Friday Nights at OMCA | Photo: Odell Hussey Photography

What problem in our community is our museum most uniquely equipped to solve?

Continuing to understand and measure how the Oakland Museum of California changes lives in our community.

Earlier this year, we had a social impact statement. We had even begun to publicly share that draft statement along with our process for documenting our social impact. But to be brutally honest, we kept getting questions about word choice and definitions and our “statement” seemed to need a paragraph’s worth of explanation whenever we talked about it. This is the story of how our vision for social impact at the Oakland Museum of California evolved and some of the lessons we learned along the way that might help your organization if you find yourself on a similar path.

Chapter 1: Finding ourselves at a crossroads

It was challenging to find ourselves in that position after working throughout 2017 with our staff, board, and community stakeholders drafting specific language for what we believed OMCA’s social impact was on the city of Oakland and how we were going to measure that impact. Each time we got closer to the final draft, the further away it felt we were from having something that everyone across our museum could authentically rally behind and felt could be realistically achieved.

By the end of 2017 we had (preliminarily) put down on paper “OMCA makes Oakland a more equitable and caring city.” We picked apart each word. Are we “making” something happen, “facilitating” it, or “helping,” it to occur? We are fairly certain we’re having an impact on Oakland, but should we consider our impact on out-of-town visitors as well? Living and working in a “more equitable and caring city” was certainly something that each of us aspired to, but it felt like a pretty big leap between what we were doing and what the results might be of our work.

This concern was magnified when we conducted focus groups with Oakland residents who live near the Museum but haven’t visited it (“non-visitors”). They questioned whether any museum could make a city more equitable and caring — would we change unfair housing policies, increase the minimum wage, or soothe relations between new and long-time residents?

We also gathered more input from internal stakeholders via two Board retreats and worked closely with our Community Engagement Board Committee. We had a few difficult conversations about gentrification, the growing economic divide, and the political polarization of Oakland communities. Oakland’s changing demography is a reality that we’re all dealing with, but we realized the unique role that the Museum plays is to tell stories about the people behind those shifts–from the perspective of both the newcomers and long-time residents.

With both our Board of Trustees and non-visitors — the two ends of the spectrum of engagement with OMCA — questioning our social impact statement, we knew we needed to do more work. On the other hand, we felt pretty good about the specific visitor outcomes we planned to measure as a way to assess our social impact.

While visiting OMCA, visitors will feel a sense of welcome and belonging, recognize that their stories matter, and have a strong connection to their neighbors.

Our staff, our board, and our visitors themselves readily connect these outcomes to powerful moments they had experienced and witnessed at the Museum. We had a strong belief that each of those outcomes was inherently valuable to a person’s life and to the health of a community. But if each of those outcomes was true for at least most of our visitors, what would we expect the results to actually look like for the community as a whole?

Chapter 2: Convening the experts

Near the end of 2017, we hosted a convening of experts in the social impact field at the Museum to help us understand what else was happening at institutions like ours across the world, learn about new methods for social impact measurement, and evaluate our current social impact statement based on their collective experience.

We invited six experts for a two-day gathering, opening the initial knowledge sharing presentations to a wide-cross section of OMCA staff as well as peers from other Bay Area cultural organizations, including those who are part of our New California Arts Fund cohort.

Measuring Social Impact Convening (left to right): Robert Martin, Mark Stern, Willie Jackson, Lisa Parsons, Daniel Fujiwara

Lisa Parsons, project manager of the Wellbeing Index Santa Monica, provided a view into the City of Santa Monica’s thinking around how city government can move beyond a transactional relationship with citizens to instead thinking about how it can positively affect individuals’ lives and support communities that thrive. The city has developed and implemented a “wellbeing index” that measures areas where data can provide a baseline on wellbeing and point toward areas that need improvement.

Daniel Fujiwara, founding director of Simetrica, works with arts and cultural organizations and policymakers across the world on frameworks and methods to rigorously measure the social impact and value of the arts. His focus at the convening was specifically around sharing how Simetrica thinks about converting multiple data sources measuring societal impact, environmental impact, and economic impact to a single value that can be used to make decisions about whether, or how much, to invest in a given project that will affect community wellbeing.

Willie Jackson, director of diversity and inclusion at Equity Impact Group and founder of Oakland-based media company Abernathy, shared with us his personal journey as a black man in the US and asked provocative questions like: who are the voices in the community not represented by our data collection methods, how can we teach the skills of social capital building to communities that need it most, and what are the biases we don’t want to perpetuate in our research?

Susan Seifert and Mark Stern, both on faculty from the University of Pennsylvania, work together on the Social Impact of the Arts Project researching the role that arts plays in social ecology (the interactions between community members and institutions), social wellbeing (the personal value one places on aspects of their life), and civic engagement (the interactions between community members and policymakers). They provided a “cultural ecosystem” perspective and encouraged us to think beyond our individual institutions to the broader context of neighborhoods. As Susan and Mark pointed out, “Neighborhoods with a vital cultural life also enjoy ‘spillover effects’ — including stronger community and civic engagement; better health, schools, and personal security; and economic revitalizations.”

