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My son is an IT consultant and over the years we have often discovered commonalities between our work. He was the one who first put me on to the concept of UX Design (UX = User Experience). The fact that we kept finding themes relevant to both our professions used to surprise me. Now I realize that he works with professionals in a complicated specialty who have to work with/communicate with end users who have no understanding of the vocabulary or practice of the discipline. Sounds familiar.
I recently was lamenting to my son an epic fail of customer relations on the part of the company that provides my business’s CRM database. (They implemented a change, with no warning, that moved significant quantities of data to a big pile of “Additional Information.”) The reasons for doing so made some sense from their point of view but the lack of consideration of what it would mean to the customer and the utter lack of communication in advance was stunning. [While no physical injury was involved, I am reminded of the tweet from Ron Evans, an arts marketing consultant, about the United Airlines “Doc off a plane” fiasco: “So nobody @ #united ever mapped out the user experience for passengers who refuse involuntary bump and said ‘yeah, that’s not a good idea.'”?]
John told me about a concept in IT development called Voice of the Customer. The idea is sometimes limited to what one might call in-depth market research, but he said it is also sometimes taken literally in product development meetings: someone is designated to represent the customer’s point of view as ideas are considered.
The implications for community engagement could be huge. Imagine, at a minimum, someone who is charged with keeping at the front of their minds “How would the people we are trying to reach respond to this?” The first, and obvious, objection should be “How would you know?” And that leads to the teachable moment. At the very least you need to talk with them; at best, include them in the conversation.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am uncomfortable with the distancing that is created by words like audience and customer. We need to build personal relationships and those words do not help that. So, I would advocate for a dedicated “Voice of the Community”–however the role is defined in an organization–to be included in all discussions of programming, from design to implementation.
And even if you don’t implement this, thinking that it might be a good idea could improve decision making processes.
In my last three posts (Doin’ It, Doin’ It: Vocabulary, and Doin’ It: Museums) I have been exploring participatory experiences as being an important element in the work of arts organizations. This week I want to talk about participatory experiences in the performing arts.
Options like pre-performance discussions and post-performance talkbacks have long served as interactive opportunities for event attendees. These are increasingly supplemented by social media information (e.g., background on works performed or live streaming of rehearsals), opportunities for Q&A with artists or staff members (often via Twitter), sharing of ideas and reactions with peers, and posting of “were you there?” pictures after the performance (taking into account, of course, restrictions on photographing the event).
There is also considerable potential for active participation in the performing arts. Some are relatively new ideas. Trained artists who are no longer practicing their art are having opportunities to perform created through programs like the Baltimore Symphony’s Rusty Musicians and Vermont’s Farm to Ballet Project. Other programs provide participatory opportunities for people who have not viewed themselves as performers. Older adults have been drawn into dance through projects like Liz Lerman’s Dancers of the Third Age. People who think they can’t sing are invited into opera in Milan’s Coro degli Stonati (loosely Choir of the Tone Deaf). To be honest that name is both misleading and, by and large, wrong. The work of the group is to get people past their psychological stumbling blocks to singing. Truly tone deaf people are exceedingly rare. Forklift Dance Works invites workers of all kinds–sanitation workers, gondoliers, arborists, Japanese softball players, and electric company employees–to be a part of the creation and performance of dance.
But some of the most promising options may be among the oldest. Community choirs (including symphony choruses), community theater, and community bands and orchestras in many cities predate creation of professional arts institutions. The range of performance these groups represent, from reading opportunities to professional in all but money, is vast. There is, unfortunately, a lamentable and nearly suicidal disdain on the part of some in the arts establishment for the work of such groups. If the need to support participation in the arts is critical to the health of professional arts organizations, condescension toward these ensembles is irresponsible. The world of the arts is an ecosystem in which each part should be as supportive of all others as possible. To do otherwise is foolhardy.
Arts participation is a patently obvious foundation upon which to build broad support for the arts. There are many ways to encourage participation. We need not all undertake all, but most of us should seriously consider moving forward on one or more.
In my last couple of posts, Doin’ It and Doin’ It: Vocabulary, I introduced the idea of participatory experiences as being a potentially critical element in the work of arts organizations as well as some ways to begin thinking about categories of such experiences. In my next two posts I want to focus on examples of both the practice and practitioners of this type of work.
Interactive exhibits and exhibitions are becoming increasingly common in the museum world. From relatively low-tech “response walls” (attendees comments on an exhibit) through a variety of technologically intermediated options–e.g., real-time Twitter-based Q&A, location-based support (like GPS in the museum), interactive video, and virtual reality, the visitor experience is becoming more participatory.
Beyond “simple” interactivity, much work is being done to make community members a vital part of the development and production of what takes place in the museum. There is no greater authority on participatory practice in museums than Nina Simon. Her blog, Museum 2.0, is “the gospel” on the topic; her work as Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is one of the primary “poster children” for both community engagement and participation; and, of course, she literally “wrote the book” on participation: The Participatory Museum. I can simply get out of the way and let her speak for herself and point us to some other valuable resources.
