1. Determine a Need

For the Americans for the Arts Board of Directors and staff, determining a need started from two points.

On the Board level, in 2014 we engaged in a strategic planning process to craft our strategic direction for 2015-2017.  During that process, the Board directed the organization to put more intentionality behind our diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts—the first step of which was to revisit our Diversity Statement (which had existed in various forms since 1988).

For staff, addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion issues both internally and externally required different strategies. Serving our members and helping them identify ways to have the arts build stronger communities was crucial. So was growing the strongest most cultural conscious staff possible. The frame of a new Statement on Cultural Equity would give context and coordination to that work, and would allow us to measure our efforts over time.

2. Create a Task Force(s)

Our work required two task forces to effectively engage the board and staff.  A Board-level Diversity/Cultural Equity Task Force had been in existence for many years and was directed in mid-2015 to lead the process of examining and revising the existing Diversity Statement for approval by the Board of Directors.  Separately, a staff-level group called the Culture Committee made up of representatives from multiple departments and titles throughout the organization was convened to begin working to assess our internal needs and areas of growth.  These Task Forces were expected to establish a clear set of goals and timelines in order to accomplish their work. See who is on those board and staff committees.

3. Find Great Examples

Because great case studies help inform any work, we immediately began looking for examples of existing policies and program that would be of value.  In addition to our existing Diversity Statement, which we reviewed to ensure continuity, we also closely looked at Grantmakers in the Arts’ Racial Equity Statement, the Regional Arts & Culture Council’s Equity Statement, Crossroads Ministry’s Continuum on Becoming an Anti-Racist Multicultural Organization, PolicylInk’s Equity Manifesto and many others.  These are just some of the important work being done to create statements, set goals, and take actions in our field – check out more examples here.

For us, we determined from looking at these that we wanted our Statement to be:

  • Short: no more than one 8.5x11 page.
  • Guiding, but not proscriptive: clearly laying out areas of work and focus, but leaving the specific actions to staff to determine.
  • Contextualized: setting out some starting conditions and core values.
  • Aspirational: articulating goals for an idealized future.
  • Oriented both inwardly and outwardly: in pursuit of equity inside the organization, within arts organizations, and within the communities we serve throughout the country.
  • Aligned with our strategic plan and areas of expertise: in order to be most impactful.
  • About diversity, equity, and inclusion in a broader sense: reflective of the cultural diversity in our country and the differences in focus of our varied constituencies.
  • Realistic: acknowledging the expertise of others and the ongoing nature of this work.
  • Based in action: the statement should not live in a drawer but be actionable and a guiding force for our internal and external work.

4. Understand Your Definitions

As we moved forward, it became clear that we needed to get some basic definitions down.  In particular, as we honed in on “cultural equity” as our focal point, we sought and adapted definitions from many sources.  Here are the ultimate definitions of diversity, inclusion, equity, cultural equity, and other terms that informed our work.

5. Name the Starting Conditions

To provide context for the rest of the statement, and to remind ourselves of the stakes, we began working on naming the starting conditions.  These came in two forms: “acknowledgements,” which for us meant the contexts for the realities of our organization, our arts field, and our country in which we were working , and “affirmations,” which for us meant affirming the core beliefs of our organization that were driving us to be a part of the change. Read the acknowledgement and affirmations in the full statement.

6. Determine Your Goals, Expertise, and Areas of Focus

A major part of our work on this Statement has been about examining and articulating the strengths that Americans for the Arts brings to cultural equity work, the obstacles we want to overcome and where we should best put our focus for maximal impact internally and externally.  We looked at our core values and strategic goals as an organization, as outlined in our strategic plan.  We drew inspiration from our mission, vision, and goals.  We looked at how Americans for the Arts does its work, and how those we serve do their work as well.  In the course of our interviews, we listened for the areas where there was most need.

Ultimately, we created a guiding sentence that starts the statement:

  • To support a full creative life for all, Americans for the Arts commits to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable nation.

From that statement, in addition to focusing internally to create a culturally conscious, equitable work environment, we determined that we were best suited to help make progress in four core areas: field education and training, leadership development, research, and policy.

7. Create a Draft (and Another and Another)

We ultimately had thirteen drafts of our cultural equity statement, with changes in each one informed by the members of the Board’s Cultural Equity Task Force, the various stakeholders we interviewed, member surveys, and staff.  For us, the biggest challenges ended up being:

  • Length. Aiming for 1 page is a hard, but necessary, task.  We found ourselves pulling back and cleaning up language that was, at times, aspirational, but not necessary to laying out the specific goals and directives of the statement.
  • Definitions. While we steadfastly believed in “cultural equity” as the frame, it took a few drafts to hone what we meant, particularly to ensure that it felt specific, inclusive, and actionable.
  • Tone. As an organization that has conducted programs that we feel have aided in the forward progress of our field on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion for decades, we acknowledged that there is much more to be done and strove  to find a balanced tone that demonstrated our commitment to ongoing work.

8. Get Your Draft in Front of Stakeholders

We are not experts in this space, and knew we would draw wisdom from the many constituents and networks that we serve and partner with every day.  Over the course of about 6 months, we conducted one-on-one conversations and group interviews with over 150 people, provided opportunities for written feedback, analyzed field survey results, led internal staff discussions, and more with over 3,000 stakeholders—including staff, advisory council members and board members of Americans for the Arts, as well as stakeholders from arts organizations, national services organizations, local arts agencies, state arts agencies, private businesses, foundations, local governments, individual artists and more. 

For a full list of the commentators engaged in this process, please click here.

We are grateful to all of them, and also want to acknowledge that their participation in this process does not indicate their endorsement of the Statement on Cultural Equity or our other work. 

9. Start Talking about Actions and Benchmarks for Success

Now is a time for action, and it was clear from the first meetings of both the Board and staff task forces that we needed to lay out a map for taking action and making progress.  Progress requires setting specific goals, so we knew immediately that we needed to hold ourselves accountable for what we will be trying to accomplish both internally and externally.

In the end, we developed three internal areas of action, and four external areas of action.  Read them here.

10. Present the Final Statement, and Actions, and Have a Conversation

We are only at the beginning of our journey.  On April 7, 2016, the Board of Directors unanimously adopted the Statement on Cultural Equity, and on May 23, 2016, we released the Statement publicly.  In doing so, we very deliberately invited a conversation—this could’ve been something that we adopted privately, but in keeping with the goals of the Statement, we need to have a conversation.

In addition to a press release and the Statement itself, over the course of the summer of 2016 we will also be releasing writing about the statement and cultural equity in the United States from about 30 stakeholders,  15 nationally-recognized bloggers, and various staff, including our CEO, Bob Lynch.  We will immediately begin the development of field education modules through our field education program, ArtsU, and our regional, in-person training programs; releasing equity-specific research on the arts field; continuing an internal assessment and training process being led by Carmen Morgan of ArtEquity; and launching new, large-scale programs designed to begin making incremental, measurable, manageable progress happen over time.

By the end of 2016, we hope to have a plans in place for:

  • training all staff, board, and advisory committee members in cultural consciousness.
  • upping the number of local arts agencies and other constituents who have a formally-adopted diversity, equity, or inclusion statements of their own.
  • infusing cultural equity lenses and trainings into all of our field education programming, including our national, regional, and digital trainings.

We’re just at the beginning, but with the guiding Statement on Cultural Equity in hand, we have great hopes that we can take action and make progress, together with our many partners, over time to create greater access to a full creative life for all.