Inclusion-Centered Leadership

Inclusion occurs through considered actions. Leaders play an important role in transforming the ethos of inclusion from words into actions. That said, often, inclusions practices are translated into large actions, like requiring diversity training or implementing diversity hiring policies. Those are like bringing in the right ingredients for a great feast. If you don’t deal with them, they will spoil. You need to put in an effort to turn those raw ingredients into something appetizing.

Many of the most important action in supporting diversity is small, unseen actions. As a leader, first and foremost, remember you have two jobs: being a leader of a group and then your own work. If you don’t do both, you aren’t doing either well.  You need to think hard about how your beliefs are translated into action. So, if you believe in equity, you can’t treat your staff as lowly servants, saying to them that “they shouldn’t care that you don’t reply to their emails”

You need to think hard about how your beliefs are translated into action. So, if you believe in equity, you can’t treat your staff as lowly servants, saying to them that “they shouldn’t care that you don’t reply to their emails”  Never tell someone not to care. You are in charge of their work, not their emotions.  In not replying to their emails, you are showing that their needs don’t matter. If you don’t care about their needs, you don’t really care about equity, as you are expressing that your needs matter more.

In the end, equity and inclusion will only be disseminated throughout your organization, if you, and all leaders, where ever they are in the organization, commit to taking all the small steps that support the large steps your organization makes. .

How White Museum-Workers Can Combat Museum Supremacy

Today’s post has been written by Brilliant Idea Studio co-principal, Joe Ionna.  Illustrations made by Seema Rao. 

As competing narratives, histories, and facts have battled it out in the media, public spaces, and our political life. Like many of you, I was dumbfounded to see flags of Nazi Germany and the Confederacy paraded through the street of Charlottesville. Symbols of racial hatred, ideologies defeated on the battlefield and relegated to the dust bins of history, given new life by the election of Donald Trump.

But, this is a nation built on the power of Europeans.  Growing up, the term, white supremacy, was something that I thought of as a fringe element. But, the sense that white people are on top of society is woven into the structure of this country.  Even the phrase “white people” shows this. How often do you hear people and assume it is just white people?  This toxicity has touched us all and in turn implicating us as complicit to the ideology of white supremacy. What can be done?

First, we must counterprotest. Stand up. Second. hold yourself to account. Take these small steps below for big reasons.

Museums are structured around white supremacy. It is in who has power, how we refer to each other, those who are invited to speak, and those who remain silent. It is so ingrained into the organization that it may not even have been noticed by you until you look for it. Above are steps that can be taken to make your work environment a more equitable and inclusive place to work.



Defend Yourself? A Tool to Improve your Social Justice Work

I am pretty competitive. In a verbal argument, I like to win. It’s a terrible trait. I blame in on a childhood in debate and model UN. But, as I can see in my own children, I suspect it is just innate to my DNA. This is the thing about people. There are things that are in us that we just are.

This kernel of truth was the starting point for this book. People just have certain innate traits. Defensiveness is just one of those traits. In early existence, the ability to get your hackles up right quick was likely very helpful.  Defending yourself would come in handy in a prehistoric fight with an equally prehistoric predator.

But, in today’s world, when most fights are verbal, does defensiveness still come in handy? Nine times out of ten, your defenses only make things worse. Think of a verbal argument. You project a negative attitude, and your “aggressor” either shuts down or flees.  Either way, you both lose.

Dealing with defensiveness is hard. It’s the kind of topic that makes you feel insanely self-aware, like when someone mentions being itchy and you start feeling the urge to scratch.   But, in many ways, it is also the lynchpin. If you can learn to decrease defensiveness, your ability to relate to others will improve steadily.

I produced this free workbook to help all of us, myself included, become less defensive. This tool is aimed at those working in social justice work in non-profits, including staff and volunteers. But, honestly, everyone who wants to do better interacting with others can use it.


Keep Clean Data

Data seems pretty cut and dried, but don’t be fooled. There are plenty of ways to fold in bias.  Here are some concrete steps to help you do your best to counteract the most common pitfalls.

Start with a clean tool/ protocol to collect data.

1. Keep data clean

There are plenty of ways to keep you tidy. First, have everyone use the same protocol. Ideally, keep your data collector pool down to a minimum. More people means potentially multiple interpretations. Train everyone the same. Take out the protocol and make sure everyone understands it. And, make sure everyone uses the same data collection tool. I used to work in a team of three data collectors. We had to agree to everything, and often huddled up to make sure we were on the same page. Be vigilant

2. Observe First, Interpret Later

Years ago, when I worked on hiring teachers for the public schools, I had to take a course on legal job interviews. The fear that the trainer burned into my soul always returns to me when I do interviews. Only write what people say–word for word. Do not interpret. This goes against your human nature. And, if you have a hard time writing, ask respondents if you can record them. Also, feel free to ask the people who provided the data whether your interpretations seem to be representative of their beliefs. Once all the data comes in, then you have the joy of interpretation. That said, once you get familiar with interpretation-free listening, you will also find joy in data collection.