Ms. Simon’s commitment to participatory practices is an outgrowth of her dedication to community engagement. In Does the Most Powerful Work Lie Onstage or Behind the Scenes? she says:
The more my organization has become focused on community engagement, the more we’ve balanced being experience producers with being experience co-creators/facilitators. We still produce exhibitions, events, and educational programs for an audience, but that audience is just one of our major constituencies. The partners we work with–to catalyze projects within and beyond our walls–are just as important as our visitors to fulfilling our mission. Relative to other museums, I think we spend less time producing an “onstage” experience and more time collaborating with community organizations behind the scenes to empower them to produce.
Ms. Simon’s museum practices what it preaches. “We invite diverse locals to share their creative and cultural talents with our greater community at the museum. Printmakers leading workshops. Teens advocating for all-gender bathrooms. Volunteers restoring a historic cemetery. Sculptors building giant metal fish with kids.” (Does Community Participation Scale to Destination Institutions?) The museum actively encourages community input on exhibitions and programming and invites feedback on all exhibitions. To be sure, they have guidelines about what they will and will not support in programs suggested by community members. They have gotten good at structuring feedback mechanisms to improve the results.
The number of examples at MAH-SC is almost too big to do justice in pulling out just one. Their pop-up museums feature considerable community input. One of my favorites was a women’s history display from a few years ago: “Celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day with a Pop Up Museum on Her Story. Bring an object from or inspired by an important woman in your life and leave it on display in MAH’s atrium.” Community members brought objects and photographs illustrating the contributions of women in the area over time.
Ms. Simon’s blog pointed me to another example, the Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project, designed to involve area residents. “Launched in 2010, the Object Stories initiative displays personal perspectives and related physical objects on a single theme. The perspectives combine audio and still images into video interviews which are installed on iPads next to their corresponding objects in the gallery.”
This post is not intended to be a thorough review of participatory practice in museums. That is well covered by Ms. Simon. It is simply an attempt to highlight some of the work going on in the museum world for people who might not be aware of it. Here are a few more resources for the curious:
Just A Few Examples & Resources
- From Museum 2.0
- Jasper Visser: 30 “do’s” for designing participatory projects
As Ms. Simon and Mr. Visser make clear, the design of participatory experiences must be well thought out. Haphazard approaches will yield, at best, haphazard results. At worst, they can be institutional and public relations disasters. Nevertheless, the need to get more people involved in the work we do is so great that it is important that we begin to learn how to do this well.
In my last post, Doin’ It, I introduced the idea of participatory experiences as being a potentially critical element in the work of arts organizations.
After almost two generations of declining emphasis on the arts in public schools we face communities largely made up of people who have little or no experience participating in the arts. Where once large percentages of students sang, played in band, acted on stage, painted and made murals, and/or took private music lessons outside of school, today that is no longer the case. This is certainly not the only obstacle arts organizations face in drawing people in to performances and exhibitions but it certainly makes the task no easier. Today, our industry as a whole is in desperate need of larger percentages of the population “doing” the arts.
Last fall (in ABCD and Community Engagement) I even floated a label–Community Based Artistic Development–for this work. CBAD implies, rightly, that participatory projects can be important to the health of the arts and to arts organizations.
But in order to craft participatory experiences, it helps to have language that guides understanding of the options. So, a vocabulary (or, forgive me, a taxonomy) of participation is helpful. The best-known effort in this regard is in Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak-Leonard’s Getting in on the Act commissioned by the James Irvine foundation. They lay out a continuum of participation that is extremely helpful. However (and you suspected there was a however coming, didn’t you), some of the language of it strikes me as a bit “academic.” Yes, I know. That’s funny coming from someone who spent thirty years as a college professor and used the word “taxonomy” three sentences ago. Nevertheless, here is my translation of the what are essentially their concepts:
- Passive Observer
- Active Observer/Learner
- Curation [Selection of art]
Passive observer is probably fairly clear, although almost no one is a totally passive observer unless they are catatonic. Active observer/learner suggests the spectator is seeking out information or actively responding to the event in some way. The latter includes, but is not limited to, things like twitter commentary. There are certainly problems with in-the-moment tweeting, but having people actively responding to their experience is a clear sign that they are “into it.” Solutions can include a Twittermission as well as pre- or post-event interaction with artists or arts organization staff members. Pre-event discussions and post-event talkbacks also fall in this category.
Curation is some form of crowd-sourced selection process. (That need not/should not be a simple popularity contest of “the arts’ greatest hits.”) Implementation is participation in the production or presentation of the art under the guidance of an artist. Community choirs or mural projects are examples. Co-creation suggests a partnership between artists and community members in the composition, writing, choreographic, or painting/sculpting/drawing process. This could include selection of materials (physical or conceptual) or input on how to arrange/utilize the elements. And, of course, acting as “creator” is the participants making the choices on their own once they’ve learned some basic principles of construction in an art form.
There are a few differences between my list and the Brown/Novak-Leonard one but those are not really important here. Anyone interested in constructing participatory opportunities in the arts should have the concepts in mind in making choices about what type of project to create.
More next time.
After almost two generations of declining emphasis on the arts in public schools we face communities largely made up of people who have little or no experience participating in the arts. Where once large percentages of students sang, played in band, acted on stage, painted and made murals, and/or took private music lessons outside of school, today that is no longer the case. This is certainly not the only obstacle arts organizations face in drawing people in to performances and exhibitions but it makes the task far more difficult.
