April 25, 2021—Hundreds of people gathered over two days last week to participate in a virtual conference focusing a spotlight on the actions we all need to take to ensure Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access within the New Jersey arts community. I was honored to serve as the Steering Committee Chairperson and emcee for this thought-provoking and moving event, and I am excited to share key details with the readers of Arts & Cultural Connections.
First and foremost, I want to express my deepest appreciation to the conference hosts—New Jersey Theatre Alliance and ArtPride New Jersey—the visionaries behind the virtual event, which was titled “Creating Change: Moving Towards Equity, Justice and Anti-Racism in the New Jersey Arts Community.” The conference opened with a land acknowledgement, in consultation with Dr. John Norwood, a member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape nation, the original territory upon which New Jersey was built.
The goal of the virtual conference was to provide the critical and necessary support for arts and cultural institutions, as well as artists, funders and students, to establish long-term and sustainable programs that are anti-racist and address the issues of equity, diversity, inclusion and access. The 300 participants included artists, academics, arts administrators, arts marketers, funders, board members, civic organizations, representatives of theaters, dance companies, museums, and arts centers, as well as cultural alliances from across the state of New Jersey and beyond.
The opening day’s theme of “Speaking Our Truth,” was magnificently addressed in the keynote delivered by Nikkole Salter, the New Jersey-based and OBIE Award-winning actor, playwright, educator and advocate.
During the keynote, Nikkole set the tone for the rest of the conference. She offered insights about what it means to change and reminded us that it is both inevitable and unavoidable. However, she said, we have the power to determine the impact and shape of change when we realize that we are the authors of our own narratives. When we do, she said, the narrative changes focus, perception, understanding, boundaries, and connectivity; it establishes and changes consciousness. And a change in consciousness is the force that precipitates any change we can participate in making. Nikkole, who also is the board chair of the Theatre Communications Group, urged us to be a force for change instead of a force of moving around it.
The Racial Healing Circles (RHC) followed Nikkole’s keynote, and it was a provocative experience. The RHC process was explained to conference participants by Sharon Stroye of Rutgers University-Newark’s Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Center (TRHT). TRHT is a center and a movement currently located on nearly 30 college campuses, and is dedicated to dispelling the myth of hierarchy of human value and cultivating the next generation of leaders who can help dismantle both institutional and structural racism based on the perspective of our shared humanity. The THRT movement also is supporting Congressional and Senate bills seeking the formation of a National Commission for Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation.
Sharon emphasized the importance of engaging in the RHC process before utilizing anti-bias and anti-racism training to create the space for safe, brave and responsible conversations. Sharon told the conference that there can be no healing without truth, which she defined as the acknowledgement of what has happened, and then we can come together for transformation—the recognition that we are all gifted, talented, and able to create change in our community, city, state, nation, and the world.
The Racial Healing Circles created in a virtual space for the conference were an amazing experience. They lasted about 90 minutes and varied in group size from 15 to 30 people. The questions asked by the facilitators were probing and we all wanted more time to respond. I learned the importance of recognizing the similarities that people in my circle all shared. I also developed a deeper understanding of what it means to create a safe space where people can express their concerns, fears, and questions about race, racism, equity and inclusion.
During the plenary session, “Historical Inequity and Justice Movements in New Jersey,” the presenters shared strategies for examining our personal ethos and steps for bringing equity and justice into our work.
On the second day, the theme was “Looking Forward.” The day opened with a moving land acknowledgement presentation by Emily Johnson, an Indigenous artist of Yup’ik ancestry, and a call for the land to be returned to Indigenous people by River Whittle, an Indigenous artist of Lenape ancestry.
Nonprofit expert Vu Le of Seattle gave an extraordinary keynote titled “A Time for Boldness: Unlocking our Sector’s Power to Advance a Just and Equitable World.” Vu said the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with a reckoning with white supremacy and systemic racism, has made it clear how vital arts nonprofits are. However, he noted, we risk further becoming a white moderate sector and continuing to perpetuate the very injustice we are supposed to be fighting. He encouraged us to closely examine a system that does not support artists of the Global Majority (talk about an impactful concept!) and to demand change, particularly in board positions, hiring pipelines and grant applications.
Vu also encouraged us to pursue ED&I with urgency; to be willing to let go of sacred cows and dismantle current systems in order to create a just and equitable world. Rather than letting it become a fad, like drinking coconut water, he said, we must ensure that ED&I is essential, like drinking our daily cup of coffee.
Arts performances by New Jersey-based artists were woven throughout the two days, and I must express my appreciation for the participation of Dr. Antoinette Ellis-Williams, Elizabeth Youth Theater Ensemble, Heidi Latsky Dance, Amos Koffa, El Sistema NJ Alliance and the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, and Sheikia S. Norris, who is lyrically known as Purple Haze, for their invaluable contributions to the conference.
I believe “Creating Change” afforded us all the opportunity to see that the key component for effecting transformation is dialogue. Dialogue helps us reflect on our own beliefs and assumptions; and it challenges us to alter our inner biases that make it easy to judge people as “other,” separate, or too different from ourselves. Dialogue also allows us to break down barriers and expand our capacities as humans. However, one of the key components missing in our efforts to open up to others is our lack of understanding of the interconnectedness of life. Once we can grasp and appreciate our connections with others, we can diminish the urge to be dismissive, mistrustful or apathetic.
At the end of the conference, I asked participants to put in the Zoom chat the action steps they will take as the result of the virtual gathering. Some of the pledges included: incorporating the learned principles into their organizations; continue with training; learning more about unconscious bias and microaggressions; building an EDI&A plan, and understanding and working to dismantle white privilege.
To make change we must take action steeled in the belief that our efforts can and will make a difference. “Creating Change” offered opportunities to learn from the leaders on the front lines of advancing EDI&A in the arts. Here is some of the feedback we received after the conference:
“I was totally blown away by the caliber of presenters and the richness of their knowledge in each session! I am so full of gratitude for this incredible opportunity. Thank you, thank you, thank you for creating this life-changing/world-changing conference!”
“Thank you for putting together this wonderfully informative (and emotional) collection of presentations and breakout sessions. It’s been an eye-opening experience and I hope to be a better advocate and activist for change.”
“This is the most impactful conference I have ever attended. I am grateful to you and celebrate your courage, vision and expertise. You changed my mind, spirit, heart and imagination.”
“I am so grateful. What could have been dry and preach-y was inspiring and consciousness changing.”
It is my hope that the readers of Arts & Cultural Connections will make the time to watch the conference, including workshops of your choice, which is available at this link for a donation of $25 (to help offset costs). I believe it will be one of the best investments you can make towards creating change in your arts organization or cultural institution, and advancing EDI&A in your organization, institution and community.