Upon Departure, Oskar Ly Reflects on the Work of Creating Diverse Panels 

Oskar Ly

I joined MRAC in 2017 as the Community Connections Manager, which was a new role created to recruit new panelists and to diversify panels. I learned a great deal about the complexity of systems and people. I’m preparing to leave my position at the end of November so I reached out in the community to ask what folx would like to hear about, I received 18 questions, wow! While I can’t answer them all, several people asked that I share about what funders can do to include more Black, Indigenous (Native American), People of Color (POC), and how that has changed MRAC. Here are some of my learnings:

EXTEND INVITATIONS TO PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN HISTORICALLY LEFT OUT OF THE PROCESS

The MRAC panel is about conducting a peer community review process but much like the rest of the field, it often fell short of racial representation. Recognizing this significant gap, the Community Connections Manager role was created allowing for the organization to intentionally do this work. MRAC’s created our Racial Equity Statement and background trailing other critical funders’ call in our region signaling the responsibility and urgency on this matter.

Before becoming a staff member, I was an applicant, grantee, and panelist. It took dedication, resources, trial, and error to understand how my previous organization could fit into MRAC’s grantmaking while still doing the work in my community. I’ve always worked at the intersection of community, advocacy, arts, and culture because the dominant white system and culture did not have my community in mind. Being a panelist required I squeeze time from my daily life and work. With every panel I joined, it did build my capacity to become a more effective writer, develop a more critical analysis, and better serve my community. Knowing how hard this was, I used that experience to inform how I could recruit others to join as panelists, what made a panelist qualified, and how getting more BIPOC participants correlated to systemic barriers.

LIVED EXPERIENCE QUALIFIES AS EXPERIENCE

Often times, organizations seek reviewers and look to professional experience like what you’d find on resumes. While that seems convenient, it has also been used as a mechanism to filter out people, particularly BIPOC, who may not appear qualified on paper or been afforded opportunities to advance professionally but have potential and a stake in the field. To truly include diverse perspectives, I had to look beyond titles and hear about the individual’s experience and connections to the arts. The lived experiences of marginalized people and their work in community (ie: working for trade or volunteering, not exclusive to being a board member) also had to be factored in when recruiting panelists because of structural barriers they face systematically. This also encouraged me to seek out Queer Trans (QT) folx, People with Disabilities (PWD), emerging professionals, and gain a better understanding of urban, suburban and rural communities at these intersections.

TO FIND BIPOC FOLX, GO TO WHERE THEY ARE

In 2015, only 8% of MRAC panelists self-reported as BIPOC. After almost three years of rigorous recruitment efforts geared towards new panelists, 49% now self-identify as BIPOC. This wouldn’t have been possible without those who came before me to create this role and those who supported me through this period. To get to this point, I sought out new unconventional ways to bring folx to this long-standing panel process. As an organizer, a first and foremost rule of engagement is to go to where the people are. I went to shows in communities I had never been to, I asked individuals for coffee meets in their neighborhoods, I asked for referrals, lots of them, and I would invite them multiple times. 

When I couldn’t physically get to people, social media became a supplemental and powerful tool for recruitment. I posted on Facebook groups, forums, networks, and newsletters specific to these communities. I followed up 1-1 via Messenger, LinkedIn, their websites, panelist referrals tagged in comments by peers who extended their networks to me. This helped me expand and build relationships across more BIPOC communities.

WHAT CHANGES HAVE WE MADE?

Once in the door and part of the process, we needed to make internal changes to welcome BIPOC panelists to feel seen, heard, and valued. We tried a lot of new approaches, listening for feedback, keeping what works, and leaving behind what didn’t. Last year, we started offering $125 stipends for panelists. We offer space for prayer, sensory breaks, and mothers who pump. We also ask for accessibility accommodation check-ins and preferred gender pronouns throughout our organization. We are learning more about how we can authentically hold land acknowledgments, recognize holidays of religious minorities and cultures, support BIPOC vendors, and disaggregate our data practices so that individuals see themselves throughout different aspects of our processes. These changes have led to more BIPOC panelists building their capacity in the field and expanding their networks and employment opportunities.

We’re in the process of integrating Accessibility in our Racial Equity work – evolving our Racial Equity Task Force (RETF) into our Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility (IDEA) Committee. 

GOING BEYOND DIVERSITY: INCLUSION, EQUITY, ACCESSIBILITY

This ongoing work requires getting uncomfortable, reflecting, and adapting. Looking back now, getting to a more racially diverse panel alone wasn’t going to solve for more equitable funding. However, this led us to start practicing what Inclusion, Equity, and Accessibility can look like towards this goal. MRAC can now build on this awareness to more clearly identify individual, structural, and cultural biases, and adopt approaches that welcome communities that have been left out of the process feel like they belong, too, whether they live in urban, suburban, or rural metro.

Having BIPOC representation is not enough, it’s the jumping point into Equity work. Communities are intersectional; they have many experiences that inform their identities and don’t show up as just one of their identities. MRAC is still learning and will continue to learn. We don’t have the answers but the organization is committed to better understanding how to get there.

This complex work requires building a critical analysis across the region. That includes having organizational boards, staff, panelists, applicants, community audiences understand and acknowledge their privilege, consider what creating art means across many different cultures, and embrace the complexity and interdependence of intersectionality. Dominant societal narratives have kept us from learning our stories and isolated us from one another. I found that when people own who they are and where they come from, different ways of being is not a threat to their existence. Genuinely including marginalized communities means to celebrate and make space for them the way they want to exist, not how we want to see them (that would be tokenization). We can’t assume we know what is best for them. Instead, actually engage them in what that looks like.

Moving towards Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility means we each understand our positionality and hold ourselves and our circles of people accountable. The approach is different based on who you are such as if you are white, a person of color, able-bodied, a person with a disability and so on. We must actively interrupt and not perpetuate cycles of harm done onto marginalized communities. There needs to be deep unlearning and uprooting of toxic behaviors, culture, and systems while simultaneously envisioning a future where the prosperity and creativity of all people are embraced and dependent on one another. It’s necessary because the region is changing, and MRAC will help prepare for it.

WHAT’S NEXT

I believe I have done my work to shift the organization in the way I was brought on to do. It’s time to get out of the way to make space for new voices to step into this organization, particularly individuals from Native, Black, Latinx, Muslim, Queer Trans folx, and Disability communities. If that’s you, I encourage you to get involved. Apply to the next openings at MRAC.

If you’d like to be a panelist on an upcoming grant review, please contact Khin Oo, Office and Panel Coordinator.

I’m off to pursue artistic research in my ancestors’ homeland and continue facilitating and consulting culturally innovative initiatives. Reach me at hello@oskarlyart.com. See you in community.

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