People with participatory experience in something are more likely to support those activities even when they are not doing them themselves. Familiarity often breeds understanding and appreciation. The incredible rise in U.S. support of soccer can, I am confident, be directly tied to the long-standing and pervasive presence of children’s soccer leagues in middle and upper class communities. Those children grow up, take their children to weekend games, understand (sort of) the Offside Rule, and are ready to be impressed by the skill of professionals from around the world. This rise of soccer has been meteoric considered in a social systems time-frame. I have witnessed the entire transformation in my own lifetime. When I was in junior high in the Midwest, the gym teacher brought a funny size white ball to class and tried to explain a game where only one player on each team could touch that ball with their hands. (Yes, except for throw ins.) What kind of a game was that?!! (For a good deal more on this, see Barry Hessenius’s blog post on the topic.)
What does all of this have to do with community engagement? At the risk of stating the obvious, arts participation is about as significant a way to build relationships between people and arts organization as I can imagine. And right now there seems to be a demonstrable hunger for such activities. When breweries and wine bars have discovered that opportunities to paint and drink make a good deal of money, it’s time for arts organizations to take notice. Yes, I know we are not talking about sophisticated art making; but we are talking about something that can be a small step toward undoing the damage that the arts’ absence from the public schools has done and significantly increasing our pool of potential supporters.
Not every arts organization needs to become a specialist in presenting participatory arts activities. Some will choose to say it’s inconsistent with their mission, although I will continue to question what the mission is if it does not include connecting more people with art.
I sometimes say no organization needs to feel it must have a planned giving program in place, but if it doesn’t it is missing out on an important opportunity. Similarly, I think any arts organization that does not at least consider adding participatory activities to its offerings is passing on the potential to connect with significant numbers of people. The work is good for the organization and for the participants. And our industry as a whole is in desperate need of larger percentages of the population “doing” the arts.
Over the next few weeks I will be presenting some examples of arts organizations creating opportunities for people to have hands on experiences in the arts. Perhaps they will encourage emulation not of the specific programs but of the idea of creating participatory activities.
The NEA, along with the NEH, the IMLS, the CPB, etc., etc., is very important for both symbolic and practical reasons. And I know that my professional niche is the nonprofit arts and culture industry. With respect to “Engaging Matters” I have seldom written about issues not directly related to the practice of community engagement, but the fight over funding cultural support mechanisms is vitally important to our industry so I know I should be weighing in even though others with far better advocacy chops than I have already done yeoman’s work providing us with arguments and data.
At the same time, however, community engagement happens at the intersection of the arts and communities and things are so totally messed up in Washington that it has given me great pause to imagine spending huge amounts of time on “just” cultural funding issues. My mantra for the last two months has been “Why is it so hot and what are we all doing in this handbasket?”
Then, bless him, my colleague Michael Rohd, director of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice and Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre provided (in a Facebook post–I can’t figure out how to provide a link to it) a framework for how I think we should be approaching this horrendous state of affairs.
The NEA is not more important than neighborhood block grants. Than meals on wheels. Than services for those with special needs. I believe the best way to make the case for federal support of the arts at this moment is to connect the needs of our nation’s soul to the needs of our nation’s peoples. Many will be affected by the cuts this budget narrative lays out. We must think at the intersections. We must tell stories not just of great art production and leveraged grants and economic impact but of artists as assets engaged in the work of building healthier and more just communities. We must not shout- save the arts! We must sing – we stand together working towards equity, inclusion and resources for those most vulnerable among us. [Michael Rohd] Emphasis mine: DB
The other thing that concerns me is that, in general, attacks on public funding of the arts are not about money or the arts. They are often, as was the case with Mapplethorpe/Serrano in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s means for politicians to distract people from bigger issues. In my state Jesse Helms rode the NEA beast to re-election. I suspect that this administration’s mastery of deflection is a not-inconsiderable factor in the proposed budget.
My ventures into public policy discussion have primarily been about what might be called secondary advocacy: eliciting support by doing more things that large numbers of the electorate see as valuable. In other words, we should pursue community engagement work that will translate into increased support for the arts. The fact that the proposed spending budget was constructed in such a way as to eliminate funding for culture demonstrates that its creators believe the public will to support it is not there. Much has happened since the last major culture wars battles in the early 1990’s. There has been more public funding in more diverse and widespread regions than had been true up to that time. I suspect that there will be more grassroots support this time around.
If the body politic still does not rally in significant ways in support of the funding of culture it will be clear that we all still have much work to do in pursuit of impact and relevance.
The tendency to imagine that community engagement demands all kinds of new work, new approaches, and new venues makes the consideration of engagement nearly impossible for some. Last week in Essential Gradualism I pointed out that undertaking no immediate steps is often the best approach. Earlier, in Keep It Simple I made the case that even when programming becomes a part of the engagement process it is best to “go simple.” Engagement can often be best served by
[s]imple shifts of emphasis: the realization that West Side Story is about (among other things) immigration and gang violence; that Vivaldi’s Spring can be an expression of environmental awareness; [and] that Renaissance music inspired by the Plague is about a deadly public health crisis.
