We need to talk.
In 2019 I began interviewing non-profit and museum professionals specifically on the topic of examining racial bias in public institutions. While this may be a difficult conversation to start, it is critical that we begin this work. Excerpts from the interviews will also be featured in the forthcoming Interpreting the Legacy of Women’s Suffrage at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021). In this first interview we discuss how to begin conversation s around racial bias in organizations.
Janedra Sykes is a non-profit professional and founder of The Arboreta Group, LLC a women and minority-owned firm focused on strengthening organizations and extending their capacity to do good work for the betterment of communities nationwide through a variety of tailored professional services. Her team is charged with strengthening the capacity of organizations doing good by combining authentic partnerships and practical tools to achieve measurable results. For more information on Janedra and her work see their website www.arboretagroup.com.
(Harrington) History records the choices we make, those we don’t make, and the ramifications of both. As practitioners we often choose to act, or not act, and while avoiding a difficult situation may seem preferable avoidance won’t correct the deeper divisions of racial bias in non-profit organizations. Can you share your thoughts on the danger of avoiding this critical work, and also some tips for starting the conversation with staff, board, and program audiences?
(Sykes) I don’t think we can avoid the work. We’re currently addressing it in roundabout, less-productive ways whether we realize it or not. The work is happening informally; for example, it shows up in the conversations strangers spontaneously have when an exhibit touches them deeply or around kitchen tables when they get home. You may not be having the conversations within your organizations, but on another level the greater community is having them without you. The question becomes, do you want to more proactively help shape that conversation?
The key to starting constructive conversations starts with your own internal dialogue. Checking your internal assumptions. For example, do you assume that the European-American experience is the experience that has the most value? This attitude seeps into our work whether we are conscious of it or not. It shows up in white liberal racism and as internalized racism in non-whites. It’s acted out as the primacy of the white experience. We need to ask, how committed we are to this narrative. You can’t facilitate clarity when you’re unclear or conflicted yourself.
Those that chose not to actively do this work run the risk of being perceived as inaccurate, therefore not truly representative of the complex American experience. Once you get labeled as a white washer, it’s hard to repair that image.
(Harrington) The American movement to enfranchise women and expand voting rights involved both racially inclusive and segregated organizations. Interpreting the history of these organizations now falls to scholars and practitioners at museums and historic sites. Can you share advice on how to engage communities in an active dialog around the racial divisions in the movement?
(Sykes) I’m going to push back a bit on your assumption that this task falls to scholars and practitioners at museums and historic sites because others are filling in the gaps. For example, on social media I’ve witnessed robust discussions on history complete with source documentation that supported multicultural narratives of shared American experiences such as suffrage and westward expansion. Historians interacting with the masses in real-time. Tying history to issues that America is struggling with today—voting rights, reproductive health, racism, etc.—outside the brick and mortar of museums and historical monuments. Museums and sites need to realize that they no longer have full control over the historic narrative.
I’d recommend beginning to think of ways you can actively participate in these conversations: having a social media presence, offering workshops, inviting guest speakers, etc. Across silos and disciplines, consider engaging the groups that are still struggling with enfranchisement and the expansion of voting rights. Historical understanding can inform today’s push for policy. Include think tanks, public policy organizations, grass-roots advocacy groups, sexual assault, and domestic violence organizations of all nationalities, and offer an historical context. Recently, I read some quotes from Ida B. Wells, and the issues that she advocated for in the late 1800s still ring true today.
(Harrington) In preparation for the Centennial of the 19th Amendment there has been increased interest in the history of women’s suffrage and voting rights within the history field. This expands to the mainstream media, which has begun to include the racial bias within the suffrage movement. Can you offer practitioners any framework to guide their work and keep it based on historic facts and data, without racing to judgment of any individual or group?
(Sykes) Get your “container” ready, meaning do your internal work. Robin DiAngelo’s work on White Fragility describes the need clearly; it’s the ability to tolerate racial stress. It’s our inability to handle racial stress that leads to a rush to judgement. Because we’re uncomfortable we tend to avoid the issue or put it in a tidy package.
The framework that we need to use is one of accuracy and inclusiveness that’s “contained” with emotional stamina. As practitioners, we need to make a commitment to being uncomfortable. In order to avoid racing to judgement on any specific group, having that group in the room, valuing their contributions is the best deterrent.
When you’re working on your “container,” you’ll gain stories from your own struggle to share. You’ll gain credibility with the group you are facilitating because you’ll be demonstrating honesty and vulnerability (as in defenselessness, the space where authentic conversations can happen). Therefore, you are giving others the permission to do so. For example, I used to work for a sexual assault/domestic violence organization founded by white liberal women. The agency offered the suffrage anniversary as a paid holiday. I refused to take the holiday, I came into work every year because I couldn’t reconcile, as a Black woman, the Suffrage holiday with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. I felt that Suffrage wasn’t my holiday.
When I share this story, it opens the door for conversation. It is such a great time to do this work. Women of all ethnicities need to have a constructive conversation around our shared histories.
(Harrington) Board members and other key stakeholders sometimes assume that they are the primary audience for museum programs. In reality, they are only one part of the overall audience segment. In order to build a broad and sustainable community of support, programs have to be reflective of more than just a small segment. Can you offer advice on how to move past this issue?
(Sykes) I’d meet them at the board level through a business lens. They have a fiduciary responsibility so ask the relevant questions: is it responsible to only maintain a shrinking market share? Are attendance levels increasing? Are we attracting a diverse base? Audience segments is another word for market segments. Similar strategies apply.
Conduct focus groups using an outside facilitator. Get some market research that’s broader than the board and other key stakeholders. As funding dollars get more competitive, business decisions (nonprofits are a business) need to be grounded in reality. Basic marketing rules apply. People want to see themselves so help them expand their perspective to include others.
(Harrington) The history of women’s rights and enfranchisement are commonly included in conversations around contemporary politics. How can we avoid allowing current politics to overshadow the intent of presenting historical narratives? Can you offer any advice to practitioners who are trying to produce an initiative or program that is perceived as being too political?
(Sykes) I’d reframe “too political” as having a robust discussion, which is the essence of civic engagement. I’d focus on presenting timelines that list a diversity of key events and let the voices from the past speak for themselves, using excerpts from speeches and writing with as little editorial content as possible. Focus on setting the stage and let the historical voices speak for themselves. It’s difficult to argue with a direct quote. Focus on the quotes that show the genesis of today’s politics; for example populism isn’t new, misogynistic rhetoric isn’t new.
I’ve facilitated conversations that highlighted the historical context of today’s politics and these conversations offered comfort and were rejuvenating for the participants. The tone was one of review, with the overarching theme that as Americans we’ve been in contentious times before and have been able to move the country forward. If Sojourner Truth could advocate for change within a society that broadly thought of her as chattel, then we can meet today’s challenges too.
I like putting people in small groups, 4 – 6 people, with a list of guided questions and ‘rules of engagement’. For example, do our materials accurately reflect the population at the time? There was a large percentage of Latinos in the area, how can we include their contributions? There’s a recognized facilitation model called ‘World Café’ that my firm has successfully used. It’s been successful in uncovering issues and managing ‘robust’ community dialogs.
There's No Crying in Women's History © Page Harrington & Company, LLC. 2020