Honoring My Momentum of Change: Leaving Museums Behind
Kai Monet, Transformational Educator and Consultant
After 12 years of being deeply and passionately committed to museum education, I left the field and a dream position as Senior Education Manager, Teen & School Programs at The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), Los Angeles, in September 2019. Working in a contemporary art space pushed me to think critically about the world. Working with a team of radical and reflective educators pushed me to think critically about myself. These forces, paired with the museum context that is rooted in colonialism and white supremacy (1), led me to a process of decolonization that inevitably pushed me to quit my job and take a sabbatical.
This essay is an offering of gratitude to my journey in the field, to wounds that have now healed, and for the lessons those wounds have taught me. Being a museum educator brought me closer to my own liberation (freedom from suffering and oppression) and to an understanding of how we might achieve collective liberation. The field pushed me to grow, to change, and to evolve. And when the momentum of my own evolution surpassed that of the field and my wounds from working towards equity and inclusion as a woman of color became too much to bear, I left. I offer my story as a touchpoint of solidarity and strategy for museum educators in their own journey of evolution within museum spaces.
In this essay I share theoretical influences to frame my story, a case study from my experience to illustrate why I left the field, and insights I’ve acquired since my departure.
Decolonization is tied to my liberation and has two distinct meanings/activations in my life. In a broader sense, decolonization is, for me, 1) a process of becoming conscious of the ways I am conditioned by oppressive structures (i.e. white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, etc.) and unlearning behaviors that uphold and perpetuate those structures. As a second generation Filipino-American, decolonization is, 2) a culturally specific process of examining the colonized history of my ancestors, unlearning colonial mentalities passed through generations, and taking action to challenge oppression. (2) To decolonize, I must continue to change.
Thinking about change
I am a transformational educator; I am committed to transforming myself and co-learners into more conscious and compassionate humans. I came to understand this purpose as a learner and teacher while working in museums. My work included studying critical and liberatory theory with my colleagues. Through such discourse my teaching practice became what bell hooks (2017) calls an “engaged pedagogy,” one that is concerned with well-being. In Teaching to Transgress she elaborates that “teachers must be actively committed to a process of self-actualization that promotes their own well-being if they are to teach in a manner that empowers students” (p. 15). In addition to a robust self-care regimen, (3) I developed a strong meditation practice alongside my work, a means to liberation for myself while working within the museum towards liberation for all.
At MOCA, my teaching practice was in alignment with my purpose. Teaching in the galleries offered opportunities to support students as individual and collaborative thinkers who have agency in looking critically at the world. Mentoring the MOCA teens offered opportunities to support youth in developing self-awareness and capacities to better the world. Collaborating with educators and classroom teachers offered opportunities to collectively shift the ways we teach and learn to be inclusive and anti-oppressive. In these ways my work was aligned with my commitment to collective liberation and transformation. However, as I began to work towards change in the field at large, I found deep misalignments between my values and those of museums and the field.
American therapists Paul Watzlawick, John H. Weakland, and Richard Fisch (2011) theorize that “there are two different kinds of change: one that occurs within a given system which itself remains unchanged, and the one whose occurrence changes the system itself” (p.12). My last few years in the field were dedicated to leveraging my position at MOCA to create changes in the field towards more equitable and inclusive spaces. This included serving on regional and national committees focused on equity and access. While my intentions for change came with small wins here and there, I ultimately was experiencing Watzlawich, Weakland, and Fisch’s former category of change: one taking place within a system that remained the same. A change was taking place within myself that had me walking down a path that left unchanged museums behind.
A case study
My participation on the National Art Education Association (NAEA) Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion (ED&I) Task Force from January 2018 to March 2019 is one example from my journey that illustrates the misalignments I found between myself and the field and the pain I have endured while trying to enact change in a field not yet fully committed to doing the work necessary to transform. The task force brought together classroom, university, and museum educators who were already engaged in EDI work. (4) While there are many details of the experience that would elucidate my point, I will share part of my research from the project to demonstrate how dominant forces of white supremacy have, and continue to, suppress changes I wish to see.
The task force worked in groups to conduct research that would inform EDI recommendations to the board of directors. My group was responsible for looking at similar initiatives in other organizations and fields. I researched how the implementation of affinity groups can generate inclusive spaces for members that do not identify with the dominant group of an organization, which is generally white straight cisgender able-bodied men. (5)As I applied my findings to the infrastructure of NAEA I discovered how groups of people that did not belong to the dominant group were being marginalized within the organization. (6) This phase of my research introduced me to an erased history of racial diversity efforts in the organization’s past (Grigsby, 1997).