The profoundly clumsy term I have been using for this is contextualization. Every work of art has a socio-cultural context. Many of those contexts provide a means of access to the work that would be meaningful to different communities. In addition, many works have social themes, as pointed out in the quotation above, that are not only of interest but that are deeply meaningful to communities today.
The central point here is that, especially at the beginning of engagement efforts, we need not go to extreme lengths. Sometimes work we have already programmed will serve the purpose. Many other times work that we might have programmed anyway will fill the bill nicely.
It is entirely understandable that we look at the art we present primarily as the art it is. We should. But there is a blindness inherent in getting stuck there. Often looking at things another way will provide insight that shows a work’s value in serving the interests of our communities.
And now you can see the point of the optical illusion above. Let’s keep our minds open to various ways of “seeing” the art we present. Shifting perspective slightly can open the door to many possibilities for engagement.
An occasionally expressed concern about community engagement is that current stakeholders will be driven away by imagined precipitous changes to the organization and/or its offerings. There are a couple of responses to this that should be comforting. First, community engagement should begin with the community that is your core constituents. Getting their feedback on plans and involving them in the process of making your organization indispensable to the larger community can make of them allies and cheerleaders in all engagement processes. (Also, as I’ll discuss next time, any initial changes should be gradual anyway.)
However, the thing on my mind here is that in successful engagement work no change should happen quickly. As I pointed out some time ago in Develop Allies:
Just as important will be reassurance that it is possible to begin engagement work incrementally. That is, the next show/season will not suddenly consist of work foreign to the current staff and support base. Indeed, relationship building is time-consuming work so the results of engagement with new communities should not be immediate or pervasive. This is one place where the lengthy process of engagement is a benefit.
We in the arts have an understandable desire to rush to action. Ours is an event production business. We exist to do. In community engagement work, though, this instinct is almost inevitably counter-productive. We cannot present–or even suggest–meaningful work until we have a reasonable understanding of the interests of the community with which we want to engage. Careening into production prematurely is usually at best off-putting and at worst offensive. Give the relationship time to reveal how best to partner with a new community.
That lament from an arts administrator, with eyes rolled and hands thrown up, demonstrates a profound lack of connection with the subject of the exclamation. It is usually expressed in a “safe space” in an arts organization’s office or conference room. I get the frustration but let’s break it down a bit. First, nothing is ever really “free.” At the least there is opportunity cost: what might someone be doing other than the thing with no financial cost associated? The list of other costless and/or, to the potential attendee, more compelling opportunities is long. In addition, for those unfamiliar with the art form or venue there is also the psychological cost of stepping into the unknown. This is exacerbated where the venue or art form has negative connotations in their minds.
But I would go further and bet that there are a number of things the speaker would not consider doing even if they were free. Try it for yourself. Quick, put together a short list of things you’d pass on even if they were free. We’ll wait.
There are a number of things that many people enjoy that would be for me a kind of torture. Here’s just a tiny representative list:
- Games of almost any kind. I (metaphorically) break out in hives if someone suggests we play charades. (This is why I tend to be the timer, scorekeeper, or judge when my family plays board or other kinds of games. They love me enough to tolerate my near-phobia yet include me nonetheless.)
- Skiing. Almost everyone I know loves to ski or would take advantage of a free opportunity to learn. I am not even remotely interested in participating in something in which becoming cold and wet is a central feature.
- Kickboxing lessons. I have no inherent philosophical problem with the sport. And I fully respect those for whom it is a cherished activity. But it’s not for me.
You get the idea. (Putting this together sobered me to the fact that I could easily make this list go on and on. I’ll probably not pursue that revelation too closely.) The point is that just because something is free does not mean that we should assume everyone wants to do it. The nonprofit arts industry has reputational, relevance, and relationship issues that make a lack of “freeness” only one element in a person’s decision to pass on a giveaway.
Without a doubt, cost can be a reason people choose not to attend arts events. However, it is only one factor among many. Focusing on the price of admission is, frankly, far simpler than addressing other inhibiting factors. But if we are to expand our base, we have to be looking at as many of those stumbling blocks as possible.
If people are not taking advantage of your free offerings, you probably should consider those other issues rather than complain about “them.” (And by the way, don’t get me started on the default to “them” and “they” in talking about people with whom we need to build relationships.)
There are, of course, many things that community engagement is not. High on that list is “a magical elixir to cure all of the nonprofit arts industry’s ills.” At best it can position organizations for greater viability by significantly increasing donor and attendee reach. That comes to pass by being seen as valuable by much larger percentages of the population than is the case at the moment.
Addressing more common and smaller issues, engagement need not be expensive (especially at the beginning) or “charity work” or code for “diversity” or any of a number of other things that critics ascribe to it. But the rant du jour here is about my old nemesis “pandering.” I get wound up about this a good deal (including The “Pandering” Straw Man and R E S P E C T), but it’s been a while now and so I thought it was time to briefly revisit this hoary old chestnut. Here is my go-to statement about the issue.
