BOSTON — Fostering dialogues across the commonwealth on achieving racial equity in the state’s cultural sector was at the heart of a recently completed four-part listening session series led by Berkshire-based grassroots organization Multicultural Bridge in partnership with the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
The remote racial equity listening series, which wrapped up late last month, provided opportunities for artists, board members, art advocates, and others in the sector to have their voices heard by colleagues in the field and by the council.
The events were held by the council, a state agency that provides grants, initiatives and advocacy for the arts. Each session was led by Bridge, a minority and women-run nonprofit devoted to advancing equity and justice through training, education and language access.
“Right now because of the focus on race, there’s a lot of efforts around DI [diversity and inclusion] work,” said Bridge CEO Gwendolyn VanSant. “The fact that the Mass Cultural Council really leaned into the conversation around race is really crucial.”
“At the MCC we are feeling a lot of heaviness during the George Floyd death and issues around that,” said Lisa Simmons, the council’s community initiative program manager. “We were hearing from our constituencies, mostly from the creative development folks who were holding weekly check-in meetings anyway, and the conversations were going toward this issue of systematic racism and injustice. As an arts organization we started thinking about how we are supporting our constituencies.”
The whole series was hosted on Zoom, and participants were placed into breakout groups to discuss various prompts, including shifts they would like to see happen in the sector.
Simmons said one of the benefits of holding these sessions remotely is that more people can participate. “You have much more of a broad, statewide perspective because you’re not asking people to drive somewhere,” she said.
“Six months ago I would not have said I thought I could get the level of engagement and intimacy and safety on an electronic platform, but in some ways, I am,” VanSant said.
Both the council and Bridge have seen an increase in participation and engagement from the public since going remote.
“I feel like we were able to reach across the commonwealth and reach people who enter the arts from different angles,” VanSant said about the latest session.
Multiple political leaders from the state attended sessions including Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard, according to Carmen Plazas, communications manager for the Cultural Council.
Bernard said as a leader he feels it is important for him to be a part of these conversations, especially because arts and culture are a big part of the Berkshire and North Adams ecosystem.
“We’re the host to Mass MoCA, we have a great partner at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and Gallery 51, we’re a stone’s throw away from the Clark and the Williams College Museum of Art in Williamstown,” Bernard pointed out. “So, it’s necessary and appropriate for the cultural sector to be wrestling with these concerns, how institutions both articulate and then activate a commitment to diversity, inclusion, equity, antiracism and anti-white supremacy.”
Participants received an email following each session with a survey about the event and list of educational resources. According to Plazas, the council will be using that feedback to determine the agency’s next steps. The council is also awaiting the Massachusetts budget update for the 2021 fiscal year.
“Once we have that, we will be able to have an update for the cultural sector around funding and grant making and programming, the more ongoing work for Mass Cultural Council, and how that will be connected to our DEI efforts,” Plazas said.
Bernard said Bridge is doing critical work in the Berkshires.
“They’re front and center in helping institutions throughout the county understand not just the responses, but also the roots of racism and white supremacy,” he said.
When asked about his takeaways from attending a session, Bernard said, “I think what is most resonant for me is that every sector has work to do. Every sector has the opportunity to network and collaborate, to listen and address harm that has been done and continues to be done.”