DEI at forefront: Local arts, cultural organizations get to work

February 16, 2021

By Michelle London, Telegraph Herald

Diversity. Equity. Inclusion.

Three words. Lots of definitions.

Many are hearing these words a lot more lately. But what exactly do they mean?

Diversity is the representation of many different identities — ethnicity, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation among them.

Equity is the equal and fair treatment of all those group, ensuring equal opportunity and access to resources for everyone.

Inclusion is inviting everyone to participate and contribute, creating a culture of belonging rather than exclusion.

DEI first rose in the 1970s and 1980s to address the inequity of gender in the workplace. In the 1990s, organizations expanded their scope to include other groups, as well.

In 2020, the subject of DEI became a topic of discussion at the forefront with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and other Blacks at the hands of law enforcement, with the lingering question of why Blacks are killed by police officers at a rate three times higher than Whites.

Politics aside, the discussion has made many groups, including arts and culture organizations in the tri-states, take a deeper look. Many unwritten policies are being crafted into DEI statements, and group and board members are collaborating to bring about change.

Putting it in writing

The City of Dubuque has made DEI a strong part of its mission through its Arts and Cultural Affairs Commission, according to Nick Halder, who serves on that commission.

“We’re trying to figure out what that looks like going forward,” he said.

Halder also is the producing artistic director of Rising Star Theatre Company in Dubuque and is the theater director-in-residence at Clarke University.

Halder said Rising Star is open to all who want to audition. Since implementing a youth program in 2010, anyone from ages 8 to 18 who audition is cast.

“We’ve historically tried to make sure that anyone who wants to participate can,” he said. “That’s hasn’t changed. But we’re more mindful about creating opportunities that will reach out to underserved populations.”

Halder said there are more inroads to be made.

“All organizations in Dubuque are doing their best to push forward those efforts to offer programming that is diverse and inclusive,” he said. “We’re trying to be more intentional than we’ve been in the past. We want to be sure we’ve giving people what they need and what they want as opposed to telling them what they need and what they want.”

COVID-19 has caused many arts and culture groups to not only reassess their formerly unwritten policies or to create new statements of purpose but also to move toward tangible activities.

“We’ve taken this pandemic time to reflect as an organization,” Halder said. “We’re saying, ‘OK, we’ve adopted this language, so how do we put it into action?’”

Halder also emphasized the need for more diversity among arts organization leaders.

“A lot of the leaders of the arts organizations in Dubuque are White,” he said. “We want to be sure that other people, in the Black community and others, have a seat at the table. This will help infuse more energy into these organizations long-term.”

Task groups and committees

DEAI (including accessibility as part of the acronym) is a topic of concern for area arts organizations. While most people think of physical accessibility when they hear the word, it can often refer to social, economic and educational accessibility as well.

The National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium and the Dubuque Symphony Orchestra both have formed working groups, comprised of staff, board and community members and, in the case of DSO, musicians.

“We decided as an organization that DEAI needs to be a part of our fabric,” said Erin Dragotto, vice president of development at the museum. “We started with what’s embedded into our strategic plan, our values, our mission. That includes inclusivity, but of course, we said that’s not enough. We needed to open up our eyes as to how we’re being seen.”

An internal working group has begun the process of creating a DEAI plan.

“We have about 12 to 15 people in any given meeting, and we just started talking,” Dragotto said. “We’re working up a program that serves our staff, our visitors and our community.”

Wendy Scardino, the museum’s director of marketing and communications, said the Dubuque County Historical Society, which is housed at the museum, have taken DEAI steps as well.

“They are working hard to highlight equity within their exhibits,” Scardino said. “It’s not just about suffrage or about baseball in Dubuque. There’s a lot more that comes to mind. They’ve been intentional in telling other stories through those exhibits.”

Scardino said a grant application has been made through the Institute for Museum and Library services to support the hiring of a DEAI coordinator. They’ll know the results of that application later this year.