Community engagement is not “giving them what (we think) they want.” It does demand learning enough about “them” to know what work of the international cultural canon will be meaningful to them. And then programming that with them.
The notion that anyone would take a poll of what orchestral works or plays or paintings or ballets a community unfamiliar with the art form wants and then program that is or should be ludicrous. It would be artistically irresponsible. It would also be, if I may say, disrespectful of the community (assuming that they couldn’t possibly be moved by works they don’t know) and, not to put too fine a point on it, lazy. True engagement, learning about new communities, is without a doubt time consuming on the front end. It takes work.
But more than work, it takes commitment, belief, and respect for communities and the process of building relationships with them. With those basic building blocks engagement is possible and its benefits attainable.
Some time ago I happened to catch a segment on the PBS News Hour featuring the Harvard educated DJ Jace Clayton (who goes by the name DJ/rupture). He works by collecting music of all kinds from all over the world and creating fusions of many styles. He seeks out interesting and unusual music in villages, street corners, and back alleys. Any music is worthy of consideration. Dancing is, of course, an ultimate goal.
By itself I found this fascinating. However, one quote in particular resonated with me in the context of my work in community engagement. He approaches every locale with the framing question: “What’s special here?” He is of course primarily interested in the music in each place. But it is this wisdom, that every community–every community–is a repository of assets of value to many outside the community that leapt out at me.
Too often (far, far too often), work that is thought of as engagement work views the arts organization or arts professional as the exclusive bearer of resources. Of course the prime taboo of engagement is doing things “for” rather than “with” those one is seeking to reach. This inevitably leads to failure and frustration for everyone involved. However, even if a sincere effort has been made to work “with” the community rather than do things “for” it, potential contributions of the community to the project are often missed because no one thought to consider what is special there.
All communities have valuable assets. Identifying and employing them will strengthen, deepen, and make more successful any engagement work.
In keeping with the spirit of my just-concluded series on privilege I wanted to direct readers to a very good blog post by fellow ArtsJournal writer Alexander Laing. His Dear White Orchestras helps put some of the issues I addressed in a context specific to an arts form, in this case symphony orchestras. His introduction of the contrast between universality and particularity is especially important for those of us in the world of legacy arts organizations to understand. In particular, a view of the universality of an art (or any element of culture) is at odds with the reality of different cultures and different forms of cultural expression. As I’ve said here before:
When I taught music, I would use one of the profession’s most closely held truisms to challenge my students’ understanding of the field. “Music is the universal language” is a sentence repeated with the reverence of scripture. It also happens to be false. Music is universal, but its language, grammar, and syntax are not. Traditional Chinese opera is as foreign and incomprehensible to Western ears as Strauss’s tone poems are to aboriginal peoples. That does not diminish either. It simply forces us to question what we mean by “music is universal.”
In many ways, thinking (even unconsciously) of the cultural expression with which we are most familiar as “universal” is an ultimate form of privilege. Here are Mr. Laing’s closing remarks in his post:
A universalist ethic inclines us to believe that orchestral music is, itself, a universal thing and our place in the arts ecosystem is related to that. It leads us to focus on how this music is True in some larger sense of the word. With that in mind we see our lack of diversity (our whiteness) as an injustice. Everyone should have access to this Truth.
On the other hand, the particularist ethic says that orchestras are certainly not universal and the music isn’t either. Recognizing that orchestras and orchestral music are not universal, a particularist ethic brings the whiteness of orchestras into view differently.
From a particularist view, we’re more inclined to see that the privileged position we enjoy as orchestras is not just the result of how True the art form is – our universality – it’s also because of our whiteness.
This is not to say to say orchestras were rewarded for our lack of diversity. It is to say that orchestras, as white institutions, benefit from the history and forces that privilege whiteness.
This is also not to say that orchestras have nothing to offer those whose cultural background is not European. It does, however, mean we need to reexamine our assumptions about the “shouldness” of our art being, inherently, for everyone. And that examination is a first step toward rethinking issues of cultural equity.
This post is the last of a three-part series that is not strictly about community engagement. However, to engage with communities with which one is not familiar it is essential to understand the dynamics of privilege. This is especially true when the “engager” is as directly viewed as a representative of wealth and power as is the nonprofit arts establishment. (You may find the complete essay here: Privilege/Encumbrance.)
Last week’s post (Privilege/Encumbrance: Part II) dealt with the issue of socio-economic and identity privilege and encumbrance.
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the privilege/encumbrance question is structural inequity. It can exist without any bias or malice, although Jim Crow laws in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa were structural and clearly were a manifestation of extreme bias.
The earlier discussion of nonprofit boards is one example of a structural inequity. Hiring requirements that demand a college or advanced degree can be another. (Access to degrees is socio-economically skewed. The well-off are far more likely to be able to avail themselves of this advantage.) The requirement of completion of a college degree for job applicants excludes those for whom higher education is unavailable. Perhaps it is not the only viable means of demonstrating capacity to do a job. Whether some other indicator might also be of value is a question worth asking and one that could arguably open up opportunity to some who would otherwise not be considered–to their and to the organization’s detriment.
Similarly, unpaid internships benefit those from households with higher socio-economic status without the specific intention of doing so. They provide experience and access to vital career connections but are wholly unavailable to students who must work long hours to pay the bills associated with college expenses.
