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June 11, 2020 | Notes From Leadership, Race and Equity,

Don’t Take Our Word For It by David Dower

An image the back of a young Black girl sitting on someone's shoulders in black and white. There is a red square that says "We Need You."

This post was written as part of a larger series leading up to our fourth Town Hall on Wednesday, June 17th at 12 pm EDT. We encourage our audiences to read all of the posts in the series in preparation for the Town Hall. Information on the Town Hall and the remainder of the series can be found here.

Like so many cultural institutions around the country, we’ve published statements on the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor on our home page, shared them on our social media platforms and we’ve pushed them out through email. What’s next?

We need you to hold us accountable. We need you to stay in it with us, to cheer our progress and point out where we fall short. And we need you to be resilient with us on this journey. We are not new to this effort, but neither are we where we want to be. The road is long.

For instance, this month marks six years since ArtsEmerson first gathered people around a concept that I had named One Boston, based on a commitment our then newly-elected Mayor, Marty Walsh, made in his inaugural address. In his words: 

We will protect and grow our sense of community for it is Boston’s greatest source of strength. … Together, we can create ONE Boston– a hub of opportunity, community, and equality for all. The work starts now.”

The vision of our One Boston effort was worded this way in 2014:

 ArtsEmerson’s One Boston Initiative aims to catalyze a new civic narrative of a unified Boston, a narrative forged in our city’s diversity, that locates our unity in our differences.” Our concept paper, which was shared with the people on the circle at the first meeting, concluded “One Boston is our commitment to use all the assets under our stewardship to help advance a narrative of the city that returns us to the roots of our democratic experiment: e pluribus unum. Out of the many, one.”

At the time, the 35 people in the room, local artists, activists, civic leaders, and engaged audience members, struggled to make sense of what ArtsEmerson was offering. Looking back at it now, that should not have been surprising. So many words, all so careful not to offend or reveal too radical an intent. And there was a great deal of earned distrust of this white newcomer to Boston (me) talking about “fostering civic transformation around race through shared experience of art and public dialogue,” trying to organize from inside a predominantly white cultural institution housed at a predominantly white college located in a heavily gentrified corner of downtown. 

The group persevered in the struggle for a time, through subsequent meetings and the formation of several working groups, generating a rather sprawling set of ideas about what we could do together that would be sustainable, impactful, and equitable. But the energy started to wane and the drive for collective action dissipated. Several of the participants instead created individual projects that used the venues and programming of ArtsEmerson to support the work they were already doing. Among the things we supported successfully was a series of events organized by a group working on unpacking Boston’s history with segregation. 

The next year, in the summer of 2015, ArtsEmerson was invited to submit a proposal to ArtPlace America for a big Creative Placemaking Grant that we thought might help accelerate and focus the work of the One Boston Initiative. We gathered the group of people who had found traction with us into a loose circle of collaboration around a proposal aimed at helping to “restore the cultural vibrancy of a neighborhood whose contours have been unintentionally flattened by the wave of gentrification which followed Emerson’s move downtown.” More careful words. 

One of the people we worked with in developing the proposal was, again, the leader of that segregation project. On the day we were to submit the proposal, we learned that she felt she could not cosign it, and the group would not be participating. She felt, she said, as though she was a cog in a wheel, but she couldn’t see where it was headed. And she couldn’t comfortably continue on the road with us until she knew, and saw, more. She wanted to see the receipts.

I often think about this moment. It was a surprise and a disappointment at the time. I took it personally at first. And it was years before the director shared directly with me that she decided to leave the One Boston project because, and I’m paraphrasing here, she felt that given the state of the world she could no longer expend any energy working with institutions that weren’t ready to say their primary purpose was to dismantle white supremacy. 

David Howse often speaks of constructive feedback as a gift, and it is up to us whether and how we receive it. In this case, the gift turned out to be her skepticism. And also, her authenticity. She didn’t feel the One Boston effort would be the highest and best use of her energy, and she wasn’t going to say otherwise just to have a chance at some grant support. By standing to the side, what she did for ArtsEmerson, and for me, was to call us in

We had made some very public announcements of our aspirations. She was going to watch for the results. She stayed in our audience all along, and has remained a consistently constructive critic. And she is far from the only one. We have dozens and dozens of people in this city who are holding us accountable in this manner. It is the whole reason we are making progress.

In the end, we got that grant, we did many good things with many of the people who gathered in that original circle, some of which transformed our organization and diversified the communities served in Emerson’s venues. Some initiatives have had staying power. And her steadfast insistence on authenticity and accountability has, as well, which is to this day a teacher for me.

Over time, ArtsEmerson has developed a reputation for leadership in Boston’s cultural landscape with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We are still on that journey, not yet where we want to be, but closer than when we first made our public commitment in that One Boston gathering. 

What will keep us in motion, and sustain us in the struggles that come with the effort to live out these commitments, is your own authentic engagement with us and the gift of your honest critique as we work to live up to our words.

So I’ll say it again…

We need you to hold us accountable. We need you to stay in it with us, to cheer our progress and point out where we fall short. And we need you to be resilient with us on this journey. We are not new to this effort, but neither are we where we want to be. The road is long.

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