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Roundtable: Bridging arts, culture and public policy to design an equitable recovery

Arts & Culture

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

As our country grapples with relief and recovery following multiple crises – from COVID-19 to climate change and a national awakening to racial injustice – what role do artists and culture bearers play in advancing public policies? Seth Beattie and Michelle Johnson, senior program officers for Kresge’s Arts & Culture Program, speak with several staff members from the National Public Housing Museum and Design Impact about the critical role of artists and creative community engagement to help the country move toward an equitable recovery.

This is the second article from a two-part roundtable discussion. Read Part I – Roundtable: How arts and culture organizations are advancing racial healingPanelists 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

Q: As we straddle the space between relief and recovery – from a national economic standpoint and with the wellbeing of individuals – what is the role of arts and culture? How do we best engage artists, creatives and culture bearers? 

Desiré: One way is honoring their expertise. Kresge has a really good way of doing that, through funding and engagement. You’re paying people for their expertise and showing them, “We value your time.” I think that’s one way to help continue supporting the artists and creatives doing this very important work.

Lisa: Roughly 10 years ago, I remember working with John Saltmarsh, who is an amazing educator and institution builder.  Everything he did was focused on, “What is our theory of change?” It drove everybody crazy, because we all wanted to do the work. But he constantly challenged us by saying, “We can’t make any decisions until we understand deeply and honestly what our theory of change is.”

I’m now deeply convinced that this is true. For instance, if your theory of change is that society is most transformed when protesting in the streets, then that is where we should show up and be engaged. And oftentimes, this is entirely the case. However, I have spent time working at the Hull-House, where I learned about generations of women activists who believed that arts and culture have been essential to changing society – from suffrage to immigration rights to landmark juvenile justice reform. To quote Jeff Chang, “Nothing has ever changed without a radical leap of imagination.” That’s the role of artists and culture bearers.

Right now, I am working on housing justice. In our theory of change, we know that there needs to be a massive public infusion of public money to create more affordable housing for all people and we know that there is a poverty of imagination and lack of will to do this, which is based on stereotypes and misunderstandings about what public housing is, who it is for, and what it has meant to people. Changing the mainstream narrative is entirely within our power as cultural activists. Changing people’s minds and hearts and understandings of this history is part of our work doing oral histories and challenging dominant narratives of what it means to be a poor person living in public housing. And this work is what our country needs in order for there to be a shift in funding.

Q: How do we operationalize arts and culture work into relief and recovery?

Sarah: When I think of our own theory of change, it’s three concentric circles: creative practice, equity practice and leadership practice. At the center of those is social change. We love a good Venn diagram. All of those things we’ve defined internally, and we’ve defined outcomes that we believe demonstrate strong creative, equity and leadership practices. Arts and culture play a central role in recovery and racial healing, but it’s a process that we all must continue to practice. We talk a lot about creativity – even as a form of pushing people toward self-expression and toward tapping into their passions. Given that we’re all in this moment where every day we’ve got some sort of trauma – PTSD that comes from living in this world – it becomes increasingly hard to tap into your creativity.

We must be intentional about providing a creative practice and the creative space for people to engage so they can continue to show up as their full selves and so they can access the creative side of their brain that’s being overtaken right now by sheer survival. It’s happening to all of us. We have an opportunity around radical imagination – using arts as a way to radically imagine a different world, something that hasn’t ever existed. It’s a whole new ecosystem. In the continuous healing process, we must allow people to bring their full selves to access that imagination. Then we have to create the conditions for the world we want to live in.

Lisa: There’s a lot of great science fiction that has done the work of helping us imagine a world without race or without gender. And it is a scary world, you know? I feel like reading those books helps us to also see that maybe that’s not the world we’re pushing for, but it’s a world where the equitable distribution of resources won’t matter whether you are Black, white, or identify as a woman or man, or trans person.  People are always asking me, “What are the tools that museum professionals need at this time?” And I really feel like one of the most important things that I don’t have in my toolbox is a trauma-informed practice. That is something that artists and culture bearers do so well, but it hasn’t been thought of as a tool that every cultural institution or public policy organization needs.

Q: Can you share more about what trauma-informed culture training looks like? And why is it needed? 

Lisa: From police violence and decades of oppression to more than 600,000 Americans who have died from COVID – how are we really going to process this trauma? We can’t go back to a so-called “normal” way of doing things. So, every exhibition that we put forth, every single event that we have, should it be trauma-informed? What does that look like? Who’s going to train us? And how are we going to do this work as we move forward? I think these are the really critical questions we should be asking ourselves.  

Sarah: I recently participated in my first two-day trauma-informed culture training with a national affordable housing developer and property manager who wants to redesign their resident services, physical space and property management practices. Having some form of theory behind it is helping me make connections. After two of our team members went through the training, we decided we need to have a similar bank of knowledge to pull from and learn what it means to be trauma-informed in our practice – how that can be a true driver for more equitable work. I love the highlight of trauma-informed bodies of work, and not just for the organizations, but the people we seek to serve.

Q: What opportunities do you see in the new federal administration for the arts and culture practice?

Desiré: With the new administration, we’ve already seen a turnaround with some of the things that were very problematic and traumatic with the previous administration. I feel like now, folks can really work on racial equity. There was a period of time where we couldn’t because it was not federally mandated. Now we have an administration that supports this work, and that feels promising.

Lisa: We need to make sure we contribute to the definition of what racial healing means to the new administration and all policymakers. And the insistence that without truth, reconciliation history and a real reparative framework, we’re never going to have true healing. That’s something that all of us should be working toward. We have a decades-long history of arts and culture bowing down to major funders and individual donors. We’ve lost the understanding of arts and culture being something that’s made by everybody on the streets every day. It is labor. It’s a form of work, and that’s not something to be ashamed of. We really need to claim artists’ work as interesting work, and there’s a lot of groups that do that. But we also need to push for cabinet positions for people in the arts and culture sector – policymakers who really understand the history of arts and culture to help forge a more collective future for all of us.

Q: What advice do you have for the next generation of arts and culture leaders who want to do this work? How are you encouraging others to join organizations like yours and lend their time?

Tiff: I come from a church background. I feel like in a lot of ways, the work that I do right now is still very much connected to that. It’s about building deep community connections and taking the natural practices that we do in our cultural and personal lives seriously.

I also think a more humanized world is going to get us where we need to be as a society. So, I just try to show up as I am, and just speak as honestly and authentically as possible, about what I’ve struggled with. Whether it’s being sleepy from the night before from doing programming; or coming up poor and being the first in my family to go to college, then navigating Chicago as a single person building my own community – we should just be honest about our journey. But that requires having a deep sense of self and level of comfort with who I am as a person. And everyone has that in them. For me, it’s about showing up. Just showing up authentically in every space. It also requires a lot of listening. To just be there and be available.

Desiré: Going forward, we need more truth-tellers. Art has always been a great medium that pulls people in, and it can illuminate a lot of these truths that the pandemic – or rather the dual pandemics – have unearthed. It’s going to be really important to continue making sure those messages of truth are being spread so that they can turn into good, equitable action.

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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.

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.

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