“How well will they ‘fit in’?” is often an unconscious criteria in hiring processes. It gives advantage to those who are like those already in the workplace. If most of those are men, straight, white, upper middle class, etc. this is a roadblock for those who are not. It’s important to emphasize that this is frequently not conscious. It’s “just the way things are”–a structural barrier.
Structural inequities can be notoriously difficult to recognize. They are almost inevitably invisible to those who have benefited from them. In order to ferret out these burdens, it is often necessary to get advice from members of target groups; but even then, the encumbrance can be so deeply embedded in the structure as to be invisible to them as well. Yet, the burdens exist and are a stumbling block for or barricade against members of target groups.
For some of its beneficiaries, acknowledging privilege is not difficult to understand. The response is simply to recognize how often and in how many ways they gain from it and to work to make things more equitable. For others, deep awareness of the privileges that they do not enjoy makes it difficult to see that they hold advantage in comparison to others. This is why it may be productive to frame at least some of the discussion as burdens which some do not have to bear. Empathy may be more readily felt if we can focus on the relative disadvantage of others.
Privilege in the form of a relative lack of encumbrance exists. The playing field is extremely “unlevel.” While opportunity exists and success is possible in spite of inequitable burdens, those burdens winnow out large numbers of people. Pointing to the success of the extremely extraordinary individual does nothing to support the “merely” extraordinary who can’t overcome the obstacles; and it certainly does not provide equal opportunity for the “ordinary” person struggling to make it in an exhausting world. Losing access to the talents of those people denies society the benefits of the contributions they could make.
Working with any community that is subject to one or more of society’s isms requires an awareness that those isms have a huge impact. It also requires a willingness to factor that into the relationship building process. This is especially true for nonprofit arts organizations attempting to engage with diverse communities. They are, in the eyes of many, archetypical symbols of privilege.
This post is the second of a three-part series that is not strictly about community engagement. However, to engage with communities with which one is not familiar it is essential to understand the dynamics of privilege. This is especially true when the “engager” is as directly viewed as a representative of wealth and power as is the nonprofit arts establishment. (When the series is completed, I will post the entire essay on my website.)
Last week’s post (Privilege/Encumbrance: Part I) dealt with the issue of privilege and encumbrance–or more simply, burdens–and presented an introductory discussion of “Isms.”
At extreme upper end, economic privilege is more apparent than other types of privilege simply because people understand that many aspects of life are easier if you have money than if you do not. However, even the very well off have to be reminded of this unless they come from families where noblesse oblige has been deeply ingrained. (At this point noblesse oblige may need to be explained. Over the last generation, the idea that with wealth and power come responsibility to use them for good, a notion once quite widely accepted by patrician families, has become far less prevalent than was the case before the 1980’s.)
At the risk of stating the obvious, the more access to money one has the easier the basics of life are. As examples:
- In housing,
- A wedding present of a home or the gift of a down payment are unthinkable possibilities for most.
- Sufficient income to save for a down payment on a house is beyond hope for others.
- The deposit for an apartment is equally unattainable for many, meaning they are limited to SRO’s (single room/residence occupancy housing) where available or shelters (at best) where they are not.
- In food,
- Where better prices can be found through bulk purchases, individuals with limited incomes cannot take advantage of them.
- Access to grocery stores is frequently dependent upon the area in which one lives. “Food deserts” are a natural part of high poverty neighborhoods.
- Protein is more expensive than carbohydrates, leading to obesity and/or poor nutrition in lower income families.
Social privilege, another relatively visible privilege, has to do with access, via family or career connections, to “how things are done,” to decision-makers, and to gatekeepers who can help resolve problems.
- First generation college students are at a profound disadvantage from the beginning. Contrasted with those for whom the expectation of a Bachelor’s degree is a foregone conclusion, the very idea of attending a college can be foreign. Setting foot on a campus can be intimidating for them; family reactions to mid-term grades can be over- or underplayed; knowing when (and with whom) to discuss changing circumstances as they apply to financial aid is unknown territory. This severely limits their capacity for success.
- For entrepreneurs starting a business, introductions to bankers, lawyers, or zoning officials can be invaluable. Such entré is denied those without family or career connections.
- When an insurance company denies a claim, awareness that the denial can be challenged is learned, not innate. Knowing with whom (and how) to pursue a denial (even the fact that it can be fought) is largely unimaginable to those who grew up outside the “establishment” without good social connections or experience.
In each case above–economic and social, most people are highly aware of those in better circumstances and frequently oblivious to the experience of those with fewer advantages than they. However, among the various forms of privilege, when pointed out, those with these privileges–at least at the extreme end–can often see their relative good fortune.
Identity privilege/encumbrance is brought about by the isms mentioned earlier. Some are the result of highly visible characteristics–racism, sexism, ableism (often visible), ageism; others are far less so or are invisible–heterosexism, nativism, sectarianism, classism. The former are inescapable. The latter bear with them some choice as to whether an individual publicly “claims” their difference.
No one can truly know the experience of anyone else. However, this is especially true when someone else’s experiences are profoundly different from one’s own. It is this that makes understanding the privilege/encumbrance generated by isms especially difficult to appreciate.