That was a lot of data to digest (even for a data geek like me) — and all of that was just in our first hour together! After a rousing Q&A to conclude the public portion of the social impact convening, we spent the rest of day 1 squirreled away in a conference room with the experts, about a dozen OMCA staff members, and our facilitator Robert Martin.

Getting feedback on an “equitable and caring city”

As our conversation turned to the substance of our social impact work, we asked the experts for their take on our thesis that “OMCA makes Oakland a more equitable and caring city.” Pretty quickly we heard discomfort with the word “equitable,” with questions about how we intended to disrupt the current power dynamics that made a city inequitable to begin with, a skepticism that we would ever be able to pin down a definition of equity that everyone on our staff and across our community could share, and reservations about whether “equitable” might be in conflict with instead offering resources based on need. And we heard confusion across the board about what a “caring city” might look like.

An “aha moment” at Friday Nights @ OMCA

That evening, we asked our guest experts to attend our weekly “Friday Nights @ OMCA” event so they could see for themselves how the community interacted with the Museum. This program is at the heart of how we think about OMCA’s social impact.

Friday Nights at OMCA | Photo: Odell Hussey Photography

When the guest experts returned to our campus Saturday morning, the room was alive with new energy. They shared with us an excitement about the diversity of age, ethnicity, and lifestyles of Oaklanders who they met at Friday Nights, and were generally in awe about how attendees mixed and mingled with each other and with the Museum throughout the night. One guest expert shared that over the course of the evening 17 people felt comfortable enough to just walk up to her and start a conversation — and she remarked about how surprising that was given how rarely that happens in public spaces in her city. As a group, we had an animated conversation about the value of social interactions between visitors, the degree of pleasure everyone seemed to be enjoying the previous night, and how both of those aspects might lead to individual and communal resilience.

Exploring new possibilities for “who,” “how far,” and “how much”

On the morning of day 2, we were joined by Roberto Bedoya, the Oakland Cultural Affairs Manager and we talked about synergies between the Museum and the city’s work to create a cultural plan in which “Equity is the driving force. Culture is the frame. Belonging is the goal.” I also gave an overview about how we are currently measuring visitor outcomes via interviews, surveys, focus groups, and structured observations of exhibit attendees’ behavior on-site as a way to think about how we will measure our social impact going forward.

We wrapped up our time together with our guest experts realizing that we would not come out of the convening with a discreet social impact that we could measure with specific metrics — which was an early goal of the convening. Rather, the convening raised more questions than it answered. This might seem frustrating but for us having the time and space to think deeply and collectively about our social impact, to pull it apart, and question our assumptions was extremely useful.

Chapter 3: Back to the drawing board

After our guest experts returned home, we went back to the drawing board and anchored our conversation by asking, “What are the problems in Oakland that we’re uniquely equipped to solve?

Searching the literature for new ways of thinking

Inspired by our convening, I began a new literature review of how nonprofit organizations, policymakers, and social scientists were undertaking studies around individual and community wellbeing. In searching for other ways to describe “equitable,” I discovered the United Nations report, “Leaving No One Behind: The Imperative of Inclusive Development” that frames poverty and social exclusion as interrelated. This was a lightbulb moment that pointed to the idea that OMCA can have an important role in addressing real equity issues in our community by fostering social inclusion. The introduction of the “social inclusion” concept led me to another great UN report, “Defining and Measuring Social Cohesion” that helped us distinguish the socio-cultural aspects of social inclusion for which the Museum could persuasively lay claim (while letting us off the hook for claiming economic or political gains). When I found the Stanford Social Innovation Review article, “Six Theory of Change Pitfalls to Avoid,” it helped us realize that our social impact didn’t need to be articulated as a statement at all, and in fact trying to fit our ideas into a formal statement was holding us up from moving forward.

We also looked close to home at the Neighborhood Identity Report that we commissioned several years ago to better understand the needs and values of specific Oakland neighborhoods, where participants were asked to share the unique strengths and challenges that shape their neighborhood. And we dove into Oakland’s recently released Cultural Plan to make sense of the city’s cultural vision for Oakland.

Immersing ourselves in the wisdom of our museum visitors

As the Associate Director of Evaluation and Visitor Insights, it’s in my nature to look to our visitors when I find myself stuck on what to do next. For our social impact measurement initiative, I returned specifically to the two programs that represent the best recent case studies on the impact the Museum has had on the community: Friday Nights @ OMCA and our All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 exhibit. In each, I began to see new threads around how and why we value social interactions at the Museum.