In 1971, the Black Caucus stormed the stage of the NAEA Convention with a call for a more inclusive organization that reflects the growing number of members that did not identify with the dominant white culture. This protest led to the establishment of the Committee of Multiethnic Concerns (COMC). In 1979, the COMC called for several resolutions to promote diversity and inclusion in NAEA. I was appalled to find that a number of those resolutions mirrored the recommendations we were making 40 years later. Here are two examples:
The COMC’s work was erased and forgotten only to be assigned to another generation of volunteer educators trying to make space for themselves in NAEA. My working group established shared leadership systems that reflected our values of collaboration and transparent communication, however we were working within a larger system that I feared was using us to perform change, not actually create change. (8) Each working group from the task force was granted a session to share out their research and findings at the 2019 NAEA Annual Convention. After presenting these findings, I asked the audience how many board members were present in the room. Aside from an incoming board member who was on the task force and presenting alongside me, there was only one active board member in the audience and their term was ending that same week.
Following the 2019 convention, NAEA implemented the first of the task force recommendations, establishing an ED&I Commission. Time will tell if that commission will be afforded enough power and resources needed to create change across the organization or become yet another group working in the shadows of NAEA’s dominant white straight cisgender able-bodied culture. Regardless, the history of the COMC and my experience on the task force diminished my confidence in NAEA’s commitment to change and depleted my willingness to help.
I share this story in resistance to erasure and to honor the labor, intelligence, and pain of every individual who has, will, and continues to take part in movements for change in NAEA. It was painful to be on that task force. And it was painful to read a history that seemed to be repeating itself at my expense.
Moving towards liberation
My painful experiences in the field were necessary to my process of decolonization. My experience on the task force was amongst many that made it clear the field was not quite willing or ready for the transformation needed to become equitable, diverse, and inclusive. As several articles exposed in the summer of 2020 (9), museums may be quick to make statements of commitment for change but slow to acknowledge colonialist histories or decenter the dominant white culture. And in order for me to move towards liberation and through my own decolonization, it became necessary for me to leave the museum space that upholds histories of colonialism and white supremacy.
I engaged in a lot of professional development and service throughout my time in the field. I spoke up and spoke out (not always gracefully) in any space that invited my voice. These were the ways I made the most of my work, where I found space to grow, expand, and stand my integrity. I left my job at MOCA confident that I did much for my community and even more for myself.
Leaving a full-time job without another one lined up taught me the power of sabbatical. I needed time to heal and regenerate from the harm inflicted on me as a woman of color fighting for change. The path is a marathon. And although my next leg may not be in museums, I will continue as an educator to strive for liberation. Therefore, in addition to removing myself from the museum space, I took further care to my well-being. The following passage from Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs continues to be a affirming and comforting guidepost:
Treading on the path of awakening can embrace a range of purposes. At times we may concentrate on the specifics of material existence: creating a livelihood that is in accord with our deepest values and aspirations. At times we may retreat: disentangling ourselves from social and psychological pressures in order to reconsider our life in a quiet and supportive setting. At times we may engage with the world: responding empathetically and creatively to the anguish of others. There is no hierarchy among these purposes; one is not “better” than the other; we do not “progress” from one to the next. They each have their time and place. (2008, p.42) (10)
Taking time to rest, reflect, and heal is a necessary part of doing the work of changing and fighting for change. (11) I dove deeper into my meditation practice after leaving MOCA and spent as much time as possible before and during the pandemic on meditation retreats at the Southern California Vipassana Center near Joshua Tree, CA. There I’ve found a well of inspiration and motivation because it is an organization truly rooted in and operating from values of service, practice, and liberation.
My plan is to spend the next year or two serving full-time at the mediation center. I will be volunteering my time to cook, clean, and manage meditation courses while also meditating a lot. It feels radical to dismiss expectations of capitalism and set up a life where the majority of my time and energy will be given for free. In order to support this I have started two businesses in an effort to create multiple revenue streams. (12)
Real talk about money
Museum education is competitive and specialized; pursuing a career in the field typically requires a privileged access to resources. I’ve always paid little to no rent because I live on my family’s property, which not only allowed me to pursue an expensive graduate degree and a low-paying career in museum education, but also allowed me to leave that career with modest savings. I quit my job with $10k in my savings and $50k in my retirement. It was only because I made a conscious decision to build my savings that I had enough funds to quit my job when I needed to. I still have a debt of $120k+ for my expensive degrees and will eventually return to full-time work to finish the seven years I have left on my nonprofit loan forgiveness plan. My businesses are a vehicle for me to generate wealth that is impossible in a society that does not value me as a teacher. It has been my privilege to work in my purpose as an educator; however, what privilege do I maintain or pass on with a sole reliance on the low salaries available to me?
