Call and Response: Community, Social Justice, and the Role of Participatory Authority in Systemic Shift for the 21st Century Museum

Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell, Education Specialist, National Museum of African American History & Culture

As a museum educator specializing in social justice for over five years, it is only now that I am working for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) that I am fully empowered to develop programing that aligns with my belief in the intrinsic responsibility of museums towards social justice. As a cosigner of the growing movement calling for museums to engage in social action, and contributor Museum As Site for Social Action toolkit, I’ve learned that upholding the place of audiences may be more fruitful than arguing the inherent value of museums engaging with social justice. Often museum programming is informed by two major directives: grant or donor funding established on the grounds of an audience-focused mission, and feedback gathered from surveying museum audiences. Through call and response planning and participatory programming museums can explore an indirect relationship with social justice, which by nature disrupts the traditional top-down manifestation of meaning-making. Participatory programming — that in which audiences take the lead in defining concerns for national and social issues — amplifies marginalized voices to disrupt traditional museum-power structures towards a more equitable future for museums. Our new programming series, A Seat at the Table, provides audiences with a participatory outlet for engaging with the museum while jointly exploring social justice concerns.

Photo by Leah Jones, LLJ Photography. Copyright Smithsonian.

Social justice has long held a primary focus within the content and context of NMAAHC public programs. Since the onset of the federal designation for the Museum in 2003 to the day the doors opened to the public on September 24, 2016, the public programs unit, under the leadership of Deirdre Cross and the Education Department under the leadership of Esther Washington, have explored issues of social justice affecting the lives of African Americans and beyond, both past and present. NMAAHC’s existing programming demonstrates an understanding that social justice is not partisan (a strict no-fly zone), though national rhetoric claims differently. Part of the Smithsonian Institution’s designation is to “explore what it means to be an American.” Our leader, Founding Director, Lonnie Bunch, is one of the few museum directors across the country to consistently counter the cultural damage created by acts of injustice, with wisdom, hope, and guidance for a better tomorrow. Let the successes of NMAAHC — reaching over 3 million in visitorship its opening year, achieving project-based Kickstarter goals ahead of deadline, gaining hundreds of millions of social media impressions regularly — show that museums can and should engage with their communities in their fullest capacity, including with issues of social justice.

The rich and deep history of social justice practice at NMAAHC demonstrates that my work falls well inside the comfort zone of this Museum. My work fits into an existing framework of engaging with difficult issues rather than resolving some perceived deficiency in programming or audience building. Working in a courageous space like NMAAHC feels like validation. All the years prior spent urging my former museum employers to challenge the white-supremacist norms of centering dominant narratives, othering, and diminishing inclusivity, were not in vain. Working at NMAAHC is a mental and physical relief to the trauma experienced as a woman of color trying to make a difference in a historically white-elite profession. In this courageous space I’m empowered to experiment — and that’s what A Seat at the Table exemplifies. While the program provides insights into how participatory programming lends itself towards social justice response, it is a program still in development with plenty of questions yet unanswered. But as an example of a program that uplifts community voices through explorations of equity, I hope this provides some insights into the possibilities of engaging with social justice in museums.

Amplifying Communities

Through the powerful visibility of social media, today’s museum audiences have repeatedly demonstrated their interest and undeterred intent to engage the museum in issues of social justice. Armed with the power of the internet and a laundry list of hashtags, audiences are ready to involve museums in conversations about social justice whether museums are ready for it or not. Moreover, the trove of diverse voices using social media as a tool for social justice, are the exact demographics of visitors with whom many museums are urgently trying to engage.

Photo by Leah Jones, LLJ Photography. Copyright Smithsonian.

Prior to having a building, NMAAHC’s audiences attended programs at various locations around Washington, D.C. and consistently expressed a deep commitment to engage with difficult content with the museum. When it came to Q&A our audiences, as most audiences do, used every minute allotted to delve into deeper topical nuance. Our audiences provoked challenging interrogations about the frequency and consequence of injustices experienced within their communities. Listening to these comments, or “hearing the call,” early on our programming unit recognized that our audience is one who is deeply entrenched in grassroots and national concerns for racial and social justice, and they expected us to provide space for difficult conversations. Honoring the validity of audience expectations, in 2017 we introduced A Seat at the Table as a new participatory series for direct engagement with social justice issues that would serve to amplify voices throughout our communities.

