In April 2023, IFF spoke with Restart Consulting and Experimental Sound Studio to hear their perspectives on operationalizing diversity, equity, and inclusion practices within the arts sector.
Over the past several years, the arts and culture sector has seen increased public calls for change in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) practices due to an intensified awareness of the scale and breadth of inequalities that have historically afflicted millions of marginalized communities.
The conversation was so prominent here in Chicago that the Chicago Tribune launched an ongoing series to examine Chicago arts organizations (small to large-scale) and their work implementing DEI practices in their workplaces. The Tribune noted that many of the efforts to incorporate DEI practices, such as equitable staff salaries and increased diverse programming, remain stalled in planning phases.
This is not uncommon. Throughout 2022, IFF hosted leaders from five small- and medium-sized arts organizations across Chicago as part of our MacArthur Arts and Culture Loan Fund (ACLF) program, which provides four types of support: a line of credit, financial training workshops, expert technical assistance, and a DEI Collective. Organizations can select the type of support received based on their needs.
As part of our DEI Collective in partnership with Restart Consulting, we hosted a four-week program to help leaders better understand and explore how they can integrate actionable DEI practices into their operations.
Many of the conversations that arose from the sessions mirrored the Tribune’s insights. However, instead of anchoring our discussion on what these organizations are doing, we started with an exploration of why they were doing it.
“A lot of the clarity comes from identifying and understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing,” says Nancy Harris, founder and CEO of Restart Consulting and creator/facilitator of the 2022 DEI Collective as part of the ACLF cohort. “There’s no cookie cutter solution for operationalizing DEI.”
“Sometimes you have to slow down and think about how you utilize the numbers and the metrics to define DEI and your plan and not just do it to say, ‘we want more diversity.’”
— Nancy Harris, founder and CEO, Restart Consulting
“We went in thinking we will define diversity, equity and inclusion for ESS,” said Olivia Junell, co-director of ESS. “Week after week, it became apparent that this was a constant conversation about our DEI definition and how we implement those values successfully within our organization.”
Implementing effective DEI efforts takes strategy, intentionality, and tailoring a unique plan to your organization’s mission. Getting clarity around your organization’s readiness to implement meaningful DEI practices means peeling back and looking to see where you are on that journey and using metrics and data to move forward.
“Sometimes you have to slow down and think about how you utilize the numbers and the metrics to define DEI and your plan and not just do it to say, ‘we want more diversity’,” said Nancy. “For example, if 90 percent of staff identify as men, you have concrete data to show why you should concentrate DEI efforts on bringing more women into the workplace.”
For ESS, bringing a range of talent into one space to creatively explore sound as an art form meant having diverse, inclusive, and equitable practices in place to nurture artists, herald new works, and build a broad, supportive community of makers, enthusiasts, and creative partners.
ESS was intentional in their approach and committed to regularly collecting and assessing their data. The organization started gathering information through an ongoing public call for feedback from those they consider to be their primary constituents — staff, Board members, and artists in and outside of their community. They encouraged feedback on topics ranging from improving facilities to create more welcoming environments that foster accessibility to sharing individual experiences with equity and inclusion within and outside of the organization. The responses informed discussions and became a foundational part of how ESS approaches strategic planning, fundraising, programming, and decision-making.
On the surface this approach sounds simple enough: ask, listen, and apply. But it’s not that easy. As the Tribune cited, many plans remained stalled in the discovery and planning phase. For Olivia and the leaders in our DEI Collective, staff capacity, funding, and timing were some of the barriers to putting the DEI recommended practices into action.
“Though we are implementing as much as we can based on feedback and data, we do not feel that the work is adequately resourced,” said Olivia. “It would be a lot easier to truly operationalize DEI practices if we were able to regularly bring in outside expertise and properly compensate people for the labor of participating in these initiatives.”
“If we are really going to be serious about DEI as an integral part to our operations in arts nonprofits, then we have to start treating it like we do the books and fundraising and all of these other components that we know are essential and that we regularly call experts in as part of our practice.”
— Olivia Junell, co-director, Experimental Sound Studio
Arts organizations — like many nonprofits — tend to be stretched thin. Often staff are invited to sit on task forces or help plan programming or events. This is usually the case with DEI as well. In addition to contributing to discussions, staff might be invited to take leadership roles in DEI taskforces or employee resource groups (ERGs) to spearhead efforts and programming without additional compensation. It’s a big ask that can be counterproductive to the organization’s goal of being an equitable workplace. It also devalues DEI efforts. If an organization is struggling with bookkeeping, it is highly unlikely they will resort to gathering a group of staffers who like finance and numbers and have them direct the organization’s bookkeeping practices, right?
“If we are really going to be serious about DEI as an integral part to our operations in arts nonprofits, then we have to start treating it like we do the books and fundraising and all of these other components that we know are essential and that we regularly call experts in as part of our practice,” says Olivia.
As arts leaders rethink their approach towards DEI, there also needs to be a shift amongst philanthropic funders who support DEI efforts. Now is a great opportunity for funders to begin asking more intentional questions to think differently about how they are helping organizations not just build the internal capabilities but source them long-term for meaningful change.
Though ESS didn’t conclude the DEI cohort session with a 1-2-3 solution to how they should operationalize DEI, they walked away with a unique perspective on their definition and needs. They are committed to the constant conversation about their evolving “why” to better support their communities. They are ready for nuance. They are ready to be vulnerable and uncomfortable. Their leaders feel better equipped with supporting data to have discussions with funders and help them look at supporting DEI initiatives from more of a long-term holistic, integrated perspective instead of a discreet one-off funding opportunity.
From funders to staff to Board members, DEI will always mean different things to different people at different times. Programs like the DEI Collective that offer space for honest conversations amongst leaders are essential to inspiring change to how we approach DEI. If you’re an arts leader and you’ve hit a roadblock with creating and enacting effective DEI practices within your organization, we suggest taking a page from ESS to remove your cookie-cutter mindset and begin with creating a space dedicated to listening and intentionality.