Change Starts at Home: Inspiring Culture Shift and Centering Racial Equity at the Seattle Art Museum

Priya Frank, Associate Director for Community Programs, Seattle Art Museum

In the fall of 2015, I saw an opening at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) for a new position responsible for partnership building, program development, and the creation of an Equity Team. My heart skipped a beat as it was the first time I had seen an institution investing in such a community-centered position. As a woman of color from Seattle, I have been committed to racial equity work educationally, professionally, and personally throughout my life. I was thrilled to be offered and accept the role of Associate Director for Community Programs, particularly at a time of real change within museums. In a field where 72% of museum workers are white and the majority of POC represented are in security or janitorial sectors (McCambridge, 2017), positions like mine are rare and critical.

Even before working at SAM, I remember hearing about the institution’s equity and inclusion work led by incredible senior leaders like Sandra Jackson-Dumont, former Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs as well as Adjunct Curator for Modern and Contemporary Art; Sheila Edwards Lange, SAM board member and currently President of Seattle Central College; and Kimerly Rorschach, Illsley Ball Nordstrom Director and CEO of the Seattle Art Museum, who made it clear that she was looking to the Equity Team to co-lead the effort together with her, and we had her full support.

This photo was taken in 2012, long before I worked at SAM, when Sandra Jackson-Dumont asked Vivian Phillips (pictured) and I to participate in programming for a Remix event because of a women of color in arts gathering group we led. That night planted a seed within me to want to connect further. Photo by Seattle Art Museum.

The Equity Team is a volunteer group open to all staff and when I arrived about 25 employees from departments across SAM had already signed up to join the team, due to their interest in continuing the momentum for change at the museum. The work I have been able to do at SAM around racial equity over the last few years has been impactful and effective thanks in large part to these founding Equity Team members. Together we built a team that is now over 35 people, created a racial equity plan that has become a large part of our strategic plan, and built and supported programs, trainings, and structures to implement real institutional change.

A group of SAM Equity Team founding members, 2016. Photo by Natali Wiseman.

During our first few team meetings, we came to the consensus that to be most effective we needed to champion a culture shift that centered equity at the foundation of everything we do, regardless of what our particular jobs were. But in order to impact collective culture we first needed to examine our own personal experiences and biases that shape our perspectives and how we inevitably bring these to work with us. It was about looking within and questioning the structures, systems, and norms in place at SAM, how they came to be, whom they have traditionally included and excluded, and how they affect internal culture. These structures influence how we see the world and how we navigate within that world, within our jobs, and within the community that makes up SAM. To get to the ultimate goal of eliminating institutional racism at SAM, it was imperative we look inward at ourselves, our departments, and SAM’s culture as it relates to staff, volunteers, docents, and the board.

SAM’s mission is to connect art to life. By identifying the ways that institutional and structural racism are embedded within museum culture, we can begin to break down these structures and create a new foundation that looks different, feels different, and leads to the the creation of a space where multiple communities see themselves reflected within the exhibitions and the people that make up the institution putting on those exhibitions. By looking inward, we can ultimately connect to more people authentically, both inside and outside the museum walls.

Centering Racial Equity

SAM made the commitment to build an Equity Team in 2015 as a result of participation in the Turning Commitment Into Action racial equity learning cohort hosted by the City of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative. This program provided arts and cultural organizations the opportunity to examine the ways they can eliminate institutional racism and build racial equity in their organizations.

This participation also helped us articulate why we begin with racial equity when it comes to approaching our work. Diana Falchuk, Manager of Arts and Racial Equity at City of Seattle Race and Social Justice Initiative, summed up the foundational understanding through the following statement, which I keep posted at my desk as a helpful reminder:

We approach equity for all people through the lens of race because we know that, across all measures and in all areas of life — from the arts to education, housing, jobs, criminal justice, the environment, and beyond — people of color are the most impacted when it comes to inequities. By understanding the barriers and injustices facing those who are most impacted, we are able to leave no stone unturned in our work to create an inclusive, equitable experience for our staff and our community. This means that, for example, if we are seeking to improve outcomes for people experiencing poverty, or living on lower incomes, we examine the experiences of poor and low income people of color; and if we are seeking to eliminate differences based on gender, we examine the experiences not just of women or transgender people, but of transgender people of color. (D. Falchuk, personal communication, 2016)

In early 2016, Diana Falchuk and Benita Horne were hired in their capacity as independent consultants to facilitate racial equity trainings for SAM staff, the board, and volunteers. During the trainings, Equity Team members led conversations around the Continuum on Becoming an Anti-Racist Multicultural Organization, asking participants where they felt SAM was on the spectrum and what it would take to move the work forward. Over 300 ideas were generated, and from there Equity Team members combed through the data and built SAM’s racial equity plan. Upon reviewing the plan, Kim expressed that in order to truly center equity as foundational, the plan should be integrated within the next iteration of our strategic plan. Because the goals are institution wide,departments were required to look at their individual goals and develop action plans for how they could be achieved. Equity was also added to SAM’s core values, placed near the top of the list and specifically recognizing the centering of racial equity.

