ValleyCreates – Equalizing Arts Access: Infusing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Into Our Arts Community

Those of us who work in the arts believe it to be a catalyst that offers people from diverse, and often disparate backgrounds, a shared space that can create a common ground experience that then serves to further enrich those lives touched by the song, painting, performance, exhibition, etc.

Today, this country is divided between those who desire to drag us back to a mythic isolated past, and those who envision a more inclusive future grounded in the belief that all communities and cultures have intrinsic value. This future includes an arts arena that serves as a beloved community, establishing a culture of generosity based on principles of inclusion and equity, while rejecting the politics of scarcity and fear.

With changing demographics and cultural norms, newer versions of our old challenges (a country deeply divided by issues of race, homophobia, immigration/migration, Islamophobia, and class) makes equity and inclusion in the arts even more critical than ever. Nevertheless, only recently has the question of real equity visibly entered into mainstream arts funding discussions. Over the past decades, funders have responded with initiatives aimed to motivate largely white well-funded arts organizations to diversify which, when translated, almost always means that non-white arts organizations must “assimilate” in order to fit the paradigm.

These initiatives usually consist of “community development” or “community engagement” initiatives. These “solutions” tend not to work for the simple reason that marginalized communities – especially those involving people of color – are in the midst of trying to highlight and elevate their own stories and cultures which are not serviced by the existing mainstream organizations. Meanwhile, organizations that primarily serve marginalized artists and communities have not been the recipient of the necessary support to foster their own cultural work in their own communities.

Understanding the need to first address and then attempt to remedy this dilemma, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts (CFWM) launched its ValleyCreates two-year initiative, designed to strengthen and enliven inclusivity in the arts across the entire spectrum of its arts funding process. The core mission of ValleyCreates is to strengthen and connect arts organizations and artists that may otherwise be segregated by race, class, geography or discipline. ValleyCreates has convened the leaders of cultural organizations from across the region in order to seed partnership development between previously funded organizations and smaller community-based organizations. In this way, ValleyCreates will improve local networks, thereby providing better opportunities for resource sharing, collaborative programming, shared spaces and equipment, etc.

To ensure representation in the planning of initiatives/agendas, ValleyCreates has begun building relationships with local communities that have not traditionally been served by CFWM’s past funding and/or programming practices. To accomplish this, ValleyCreates has contracted three local Community Advisors, as well as a local Equity and Inclusion Advisor of color, to assist and support this important mission.

From left to right: Vanessa Pabon-Hernandez, Kent Alexander, Rosemary Tracy Woods, and Matthew Glassman.

The Community Advisors – each representing either a community of color or a rural community– serve core roles by providing valuable input on strategies to help ValleyCreates connect to both arts organizations and artists that have been historically underserved and underfunded. The Equity and Inclusion Advisor works to ensure that the ValleyCreates framework is both equitable and inclusive of all local arts communities.

ValleyCreates believes that by utilizing the authentic voices and concerns of its Advisors, its framework will become the connective tissue between the historically-funded and the currently underfunded. To further its goal of equitable partnerships and practices, ValleyCreates included a training series focused specifically on DEI strategies for organizations to ensure that each partnership has a clear understanding of the various steps to equity and inclusion.

Will such a transformation be easy? No.

In fact, it will be difficult, and the conversations can be hard and often noisy. But, achieving lasting diversity and inclusion is a journey worth embarking on. Through this process, ValleyCreates hopes to foster an arts environment that is a true mosaic of our region, reaching across all neighborhoods and cultures, ensuring that the arts in Western Massachusetts thrives today and well into the future. We encourage you to follow our progress and bear witness to how inclusion enhances and uplifts our interconnected and ever-changing communities.

About the Author: Kent Alexander is a writer/performer whose work, grounded in jazz music, utilizes Somatic practices to explore power and powerlessness. Kent is also an anti-racism and workplace culture consultant. Clients include the Blueprint Project, TerraCorps, Mount Grace Land Trust, Communities That Care of Franklin County, Cooley Dickinson Health Center, United Way of Hampshire County, and the Center for Community Resilience after Trauma, among others. Currently, he also serves as the Equity and Inclusion Advisor for the ValleyCreates initiative of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

Thanks to a partnership between CFWM and the Barr Foundation’s Creative Commonwealth  this can be possible. The Creative Commonwealth Initiative is a partnership between the Barr Foundation and five community foundations in Massachusetts. Rooted in the belief that investments in arts and creativity build thriving communities, Creative Commonwealth aims to promote the vital leadership role community foundations can play to advance the arts. Photos courtesy of Erin Long Photography