3. Check out the competition.

After your initial interpretations, look to others to see how they are tackling this issue. What are their findings? What other issues might be occurring in the literature. This is sometimes called triangulation. If you can find other sources of data that support your interpretations, then you can have more confidence that what you’ve found is legitimate.

4. Check for alternative explanations.

False conclusions are absolutely the most likely place that bias comes into understanding data.  Jumping to conclusions can feel normal, like finishing someone’s sentence.  But, just was you can’t fill in the blanks for your respondents, don’t fill in the blanks for yourself too quickly.  Consider whether there are other reasons why you obtained your data. If you can rule out or account for alternative explanations, your interpretations will be stronger

5. Review findings with peers

Don’t be an island. Unless confidentiality prevents you, let others look at your data. You will only become better at your work with critical assessments. Additionally, when you allow peers to review your work, you might find commonalities. You might even be able to augment your argument.

For more about data bias, here is a long read sharing more issues like confirmation bias, ingroup bias, and knowledge bias. 

5 Steps to Better Community Conversations

Community conversations can be instrumental in the growth of an organization. However, they can also be an organizations down fall.  These 5 steps can help anyone participating in an conversation, particularly those in power positions or from an organizations.

Honor People’s Perception

We all filter the world through our experiences. Therefore, everyone’s perception of reality will differ. When leading community conversations, listen to others’ perceptions of a situation, and accept that as their reality. It might match yours, but that does not make it any less real to them.  Craft your work to resonate with their perceptions.

Concrete Step: When someone shares their personal experience, listen. Then don’t contradict them. Imagine they say that your organization is not accessible, and your job is to make it accessible. Don’t contradict them. Instead, listen. Try to think out the disconnects between your actions and their perceptions.  Probe them for better knowledge if you can’t see where the disconnects are occurring.

Honor Emotions

Emotions underlie our actions and decisions. Even seemingly logical decisions are imbued with emotions. Emotions are not all bad; they are want make people passionate about your institution. Don’t shut emotions down. As you hear words, also listen to emotions. Make sure your planning takes into account the issues that bring out negative emotions in your audience. Build on positive emotions.

Concrete Step: Let people get upset. Don’t ask them to calm down.  If they are that worked up, then they have some strong ties to your organization or the issue at hand.

Honor Value

Value is hard to quantify. You honor your institution and its work. But, you need to see what new audiences value.  Hear what new audiences value. Then figure out which of your programs and services match your new audiences core values.

Concrete Step:  Value is hard to articulate, sometimes. But, actions often indicate value. So, if they are using your organization, what parts are they using? If they aren’t, what are they doing instead?

Honor Honest Communication

New audiences might communicate in different ways that your existing audience. This can be jarring. But, go with it. Also, you might want to mask emotions through jargon. Don’t! Use clear, concise language. Don’t mask emotions or your discomfort with coded language. If you speak respectfully and honestly, you will be able to connect with new audiences.

Concrete Step: Use the words you mean. If you want to increase African-American audiences, don’t use the word diversity. That said, be honest about why you hope to reach that group. Maybe, they are the majority population in your region.  Great! (Maybe, you think that will be great for funding. Well, than, this is not as great. This sort of pandering will be obvious and less successful. So, go back to the drawing board if this is where you are.)

Honor Your Audience

Any audience, new or old, will be less invested in your work than you are.  You need to connect with them through your communication, but also through actions.  Conversation without action fundamentally disrespects your audience.

Concrete Step:   Don’t start a community conversation if you don’t plan to take actions based on their responses. As above, if your motives are to check a box or please a funder, you will not be successful. You need to actually mean to change your community if you start asking them for help.  If you don’t, they will be alienated and they will remember.

Intersectionality & Museums

Intersectionality, coined in 1989 by legal historian Kimberlé Crenshaw, highlights the fact that the many factors of being human, including race, gender, and religion, overlap in important ways. These points of overlap, or intersection, are often positions of oppression. Think of race and gender. In American society, the position of power in race is whiteness and in gender is male. In comparison, a non-white woman is subjected to oppressive forces in society. Thinking about intersectionality helps reframe issues bringing the oppressed toward the center, rather than multiply marginalized. Ideally, intersectionality allows for stronger analysis of complications. In other words, intersectionality helps everyone be included particularly those who are oppressed and excluded.

