A White American in the Arts Looks at Diversity Worldwide

Learning from cultural equity work in Finland and Australia. Plus, a DEI resource list.

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Residents of Baku, Azerbaijan during the 2nd World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue, 2013. Photo: Shawn Lent.

Thanks to a scholarship from American Express, I recently attended Elevate, a virtual conference on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in the nonprofit sector. This three-day online experience was intense and highly enriching. I cried twice during the presentations and ended up loving the format. I am still processing the overwhelming amount of content.

Then it will be time for considerable action.

My CFR colleague Ryan Blocker recently made a call for white people to carry more of the burden to educate their fellow white people about racism. I agree with Ryan. So does the service organization Fractured Atlas. People like me, socially considered white, need to be in on the labor of centering equity in our work and our communities. We can identify micro-aggressions and intervene when necessary. We can intentionally create diverse pipelines in the workforce. We can commit to data transparency. We can be more conscious of existing biases. We can conduct the exercise of centering marginalized experiences. We can ask this question:

How would programming look if the marginalized culture and experience was the default — within society and within our organizations and institutions?

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From the Elevate conference, I learned that each of us in our organizations, institutions and companies can conduct something along the lines of this DEI process:

  1. Do an audit: Look at everything from scheduling, socializing and access to retention, excellence and institutional receptivity for all constituents and stakeholders.
  2. Create a planning framework.
  3. Perform DEI strategic action planning for each of us individually, and for organizations.
  4. Implement.
  5. Evaluate.
  6. Maintain, monitor and revise.

In US arts and culture right now, DEI is a very big current topic. We know that racism and discrimination are painful but they’re endemic; we can’t let them exhaust us or immobilize us. One hopeful sign is that many businesses, philanthropic and arts organizations are doing anti-bias trainings. What I want to see is whether, and how, the conversation is becoming global — and differentiated, if it is, around the world.

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To start, I contacted two friends for their perspective. First is Kyösti Hagert, who I met years ago through the British Council’s Transatlantic Network 2020 program. Kyösti is a Finnish journalist living in Helsinki. When I asked him recently about diversity and equity, he told me that DEI and intersectional feminism are currently huge topics in Finnish arts and culture. A few individuals are especially leading the discussion, including Koko Hubara in the field of literature and media, and choreographer Sonya Lindfors, who has made all-Black works and had a few media arguments, once with a white critic and once about an article about her.

“We don’t use the word ‘race’ in Europe,” Kyösti told me, “because of our history. I understand the American concept of it, but in Europe it is understood differently. It is illegal to track ethnicity in Finland, but gender, mother tongue, country of birth and age are possible to measure. Most [conversation] is about gender and ethnicity but also about socio-economic background. There is one saying about Finland and it is true also in the arts and culture sector. The idiom is ‘Finland is not a country, it is a country club.'”

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Second, I met Peter Mousaferiadis in 2013, during the second World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in Baku, Azerbaijan. Peter is CEO-Founder of Cultural Infusion, an international organization based in Australia that “aims to facilitate intercultural contact through a range of sustainable arts and engagement programs aimed at building cultural harmony within communities and schools.” Peter is also…

  • Associate of UNESCO Chair for Intercultural and Interreligious Relations (Asia/Pacific);
  • Co-Deputy Chair, Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, 2017-19;
  • 2017 Peace Ambassador Award from the Center of Peace Studies (Sri Lanka);
  • Global Trustee of United Religions Initiative, 2014-18;
  • Chair of the Lahore International Conference on Culture, 2016-18;
  • Winner Australian Multicultural Marketing Award 2014 (Youth Category);
  • A Winner of the UN Alliance of Civilizations “Intercultural Innovation Award,” 2013;
  • Winner of the 2013 UNAOC “Do One Thing for Diversity and Inclusion” Slogan Campaign.

On the topic of DEI, Peter said “I have breathed diversity, equity and inclusion for the last 30 years. Cultural diversity is at the core of cultural policies all over the world, even though the concept is rather unclear. Most academics would state that diversity is poorly defined, analytically neglected, and in need of systematic or robust understandings.” He added:

The issue with the arts in much of the West is that it is tagged along with culture — “arts and culture,” as if culture is a subsidiary of the arts. Culture is so much more than the arts, whilst the arts give expression and meaning to culture. We really need to understand the deeper aspects of culture and how ethnicity impacts of behaviours, expressions, emotions, values, etc.

He concluded: “The issue is that there is institutional and structural racism which won’t disappear overnight. Much of it is tied up in how institutions were established and the cultural hegemony they are attached to. It is going to take a long time to not so much breakdown the existing structures but make them adaptable to reflect the increasingly globalised world we are becoming.”

This is just the beginning.

Here is a list of resources if you want to do more thinking about DEI:

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Ancestry Atlas — a big-data initiative looking at diversity metrics — dissimilarity, balance and variety. The information can be used now but it is still in the minimal-product phase. They will be adding self-identification to it as well. They are hoping that as they refine the tool, stress-test it and gather big data, it will allow them to address the correlation between the various aspects of diversity and socio-economic status.

Arts Equal (Finland, founded by white researchers)

Color Lines

The Arc’s Diversity Strategic Action Plan

Joko’s World (interactive-learning apps that introduce children to a diverse range of cultures through interaction with unique customs and traditions of the world)

GARE (Government Alliance on Race and Equity)

Harvard’s Project Implicit

“A practical approach to measuring cultural diversity on Australian organizations and schools,” by Rezza Moieni, Peter Mousaferiadis and Carlos Oscar Sorezano

Morten Group’s Comprehensive Resource List

Nonprofit Leadership Alliance — Equity Planning and Resource Toolkit

PolicyLink

Racial Equity Tools

STAR Communities Rating System

So You Want to Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo

“From Intention to Action: Building Diverse, Inclusive Teams in Education to Deepen Impact” by Koya Leadership Partners

6 Ways to Overcome Your Biases for Good” by Alice Boyce

“Undoing Racism” training, sponsored by The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.