Cultural Strategies on Race, Space and Place

The preconference session on “Culture at the Intersection of Race, Space and Place” has my worlds colliding this Sunday morning in downtown Oakland.

In the spirit of storytelling—as panelists Roberto Bedoya and Favianna Rodriguez modeled—I am both a longtime Oakland resident, a current local government employee (in the county public health department), and a prior chronicler of race, space and place as a journalist at ColorLines.com.

As an Oakland renter and mom raising my family in this place of struggle and possibility, I am deeply compelled by the idea how the arts can help to create a “civic narrative of belonging,” in the words of Oakland cultural affairs manager Roberto Bedoya—because every day I am thinking about my triracial son and his classmates’ belonginess in the Oakland we know, and that is becoming harder by the day to stay in.

As a public health policy professional, I am intrigued that our local government “siblings” in the arts and cultural sector are thinking and strategizing in some very similar veins as we do in public health. Basically, arts and cultural equity can operate like a set of values and strategies that act as a through-line for equity and social justice across city and county planning and policies in every arena—much as we strive to do in health equity.

Some exciting examples of this:

  • Kristin Sakoda of Los Angeles County shared how they turned their “County Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative” into an 18-month process involving deep community involvement that led to 13 actionable recommendations to the county supervisors for equitable access to arts and culture for all residents.
  • Randy Engstrom of Seattle spoke to the experience of their office in partnering with the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative to work at the intersection of arts and policy. As Randy put it, racial equity in governance initiatives must be about a platform for proactive strategy, not just legal compliance with anti-discrimination directives. Through the arts commission’s leadership in racial justice, Seattle’s mayor has tapped them to run three sub-cabinets and a department of 43 staff is able to help drive 40 percent of the mayor’s policy agenda.
  • Kenya Merritt, Chicago’s chief small business officer, shared strategies for innovation in grantmaking that address systemic inequities excluding many artists and small businesses along race and socioeconomic lines. These include providing supportive services and technical assistance to applicants to meet guidelines, to aligning values and goals across funders to leverage grantmaking outcomes for greater impact.

The small group discussions and report back yielded a deep dive into analysis of the political and economic landscape of cities, and the role of the arts and culture in corroborating or resisting the dynamics of capitalist exploitation. As someone put it powerfully, “In many of our cities, there is a real estate crisis—everything we do is addressing or not addressing that reality.”

Strategies and ideas coming out of this discussion were incredibly smart, creative and thoughtful. I might be borrowing some of them to take back to my shop in public health, by the way:

  • Embedding artists and cultural strategists throughout city and county agencies, including in elected officials’ offices.
  • Allocating project resources for documentation so that others can find models and scale up this work across the country.
  • Need for cross-sector collaboration with other government offices (hello Public Health)
  • Flipping the dynamic so that culture is not just a tool of other priorities, but how does housing support cultural equity? How does workforce development support cultural equity?

Some concluding thoughts to wrap up what I’ve heard so far…

To be a powerful influencer of other “social determinants” of cultural equity (to use public health language) coming from a discipline perceived to be outside of housing, land use planning, economic development, etc.—equity practitioners in other fields need to be grounded in and great at what we do, and strong and organized among our own base. Be really good at grantmaking and support services that work for your constituents. Take care of artists, organize them to build power and coordination in contributing to frontline struggles for equity. Build and nurture an infrastructure/ ecosystem for resourcing.

Finally, what are indicators of belonging? This is a very poignant question for me, and I’ll be reflecting on it in my own life and work here. The group discussion covered public expression as a powerful indicator of belonging—whether that be marches, pop-ups, food gatherings, and other claiming of public spaces. Out of the box sources of belonging and community, whether that be communities at the dog park or the barbershop. Restoration of dignity as a part of belonging. These are all resonant questions for us in Oakland as we struggle with a homelessness emergency, and the grip of a region-wide housing crisis. It takes me back to a thought I’ve heard voiced several times now through GIA. Why culture and the arts during this (fill in the blank) crisis? We need to keep a roof over people’s heads, we need more jobs, more access to health services, food, and education. So why? Because arts and culture give people hope. As I’ve been learning more and more lately, arts and culture are where oppressed people create our hopes and dreams for the future—the way we survive. More on this in my next post.

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