Supporting Institution-Wide Culture Shift

The Equity Team created a logo to make the team “official”. Buttons were made to show our commitment to the work and to each other. Photo provided by author.

The Equity Team, now in its third year, is in a critical place where we have built a plan for integrating institution-wide racial equity and we are encountering the next phase of change: implementation. Rebuilding departmental practices using an equity lens has become a necessity, thanks in part to the strategic plan, so the Equity Team is being asked to help departments with many tasks. This is a direct indication that SAM is moving beyond the surface level and actually beginning to address long and deep rooted histories of inequity within museums.

With an increase in demand, this year the Equity Team has identified three goals for how to best support and encourage this cultural institution-wide shift, while balancing time restraints, job responsibilities, and equity fatigue.

The first goal is to have better staff representation from all departments within the Equity Team. Part of my job is co-leading the Equity Team, but my position is housed within the education department, and often in museum work the bulk of equity work relies on programming produced by education. To ensure that equity work is centered institution-wide, representation from all departments is vital. Participation from frontline staff on the Equity Team had been limited, often because of schedule conflicts and varying work hours. One effort to address this has been onboarding Danie Allinice, Manager of Volunteer Programs, as co-chair of the Equity Team. Her relationships have brought on more frontline staff and led to productive brainstorming of ways for members who cannot attend meetings to still participate.

The Equity Team’s second goal is to be a resource, working with individual departments to provide an equity lens to the work they do. The most powerful work of the team has come via task forces — small groups of Equity Team members representing different departments who collaborate on a specific project or program. Currently we have about ten task forces and many have formed out of various department needs. For example, responding to reports we received from frontline staff experiencing microaggressions from visitors, the Equity Team formed a taskforce to develop and present a toolkit for staff and volunteers to navigate microaggressions and spread the message that SAM supports employees’ health and safety first.

Another task force developed specifically to address culture shift internally is our programming task force. This group builds powerful programming specifically for staff around equity-related issues. Examples of this work include discussions connecting exhibitions to our own personal stories, a book club, social justice tours curated by Equity Team members, co-hosting equity-related events at SAM, and taking field trips to network with other Equity Teams around Seattle. These programs have allowed space for staff to connect their own experiences to the exhibitions at SAM, while at the same time they have developed trust, learned more about each other, fostered joy within the work, and built bridges of understanding that might not have existed before.

When the Jacob Lawrence Migration Series came to SAM, Equity Team members read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and held read-ins together in the gallery. The team also co-hosted a lecture featuring Wilkerson during the exhibition run. Photo provided by author.

The third goal of the Equity Team is to provide institutional accountability for strategic plan goals around racial equity. As the equity work spreads institutionally with the intent of bringing racial equity to the forefront of everything we do, the Equity Team is being tasked with co-leading efforts and consulting with departments on issues ranging from messaging, security procedures, and label texts, to microsites and trainings. As a result, we are developing processes for how to best assist departments in building networks, knowledge, and resources to center racial equity within their daily work. Danie and I have begun to meet with department heads to provide recommendations for how they might proceed in their work and with their staff. Examples include providing reading materials to build a knowledge base within their particular area of work, connecting them with others in the community doing similar work with an equity lens, asking questions to assess staff representation and hiring practices within departments, and pinpointing how the Equity Team can best support departments by spreading the word about employment opportunities.

Reflections on the Journey

As the Equity Team delves into year three of the work, there are new barriers coming up that are also indicators that we are moving beyond the surface. One issue, ironically, is ensuring that Equity Team members are being treated equitably themselves! It is not enough to only rely on the amazing generosity of those who have volunteered their time. How can the team be a resource for the institution without feeling maxed out, especially considering that for most people this work is not in their job descriptions? A taskforce dedicated to professional development opportunities for staff has starting mapping out the skill sets that that the Equity Team has already gained, and how those can be highlighted within annual reviews and on resumes and LinkedIn profiles. Danie and I want to further foster an environment where Equity Team members can benefit from the new roles they play professionally, and personally, while taking ownership of their newfound skill sets.

