Skip to content

Roundtable: How arts and culture organizations are advancing racial healing

Arts & Culture

Roundtable Part 1: An intimate conversation with leaders from The Kresge Foundation, National Public Housing Museum and Design Impact

The arts and culture sector has taken a tremendous hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the lockdowns of 2020 – that extended into 2021 – many artists and creatives have been forced to rely on relief support while some arts and culture organizations are still in recovery mode. Yet, artists and creatives have continued to help communities heal from trauma and remain connected. Design Impact and the National Public Housing Museum are two organizations working to bolster that critical work.

Design Impact is a Cincinnati-based nonprofit that leads creative processes to help communities build consensus around challenges and equitable solutions. As an example, its Madisonville Community Studio program brings residents together to envision and advance racially equitable development. The National Public Housing Museum based in Chicago works to celebrate and shift narratives about public housing and public housing residents. Programs include the Oral History Archive, which trains residents to gather stories that challenge mainstream narratives about people living in poverty. Another example is the Entrepreneurship Hub that explores the history of businesses created by public housing residents to help inform and create a museum store cooperative to transform cultural capital into other forms of community-based wealth.

During a two-part roundtable discussion, Seth Beattie and Michelle Johnson, senior program officers for Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program, talk with several staff members from the two organizations. They discuss the effects of the pandemic; the shift from immediate response to long-term recovery; and how arts, culture and Creative Placemaking organizations are leading the way to racial healing. Read Part II – Roundtable: Bridging arts, culture and public policy to design an equitable recovery. Panelists included: 

  • Lisa Yun Lee, Executive Director, National Public Housing Museum
  • Tiffanie Beatty, Program Director of Arts, Culture and Public Policy, National Public Housing Museum
  • Sarah Corlett, Director of Community Development and Strategy, Design Impact
  • Desiré Bennett, Senior Social Equity Specialist, Design Impact
This illustration was created by Brandon Black of Drawnversation.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic forever changed your organization and others in the arts and culture space?   

Lisa: For the institutions, organizations and cultural groups that I most respect in this country, the pandemic is really the twin viruses of racism and COVID-19. This moment has helped to magnify and amplify a lot of the things we’ve been saying for decades: that our communities have been suffering and also surviving – and not just in the last year. To quote author Arundhati Roy, the pandemic is a portal, and “Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.” We don’t want things to go back to the way they were.

There were already decades-long conversations about museums and cultural spaces being more than just the preservation of beautiful objects and the warehousing of them. It was this idea of saying, “Well, who gets to decide what objects are saved?” People of color, women and people living in poverty never really had access to these spaces. So, the pandemic also made it clear that our work needs to be something different.

Sarah: Our creative practice is facilitating a creative design process. This means we are constantly working with our partners, organizations, community groups and institutions who are trying to achieve social impact. They want something to change. In terms of how our work has changed, we have very intentionally – over the last six years or so – focused on racial equity.

We’ve spent a lot of time, internally, building up our own team’s capacity to be in dialogue about what it takes to achieve racial equity — to examine these systems and then facilitate the creative process with our partners. This dual pandemic shined a light on just how deeply entrenched these organizations are in perpetuating these inequities. So, we’ve seen much more forthright and forward requests from our partners to critically examine racial inequity internally and to look at how their own cultures and organizations are perpetuating white supremacy.

There’s been a shift from, “We have to fix this stuff out there” to “Oh, we have to fix a lot of stuff in here, too.” We’ve always seen our organization as a change facilitator by guiding people through a creative process, but it feels even more intense now because it’s about facilitating an experience with individuals in multiracial organizations and having these critical dialogues. Often, the people around the table creating or designing some sort of change are also the folks who are experiencing the inequity.

Q: How has working virtually impacted your efforts, especially considering your work is driven by community engagement?

