I looked around.
The session was about to start.
I was still the only one.
I was the only African American present.
To be continued…
On June 14, 2018, I arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, to participate in a workshop centered around creating healthy communities by focusing on public health through placemaking, wellbeing and creative environments. The workshop aimed to build a community of thought leaders and stakeholders from many different sectors. This collaborative approach is the model that Richmond Memorial Health Foundation (RMHF) tries to model.
I was asked by the workshop’s organizers to come up with a provocation for the first day. Instructions for the provocation were to share a brief question or statement prepared in advance or a thought in response to ideas shared during the day. I prepared my provocation in advance based on my work at RMHF. However, after moving through the morning session with the group, I added a second question to my provocation that weighed heavily on my heart during our time together.
Here are the thoughts I shared:
How do we get other funders – philanthropy, government and educational institutions to invest in artists as researchers and art as research? I implied that art achieves results that white papers and graphs may not. This implication led to the idea of art going beyond the mind and reaching the heart, which often sparks action.
How do we achieve diversity and inclusion in the arts – in terms of those we fund, administrators, and collectives like the one we formed here in Cincinnati? While discussing creating healthy communities, we want to make sure those at the table identify with the community served.
The first question about investing in artists and art as research stemmed from my work at RMHF. Acknowledging our power position coupled with the desire to work in communities and help with change, we often think about how to develop and maintain trust. One of the best ways we learned to connect with communities stemmed from our first endeavor in the arts in 2017. We launched Health Equity and Arts (HEArts), a program where we funded individual artists working with their home communities to creatively tell the stories of the inequities the residents faced. The artists were already placed, having established relationships within these communities because they were from the community. The residents felt safe sharing their stories with individuals that were not strangers to them, but neighbors. It ended up being one of the most successful initiatives in terms of learning, engagement, hearing the community’s voice and different perspectives and building new partnerships.
Through our HEArts program, we learned about stories of human trafficking happening in one of the most dangerous corridors in the country, in our own backyard. We learned about community members with HIV positive status and how they navigate free clinics in our area. We learned about Latino immigrants and their extraordinary dreams for the future based on hope, not fear, through sketches showing them filled with joy, not trepidation.
This prepared provocation was based on my desire for other funders, no matter their area of focus, to realize the value of artists and the potential for creative expression to solve problems, build trust, and tell stories that garner meaningful, catalytic results that can’t always be achieved by publishing research papers. RMHF, and those in attendance at the workshop, have seen the proof. But how do we get others to see? The solution we came up with at RMHF was to create funding opportunities for nonprofit organizations that hire artists for their programs. Instead of us just simply funding artists ourselves, we now fund organizations that support and organize the artists for even greater impact. Our arts program will proceed with six organizations working with individual artists or artist collectives during 2019.
The second question came as a response from my initial observation when walking into the workshop room. Of the almost 40 people present, I was the only African American there. Here we were talking about creating healthy communities through a collaborative approach; however, we were missing key ingredients: diversity and inclusion. The people at the table did not look like the communities we want to support. So, my responsive provocation addressed the whiteness in the room. I asked, how do we achieve diversity and inclusion in the arts – those we fund, administrators, and collectives like this one? It was a sincere question and one that we struggle with solving at RMHF. We want to make sure those at the table are representative of the communities we serve. While this collaborative approach is very important work, we do not want to perpetuate the same systems of distrust and savior complexes in areas where we come in to “help”.
Q: So how do we prevent repeating the problematic cycles of so many who have gathered before us?
For collectives like this one, focused on creating healthy communities, we should intentionally invite a diverse and inclusive group of individuals to be a part of the collaborative. Our definition of diversity should encompass field of study and practice, as well as race and ethnicity. For funders, we should give preference to those doing work in their home communities and to those who can more deeply understand and connect with the culture, history, and preferences of members. For administrators, it is just as important to have a diverse group of individuals overseeing the work that is being done in communities. Without cultural reference and knowledge, we can expect missteps.
RMHF is still trying to figure out the best way to engage with communities and foster a healthier and more equitable region. What we do know is that there are a lot of great people from the community already doing amazing work. A lot of them are artists, effective agents of change. And a lot of them look like me. What we are confident in is being intentional about how we set tables and create funding opportunities to make sure they are diverse, not just in appearance, but in practice as well.
For more information on RMHF and our programming, please visit www.rmhfoundation.org.
Kendra Jones, Director for Arts & Equity
Richmond Memorial Health Foundation