Overture Center adds “Justice” to its EDI Work

November 14, 2021—It’s been a couple of years since I checked in with my colleague Edward S. Holmes, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Equity and Inclusion at Overture Center for the Arts in Madison, Wisconsin. In 2019, Overture Center was among the first arts institutions in the country to elevate the work of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion to the C-Suite by naming him its Senior Vice President.

Then, in December of 2019, the Overture Center’s first female President and CEO Sandra Gajic died. The entire executive team worked together to assume management for the day-to-day operations of Overture Center until the COVID-19 pandemic forced a shutdown in March 2020. With the loss of 90-percent of its revenue and the air of uncertainty surrounding the arts industry, Overture Center Foundation Board of Directors reduced staff and suspended its search for a new CEO/President.

The executive team kept Overture Center operational with virtual programming, grants, federal support, and by expanding its offerings to the schools.

A few months ago, as Overture Center prepared to reopen, at the request of the executive leadership team the Board announced that it was establishing an executive shared leadership model instead of resuming the search for a President/CEO. The team consists of six, equal executive officer positions. Ed’s new title is Chief Equity and Innovation Officer.

I believe this is an important and exciting development for all arts organizations and cultural institutions to consider. The shared executive leadership model at Overture Center is ensuring that the important values of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Access (EDIA) have equal weight when it comes to strategic thinking and decision making, along with artistic programming and financial planning.

Coupled with this innovation, Overture Center is expanding its EDI umbrella to include “Justice.” Given the impact on the arts and cultural landscape of both the COVID-19 pandemic and the global movements for racial and social justice, I thought this would be a good time to update the readers of Arts & Culture Connections on Ed’s trailblazing efforts.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did the Overture Center arrive at the decision to make changes in its approach to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion?

Edward Holmes: We are still recovering from the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota and the deaths of countless other people of color. We are still reeling from the episodes and attacks we have seen against members of the Asian community.

Because of this, more than ever, it is imperative to find ways to remove hate, mistrust and misunderstanding; to find ways to become more aware and knowledgeable, and for our actions to reflect respect for each other’s humanity.

Not only was it important for us to talk about what was going on around us, we also needed to be introspective about the direction of Overture Center.

Donna: What led you to incorporate “Justice” as part of your EDI initiative?

Ed: The first major shift for us was to engage the organization in critical discussions about Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, which we refer to as JEDI. To that end, we have implemented a rigorous, comprehensive, and measurable plan of action to affirm our commitment to JEDI values in both our programming and our workplace.

Our initial points of focus cover both our workplace relations and our relations with the diverse communities we serve:

  1. We are committed to equitable treatment and elimination of social injustice in all its forms throughout the organization to create a workplace that values and welcomes diversity.
  2. We are committed to recruiting and retaining diverse organizational leadership, board, committee and council members
  3. We are committed to investing in the activities, programs and initiatives to support an environment that truly provides extraordinary arts experiences for ALL.


Donna: What are some of the initial steps you are taking to implement these JEDI values?

Ed: Prior to the pandemic, much of our work was external, looking outside of ourselves—we focused on introducing diverse communities to a space that still had to overcome the perception of being unwelcoming to our communities of color. To that end we develop community partners to make sure everyone who walked through our doors felt recognized, important, and relevant.  In the wake of the pandemic, however, we shifted the focus of our efforts on our own cultural competence and knowledge of the diverse communities we serve.

What’s also different now is that the Board of Directors is engaged.  They are challenging themselves, as well as each other to embrace our JEDI efforts. Before, I was the only Equity and Innovation champion on behalf of Overture Center. But now, we also have the Community Advisory Council; the Board, and its committee on Equity and Innovation.

This is the fuel behind our efforts—internal, collective engagement—and the points I shared are our focus to move the needle forward in a positive direction.

I could not be prouder of the work our organization is doing, challenging ourselves in the area of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. The goal of this JEDI initiative is to expand both our personal and organizational capacity to truly create ways to be more engaging, more welcoming, and more relevant to our diverse communities.

Donna: What are you doing to address issues of race, which are often at the root when organizations have challenges embracing Equity, Diversity and Inclusion objectives?

Ed: Our consultant, Dr. Kenneth Hardy, has facilitated some very engaging discussions around race, where members of our organization―from board and staff to Community Advisory Council to members of our resident companies―are all involved in these challenging conversations. We are challenging each other; we are thinking deeply about our conversations, and we’re looking both introspectively and collectively as an organization at the issues related to race.

Having concrete strategies for understanding how to lean into discomfort and stay engaged in the conversation is more relevant now than ever as we continue to explore how we overcome the challenges we face in this day and time with race baiting at the center of our nation’s current culture wars.

To get better, we must continue to look more closely at ourselves, to seek out our common humanity, so that we can embrace the diverse communities we intend to serve.

The more ways we are able to utilize the arts and culture to come together, the more ways we will be able to heal the chasms that currently divide American society.

Donna: Please share some examples of your community engagement that reflects the JEDI values:

Ed: We launched some important initiatives, including leadership development; highlighting the impact of anti-Asian violence, and allyship. We have a judge who works in the juvenile justice system and we’re sharing how the arts can engage kids and help the community.

We’ve also been doing ongoing work with the Ho-Chunk Nation. Before the pandemic, we created a land recognition statement that is shared at the beginning of our programs to celebrate the longtime traditions of the Ho-Chunk Nation, on whose land Overture Center is located.

In addition, the land recognition statement, written by Ho-Chunk Nation representatives in conjunction with our Community Advisory Council, helped to build a bridge for us to demonstrate honor, value and respect of all the people of our diverse community. It is an affirmation that we are all better together when we employ the JEDI values.

Since reopening, we had a recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day (previously known as Columbus Day) to honor the history and culture of Native American people across the country. This coincided with President Biden’s federal proclamation honoring the resilience of Native Americans and their contributions to American society throughout history, even as they faced assimilation, discrimination and genocide that spanned generations.

We work closely with Ho-Chunk Nation representative Missy Tracy, who also is on our Overture Center Foundation Board of Directors and serves as co-chairperson of our Equity and Innovation committee. And we continue to work with Dan Brown, a leader of the Ho-Chunk Nation, who functioned as the primary sponsor and spokesperson at our recent Take the Stage event, our annual donor recognition celebration.

This is just one example of our ongoing efforts to deepen our relationship with the Ho-Chunk Nation.

Donna: What are some of your future plans?

Ed: At some point, I hope to double the size of my department and hire a Director of Equity and Innovation. To sustain and expand our long-term commitment, it’s also important that our staff continues to become more diverse as we ramp up to full operation. The more people we have involved and engaged in spreading JEDI values and creating opportunities to build bridges with diverse communities, the more we will be able to move our country forward.

Donna: Thank you so much, Ed!

As always, valued readers of Arts & Culture Connections, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your comments and thoughts below

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