Sarah: We’ve still been able to do this work virtually, but it’s challenging. We haven’t been able to bring large groups of the community together in the way that we did in the past. They’re still joining us virtually on phone calls. They’re conducting interviews with their fellow community members. They’re part of the design process, but we haven’t been able to convene en masse, and that’s been different. We haven’t quite reconciled that yet. I think we’re all waiting for the moment when we can be together again.

Lisa: As horrible as this time has been, some good practices have come out of it. I’ve learned about so many amazing things museums have been able to change with their internal practices because of COVID. There are museums that have wanted to take time to change vinyl to be multilingual and include Spanish language texts, and who finally just did it because their galleries were closed and they had the opportunity to do it.  As a staff, we decided to build our capacity and all take Spanish classes together each week.

Tiff: As I reflect back to the REED Convening, I think that was one of the first spaces that I’d been in the past year where a virtual conference was actually done really well. And not just in terms of content, but with engagement – like putting people into one-on-one groups, the use of Jamboard, which we now use all the time. Contemplating how to bring people into a virtual space that is also engaging is something I am constantly thinking about. Like, “What does the experience look like when people can truly show up?” That’s so crucial to this moment right now; to create connection for folks who are just looking at screens constantly. I value the opportunity to connect one-on-one.

Editor’s note: In late 2020, Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program hosted the Racial Equity Exploration and Discovery (REED) convening with leaders of community development, arts and culture organizations to exchange ideas about ways to advance racial justice.

Q: How do we help one another, and the communities we serve, to heal in these moments?

Lisa: The institutions that have turned inward and thought about how they care for staff have been important leaders. One of the most important equity tools is simple conversations. Organizations are now asking questions they never felt the need to ask, like: “What is your family leave policy?” and “When people pass and die, how many days do you give people to grieve?” This is a time when almost everybody has lost somebody. So, your policy should reflect your values and everything that you’re claiming as a stakeholder both internally and externally.

Michelle: There must be real consideration for healing right now. That is one of the roles institutions and organizations must play. Not only for the staff members who are suffering from burnout but also for communities that are consistently facing crises. From the housing crisis to COVID to calls for racial justice, many of the folks we’re talking about now have been impacted for decades. One positive thing I’m seeing more visibly is organizations are truly thinking about internal and external ways in which they can show up, how they can begin to reconcile and reckon with the harm and the trauma, but also how we begin the healing process. Part of that is storytelling because storytelling is healing. Having these small, intimate spaces where we can talk about the work and what people have seen and experienced is healing.

Q: What do you think when you hear the words justice, liberation and healing?

Desiré: When I hear those words used, particularly as it pertains to Black and Brown bodies and lives, my reaction is, “Yes, we need to focus on this more! This is what more organizations and initiatives should be lifting up.” Not only because doing social justice work and change work isn’t easy, but for many of us simply living as a Black, Indigenous, person of color – that isn’t easy. Justice, liberation and healing sound like medicine. And I think we need to continue lifting this conversation up. We must center those who are most affected by whatever the topic at hand is, and we must engage them in the conversations. There must also be a level of care and thoughtfulness with bringing so many different people together. It should be a space for collective cross-learning and cross-sharing amongst everybody – especially those most impacted.

Sarah: We often find ourselves facilitating these spaces where people are being vulnerable, which is a privilege for us to hear their stories. But these spaces require a lot of thoughtfulness and contemplation; recognizing and being aware that we are stirring something up – both for those individuals and for our team. We must approach racial equity work from a healing space. If we’re going to continue to facilitate creative processes that center racial equity – and then ask our Black, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous or other staff of color to hold those spaces with our white staff – then we have to build up our muscles in taking care of our team.

Q: We’re in a moment where racial healing has become a buzz phrase. How do we approach true racial healing, especially for the people who need it most? 

Lisa: There’s so much language around racial healing now. Without justice and without reparations – without the work we’re all doing – there can be no true racial healing. We can’t just jump to the healing part. I get worried that the discourse and mainstream narrative around healing are being co-opted. There’s a push to do the healing work without the actual justice work.

