Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Work We Have To Do At 30

We have work to do. 

In 2012 The Field sent me to my first Race Forward Conference in Baltimore and the transformative facilitator, Melinda Weekes-Laidlow told me “Yes, you have white guilt but we have work to do.”

Bit by bit, thanks to Melinda and many more advocates over the years, the work is being done. In my capacity as Executive Director of The Field I have attended anti-racism trainings at the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, did power and privilege trainings with Coro Leadership NY and more.  Individually, I learn about justice and equity in my gospel choir, my church and at events like White Conversations for Racial Healing. Organizationally, at The Field we piloted one-off diversity programs like Economic Revitalization for Performing Artists: Diversity with the Nuyorican Poets Café, BAAD! and The Fire This Time Festival to support artists of color with career building services.  We also committed to diversifying our staff and our program constituency in meaningful and thoughtful ways. Slowly but surely we are doing the work.  

In 2016, on the cusp of our 30th birthday, in these deeply violent days in our country, The Field launches Field Leadership Fund, our most ambitious and visible commitment to equity in the arts to date.

A 16-month paid leadership training program, FLF aims to transform the lives and futures of a diverse cohort of 12 under-resourced artists and arts managers*.  Our goal is that these artists and arts managers will leave FLF better connected, better networked and more resourced so that they can advance equity in the arts.  

As FLF Program Manager Rajeeyah Finnie-Myers writes in her post ‘Who makes it as a leader in the arts sector?’ is a really important issue to address and, still, it is only one visible piece of the work we have to do.  Recently, The Field’s staff and Board adopted seven Strategic Priorities to guide our work over the next five years.  A “Commitment to Social Justice” is one priority.  By this we mean that we intend to transition The Field from an organization with an emerging practice in social justice to an organization with embedded and intentional practices and processes in diversity, equity and inclusion.

What does that mean? Over the next five years we will look at everything: Staff, Board, hiring, compensation, programs, marketing, technology, fees, adjudication, everything.  And we will institutionalize and operationalize our commitment to equity and to justice in the arts and culture sector.  Why is this important to us? So that artists and arts and culture workers can have fair, unbiased and impartial access to creative opportunities and resources like gigs, grants, donors, shows and jobs.

This work started already with FLF.  We grappled hard with how not to judge the FLF applications by traditional grantwriting standards that might favor privilege.  We grappled with how to ask about identity: as a check box or an open text box or as a narrative response.  We grappled with pay rate and panelists and process.  And we learned a ton.   We made some mistakes.  We took some risks.  And now we go forward.  
This image comes from a Social Identity exercise we did at our FLF retreat inspired by this type of exercise http://www.odec.umd.edu/we/about/Multiversity/handouts/SocialIdentityWheel.pdf

To do all of this, we will aim to learn from our more expert peers.  Like BAAD!, the Classical Theater of Harlem, El Puente, Healing Arts Initiative,  Ifetayo, and 651 Arts. These organizations already do this work and do it really well.  But often they receive less funding, less press, and are deemed less credible than their mostly white-led peer organizations.
We have some work to do.

And this work is grounded in The Field’s core.

Thirty years ago in 1986 The Field was founded by a small group of performing artists in a dusty Soho loft to share their artwork with each other and figure out – together – how to thrive.  They got together in this way because they felt isolated.  They got together in this way because they were tired of waiting for the tastemakers and gatekeepers to give them gigs, grants and opportunities.  They felt like there were barriers holding them back and they wanted to push against the system.

They started an open and accessible non-curated performance series – called Fieldays - to give artists time and space to show work.   And they started non-curated critical feedback workshops – called Fieldwork - so that artists could give each other rigorous, non-directorial feedback peer to peer.
This is The Field’s historical core: non-curation.  Non-curation as a tool to address the opportunity gap in the arts.  Non-curation as a response to the biases and prejudices of the tastemakers, gatekeepers and stakeholders.  Non-curation to keep the artist at the center of the process.  Back then, this was a radical notion.

Please note: in the early days, Field artists were primarily movement-based and primarily white.   This was not intentional per se.  But it reflected the founding artists’ obvious, easiest and most accessible community.  And it reflected their privilege – the privilege to be able to take matters into their own hands and create an organization that supports their visions.

Thirty years later here we are.  Still a small service organization that prides itself on keeping the artist at the center, on building community, on providing real resources and support, and on giving opportunities to artists who might otherwise not get them. But thirty years later the arts sector hasn’t changed much…For every barrier we’ve helped an artist surmount, there are still more challenges. Many of the challenges point to deeply rooted notions, complex questions and devastating American and world history related to race, gender, class, sexual orientation, economic privilege, cultural background, and other social identifiers. These are the biggest issues. How can we face them? 

Head on.  With programs like Field Leadership Fund.  With our efforts to institutionalize and operationalize equity practices and processes.  By learning from and partnering with allies and peers who know more than we do. 

Happy 30th birthday to The Field.  And to the field of activists, advocates, revolutionaries and mentors who push us toward our highest level of work.   Push us.  Teach us.   We have work to do. 

-- By Jennifer Wright Cook, Executive Director of The Field with rigorous feedback and stellar editing by Shawn René Graham, Artist Services Manager and Diana Crum, Development Consultant!

*By “under-resourced” we mean lacking in resources.  For us, resources in the arts sector are the supplies and opportunities that help art get made, seen, funded, etc.  They include residencies, performances, grants, individual donors, residencies, events, etc.  Resources, for us, also includes having access to the stakeholders and leaders who have  the power to divvy up said resources- including funders, critics, academic leaders, presenters, residency directors, etc.


Brad Burgess said...

Excited to follow this program. It is wonderful to see years of advocacy work paying off and turning into programs that really address the heart of the issues and pull no punches about the funding that people need to be in the arts as individuals. In solidarity, Brad Burgess, Artistic Director, The Living Theatre

The Field said...

Thanks Brad! We appreciate your solidarity!

Rachel DeGuzman said...

I am thrilled to start working with The Field team and the FLF Fellowship cohort on January 27 as a Field Leadership Fund Arts Manager Fellow.

The Field said...

Thank you for your note Rachel! We look forward to learning with you.

Alice Klugherz said...

Great writing! Important subjects and a wonderful summation of a long journey.

The Field said...

Thank you Alice!