So, what does this have to do with museums? Many articulate people have written about this including Gretchen Jennings and Porchia Moore,  Nikhil Trivedi and Porchia Moore, Andriel Luis, and Seph Rodney about the AAM conference.  In this post, I share my meaning-making efforts on the topic.

What do new voices have to do with Intersectionality? 

Think of this artwork.  We do use many facets to consider this object; think of all the fields in a database. However, most institutions keep data based on curatorial research, i.e. filtered through an academic lens.  Some institutions, like history museums, include oral history to add additional layers of information. But most fields do not.  This vase, if it were in an art museum, might be described by media and style. In a history museum, it might be seen as an artifact of an ancient society. In other words, our academic specialties already segregate layers of meaning.

Even beyond that, most museums don’t have database fields to fill in about how this artwork might be seen through a lens of class, race, or gender. These issues are often discussed in chat labels for modern and contemporary artworks, but gender, race, and class have been in play since humans started flaking flints, I wager. Why is this important? First, from an academic perspective, we are missing meaning-making opportunities. But, also, we are not doing the foundational work in thinking more broadly about our collections.

Visitors need points of connections to our collections. Before the accusations of pandering are launched, I am not advocating for removing media, style, period, or any other traditional field of interpretation. Instead, intersectionality allows museums to add to their strong interpretation skills. Plenty of meaning about collections is hidden ready to be uncovered by re-viewing the interpretation.

But what does this mean practically?  

Look at galleries. How are they segmented? Are the “women artists” the only ones where labels discuss gender? Where are “black artists” placed?  What about your staff? Do you tout your black educator as a point of diversity? Your first Asian curator?

Basically, step back and be more purposeful in your actions and words. Give it a mental 360 in terms of how you might be handling issues of race, gender, class, religion… Get help on your thinking. Bring in new voices to help you.

Let’s go back to that vase. Any sense of who made it? Was it a woman? Was it for a rich person? Was it made by slaves? Was the archaeological site in a politically contested area? Were there human remains there? Any of these questions make you a little uncomfortable? I bet. They make me uncomfortable. Many of them touch on the unsaid verboten topics of art and history museums. But, when we don’t answer these questions for ourselves, and for our visitors, we are hiding parts of an object’s history.

Challenges in Including New Voices

Museums professionals often work in synthesizing and organizing information, distilling all along. This is often work that is easier done alone. More people would make the work of research take longer.  Time is of the essence in museums. A new exhibition opens scantly 6 weeks after the last with all the requisite work to make that happen. Anything that slows that down feels onerous and frightening. But, what if that time was planned in at the beginning? Once you get efficient at adding people, this time and work will seem doable.

New voices bring with them new ideas.  Those additional voices might say things that you don’t want to hear.  What if they share their dislike of your institution? They might call out your faults like your institutional racism.  Well, yes, they will probably share your faults. But, you will never improve if you don’t know what to improve. And, they might completely hate museums, but this is fairly unlikely. People will likely not spend time sharing their time with you if they inherently dislike you.  If they truly hate you, they might be moved by strong emotion to tell you. But, once the conversation is done, that moment of discomfort is over.

What needs to change? 

Intersectionality has had some important lobs launched at it. Firstly, it seems like the word du jour, no different than diversity other than the spelling. This is fair claim, in my mind.  It is jargon. People use intersectionality in uninformed ways to suggest their own “wokeness”. Yet, these words exist because as a culture we are trying to communicate ideas of equity. If these words help more people act better, then I am all for them. At its essence, intersectionality is about bringing more into the conversation for greater, more fair, meaning-making. More meaning means connecting to more people.

Museums are actually about intersectionality. They bring together disparate ideas into spaces for people to make meaning. They invite people to interface with complicated ideas. However, museum’s idea of intersectionality are often neutralized, devoid of the factors that particularly oppress people. Adding these lenses would be in keeping with the method of museums and bring museums closer to accomplishing their mission to understand collections wholly.

Basically, museum professionals, across the hierarchy, need to want to change. Then, they need to seek out training. Thinking about collections this ways is almost like being asked to see the invisible friend that has been in the room all the time.  Just as Big Bird finally got the folks on Sesame Street to see the Snuffleupagus, trainers can help staff see the elephants in your galleries. What happens when you see the elephant? Will it be a circus? Maybe. Or maybe, it will be a fantasia of meaning-making full of visitors.