Image credit: Houston Mural by Ange Hillz commissioned by the Floyd family
May 29, 2022—Two years ago, the murder of George Floyd ignited global protests and demands for racial justice. Since that time, I have found that there’s been an increase in both the commitment and efforts of arts organizations and cultural institutions to become anti-racist.
Not only has my company had a steady stream of new clients requesting Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Access training—including opera companies, theater organizations, and performing arts centers—this is a national trend. There are consultants throughout the nation who are super-busy doing EDI&A training. As one dear colleague described it, this is, “a forever endeavor.”
Despite the growing need for more EDI&A arts spaces, there are still many organizations and institutions that have not yet committed to building a culture of inclusion or they are not willing to acknowledge the need to implement anti-racist policies.
I think some of that hesitancy or resistance stems from the fear of doing the laborious and emotional work of unpacking our nation’s racial and social justice challenges; fear of saying or doing the wrong thing. After all, we are not just uprooting the attitudes exposed over the past two years, but rather we are attempting to consciously excavate the long-denied effects of a system that has defended and justified the institution of slavery and the war to maintain it; the seizure and removal of Indigenous People from their homelands; the Chinese Exclusion Act; Jim Crow laws; internment camps, as well as border walls.
Sometimes these discussions can be upsetting for the participants. Some people have told me that EDI&A training is toxic for people of color, and they choose not to be in the room. However, I am a firm believer that the catalyst for changing thoughts, attitudes, hearts, and behavior is dialogue; a dialogue that begins with the acknowledgment and recognition of the dignity of all people and their fundamental right to respect.
With this as our shared mission, we can build a foundation of EDI&A and anti-racism that supports opportunities for all people to equally contribute to the process of truth, reconciliation, racial healing, and leveraging the positive impact the arts have on all people’s lives.
Ultimately, the goal of these trainings is to create brave spaces where everyone belongs; where everyone can say what they need to say without fear of repercussion, labeling, or judgement. These brave spaces are places where everyone is heard and allyships are forged. Brave spaces are springboards for self-reflection, action, creating value, and change.
There have been some bumps along the way. For example, although more African-American firms have been hired to market the record number of Broadway plays written by Black playwrights, these firms have been given limited authority to do their jobs. There appears to be a lack of trust in their abilities to create, manage and budget for full engagement campaigns. Yet, that’s why they were hired.
I believe the next step towards full inclusion is trust—trust that equally empowers all people with the authority and power to do their jobs and fully create value through their work. Until that changes, the voices, efforts, and potential of these Black-led agencies will continue to be marginalized, with limited results.
Nevertheless, I believe in the importance of EDI&A work, and I have seen actual proof. When people confront their innate and/or enculturated biases; study together; engage in dialogues that sometimes can be painful; commit to training, and participate in follow-up surveys, we have seen results. The investment of time and effort to forge EDI&A commitments and initiatives is clear—the beneficiaries are not only the staff; not only the organization’s bottom line, but also the communities they serve.
During the last two years, I have seen the emergence of diverse leaders in executive positions; the creation and elevation of EDI&A positions to the C-Suite; a movement pursuing pay equity for women and people of color, and conscientious efforts to impart invitations of welcome and belonging to diverse audiences. This is progress I honestly wasn’t sure I would see in my lifetime!
I also want to share a powerful example of how the arts are again being utilized as agents of change, and a healing force for the community.
To commemorate the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, the Minnesota Orchestra was joined by the Minnesota Chorale, Twin Cities Choral Partners, and 29:11 International Exchange for the performance of Emmy Award-winning composer Joel Thompson’s stirring Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.
This masterful work, which was written for chorus, piano and strings, is dedicated to the lives of unarmed Black men killed by police or authority figures, including Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Amadou Diallo.
The first performance of Seven Last Words of the Unarmed was in November 2015 by the University of Michigan Men’s Glee Club, under the direction of Eugene Rogers, Ph.D. The New York premiere of the work was held earlier this month at the Apollo.
I urge the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to check out the video created by the Minnesota Orchestra about the process of bringing this work to its community. You can find the video at this link.
In the recently released book, His Name is George Floyd, 13 year-old George is quoted as having once told his sister, Zsa Zsa: “Sis, I don’t want to rule the world; I don’t want to run the world. I just want to touch the world.”
George Floyd most certainly has done so.
As always, I would like to know what you think. I invite you to share your reflections and thoughts about how the world of the arts has been impacted by the murder of George Floyd. What do you believe are the next steps towards a more equitable, inclusive and just future?