I first met Alia five years ago when she participated in Bite the Big Apple, an international, joint venture between my company, Walker International Communications Group, based in New York, and Kape Communications Pty Ltd, based in Melbourne, Australia. Bite The Big Apple was established more than 11 years ago to help arts administrators in Australia dialogue with their New York counterparts about how cultural diversity in the arts can be utilized as a viable mechanism for defying bigotry, defusing intolerance and cultivating broader audiences for their organizations. Last October, I posted a blog about the 10th anniversary of our partnership and the impact it has had on the participants in both countries.
From our first meeting, I knew Alia was passionate about the issues we were addressing—her questions and ideas were both powerful and thought-provoking. She currently resides in both Oakland, California, and Melbourne, where she is a Creative Producer, Cultural Broker and Storyteller. Most recently, Alia worked with me as a volunteer Fellow at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) to learn more about the community engagement process. She is an extraordinary arts administrator with tremendous potential. Alia also has a deep understanding of culture diversity and equity. I look forward to the global footprint she will make, launching from both Melbourne and Oakland.
Discovering the Missing Piece
by Alia Gabres
So how did a first-generation immigrant, Eritrean Australian find herself in the newly revitalised city of Newark, New Jersey? The short answer is Art and community-making.
As a Creative Producer, Cultural Broker, storyteller that has spent the last 9 years working in the arts industry, non-profit industry and the local government sector I was looking for a new framework of engagement that would be inclusive of culturally diverse people. I wanted to get answers to the elusive question of engaging diverse audiences, communities and artists.
In my early years in Melbourne, I distinctly remember being around women who were storytellers, master weavers and creatives. Those women were in my family, they were our neighbours and more specifically one of them was my grandmother. Though they carried their artistry with them across continents those women where not who I thought of when I thought of creatives.
It took me a long time to change my understanding of this. To look for art and creativity in between the margins of culture, language, communities and institutions. To unlearn what my education had taught me.
Over the years, my work in the Melbourne Arts industry has given me some of my highest professional accomplishments and some of my lowest disappointments. As an African immigrant working in the Arts my passion was in community engagement. My personal love for the Arts extended to a mission of creating access points for all, in particular those that were almost invisible in arts institutions, more overtly and specifically people of colour.
My work as an artist, poet storyteller and Creative Producer has taken me to different parts of the United States, Indonesia, England, Eritrea and across Australia. More recently I have begun to see the work I do as future-building. What other title can you give the work of creating, imagining something that doesn’t exist?
My search for new frameworks of engagement in the arts led me to the doorsteps of an innovator in the field, a giant in the world of community engagement, Donna Walker- Kuhne. Five years prior, I met Donna while on an arts tour of New York City’s cultural institutions through the Bite the Big Apple program that she co-designed with Fotis Kapetopoulos.
Every arts institution or cultural institution we went to she was greeted with a warm and adoring reception by the speakers and industry experts. Apart from her expertise and knowledge in the area of art, community and engagement, what struck me was the fact that Donna was a woman of colour, a black woman. In fact, most of the speakers at the Met Museum, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Columbia University and New York City Hall were people of colour.
So, five years later as I sat and reflected on ‘doing more,’ I knew Donna would be the right place to start my search. I was invited to spend a few weeks in residence with Donna in her role as the Senior Advisor for Community Engagement at the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre (NJPAC).
My first day felt like my arrival to the big city from a small town. I met Donna’s team, a group of exceptional and inspiring women who seemed to know everyone on their database personally. Donna handed me packet after packet of NJPAC marketing collateral from the Arts Education program, the Diversity film Series, NJPAC season program but what stood out the most was the 2017 Report to the Community. As I flipped through the pages I felt like I was reading a story. I felt like I was being presented with all the characters and voices of NJPAC and I could feel an odd sense of familiarity and warmth through the words. What a way to honour a community, by speaking to them in a language they would understand and by marrying the community’s story and success with your institution’s story and successes.
As the days progressed, I became more familiar with the program at NJPAC, attended internal programming and marketing meetings; worked on databases (and boy did the community engagement department have databases); attended the fall advisory committee meeting (which included 6 different advisory committees from Jazz, Dance, Latino, Faith Based etc.); went to a poetry festival; sat in on Lauren Hill’s pre-event sound check; attended a Jazz Jam; Rutgers University student film screening, and one-on-one meetings with the Vice President of the Arts Education Department and Vice President of the Marketing Department. I heard President and CEO John Schreiber describe the NJPAC as ‘the most diverse Arts Centre in the USA in employment, programming and audiences.” But most importantly, I sat in Donna’s office and we talked. I asked her theoretical questions; I asked her philosophical questions. Her team joked that I kept her busy and slowed down her requests.
I asked Donna questions about the levels of diversity in an institution, strategies for community engagement, what reciprocal relationships looked like in a meaningful partnership, how/why NJPACs had such a distinct marketing communication style, and on and on. All the while I kept thinking about my responsibility in ‘future-making;’ how this opportunity, these learnings could be relevant back home, in Australia.
At times it felt like I was just collecting data—I had the pieces to the jigsaw puzzle but couldn’t work out how to make them fit. I would go back to the hotel after a long day and go over my notes. I would re-read chapters of Donna’s book. I knew this was a very important opportunity to grow in my practice, so I was determined to figure out how I wanted to make the pieces fit.
Then one morning it fell into place. I was sitting in Donna’s office as she was replying to emails, and I asked her about other institutions she felt were doing good community engagement work; organizations that were pioneers in diversity. She gave me a few names but followed with something profound: “It’s not just about diversity; it’s also about equity and inclusion.”
In that moment I realised why I came here. This was the missing piece. In all my years in the arts industry in Melbourne this was the missing piece. I’ve sat on many panels, attended meetings and advised on the topic of diversity. I had used that term as a “fix-it magical spell” that would end our stalemate in the arts in Australia. I had used statistics like 33.8% of Melbourne residents are born overseas, yet only 8% of artists in Australia are from culturally diverse backgrounds. But here was the point of difference—even when I produced/attended an event, program, festival that was “diverse,” where artists were being presented on stage and toted as “diverse,” something felt wrong. What was missing was equity and inclusion.
As a producer and a woman of colour, I can count on one hand the amount of times I have walked into meetings and not been the “only different,” as Shonda Rhimes describes it. I had sat in meetings with colleagues and introduced my title, which is often followed with a look, or a “oh” or an “ah.” I have walked into job interviews where I have presented my resume and had people question my role/title on projects I have delivered. I know the feeling of being the “only different” well, but I have never let it stop me. I have pushed passed those experiences primarily because my greatest motivator is being told I can’t do something.
Equity and inclusion. That is what is missing in our industry. We have come far, but what is needed to break down the walls of seemingly exclusive institutions is a better understanding of how we design and implement better equity and inclusion strategies. Not just in our audiences but in our boardrooms, at our executive levels, in our staffrooms. If we are in the business of future-building, we must be able to look to our left and look to our right and ask ourselves who is missing from the table.
By addressing the need for equity and inclusion in our industry we will also be addressing the need for broader community inclusion, more meaningful engagements and an increased capacity for innovation. Planning for diversity, equity and inclusion is how we plan for success. It is how we stay responsible in our role in future-making. But the first step is opening the doors of our institutions, or as Donna Walker-Kuhne puts it. extending the “invitation to the party.”