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Looking Within: AAM’s Internal DEAI Work

Category: Alliance Blog
A framed mirror on a yellow gallery wall with a hazy reflection of a museum interior
As AAM works to drive change in the museum field, it has been equally important to examine our own culture and practices. Photo credit: Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

Most of you reading this probably know about Facing Change, AAM’s multi-year initiative to increase the diversity of museum boards and ultimately create more diverse, equitable, accessible, and inclusive museum cultures. But alongside any outward-facing work like this, it’s crucial to look within as well, to evaluate whether we are living up to the values we are impressing upon other people. For that reason, AAM has been on its own internal diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) journey for the past few years.

After the horrific incidents of racist-fueled violence against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless other people of color sparked protests last summer, many more institutions have found themselves on the same journey. They are considering what needs to change about their internal structures in service of greater equity in their institution. As AAM President and CEO Laura Lott noted in the January/February issue of Museum magazine, organizations across all sectors, including museums, are being evaluated in a new light—consumers and nonprofit supporters are asking themselves, does this organization share the same values I do, and do they live up to those values in a transparent way?

This is a hefty challenge, and it is one that, like many of you, we at AAM are embracing. Although we began our DEAI journey prior to 2020, we recognize the urgency of this moment and are committed to increasing the visibility and transparency of our own multi-year and ongoing internal work, complete with sharing any missteps and course corrections along the way.

We’re starting this practice with this blog post, which shares a brief history of AAM’s internal DEAI work to date, explains why we are centering racial equity and using a race-forward approach to our internal work, and outlines the next steps you can expect from us. Writing this requires us to be vulnerable and we hope that by starting this practice, we inspire you to do the same. We can grow much stronger when we learn in public together.

The First Steps

Before I began working at AAM in late October 2019, the Alliance had already done some phenomenal foundational internal work around DEAI. The entire organization (including the board and Accreditation Commission) had taken a cultural competency assessment called the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), created an internal DEAI task force, created a full-time DEAI Director position in 2016, and engaged in multiple sessions with a DEAI consulting firm covering topics like bridge-building across difference, implicit bias, modeling authenticity, and practicing empathy. It had hired an external consultant to conduct a compensation analysis with data aggregated by race, ethnicity, and gender, and began a continuous process of reviewing hiring practices, leading to changes like removing educational requirements, focusing on skills rather than particular experiences, and including salary ranges in job descriptions. It had also engaged in an “Equity Partner” system that partnered individuals across departments, job functions, and identities for structured one on-one-conversations around DEAI. These initial steps established a common language and understanding among a staff who had varying levels of experience engaging in discussions on these topics and primed them for getting comfortable having uncomfortable conversations.

A Focus on Racial Equity

At first, AAM’s DEAI work was not centered on any one dimension of identity and took every kind of difference into equal consideration. Over time, though, we decided this was not the right approach.

Research shows just how much the museum field is struggling when it comes to issues tied to race in particular, both at the board and organization-wide level. The 2017 Museum Board Leadership report, among several others, revealed that 46 percent of museums boards are 100 percent white and 93 percent of art museum directors are white. These reports are only supported by the countless anecdotes of exclusion and racial inequity that have been shared publicly across the field. It goes without saying how prevalent racial inequity is in broader American society as well. When you look at any social indicator—health, education, life expectancy, income, criminal justice—and disaggregate it by race, race is always the biggest driver of disparity.

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For AAM, the thrust of this national and field-wide data was supported by internal surveys and feedback, as well as a similar racial leadership gap to that found in the broader nonprofit sector. We also knew that when we did not name race as an intended focus of discussions, the general discomfort with talking about the issue made us move away from the topic of disparities and identity all together. This cumulative knowledge provided us with the clear decision in January 2020 to focus on issues related to racial equity within our own organization. We know we must continue to increase representation across many dimensions of identity, and believe that by focusing on racial equity and using an intersectional lens, we can make greater headway on all aspects of DEAI.

Organizational Assessment

With this shift to a focus on racial equity, we joined a cohort-based internal racial equity assessment created and delivered by Building Movement Project that measures the essential elements to building racially inclusive and equitable workplace cultures.

The assessment used survey responses from staff across the organization to measure several key competencies:

  • Organizational responsiveness: the organization’s resiliency and ability to grow from challenges by incorporating feedback from stakeholders
  • Leadership: whether leaders commit to ideals and practices to make organizations more equitable workplaces, can be reflective and take feedback, and are aware of the dynamics of privilege
  • Conversation and relationships: whether the organization’s culture and relationships provide for accountability and the ability to productively deal with conflict
  • Voice and power: whether people with marginalized identities have voice and power to influence the organization

We had a 100 percent participation rate from staff during the assessment, with data disaggregated by race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and level (leadership, management, staff, etc.). Through that assessment, we were able to get a baseline measure of the culture at AAM as experienced by staff, and more importantly, a roadmap of where we needed to focus our future efforts related to racial equity and organizational culture. The assessment highlighted a few key takeaways that drove next steps:

