Moving From Theory to Practice in Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity


By Sheena Johnson

As a queer black woman who has worked in the arts—as an artist, nonprofit staffer, consultant, and funder—for more than a decade, I have often found myself in the role of teacher around issues of equity. That’s meant helping folks understand how institutional practices reinforce or contribute to a culture of exclusion and disempowerment of people outside the traditional white, patriarchal, heteronormative, cis-gendered hierarchy’s way of seeing, doing, and thinking. I’ve seen overt acts of racism and sexism in my career, but more often oppressive behavior is reflected in a culture of organizational decision making and unspoken norms. The challenges are structural, and if we focus exclusively on the color or gender of the people in decision-making roles, we’re not getting to the root causes of exclusion and disempowerment in organizations and society. At the heart of equity, inclusion, and diversity (EID) work is culture change. Change that is continuous and long-term, individual, collective, and institutional. This post is about how I’ve seen the Hewlett Foundation Performing Arts Program wrestle with culture change in recent years.

Earlier in my career, I served as the first Hewlett Foundation Performing Arts Fellow for 2.5 years, and a practitioner in philanthropy for more than four years. In spring 2019, I was honored to serve as a member of the Advisory Council for the Performing Arts Program’s new organizational effectiveness in equity, inclusion, and diversity (OE-EID) grant program, which awarded 39 grants, totaling $1,752,500 to Performing Arts grantee organizations interested in examining and improving their own approaches to EID issues, based on our recommendations.

As a member of the foundation’s Performing Arts family since 2013, I have watched program staff take on the difficult work of EID, both internally and in support of its grantees. That’s meant putting values first and being data-driven in assessing impact, diversifying the program’s portfolio, and making innovative grants to expand the reach of the Hewlett Foundation’s philanthropy into underserved geographies and historically marginalized communities. When I first began as a fellow, the program had just embarked on an ambitious three-year initiative called the Audience Research Collaborative (ARC), which aimed to support grantees’ ability to collect and understand the demographics of their audiences. ARC also helped the program answer the question: Who benefits from the foundation’s Performing Arts funding? In a 2015 midpoint assessment of its strategy, the program noted that 78 percent of ARC participants’ audiences identified as “White non-Hispanic” compared to 61 percent of the Bay Area’s total population who identified as “White, non-Hispanic.” Collected data suggested that both Hispanics/ Latinos and Asians were underrepresented in the audiences surveyed. While the ARC data wasn’t statistically representative of the program’s grantee cohort overall, it was an important marker for the program—one that I think has motivated program staff to take more risks and try new approaches in order to deepen their understanding of how to support stronger EID efforts among grantees and the wider sector.

For a decade, people have made the case for the field-wide importance of advancing equity in the arts, but there have been challenges in translating data and reports on the topic into action and tangible impact. I was excited and curious when I was asked to join the Performing Arts Program’s OE-EID Advisory Council. Excited because of the program’s commitment to EID practice and willingness to experiment. Curious because unlike other efforts—including ARC and other innovative intermediary and collaborative grantmaking the program has done supporting EID work—this new process gave key decision-making power to equity experts and grantee members of the Advisory Council. The grantmaking process was itself heavily informed by the Advisory Council members’ long histories of working in and with marginalized communities across multiplicities of difference—women, queer, trans, of color, native, Latinx, and disability justice. The Council brought its passion for the importance of our work together, and mutual respect to guard against practices of exclusion. For example, we welcomed video applications (not everyone has access to a skilled grant writer) and held a convening, open to all Performing Arts grantee organizations, focused on equity in the arts to guide organizations along a path to clear understanding of the goals and aims of the OE-EID grant process.

The Advisory Council sparked dialogue and change during the OE-EID grantmaking process by requiring applicant organizations to rate themselves along the Continuum on Becoming an Anti-Bias, Multicultural Institution. Applicants rated themselves from 1 to 6, with 1 representing an exclusive and segregated institution, and 6 representing a fully inclusive, transformed institution in a transformed society. The rating process was a compelling and instructive part of the application that helped panelists understand what “equity, inclusion, and diversity” meant to each applying organization, and allowed us as panelists to be grounded in our evaluation of the proposals.

What has stayed with me months after serving on the Advisory Council is that there was such a range of understanding about what EID meant. For some organizations, it was having more people of color on staff. For some, it was re-thinking decision-making practices and looking at more distributed leadership models. For others, it was about broadening the range of who they serve and the artists whose work they present. The most compelling proposals had a view of EID that linked individual learning and reflection, collective practice, and institutional policy and procedural changes.

What was most significant to me as a member of the OE-EID Advisory Council was the intentional and thoughtfully created community of panelists. At times, it felt sacred to share space with a group of such brilliant and magical human beings. I was honored to be a part of it and learned so much from my colleagues. In a diverse and inclusive community, everyone acknowledges and educates themselves about historical and current systems of exclusion and oppression, and seeks to actively interrupt those patterns. There is special attention paid to ensure that people of color, immigrants, women, LGBTQI+/queer and transgender people, people from non-Christian religious backgrounds, low-income and working-class backgrounds, and people with disabilities are offered opportunities, resources and pathways to feel ownership and have a sense of belonging. There is intentionality to make sure that the vision, values, priorities, and decision-making processes truly reflect the diversity of those who are a part of the community. Though it wasn’t always easy to do so, the Advisory Council reflected those priorities as expressions of our collective values.

The Performing Arts Program is doing the hard work of moving from theory to practice by testing new grantmaking models, allowing grantees to make grantmaking decisions, and soon launching a new strategy that deepens their focus on equity. I’m proud to have been a part of helping the Performing Arts Program continue to think about how to move forward on these important issues. And I hope others learn from their lessons. As they do, I encourage them to be brave, to be imaginative, and to be bold.

This post was previously published on hewlett.org and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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