In addition, highly visible differences (gender and race as examples) yield either/or encumbrance. One is burdened by being a woman or being of a different race. You are not if you are male or of the dominant race. (Certainly in the case of the racism faced by African-Americans some variation is associated with depths of skin tone but that is a subject for another day.) In these differences there is little of the graduated privilege associated with levels of socio-economic status. (The 1% are better off than the 10% than are the 50% than are the bottom quarter.)
The best way to begin understanding this dynamic is to consider the burden that isms place upon those in the encumbered group. Blatant bigotry, of course, takes a tremendous toll; but the accumulation of less obvious impacts can often be even more debilitating. In the case of African-Americans, pervasive awareness of “otherness” when in social situations dominated by white culture is a weight in itself. The luxury of being unaware of race is a privilege available only to whites in most public settings. Whites who visit African-American churches often comment on being, in that setting, constantly aware of their difference, their “otherness,” and of the toll it takes–they may enjoy the religious service but many are exhausted by it. That is the non-white experience during most waking hours of almost every day.
Another, though related, emotional weight borne by “others” in our society lies in assumptions about how we will be treated. This is a particularly difficult issue for whites to understand. By and large, if race is the only consideration, whites, when they walk out the door in the morning, assume that they will be met with civility by most people they encounter. There is no need to prepare themselves or “put on a game face.” Many African-Americans, on the other hand, believe, with considerable justification, that at least some of the people they encounter will harbor negative impressions of or even ill will toward them. The need to consciously prepare for such interactions, even if they do not occur, requires a good deal of emotional energy. Imagine knowing that you had to participate in a meeting attended by someone who despised you. Mental preparation is essential, and draining. Again, this is a daily experience for both African-Americans and many Hispanics/Latinos.
Beyond this baseline toll, there are the extra burdens that accompany isms. As but one category of example, African-Americans have numerous encumbrances that are foreign to whites. A few among them are:
- The need for parents to explain to their children the extreme care they must take in routine interactions with police (and living with anxiety about the potential for danger in such interactions);
- Awareness that they are being closely watched when they shop;
- Knowing that men are viewed as threats;
- Higher deposits, fees, prices, and interest rates required for insurance, purchases, rentals, and loans.
The list could go on at great length. The point here is not to document the various burdens inflicted by isms but to remind that they exist. Taken together, living with these burdens requires the expenditure of a great deal of will and emotional energy before one can simply arrive at the playing field. The privilege of avoiding this drain on one’s psyche is almost totally invisible to those who enjoy it and distressingly obvious to those who don’t.
The targets of less visible or of invisible isms have some luxury of choice about whether to publicly identify with their target status. However, even if they do not do so, they bear the burden of “their secret,” the awareness of what “coming out” might mean, and the knowledge of the price paid by their peers who have.
Next time: Structural Privilege/Encumbrance
This post is the beginning of a three-part series that is not strictly about community engagement. (When it is completed, I will post the entire essay on my website.) However, to engage with communities with which one is not familiar it is essential to understand the dynamics of privilege. This is especially true when the “engager” is as directly viewed as a representative of wealth and power as is the nonprofit arts establishment.
For any person of color or member of another group discussed here, there is nothing surprising, nothing new in what follows. The same is true of a good number of whites who have given the topic some thought. This is simply an effort to lay out the issues of privilege and burden in ways that might be heard/understood by those who experience but do not recognize any significant privilege in their lives.
I am not an expert in this subject. However, as a white, upper middle class, cisgender (I identify with the gender that corresponds to my biological sex), heterosexual male with several advanced degrees, I come to any discussion of privilege as the recipient of most of its benefits. Thanks to several decades of prodding by friends and colleagues who fall on the challenged side of one or more of those categories, I’ve had (and taken) the opportunity to reflect on these things.
For some, hearing the topic of privilege raised–especially “white privilege”–prompts them to walk away (literally) or simply “tune out” of the discussion. This is usually rooted in a deep conviction that opportunity is equally available to all, and, as I’ll discuss shortly, in a lack of awareness of the extent of their own privilege. This “conversation stopping” is deeply unfortunate because, when it comes to opportunity, the nation’s playing field is profoundly uneven; opportunity is not equal. If you disagree with that, please bear with me for a bit as I try to explain.
The fact that some people have never felt “advantaged” is perhaps the central problem with the word privilege. “Privilege” seems to imply that if it existed you would be aware of it. There are at least three issues here. One is that those who see the privilege of others (this is especially true of socio-economic privilege) are very conscious of their lack of that privilege. They are focused on those who are better off and scoff at the notion of themselves as privileged. This is galling to those even less advantaged than they and is the source of much misunderstanding, if not hostility.
Another difficulty is that structural privilege–privilege inherent in a system–is invisible. The fish in water is privileged to be so but is unaware that it is. The fish out of water is dying and, if fish were capable of such knowledge, would be painfully aware that the submerged fish was infinitely better off.