“The coordinator would help bridge those partnerships in a more equitable way, and work within our own staff to become more equitable,” she said.

One thing the group is working on is a SWOT analysis — gauging the organization’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.

“We’re acting consciously,” Dragotto said. “This is a 21st century issue that is never going to go away, thankfully. And I mean that in a good way. There’s a lot of things to do. We have an end goal, but we don’t have a linear approach just yet. It’s really a work in progress.”

At the DSO, Executive Director Mark Wahlert is working on the symphony’s DEI statement with a task force of about a dozen members that was formed last fall.

“One of the things that we’re very proud of in the symphony from an artistic standpoint is that we’ve done a really good job of bringing artists in from around the world and different backgrounds, but we’ve never had anything formal,” he said.

Wahlert admitted it will be a difficult task.

“It’s a challenge in Dubuque when you have something like 88% White,” he said. “The concept of DEI has come to the forefront for us in the last year or so, not only artistically, but what we can do to reach a broader audience.”

The symphony has developed rock concerts and country concerts as part of its annual offerings and has invited hip-hop artists to perform.

But Wahlert said they plan to do more.

“Race is at the top of the list, but we’re looking at LGBTQ composers and artists, women artists, different age groups,” he said. “We’re looking at a broad spectrum of things as far as diversity and looking at what we’ve been doing well and where we need improvement.”

Those discussions will lead to action plans and a DEI policy that he hopes will result in positive outcomes.

“Right now, it’s just self-analysis,” he said. “If people don’t feel welcome or don’t have the means, those are the things we hope to counteract. We want to target those people who need us the most.”

Young adults have their say

The Dubuque Colts Drum & Bugle Corps also is working to craft its DEI statement.

“We haven’t had a formal policy prior to this year,” said Executive Director Jeff MacFarlane. “We’ve always been an open organization. That said, we felt it was time to formalize what has always been an unwritten policy.”

Vicki MacFarlane, director of the organization’s youth programs and drum and bugle corps, said the group always has had a strong LGBTQ representation. The group is audition-based, and because of the competitive nature of drum and bugle corps nationally, draws from a wide demographic.

“We are probably a little more diverse than Dubuque or Iowa,” she said. “In a normal year, we have 500 students audition for 154 spots. Last year, we had students audition who came from 28 states and four countries.”

As far as accessibility, board member Michelle McKnelly said socio-economics is a major factor.

“There’s this real urban/rural divide, where students who live in rural areas don’t have the access to the kind of music education that students who live in urban or suburban areas do,” she said. “There’s also the divide of economics. Many of our people who are interested or talented enough don’t have the means to travel to Dubuque, which is not a cheap place to get to. There are also fees involved. These are a few of the accessibility issues we also want to address.”

McKnelly met with a group of 15 young adult corps members identified as student leaders to get their input on the statement and “laundry list” of tasks that the board had created.

“We’ve had a series of very lengthy discussions,” she said. “COVID has changed many things, and we’re at a unique time culturally. That opens up a lot of opportunities to talk about things that we might not necessarily have talked about before.”

McKnelly said the group had a lot to say.

“They were fine with the statement,” she said. “But the action plan was really where we got a lot of fabulous input, and it really did shift our thinking on a lot of those things.”

Reagan Scherpe, a junior at Illinois State University, is a Galesburg, Ill., native. She has been a member of the Colts organization since 2014.

Scherpe wasn’t at all shy about offering her thoughts when asked to participate in the DEI analysis.

“I talk about these issues with my friends all the time,” she said. “I’m trying to understand. So I enjoyed that we were included.”

Scherpe added that including the students in the process probably gave the board some insight into the inner workings of the corps that they might not have had otherwise.

“We’re the ones on the field and we’re the ones who see what’s going on, especially in regards to culture and gender,” she said. “I don’t know the everyday experience of a Black person or anyone who’s different from me. So I can’t speak for them. But I can speak with them.”

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