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Embracing the DEAI Mindset

Category: Museum Magazine
Science Photo Library/Alamy Stock Photo

A conversation between two DEAI experts on how museums can prepare a chief diversity officer for success.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership. In an effort to provide the broadest possible access to this critical topic, we are making these articles free and available to the public.

In 2018, when Makeba Clay was hired as the inaugural chief diversity officer (CDO) at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC—the first in an American art museum—she called Cecile Shellman, then the diversity catalyst at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, for an informational interview about how she had made diversity, equity, access, and inclusion (DEAI) a reality at her institution. Shellman knew what it was like to lack role models, benchmarks, or patterns for progress in this work. In the ensuing years, both Clay and Shellman have, in various capacities, helped cultural institutions confront the systemic inequities in their operations.

Here, Clay and Shellman weigh in on what museums need to do before hiring a CDO, how they can hire the best person for the role, and how they can support that person in their work.

As more museums become interested in hiring a CDO, are there things they should have in place or work they should already have done before they start the hiring process?

Cecile Shellman: Every museum is different, and their needs relative to DEAI concerns will be unique to their organizational culture. The task at hand is immense: leading efforts to diversify staff, programs, and exhibitions; striving for equity among all internal communities; providing access and accommodations for people with disabilities and people whose first language is not English; and creating more welcoming cultures. Each institution must do extensive diagnostic work to identify and analyze their own challenges—understanding where they are, what cultural changes need to happen, and whether their organizational structure is malleable enough to support cultural transformation in an authentic way. Until that happens, they should not seek a CDO.

Makeba Clay: I couldn’t agree with you more, Cecile. I can’t tell you how often I have been approached by institutions that believe they are ready for organizational culture change, yet they are unwilling to face the truth about where they are on their journey. When I encounter this type of cognitive dissonance, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes by James Baldwin, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Who is an ideal candidate for this role? 

Clay: The role of the chief diversity officer is multidimensional and complex, with a focus on leading strategic change, building capacity for training and thought leadership, coordinating and convening community members, serving as an advocate and ambassador, establishing metrics and systems of accountability, and communicating regularly about DEAI to internal and external stakeholders.

The ideal candidate for the CDO role is someone who not only demonstrates a deep commitment to the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion, but also possesses intellectual and ethical leadership as a strategic leader, adviser, and catalyst for institutional and cultural change across the organization. The individual must be able to lead from the middle, possess an equity mindset, be adept at fostering dialogue with multiple constituencies and building coalitions, and be able to achieve results through influence and collaboration. Further, the ideal candidate will have demonstrated capabilities as an administrator, convener, and community builder who has a record of success advancing DEAI in arts and culture, nonprofit, and/or education fields at the executive level.

What I’ve also come to realize is that whatever isn’t measured doesn’t get done. Therefore, increasingly, institutions that rely on financial support from foundations and other grant-funded sources are asked to demonstrate the impact/ROI of their DEAI efforts. Consequently, a CDO must have demonstrated the ability to utilize data and analytics as important tools in establishing goals and measuring progress. This person must work toward institutional change by proactively approaching challenges with systems-level thinking rather than reacting to challenges or constantly fixing problems.

Shellman: The ideal chief diversity officer should have a profound understanding of civics, social justice, critical race theory, and intersectionality, both in an academic context and through their lived experience. A capacity for building and maintaining trusting, confidential, respectful relationships is key. Additionally, the CDO should be a skilled communicator and mediator who has demonstrated success in forging consensus between individuals and communities with divergent views. A high EQ (emotional IQ) is essential.

What are some of the questions museums should ask during the hiring process, and what factors might inform their decision-making?

Shellman: Equitable interviews should assess for skill. The interview process for the role should model this principle. As such, the questions should focus on assessing candidates’ proficiency in complex problem-solving, knowledge of relevant laws and regulations, and ability to strategize. The ideal candidate should have excellent communication and presentation skills as well as a capacity to convey complex information as an ambassador and advocate.