Another reality we are facing is moving from a reactive process to a proactive one. In order to embed equity within our practices, we must start asking questions long before an exhibition is confirmed, examining whom it is for, whom it includes/excludes, which voices are/aren’t being represented and why, and how we can bring in other perspectives. One way SAM is addressing this is through the creation of exhibition advisory groups. This involves hiring community advisors to consult in the areas of communications, curatorial, education, and more. These advisors meet multiple times in the year leading up to the exhibition opening and push us to think about conversations we need to be having ahead of time while learning from the expertise they provide.

We also need to continue developing an infrastructure to support centering equity in everything we do. Needs are increasing, and it would be beneficial to have resources for task force work, further trainings for staff as a whole, the ability to offer competitive wages to hire employees with backgrounds in equity and social justice, and address the issue of pay equity as a whole. Recently, in response to staff feedback and Equity Team recommendations, several departments provided funding to collectively bring the Na’ah Illahee Fund to SAM for a training with employees and volunteers, in preparation for SAM’s Double Exposure exhibition.

I’m so fortunate to be part of a museum that recognizes that in order to get to the ultimate goal of eliminating institutional racism, we must first start at home. Sometimes when you clean your house, it can get a bit messier before it starts to look and feel more organized. Ultimately it’s my colleagues on the Equity Team that keep me grounded, hopeful and inspired. Together we are building a movement and space where one day people from multiple communities and viewpoints can increasingly feel like SAM is a home for them. What an opportunity we have to change the face, experiences, and perspectives representing the field, as well as the perception of those who come and visit.

Equity Team members on a field trip to radio station KEXP to meet with their Equity Team. Photo provided by author.

Looking inward and championing for change means there is always so much more work to be done, but I will leave you with a few key learnings around which I center my own practice and of which I remind myself every day:

Just start.

Whether it’s with educating yourself by reading an article and discussing it with a colleague, starting an Equity Team, or attending community events around issues of race and social justice, show up, be consistent, and stay committed. Equity work is a lifelong investment, personally and professionally.

Small steps to big change.

We are not going to dismantle institutional and structural racism overnight. Culture shift is a series of steps, small and big, often organic, all building momentum that can lead to permanent change. Recognize and celebrate those small wins, as they are the momentum you need to get you through some of the tougher stuff!

Embody a joyful approach.

I have often heard organizations describe the “difficult and challenging” work they are “tackling” when it comes to racial equity work. But whose narrative is this? As a person of color I have grappled with issues of this nature my entire life. I understand that it isn’t always easy, but rather than approaching the work with a defeated tone, recognizing the impact that this work will have and is already having continues to renew my joy, creativity and hope that change is possible, it is coming, and it is already here, because I am here and I am committed, as are my SAM Equity Team family who are with me every step of the way.

A few of my colleagues at SAM who keep me grounded and joyful in the work, at a recent visit to the Onyx Black Arts Gallery. Photo provided by author.

Photo by Kelly Oh.

Priya Frank

Priya Frank is the Associate Director for Community Programs at Seattle Art Museum where her focus is on partnerships, programming, and racial equity related initiatives. Previous work in advancement at the University of Washington and as art curator at LUCID Lounge have influenced her passion and heart for community building. Priya is a member of the Seattle Arts Commission, a board member of On the Boards, and a graduate of Leadership Tomorrow’s class of 2015. She holds a B.A. in Communications and American Ethnic Studies from University of Washington Seattle and an M.A. in Cultural Studies from University of Washington Bothell. Whether it’s through investment in institutional, corporate, academic or community arenas, Priya seeks to create space and experiences in Seattle that reflect the voices and perspectives of people of color authentically. She hopes that through reciprocal, community-centered collaborations and innovative, joyful creativity, she can honor those who paved the way for her and further support pathways so that people of color can see themselves respected, heard, reflected, and celebrated within all areas of civic engagement.


References

Mccambridge, R. (2017). Museums So White: Survey Reveals Deep Lack of Diversity. Nonprofit Quarterly, Retrieved from https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2017/05/09/museum-boards-directors-whitest-getting-whiter/

Turning Commitment into Action. (n.d.). In Office of Arts & Culture website. Retrieved from https://www.seattle.gov/arts/turning-commitment-into-action

Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI). (n.d.). In Seattle Government website. Retrieved from https://www.seattle.gov/rsji

Le, Vu. (2017). Equity Fatigue and How It Affects Leaders of Color. Rainier Valley Crops, Retrieved from https://rainiervalleycorps.org/2017/08/equity-fatigue-affects-leaders-color/

About Na’ah Illahee Fund. (n.d.). In Na’ah Illahee Fund’s website. Retrieved from http://www.naahillahee.org/about.html

Continuum on Becoming an Anti-Racist Multicultural Organization. (n.d.). In Association of Education Services Agencies website. Retrieved from http://www.aesa.us/conferences/2013_ac_presentations/Continuum_AntiRacist.pdf