Another thing I’m grappling with is what does it mean to truly center people in the work – to be authentically inclusive and engage without fetishization or tokenism. There are people here who bring knowledge that is accumulated from their experience. And that knowledge is an important part of an analysis. They are not just here because of a certain racial or ethnic identity, but because of the knowledge, understanding, and skills that come along with those identities.

Michelle: This is such a great point. It’s important to ensure we include residents and community members who have the lived experience in all conversations. They are the solutions geniuses. They have the ideas, talent and knowledge to solve these problems. So, we must simply invite them into the room. There is power in the invitation. Our team tries to be very thoughtful and inclusive when determining who’s in the room. Whose voices do we need to hear to help inform our learning and thinking?

Seth: It feels like we’re in a time where  suddenly there’s a critical mass behind this work. But it’s the movement – the long-term effort that you all have been dedicated to for quite some time, not responding to the idea of a “moment” that will pass. Navigating service to the community without putting all of the onus on the community. Navigating those tensions of when is it important to elevate the person who has been impacted by the policy with the policy-maker? Versus when should we navigate that space on their behalf, bringing our expertise to bridge a difference, or a perceived difference? The attention to cultural work in this moment, and the reckoning with race, opens up a lot of opportunities for your work, but also exposes challenges to how you navigate where, and who, to engage.

Q: How are you approaching new partnerships to ensure your work is valued as a long-term solution, instead of a quick fix or trend?

Tiff: We do have a lot of people who want to partner with us to do arts and culture work, as well as social justice activism, because these are trending phrases during this time. So, it is definitely a struggle. I don’t know if I have a solution at this point. We’re asking ourselves, what is our philosophy of partnership? What do we bring and what do we want our partners to bring to those conversations?

Lisa: We have to be clear about our vision, mission and values. Whenever we’re partnering with someone, or an organization, we’re clear that our goal is to influence, impact, and to create more justice in the world. For us, the work always has to be in solidarity with others in order to build a movement.

Sarah: Given the number of partners who are coming to us with a sense of urgency around looking at their work differently, or approaching their work through an equity lens, it has been different from the work we’ve been approached to support in the past.

For us, we’re very explicit with our response: If we are going to engage your staff in these conversations – or in this design process to examine your internal practices – is your leadership team onboard? If your leadership isn’t ready to implement change, then we can’t be your partners. It puts us in a terrible position to unfold these stories, and then not have a leadership team that’s willing to commit and carry the work forward. We don’t necessarily have this solved yet. I think we’ve just been learning and working to design our process that helps us understand where the partner really is, in the beginning, in terms of their commitment to making change within their organization. Because you can say it, there’s a lot of lip service, but are you willing to do it?

Desiré: We recently hosted a project with an organization that wanted to uplift the voices of their BIPOC staff. We held a series of listening sessions, and one of the things we’re learning is that affinity spaces are really great. We also need to have a direct line to the people who are in a position to make decisions to ensure that once we do start coming up with ways to make the organization more racially equitable, those recommendations will move to action. It’s also important to continue to center the voices of those who are being most affected by the inequities because those are the people who know what’s best for their community.

The National Public Housing Museum is the only cultural institution devoted to telling the story of public housing in the United States. Its mission is to preserve, promote, and propel the right of all people to a place where they can live and prosper — a place to call home. Visit d-impact.org to learn more. 

Design Impact is a nonprofit social innovation firm based in Cincinnati, Ohio. The organization uses design to address pressing community issues, equip leaders and inspire communities They have partnered with hundreds of organizations from Cincinnati to San Diego, tackling complex social challenges as diverse as health disparity, food access, organizational culture and early education. Visit nphm.org to learn more. 

Kresge staff is working remotely, and our offices are closed until further notice.  See our promise to partners during COVID-19.
+