Clay: When an institution has finally arrived at the point of hiring someone for the CDO role, they may still have a limited understanding of what the key responsibilities should be for the position. Also, institutional leaders may have unrealistic expectations about what the arc of change looks like in action. Because the path of institutional change is not linear, nor is there a one-size-fits-all approach to the work, those who are hiring for this position might ask candidates about their philosophy and methodology for achieving goals associated with the work

Typically, the initial work with any institution involves a discovery period to understand the institutional context, build personal relationships, and determine (with colleagues) the opportunities and challenges facing the institution. Following this initial assessment period (usually within the first 90 days), the CDO will then shift to working across the institution to determine strategic priorities, articulate specific goals, outline the fiscal and human resources needed to achieve them, establish metrics, and set benchmarks and accountability measures. This initial planning process can take up to 18–36 months, depending on the collective decision-making and actions that are taken across the organization.

What responsibilities need to be part of the CDO’s portfolio to achieve success? And what are some of the challenges in achieving success?

Clay: I’ve seen countless organizational models that situate DEAI work exclusively on public programs and community engagement or within the context of compliance and training; both of these models will fall short of achieving systemic and sustained change in an organization.

In order to achieve transformation, it’s important for the CDO to take a systems-change approach to this work that applies a DEAI lens throughout all aspects of the museum. Based on my experience and leading practice in the field, ideally, the role would center around three critical and mutually reinforcing areas of responsibility: 1) serving as a strategist and DEAI thought partner with the leadership team in ways that cut across the institutions’ programs, people, policies, processes, and culture, 2) managing the internal change process with an intentional lens on bridging internal efforts with the external (e.g., considering how creating a more accessible museum impacts the broader community outside the organization), and 3) being a champion and model for DEAI values and, in so doing, holding the organization accountable for consistent engagement with DEAI from the CEO and leadership, the board, staff, and volunteers.

Further, during a time when there is so much public scrutiny at the governance level, in order to be taken seriously as a transformative leader, a CDO’s portfolio must include working closely with members of the board of trustees to implement strategic priorities that create far greater diversity, equity, and inclusion in governance by focusing more intentionally on the nominations process, board culture, training, and evaluation. It’s been my experience that in order for an organization to advance systemic and sustained change, the stated values and vision must be in alignment with what is being experienced on the ground. Liaising with and guiding the board in this way enables the CDO to ensure that the voices and needs of other institutional stakeholders are reflected in the broader strategy to best align intent with impact.

Shellman: In the event that training, learning, and development opportunities are not embedded in the human resources function of the organization, the CDO may also coordinate or provide workshops and skill-based training.

What is the ideal reporting structure for this position, and what needs to be in place within the organization to support this work?

Shellman: This position should ideally be at the director level, reporting to the chief executive officer. The CDO should be appropriately compensated, with an additional percentage added for emotional and psychological labor.

The organization should also ensure that there are sufficient financial resources allocated to support the CDO and other staff contributing to this work. Program coordinators, workshop facilitators, researchers, and disability rights advocates should have supporting roles.

Clay: Additionally, all organizational leaders must be committed to, and held accountable for, advancing the DEAI strategic priorities in substantive and measurable ways. For example, each department should develop specific DEAI goals for their department, and each employee within their respective department should create goals that are tied to their performance and measured on an annual basis.

What advice or words of wisdom would you give to a new CDO?

Shellman: This is difficult, emotional work that will require you to shoulder the burdens and challenges of individuals who have historically been excluded or prevented from self-advocating due to a lack of power. You may need additional encouragement and support, such as executive coaching, mentorship, or peer counseling.

Self-care is a must!

Clay: I would urge people to pace themselves; this work is akin to running a marathon, not a sprint. Change takes time and will require a balanced perspective, endurance, resilience, and support from trusted mentors and colleagues. It’s also wise to manage expectations—yours and others—every step of the way.

The civil rights activist and writer Audre Lorde once said, “I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal, and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” I, too, believe that it is critical for someone in the role of a chief diversity officer to lead with authenticity, to be bold, to be vulnerable, to be courageous, and to simply tell it like it is—with grace, humor, and love.

Makeba Clay ( and Cecile Shellman ( are both consultants focusing on DEAI in the museum and nonprofit fields. They are currently senior diversity fellows for AAM’s Facing Change initiative ( Clay is also the chief diversity officer at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC.

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