  • Organizational responsiveness: Staff were in consensus that as an organization AAM is open to new approaches in how to do our work. However, they thought that we could do a better job of outlining what it would actually look like to be a more racially equitable organization, in order to have a clear and collective vision of the future.
  • Leadership: Staff strongly agreed that the CEO had taken responsibility for AAM’s efforts to be an equitable, inclusive, and diverse workforce. They also felt strongly that a commitment to race equity needed to be added as an explicit factor on all performance evaluations to ensure accountability in service of substantive change.
  • Conversations and relationships: Staff perceived AAM’s reasons for engaging in equity, inclusion, and diversity initiatives as being to improve organizational impact. They also felt we needed to create more effective processes for staff to raise concerns anonymously regarding race equity.
  • Voice and power: Staff believed AAM encourages different beliefs and perspectives on how to achieve goals, but felt there was a need for greater transparency and access to goals specific to racial equity efforts.

Following that assessment, all staff convened for two half-day meetings, one led by an external consultant and the other by AAM’s Inclusion Team, with the goal of achieving several results, including:

  • Sharing the results of the organizational assessment
  • Discussing why we were making an explicit and intentional shift towards focusing on racial equity
  • Creating a shared foundation of the concepts of racial equity, such as the difference between equity and equality, the four Is of oppression (ideological, institutional, interpersonal, and internalized) and how they operate, and the correlation between equity and mitigating disparities
  • Building consensus around the values needed to drive and sustain a culture that centers racial equity

These workshops were spread out over the course of three months, with smaller, facilitated group work, surveying, and processing time taking place between large all-staff meetings. The result was building consensus around the values we deemed essential to creating a culture of equity and inclusion within AAM.

This values-based group work is leading to an exciting refresh of the AAM Organizational Constitution, a document we use to frame and evaluate the work we do. (You can find the current version here, and we look forward to sharing updates soon.) The new constitution will share our mission, operational values (which were revised to incorporate racial equity values), and ways of being that honor who we are and who we continuously strive to be for us and the field.

Lessons Learned and Key Takeaways So Far in Our Journey

One of our biggest lessons has been that engaging in DEAI broadly without focusing directly on race can delay the good work you’re trying to accomplish. If we don’t home in on issues of race and racial inequity, we’re missing the largest driver of disparity, and we can do this without losing sight of other issues by using an intersectional lens.

We all know by now that a commitment to DEAI and racial equity is a lot of work—difficult, long-term work. This means that every team member, not just those on the Inclusion Team, will need to think about what capacity means for them. As we work on equity and inclusion goals for each department, teams may need to assess what needs to be removed from their plates to make this work possible.

In most areas of professional life, we often define progress as creating something bigger and better than before. This is not the case with equity and inclusion work. In order to speed up, we first need to slow down; engaging in deep work requires us to take the time that’s needed to have honest conversations.

Racial equity strategies require us to ensure there are consistent, year-round entry points for improving inclusive practices, so that staff are engaged in their personal journey while also being involved in the organizational change process.

Next Steps

Once our revised Organizational Constitution is finalized, we’ll use it to frame our next steps. Given our internal shifts, work, and values, it’s time to get specific around the broad goal in our 2016-2020 Strategic Plan to “enhance the intercultural competencies of Alliance staff and volunteer leadership and ensure inclusiveness in our organization and our work.” We will work to create organization-wide goals around internal culture change, racial equity, and inclusion. Once organizational goals are set, each department and every individual will create measurable goals around racial equity that they’ll embed into their daily work and be held accountable for.

As demonstrated by Facing Change and the reports cited above, it’s critical that this work doesn’t stop at AAM’s staff and leadership. Our board is undergoing its own process, and we’ve set up a DEAI board committee to build continuity between our work at the organizational and board level and build another layer of accountability for us as an organization.

We look forward to sharing more about the committee, the Organizational Constitution, and next steps in our journey with the field. This is some of the most important work of our time and we will continue to strive to be the change we want to see, in the museum field and in the world.

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  1. I appreciate the steps that AAM is taking to examine their own internal DEAI practices. However, the organization still supports job postings with zero salary transparency. I encourage AAM to reconsider this practice. A lack of salary transparency reinforces the pay gap by allowing for discrimination against BIPOC, LGBTQ+, women, individuals with disabilities, etc. Other organizations have taken a stance against pay discrimination: AASLH, SMA, MPMA, NEMA, AMM, ACM, Muse Weekly, and so many more. In light of everything that has happened since 2016, maybe it is time to rethink your “Lead by Example, Not by Mandate” stance on this issue, because right now, you aren’t leading at all.

  2. Thank you for sharing your work. There is much here that should be useful and transferable to other institutions working in this direction. And, as you point out, this is a long-term process. As these ideals get put into practice we also need to think about the support we provide to new staff that will continually join our organizations. One of the lessons I hope we have learned from our past efforts is that these efforts need to remain visible in practice both internally and externally.

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