Finally, efforts (like quotas, extra support, and affirmative action) that address the disadvantages some groups experience may look like privileges unavailable to others. While these are attempts to make the playing field less uneven, the inequities they are addressing stem from those nearly invisible structural inequities. (I’ll discuss this more fully in a minute.) The invisibility of those inequities coupled with the high visibility of the attempted remedies make understanding and discussing this extremely difficult.
The only possible solution may be to reframe the issue as one of relative disadvantage. This is what brings me to consider alternative words, words that might emphasize the difficulties faced by members of what are sometimes called “target” groups. Encumbrance is one possibility. Inelegant options like “black tax” (the extra price–monetary and psychological–paid by African-Americans because of their difference) have been put forward in the case of racial inequity. The glass ceiling for women conveys some of the same idea. The privilege enjoyed is a relative rather than an absolute thing. Beneficiaries of privilege, in spite of not being as fortunate as others (the ones they notice), are free of the burdens borne by others (the people whose experiences are unknown to them). To stretch the fish analogy near (or past?) the breaking point, brackish water is better than none. The fish on the beach would envy the one in brackish water who envies the one in clean water. The discussion may be more productive if we focus on “negatives not experienced” rather than privileges enjoyed.
While this discussion is not primarily about negative “isms” (racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, etc.), they are directly relevant to issues of privilege/encumbrance. Racism is, of course, among the most obvious. It is a highly charged word. Virtually no one is willing to accept that they are personally racist; yet “pre-judging based on race” is almost impossible for anyone to avoid. Racism’s status as one of society’s ultimate slurs severely limits our capacity to talk about it.
If individual racism merely equated with bigotry, then bigots would be the only problem. Unfortunately, individual pre-judgment based on race is not limited to screaming zealots. It is far more frequently quiet, unconscious, and sometimes even well-intentioned: assuming the woman in the office is not the boss or that the Japanese student is highly intelligent; without thinking, crossing the street or locking car doors at the approach of an African-American man. Even efforts to “help” imply that the helper is “better” and place them in a relative position of power, a position that can demean the person/people being “helped.” This is especially true if the recipients of the assistance have not been consulted about the type or method of the assistance.
And if personal isms were the only issue, that would be difficult enough to address. However, systemic (or structural) isms can be even more difficult to see and acknowledge. They are the source of much of the burden experienced by individuals and groups not part of the dominant culture. These burdens are also far less visible to those who don’t suffer their effects than are those that stem from personal isms.
For those new to the idea of structural racism (or structural encumbrance if you prefer), consider self-perpetuating nonprofit boards–boards that nominate and elect their own successors. Such boards are overwhelmingly populated by white men. When they consider candidates they naturally nominate “people they know.” The most common result is a perpetuation of the existing demography. Non-whites are, de facto, excluded. Personal bias is usually not the cause; it’s simply a predictable outcome of the structure itself. Satisfaction with the way things are can also reinforce the inclination to stick with the familiar. Why “rock the boat” if things are going reasonably well? The habit of the status quo excludes talent from boards. In addition, the lack of varied points of view in board discussions can even have a negative impact on the quality of services offered by the nonprofit.
Next time: Socio-Economic Privilege/Encumbrance, and Identity Privilege/Encumbrance
We have recently upgraded to a new used car from a very (very) old used car. Since this one is ten years younger than our last model, there are significant (and daunting) new bells and whistles. (Love the rear camera!) But one feature has kind of blown me away. The rear hatch will open (and then close) simply by kicking your foot under the bumper. This means that with loaded arms and/or kids in tow, you don’t need to fumble for keys or an opener fob.
Now, you might well ask, why am I writing about this in Engaging Matters? Anyone get there yet? Here’s the deal. I’m fairly certain none of the design or engineering team came up with this idea on their own–at least not from their design/engineer minds. Their focus is on, well, design and engineering. It almost had to come from someone telling the car company how nice it would be to have a way to open the back without having to put down what they were carrying. Someone had to talk with consumers. And now you see where I’m going. And even if the idea did spring from the design or engineering teams, it did so not out of their design or engineering training but out of the lived experience they share with those who are not designers or engineers.
While a car company is vitally interested in giving consumers what they want, this example in no way detracts from the basic “carness” of the vehicle. It’s simply a relatively small alteration that offers something people value. If people had asked the car company to add rocket thrusters, helicopter propeller blades, or bright pink paisley door panels, it’s likely those requests would not be granted.
For mission driven organizations, there need be no inherent conflict in providing things that people value so long as doing so does not conflict with the mission. (But we need to remember that our missions should not be about serving art but about serving the connection between art and people.) The only way to find out what people value is to talk with them. (Note I did not say talk to them.) Of course if people ask the symphony to present a program totally consisting of heavy metal rock and roll (is that still a thing?) there’s no harm in saying no. But there is a world of relatively simple things (or more difficult but incredibly productive things) we can do in the arts that could be meaningful to new participants in our work. Many of those changes might be totally surprising to us but we’ll never know if we are not talking with people who are not now part of our world.
The last point here is that one of those car designers or engineers might have come up with this idea on their own. However, they only would do so if they shared the experience of living with a car with those who might buy it. How many of us share life experiences with those we would hope to reach? If the answer is few or none, then it is doubly imperative that we have the conversations that will reveal what might be of value to others.