal, Nayo Watkins, Linda Parris-Bailey, Kathie deNobriga, and Dudley Cocke and countless other southern arts warriors whose creative practice is informed by and deeply engrained in the communities they live and work in. My artistic and administrative practices have been heavily shaped by their influences.

There are three primary operating principles that I have found to be tremendously valuable in their approaches:

  1. Be aware of and acknowledge local cultural practices.
  2. Validate leaders who are responsible and accountable to their communities.
  3. Build coalitions by actively breaking down racial, ethnic, geographic, religious, and class barriers that separate communities experiencing the same struggles.

These principles guide the work of these leaders in both their creative practice and organizational development.

These are also the principles that have informed the development of the Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI). The idea for ILI was developed in 2011 by Alternate ROOTS, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, First People’s Fund, and the Pa’I Foundation as a way to pursue cultural equity by building solidarity among artists and culture bearers, supporting their personal transformation and developing a robust network of intercultural leaders. ILI offers business and management skills development, but more importantly it honors the traditions of cultures across a spectrum of practices, both traditional and contemporary, as a foundation for intercultural co-intentional peer learning. In this context the hand drum, song, and prayer is as important an organizational principle as the quarterly board meeting. There is a significant contrast between this approach and existing leadership programs in the nonprofit arts field.

ILI marks a shift in the field around how we train cultural sector leaders. This program doesn’t place people of color as the recipients of training by “experts” from largely white-led institutions, rather it looks to the participants to define leadership models in relationship to their communities.   The ILI leadership model operates on the premise that the answers to fundamental issues in our country around equity can be found in traditional cultural practices. The practice of looking to community-generated leadership and knowledge to seek solutions to issues of cultural equity and sustainability for artists and organizations of color is in stark contrast to one-size-fits-all solutions that ignore the fact that these problems are rooted in complex social structures and look different depending on time and place. In the ILI leadership practice we don’t pretend to know it all, instead we work collectively to engage each other in a process of discovery that uncovers what we do know, identifies the gaps in our knowledge, and attempts to fill the gaps through the reflective practice of looking back to our cultural traditions and leadership models that have been dismissed and devalued by the dominant culture.

I live in Utica, Mississippi, a small rural area about 25 miles southwest of Jackson where I was raised and my family has been for many generations. My life in this place has provided me many opportunities to recognize the genius of my ancestors who were forced to survive with far less. In those examples I am afforded the opportunity to adapt their sophisticated and grounded approaches to my survival, an approach that includes the collective care of my environment and extends through the people around me. It is a different approach to my responsibility to my community than the one taught in business schools and most arts leadership programs, which view the community primarily as consumers.

It is important to learn finance, marketing, and board development skills. However, without a principled approach to leadership, grounded in a practice of call and response with your community, those skills are not enough to shift the material conditions of communities and organizations of color. Those of us working on the ground in grassroots arts organizations and communities of color don’t have to wait for the solutions to these complicated issues to come from outside. They won’t be found in the disconnect between people and power. The answers are in our bones, encoded in our DNA because they have always been there.

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for!

Carlton Turner is the Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS, a regional non-profit arts organization based in the South.

Photo by William White via Unsplash / Creative Commons Zero

Published April 14, 2016

  • Michael Rohd

    Thanks, Carlton, as always, for the words to share with others about complex truths and needed antidotes.

  • NCAR

    Check out this recent paper from the National Center for Arts Research, Does “Strong and Effective” Look Different for Culturally Specific Arts Organizations? http://mcs.smu.edu/artsresearch2014/NCARDiversityPaper

  • Michael Robertson

    Thanks, Carlton. Deeply appreciate your voice always! The one-size fits all leadership training is not only ineffective, it’s dangerous in that it has the potential to reinscribe the traditional, often racist, sexist power structure.

Share your feedback on the research and what you think comes next using your favorite social app (such as Twitter or Facebook) and the hashtag #creativz.”

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What is this?

CREATIVZ is a conversation about how artists in the United States live and work and what they need to sustain and strengthen their careers. It's part of a research project from the Center for Cultural Innovation and the National Endowment for the Arts, with additional support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Overall research and online strategy by Helicon. Online strategy and production by We Media.

Read more about the project.

Cover photo by Bill Dickinson via Flickr / Creative Commons