The inaugural A Seat at the Table program was born in response to the very audible concerns of national audiences engaging with the Museum across different social media platforms. Concerns for human rights were loudly amplified in digital and media spheres following the 2016 election. We took notice of our audiences voicing their concerns around policy actions that limited the rights of immigrant and LGBTQ communities. Understanding that opening a forum to discuss social justice means that opinions would be debated, analyzed, and even judged, we engaged professional conflict facilitators to guide conversations towards mutual respect and nuanced empathy. Thus we created space where opposing ideas could peacefully converge. Disagreements would be welcomed. Aggression and offense would not. Without dismissing the difficulty of navigating perceived political waters with respect for human rights and differences, we launched A Seat at the Table on May 19, 2017.

Shifting Authority, Centering Audiences

The crux of A Seat at the Table is the audience. While we provide inspiration and guidance for the subject matter of table conversations, audiences lead the creation of content for the program. Without vibrant and robust conversations among audiences the program couldn’t exist.

Photo by Leah Jones, LLJ Photography. Copyright Smithsonian.

Utilizing the participatory model of meaning making — that audiences are equal creators of meaning with the museum, as illuminated by museum changemaker Nina Simon, the program centers on audience-led creation. Participatory practice allows the museum to “open up new ways for diverse people to express themselves and engage with institutional practice.” (Simon, 2010, p. 3) Traditionally, museums’ content is created in a strict top-down capacity, meaning that only curators, educators, and interpreters have the power to designate what is and isn’t in museum programming. At A Seat at the Table we not only share that authority with audiences, we empower audiences to use critical thinking towards creating change in their communities. As an open dialogue, gently guided by inspirational speakers and thought-provoking challenge questions, the program is formed through the ideas of the audience. As a community forum, ideas are given voice in a new setting outside of the traditional town hall where differences, not community, are often amplified. As a think-tank, the program serves as an outlet to strategize ways of making communities better — to consider solutions to pressing social concerns and to gain immediate feedback of those ideas. As the program grows and develops, we look forward to expanding upon the models of open dialogue, community forum, and community think-tank.

Recognizing that each audience provides a unique perspective in analyzing social justice issues is grounded in constructivist pedagogy. George Hein’s description of constructivism states that all audiences approach learning with preformed ideas about the subject matter, and to effectively teach one must reconcile with those ideas (Hein, 2002). Participatory programming amplifies this theory in acknowledging the authority and full humanity of every audience. As a participatory program, A Seat at the Table is a practice in polemics, allowing differing ideas to converge. While audiences disrupt the top-down curator-led idea model, and hundreds of voices share the spotlight, A Seat at the Table demonstrates that honoring differences can lead to building and amplifying community.

Responsive Programming

A Seat at the Table provides a solution for the conundrum of how museums can produce responsive programming without alienating differing factions of thought. While speech that is harmful towards the humanity of others would not be tolerated (and thankfully, no such situation has occurred) all people, regardless of political, racial or social orientation, are welcome to have a seat at the table. Using the concept of the family-style meal and dinner table — a place of welcoming, invitation, security, and conversation — we developed a platform for community gathering and exchange.

The first program in this series, A Seat at the Table with Immigrants of Color, addressed issues affecting communities of immigrants within the black community and beyond. The second program, A Seat at the Table with LGBTQ Friends in Faith, addressed gaps within the black community separating Faith and LGBTQ groups. While elsewhere in national rhetoric dominating the media queer people were being attacked through policy and speech, we used Museum platforms to amplify and support marginalized queer voices and gave space to communal healing.

Event page on NMAAHC website, inviting audiences to A Seat at the Table with LGBTQ Friends in Faith

Each program begins with an opening performance, which serves to center the conversation around the theme of the program — in lieu of the religious tradition of prayer or blessing before a meal. Next, a selected panel of experts within the specific theme of social practice (for example immigrant or LGBTQ rights) provide insights to their work, which informs the following group discussion. Then, the panel exits the stage to sit among the audience, who are seated dinner-theater style, and share a meal with meaningful conversation. We have handouts at each table with challenge questions listed, such as: What does a seat at the table mean to you? What is equity? How do you imagine a better world?