Friday Nights at OMCA | Photo: Odell Hussey Photography

The cornerstones of the Friday Nights @ OMCA program are the music, dancing, and food that bring the community of Oakland to our doorstep each week and create shared experiences that encourage people to interact with one another. The free programming gives Friday Nights @ OMCA an egalitarian feeling — a sense that everyone is welcome. Based on surveys and exit interviews, most visitors attended Friday Nights @ OMCA for the lively and social environment, noting that the live music and appealing outdoor space were compelling aspects. Visitors returned to Friday Nights @ OMCA because it provides a safe, social space that attracts a diverse community and offers a variety of experiences. Visitors described Friday Nights @ OMCA as having great value for Bay Area residents and the city of Oakland and readily articulated that value. Many praised the program for building community — something they appreciate and need. Others said the program increases the cultural capital of Oakland and is a source of civic pride.

Another case study of how OMCA brings the community together was All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50 — a blockbuster exhibition and a strong expression of OMCA’s mission and values. For four months spanning the 2016/2017 calendar years, the Museum hosted more attendees to a special exhibit than at any point in our history. Visitors actively engaged with the exhibits and each other, as most were observed watching media, looking at art, and talking with other visitors. Furthermore, many noted that their perspectives about the Black Panther Party were changed. Visitors praised OMCA for creating an exhibition that told important Oakland stories, for not shying away from potential controversy, and for shedding light on the histories that are often ignored by museums. Again, visitors talked about OMCA playing an important role in the city by bringing people together to learn from one another and foster greater understanding.

Resetting my own expectations

As I sat with all the data from our expert convening, our visitor studies, our board retreats, and my own literature review, I came to the realization that given our present resources, we can’t credibly measure change at the level of the entire city of Oakland nor over an extended period of time for individuals. For now at least, I believe our focus needs to be on the more immediate changes we can see in the people we have direct contact with at the museum. Even reliably and rigorously measuring those immediate effects will be leaps and bounds beyond what most cultural institutions are doing. Furthermore, focusing on our visitors will help us demonstrate our value to our funders and community stakeholders.

Based on all the feedback, it also dawned on me that measuring “wellbeing” was not a great conceptual fit for our institution or our community, given the present realities in Oakland. I found myself continually gravitating instead toward the idea of “personal agency” and how the Museum is helping community members to participate more fully in society by giving them avenues to build connections to other people and to gain understanding of one another. This helped make sense of the unique role a cultural organization could play relative to say a university or a park–the Museum is helping visitors understand their own story, the stories of others, and the pathways for how they can make a difference in the world.

Chapter 4: Reaching a breakthrough

Our breakthrough moment was when we took ownership of the fact that we didn’t need to write a “social impact statement” (which might be seen as competing with our mission statement). Rather, we simply needed to articulate the problem our community is facing that we are uniquely suited to address, the best solution we believe exists for that problem, and the concrete and tangible outcomes we’re going to measure that will demonstrate our positive social impact.

The problem we’re trying to solve is social fragmentation.

The community of Oakland is presently undergoing significant fallout from inequities within institutions, the state, and civil society resulting in a decline in social cohesion and an increase in social exclusion.

Our contribution is facilitating greater social cohesion.

At the Museum, we create the space and context for greater connection, trust, and understanding between people and social groups. This leads to greater social cohesion in our community.

We will know that we are achieving that impact–creating greater social cohesion–when our Museum visitors say that they:

  • feel welcome at OMCA
  • see their stories reflected at OMCA
  • connect with other people at OMCA, and
  • feel comfortable expressing their own ideas and are open to the ideas of others at OMCA

…as more and more individual visitors have these experiences at OMCA then we will be able to assert our social impact — greater social cohesion — at a community level.

OMCA Social Impact Framework

With this new framework in place, we’re embarking on cross-department workshops with Museum staff members to strengthen a shared understanding of our social impact and why it’s important, integrate our social impact indicators into everyone’s work practices, and find new opportunities to collaborate with community to achieve our social impact. We believe it’s critical that every staff member can describe OMCA’s social impact in their own words and link the four social impact indicators to their everyday work, whether they are a curator, a front-line staff member, an accountant, or an exhibit fabricator. We don’t expect this phase of the social impact initiative will be any less challenging than what’s come before, but we’re energized by the response we’ve heard so far from our staff.

We’ve already begun to operationalize our social impact measurement methodology across the Museum. In 2019, we hope to have more to share with you on how that methodology is working, what we’re learning from our visitors about how the Museum is contributing to the social cohesion of Oakland, and where we’ve continued to revise our thinking.

Measuring Social Impact Convening Participants (left to right): Willie Jackson, Susan Seifert, Robert Martin, Penny Jennings, Lisa Parsons, Lori Fogarty, Mark Stern, Kelly McKinley, Kara Wilber, Daniel Fujiwara, Devon Smith, Johanna Jones, Ayanna Reed, Roberto Bedoya, Ariel Weintraub, Cynthia Taylor

This story is part of a publication on Medium exploring how arts organizations are adapting to reflect the changing demographics of California, engaging with their communities, and becoming more resilient organizations as part of the New California Arts Fund at The James Irvine Foundation.