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Table Setting: The work before the work

Category: Alliance Blog
Illustration of a table setting
Though work in diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility is urgent, it can't be rushed if it's going to create lasting change. Here are three concepts to absorb before you jump in.

Often when I talk with folks about DEAI work there is a sense of urgency. They’ll say, “We’ve gotta make this happen now because so and so is really a problem,” or “We need our community engagement initiative started yesterday, so let’s get going with this DEAI stuff.” To some extent, I deeply understand and agree with this sentiment. Marginalized communities have been waiting centuries for equitable practices in museums, and throughout society, so this work absolutely should be urgent. But dismantling such a complex and longstanding system of inequity, however urgent, cannot be immediate. Understanding the deep impact that centuries’ worth of disenfranchisement has caused, should we be surprised that unlearning it is a long-term endeavor?

So, when people talk to me about acting “now” or “yesterday,” I tend to ask if we can slow down a bit. It may seem like I’m stopping progress or missing an opportunity for immediate results, but from my perspective it’s neither. Before embarking on this work, I find it is essential to do some table setting, managing people’s expectations for what DEAI work looks like in practice. It’s an opportunity to get everyone on (or close to) the same page with what it means to shift an organization’s culture, to examine power and privilege and the systems that inform them. In the process, there are three key concepts I try to get across, which I learned during my time as a member of the Racial Equity in Arts Leadership (REAL) cadre:

  1. This work takes emotional stamina.
  2. There are no shortcuts.
  3. You will make mistakes (and that’s okay).

A working understanding of these concepts helps to create a safe space, while also encouraging people to be brave in how they utilize the safe space that has been created.

Stamina is a recurring theme in my conversations with colleagues and groups for which I am consulting. In fact, it’s been the toughest part of my own DEAI journey. Constantly being confronted with ways in which I’m privileged and working to continually up my awareness—it can feel like a never-ending job. I have to work to put aside my ego and actively listen to the feedback I’m hearing, which can feel draining. As an example, I recently received feedback from a colleague that my style of written communication can at times come off as combative. This was a “direct hit” for me—I work very hard to communicate in a way that is open and honest and gives people space to say what they need. However, my style was having the exact opposite effect. I was essentially failing in my communication. This has been a tough pill to swallow. We rarely are comfortable confronting our personal failures. But I am pushing myself to sit with the criticism, and to resist the urge to dismiss it as completely baseless and fall back on my good intentions. That’s the kind of stamina I’m talking about. The stamina to be uncomfortable and do the self-work it takes to own my failures and try again. Robin DiAngelo talks about this issue from a race and privilege lens in her article “White Fragility,” which has been recently turned into a book. Privilege allows people to avoid discomfort. However, DEAI work requires it. If we are going to make progress, we must begin to build the stamina to sit with our discomfort and actively listen to others.

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Another major piece of this work is that, as with anything difficult, it can be tempting to look for shortcuts. But while we are all excited to get going with the Facing Change initiative, I emphasize that there really aren’t shortcuts to doing sustainable DEAI work. When we rush it, we run the risk of only addressing surface-level issues, which can leave participants in the work feeling frustrated and disenfranchised, as well as make it less likely to find internal support for future work in this area. We need an understanding that the systems we are dismantling are deeply ingrained in every aspect of what we do and cannot simply be undone in a single conversation. It takes sustained support and commitment to shift organizational culture and become more equitable.

One example of this I’ve seen is when institutions work on formal inclusion plans, as each of the museums participating in the Facing Change initiative is doing. In creating plans like this, people are often inclined to take the shortcut of jumping to hard and fast data points that are supposed to measure progress. This can often manifest in relatively surface-level (as opposed to transformative) changes. For example, if the organization’s goal is to vaguely “be more diverse,” or even more specifically to add X more people of color to its team, that may create diversity but not equity or inclusion, the E and I in DEAI. If the organization’s culture is unwilling or unprepared to be inclusive and share power in decision making, adding people of color becomes a somewhat empty victory. It makes sense for institutions to be invested in measuring the work they are doing, but it is as important to figure out what success in this area looks like for your institution, which could be a slower process. This includes a sober look at your organization’s readiness. The MASS Action (Museum as Site for Social Action) group offers a great tool for organizations to think through their readiness for organizational change around DEAI. This kind of table setting pre-work can really help set organizations up for sustainable, positive movement from the outset.

Another step of the table-setting process is emphasizing that you will make mistakes along the way, and that’s okay. Most of the movement that comes in the work results from critical conversations, where honesty and openness are valued. But for many, engaging in these types of conversations is filled with anxiety: “What if I say the wrong thing?” “What if I offend someone and I don’t mean to?” Here’s a hint: you will. And that’s okay. The challenge is what you do once someone has held you accountable for that mistake. If you have done the work of building a space of trust, active listening, and understanding, you can work through that mistake in a way that moves you along your own journey. Having peers and colleagues hold you accountable is a gift, whether it comes in ways we are comfortable with or not. We are all on our own journeys toward a more equitable space, and we need each other to be willing to be vulnerable and okay with being held accountable for the impact as well as the intent of our words and actions to get there.

When I’m emphasizing this in my coaching sessions, I sometimes talk about a time when my partner told me a comment I made was unintentionally misogynistic. My first reaction was the same that many of us have when being called out: defensiveness. “What do you mean?…” “You think that I…” “You don’t know me at all if you think…” This shut the conversation down pretty quickly. I was unwilling to accept that, despite my intentions, my comment had an impact that was misogynistic. It wasn’t until a while later, when I saw this wonderful TED Talk by Jay Smooth, that I came around. In the talk, Smooth discusses shifting our response to being held accountable from the “tonsils paradigm,” where the work is one-and-done, to the “dental hygiene paradigm,” where the work is continuous. After seeing that video, I did some self-reflection and realized I had to go back to my partner and apologize for the impact of my words and for getting defensive and shutting down the conversation. I realized that her checking me on my comment was an act of kindness and respect that illustrated her care for and comfort with me.

Once you’ve embraced the ideas of building emotional stamina, doing the pre-work to understand your readiness, and working through mistakes, the table is set. You’ve created a space where critical conversations and transformative change can happen in our museums. Then the work can begin.

About the author:

Levon Williams is a Facing Change Senior Diversity fellow and an AAM member. He has worked in interpretive roles at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis and the National Museum of African American Music in Nashville. He is also a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Arts Administration and Master of Public Affairs program at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. While at the O’Neill School, Levon served as a Graduate Fellow in the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. During his time in Nashville, Levon was a member of the inaugural cadre of arts leaders to participate in the Racial Equity in Arts Leadership (REAL) program sponsored by the Curb Center and the Metro Nashville Arts Commission. He is an avid music, comedy, and pop culture enthusiast.

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