By Kathy Mouacheupao, MRAC Executive Director
As I write this, it has been exactly 18 months since my first day as executive director of the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC). I was interested in this position, not because of the enormous volume of applications MRAC receives each year (1326 applications in FY19), but because the organization was paying closer attention to who the applicants were and who was receiving funds. More specifically, MRAC was taking note of who wasn’t applying or receiving funds.
I have learned so much, and our team has grown together to better serve the 7-county metropolitan area (aka the region) as it relates to Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (IDEA). The MRAC board initiated the first Racial Equity Task Force in 2016 to address the funding disparities of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) here at MRAC and a lot has happened since then. We declared our commitment to racial equity with a public statement, we are being more deliberate about accessibility for people with disabilities as part of our equity work, and more that Oskar Ly mentioned in her recent blog. But, in many ways, it feels like we are just getting started – as we enter a new phase of this work.
Among the many lessons, some of the ideas, approaches, experiences and experiments we have tried and are trying include:
Not only is it challenging work, but people will literally challenge it as well. I was asked if MRAC’s focus on equity has swung too far on the pendulum, and that maybe we are losing focus of our purpose.
To which I responded that 1) the pendulum metaphor does not accurately represent equity work. It is not equity on one end and being stewards of public dollars in the arts on the other end; 2) in fact, if we are to be good and responsible stewards of public dollars in the arts, we need to pay attention to the disparities in who is funded and actively work to get rid of the disparities.
If anything is a pendulum, it’s commitment to finding solutions on one end and neglect on the other.
Getting our house in order
In 2015, the MRAC Board of Directors hit an all-time high in diversity with 8 of 18 members identifying as BIPOC. At the same time, MRAC had 7 staff, of which only one BIPOC was part-time.
Today, the MRAC Board has maintained its diversity with 9 BIPOC members (including our Chair and Vice Chair), 4 of 7 staff are BIPOC, and one identifies as being queer and a person with a disability. This is a testament to our initial efforts towards diversity, but it has not been easy.
To be successful in diversity means learning to adapt so you can honor different life experiences, perspectives, opinions, and approaches to the work. Failing at diversity would be to expect everyone to participate in a monolithic manner.
As we learn how to be successful in diversity, we embrace this challenging process, and, as MRAC Program Director Jovan Speller always says, “we need to get our house in order first!” Getting our house in order means that we start by recognizing and filling our knowledge gaps and creating a culture of IDEA among our team first. It means finding common ground and ways to be together within difference. It means being honest and practicing humility. It means having awkward staff meetings with miscommunication, misunderstandings and learning how to thoroughly listen, hear and understand one another.
Getting our house in order means that we are taking the necessary time to be informed, but we aren’t waiting for things to be perfect before we make any moves.
Understanding positionality and purpose
We started by asking, “how do we make the region more equitable?” and learned quickly that no one organization has enough power or resources to do this alone. Understanding MRAC’s positionality and purpose has been key for having clarity about our specific role, responsibility and power to support the arts more equitably in the region. What a relief when we realized we didn’t have to solve for all the inequities in society!
The Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund is an investment by Minnesotans to support arts, arts education and arts access, and to preserve Minnesota’s history and cultural heritage. According to Minnesota Administrative Rules, regional arts councils are responsible for developing programs for arts funding and managing the resources allocated by the legislature for regional arts funding. MRAC takes this responsibility seriously, and we are committed to developing a system that recognizes diversity and is culturally informed to eliminate barriers.
So, now, we are asking ourselves, “how do we give money equitably and in relationship with communities?” We are focusing on the systems that we employ, and the people that can inform the necessary changes.
Being in relationship
Ok, everybody talks about being in relationship, but what does it mean?
I first heard the phrase, “moving from transactional to relational” in 2013, as an effective way to work with communities, and I’m finally understanding what that can actually mean in practice. MRAC receives nearly 1400 applications a year, which means that by design, we are very transactional. Some might say it’s efficient, but at what cost? To be efficient, MRAC has been an expert in the content of the transactions, but has neglected learning about the context of the communities that don’t have access to the resources.
Being in relationship is slower and takes time, but it will make all the difference in how we can improve the quality of life by supporting the arts in this region. This is our commitment in the next phase of our IDEA work. We want to move from being transactional to being in relationship, so we can better understand how to be valuable. I welcome any feedback, suggestions or encouragements and invite an opportunity to meet if you are interested. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-523-6390.