If I could, I would end this essay with adrienne maree brown’s entire book Emergent Strategy; however, I will simply amplify these words:
I am moving towards the horizon of the end of my life, I am generating as much liberation as I can on that journey. I choose what to embody, what to long for, even as the horizon shifts before me. The adaptation is up to me. (2017, p. 76)
I choose to change. I choose to be in spaces that encourage me to change for the better. And I choose to let go of what no longer serves my evolution and liberation. Recently I started freelancing at MOCA because I am still nourished by learning and reflecting with others through looking at art. But like others who have also left the museum space, I, too hope that museums can change enough for me to one day fully return.
Kai Monet (she/her)
Kai lives on the traditional lands of the Tongva People in Los Angeles and is a second generation Filipino-Angeleno. She is a transformational educator and consultant working actively towards liberation through meditation and compassionate communication. Explore her professional experience at kaimonet.la.
(1) See chapter two of the MASS Action Toolkit (2017)
(2) In chapter 11 of Brown Skin, White Minds, E.J.R. David (2013) outlines common themes in studies around processes of decolonization. The process begins with learning and naming a history of oppression and making connections between historical and contemporary experiences of oppression. The next step often includes reflecting on the effects of colonialism and oppression on one’s life. Lastly, a person or group undergoing decolonization may take action to help others and/or their community to challenge oppression.
(3) Before the pandemic, I enjoyed yoga, dance, massages, acupuncture, and sound healing regularly. My body indicated to me it was time to leave my job when I found myself in constant states of stress rather than states of thriving, despite my discipline in self-care.
(4) I have deep gratitude and respect for those I connected with on the task force. I cherish and value the community gained through the experience and the wisdom and kindness shared with me.
(5) In the field of museum education, the dominant group is white straight cisgender able-bodied women. Considering this, how might our thinking shift around inequities in the field with the dominant group consisting of white women rather than white men?
(6) NAEA has numerous interest groups that bring together members that share an interest in specific issues and topics in art education. These groups have no voting power and compete with one another for resources and visibility, thus marginalizing them within the organization.
(7) The text in the table is quoted from Grigsby’s (1997) historical account of the COMC and the Task Force Recommendations (2019)
(8) This may sound familiar to educators whose work is positioned in ways that prove to communities and funders that their museum is on the front line of progress of diversity and access while everything taking place behind the actual front line staff is anything but.
(9) See: “To Bear Witness: Real Talk about White Supremacy in Art Museums Today” by Dr. Kelli Morgan, “On the Limits of Care and Knowledge: 15 Points Museums Must Understand to Dismantle Structural Injustice” by Yesomi Umolu, and “The George Floyd Protests Spurred Museums to Promise Change. Here’s What They’ve Actually Done So Far” by Taylor Dafoe & Caroline Goldstein.
(10) The paragraph preceding this passage is also of great significance to me. Batchelor (2008) writes:
“The process of awakening is like walking on a footpath. When we find such a path after hours of struggling through undergrowth, we know at last that we are heading somewhere. Moreover, we suddenly feel that we can move freely without obstruction. We settle into a rhythmic and easy pace. At the same time we are reconnected to others: men, women, and animals who have walked here before us. The path is maintained as a path only because of the tread of the feet. Just as others have created this path for us, so by walking on it we maintain it for those who will come after us. What counts is not so much the destination but the resolve to take the next step.” (p. 42)
In my previous Viewfinder article I wrote about educators holding space for equity and inclusion. The work I was able to accomplish in the field was only possible because of the space that was held and taken by those fighting for change before me. And I know there are many who will continue to hold and take more space after me. Museums need us to change and I offer my gratitude, respect, and solidarity to all who have, will, and continue to take the charge.
(11) I am wondering if sabbaticals could be a bridge from collective surviving to collective thriving.
(12) I established myself as a sole proprietor so I may be appropriately compensated for my expertise as a freelance educator and consultant. I have also joined a network marketing company aligned with my values that garners passive income so I may earn money while volunteering at the meditation center.
Batchelor, S. (2008). Buddhism without beliefs: A contemporary guide to awakening. London: Bloomsbury.
Brown, A. M. (2017). Emergent strategy: Shaping change, changing worlds. Chico, CA: AK Press.
David, E. (2013). Brown skin, white minds: Filipino-/American postcolonial psychology (with commentaries) = Kayumanggi balat, puti isip. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Grigsby, J. E., Jr. (1997). People of Color, Their Changing Role in the NAEA. J. A. Michael (Author), The National Art Education Association: Our history — celebrating 50 years: 1947–1997 (pp. 167–179). Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.
Hooks, B. (2017). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. New York, NY: Routledge.
Jennings, G., Jones-Rizzi, J., Bryant, J., Bryant-Greenwell, K., & Catlin-Legutko, C. (2017). Moving Toward Internal Transformation: Awareness, Acceptance, Action. In J. White (Ed.), MASS Action Toolkit (pp. 17–32).
Watzlawick, P., Weakland, J. H., & Fisch, R. (2011). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York, NY: W.W. Norton &.