One of the most important sessions I attended at this year’s Annual Convention was Salvador Acevedo’s talk on “How Changing Demographics Are Shifting Your Community.”
One of Salvador’s main points asked us to change our thinking from embracing “multiculturalism”—discrete ethnic identities that fit into neat census boxes—to “interculturalism,” a more broadly defined approach that invites people to define their identities contextually—and, to some degree, interchangeably.
Salvador cited research indicating the demographic landscape in America is rapidly changing. California is poised to become the first “minority majority” state, while several others already have collective non-white populations that outnumber the white population. Since half of all current births are non-white (or perhaps non-solely white), it’s clear a sea change is inevitable.
Salvador asked the audience in his “reverse Q&A” at the end of the session to talk about a time when we realized diversity was important to our organization. I talked about my participation on the Emerging Leaders Council (ELC) and how, just a few years ago, we released a slate of nominees for ELC election only to be criticized by our arts colleagues for releasing a slate of exclusively white candidates.
It wasn’t like we didn’t realize “diversity is important.” Of course we do. But the criticism pointed out a valid flaw in both our process of choosing nominees and the process inherent in populating the ELC.
Since then, the ELC has engaged in difficult, uncomfortable, and oftentimes unresolveable conversations about how we ensure our elected body is representative of the future of the field. Salvador’s talk provided a helpful context for thinking about the challenges we face in doing this.
On the one hand, by taking responsibility for the racial and ethnic makeup of our elected body, we a) ask candidates to fit into the troublesome “identity boxes” we will ultimately need to abandon, and b) ask candidates to “represent” communities in a way that is possibly inauthentic.
As a white person, I don’t feel like my election to the ELC was representative of white people throughout the field, nor do I feel I, in any way, sit there as a representative of my gay and lesbian arts colleagues. I can’t speak for people who look like me or love like I do. I don’t try to. To paraphrase Salvador, you can’t hold a community of people in the palm of your hand—a community is always, always a gathering of like—but not identical—individuals.
However, the perception from outside the elected body is potentially different. By being an out arts professional, my service on the ELC may communicate to other LGBT arts colleagues (and our straight colleagues as well) that Americans for the Arts and the field in general view us as legitimate leaders of the future. While I don’t personally represent them, I represent possibility. I am a presence. Still—I don’t choose this role. If it does exist, it is assigned to me by others.
How to navigate these issues in a process that involves vetting nominations and then sending candidates to our field colleagues for election is a kerfluffle the ELC is still untangling together.
The question of equity and fairness in the process continues to be the linchpin in solving our problem. Do we take racial and ethnic backgrounds into account when vetting nominations? Or do we evaluate them without any consideration of personal identity and hope for the best? At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves if our process puts anyone at a disadvantage and, if so, what that says about our values as a leadership body.
I commend my colleagues on the ELC for the open and honest discussions we’ve had about our process and about how we can move more swiftly toward intercultural awareness. But we still have work to do.