Audiences discuss these questions, sharing their own ideas for social change with their tablemates. Before closing, one person from each table stands and shares their table’s ideas using a passed microphone, so that the entire community of the evening is joined in the ideas for change expressed at each table.

Photo by Leah Jones, LLJ Photography. Copyright Smithsonian.

In this way, we are greatly expanding upon the concept of “creator” as described by Nina Simon (Simon, 2010 p. 263–281). A Seat at the Table explores the question, “What is equity?” Seeing power as an important factor in the understanding of equity and how it manifests in interpersonal interactions, the shared power of idea creation within A Seat at the Table is foundational.

Throughout the program my role is as catalyst: I go around table-to-table helping conversations along. At A Seat at the Table with LGBTQ Friends in Faith, I sat down at one table with particularly quiet audiences. I asked why each person decided to attend this program. A group of openly gay African American men responded that they want to expand their relationships in faith, but have experienced discrimination in faith communities. On the other side of the table a group of openly heterosexual mixed gender people of faith responded that while they didn’t understand LGBTQ identities they wanted to learn to be more tolerant and inclusive in their community. The two groups talked about building bridges with one another and expanding upon their new-found connections outside of the museum.

I frequently receive emails from past attendees expressing how connections they have made at A Seat at the Table have blossomed into friendships, collaborations and partnerships within their community’s social justice efforts, that otherwise may never have formed. The Museum has a delicate balancing act in bringing together diverse groups of people, but provides a space for connections across communities to flourish. In short, these programs empower strangers to exchange strategies for creating a more equitable society while sharing the intimacy and familiarity of a family-style dinner.

Museum as Change Agent

NMAAHC, in many ways is not only a disruptor of mainstream national narratives, but also a disruptor of the museum field as a profession. Where historically museums cater to exclusive class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and education demographics in the narratives represented, which in turn produces homogeneity in visitors and donors, NMAAHC is different. NMAAHC stakeholders are diverse and inclusive not just in visitors, but also donors, advisors, and staff. Of course, NMAAHC is not the only, or even the first, identity-based museum to shift its demographics towards inclusion. But that shift leads change throughout all aspects of the museum. In the exhibitions, in the educational and interpretive programming, in the collecting efforts, we ask: Who is missing? What narratives are dominant? Which are suppressed? Awareness of the normalcy of oppressive practice within museum work is the first step in addressing one’s complacency within it. Actively seeking out ways to counter dominance of one group/perspective is the next step.

Photo by Leah Jones, LLJ Photography. Copyright Smithsonian.

In recent years theories of centering audience authority and participatory practice have implemented systemic shifts in museum work. Now, the idea of the role of social change within museums urges a new shift — a shift to define the 21st Century Museum. As museum audiences’ needs and interests shift towards social justice, museums will need to adapt, redefining their roles within their communities. A Seat at the Table, through amplifying community, embracing difficult conversations about social justice, and honoring participatory authority, provides an outlet that connects the Museum to changemakers within the community. The myriad ways in which today’s audiences engage with museums proves that museums are more than the sum of their collections and exhibitions. Perhaps by connecting to changemakers through community outreach, museums are already redefining their place in social justice. Audiences have sounded the call, the question now is, how do we respond?


Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell

Kayleigh is a Washington, D.C. native and museum educator with over 10 years of GLAM experience, devoted to exploring ways to engage with marginalized audiences through museums and social justice practice. In her new role as Education Specialist with the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, she produces participatory public programs focusing on social justice issues, which empower museum audiences to share their own ideas and strategies towards equity. She is a selected contributor and author to the forthcoming Museums As Sites for Social Action (MASS Action) volume and toolkit produced by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, lending her expertise in identity-based museum programming, equity initiatives and transformational change to this three-year social change program.


References

Hein, G. (2002). The Challenge of Constructivist Teaching. In E. Mirochnik and D. C. Sherman. (2002). Passion and Pedagogy: Relation, Creation, and Transformation in Teaching. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 197–214.

Simon, Nina. (2010). The Participatory Museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0.