Sunday, July 3, 2016

Equity and Equality

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on June 16, 2016, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which discusses changes in the arts education landscape, here.

Equity is not Equality
There is little doubt that issues of equity, inclusion and diversity are front and center in our political and cultural landscape. While Black Lives Matter may be the most visible embodiment of this movement, we have seen growing attention to the topic in mainstream publications such as The Atlantic (Ta Nahisi Coatescry for reparations) and The New York Times (Nikole Hannah-Jones’ story about choosing a public school for her daughter). In the arts field, organizations of all stripes and colors are adopting statements to address the issue(s). Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), for example, has adopted a statement on racial equity in philanthropy. Not only has Dance/USA embraced and adopted equity, inclusion and diversity as core values, it actively uses them as a filter through which all of their operations pass. And, most recently, Americans for the Arts (AFTA) issued a Statement on Cultural Equity. While all of these are important steps in acknowledging critical issues, they do not go far enough. Why? Because without an active assertion of what equity, inclusion and diversity really means -- what these should look like in practice -- the barriers to their existence have little impetus to bend or fall.

When we talk about "equity," we don’t really mean equality, which would deliver the same result to everyone, and would necessitate a totally different social, economic and cultural system. Barry Hessenius, an author and former executive director of the California Arts Council, puts it this way:

Very likely there will never be absolute equity. As individuals, as a sector, as a society we all need to live with that reality. And equity doesn't necessarily mean absolute equality. Rather it means policy and practice that is fair and just. That doesn't mean that progress doesn't need to be made where it can so that we get to a point where we are closer to equity. And I think more people understand that we remain too far away at this point in time. We have to do better than we have.
Herein lies the central dilemma that is raging around our society's discussion of equity. Without a clear definition of what “fair and just” means, we cannot possibly hope to reach a resolution that satisfies all of us, let alone some of us.

Issues of language and its meaning have been critical to addressing the major topics of our society throughout our nation's history. Efforts to control debate through language have been very effective at times, and at least in the public arena it is now common to both the left and the right. We also know that if we do not put forward our own definitions and language, then others will put forward definitions and language for us. For anyone pledged to the cause of equity, it would be advantageous to try to control the conversation. In this regard, just as we strive for greater equity, we need to also ask what does "inequity" mean? Those who already have resources and/or power (that is, "privilege") are usually loathe to see their allocations of these things diminished and one can assume, therefore, that those with privilege are not going to “solve” this dilemma and may not be interested in the discussion. So it falls to those seeking fair equity to propose a new way to allocate resources, with all the pros and cons on the table, for there to be a basis of discussion.

Put another way, those who call for redressing inequity -- and here I'll expand this discussion to include diversity and inclusion, which suffer from the same definitional complexities -- must propose ways to achieve the equity they seek. Standing at the Lincoln Memorial facing a sea of people, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously described his own dream of equity. Dr. King also understood that he who commits to the idea of building a bridge must also offer the path to its construction. Should we fail to follow Dr. King's example, we are left as people standing on opposite sides of a river shouting at each other, with no real means to cross the river or to meet in the middle.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

There's Something Happening Here

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on May 24, 2016, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which discusses changes in the arts education landscape, here.

Something is Happening Here
There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear...
Everybody look what's going down...

Fifty years ago, Stephen Stills wrote those lyrics, which were first recorded in an iconic version by Buffalo Springfield in reaction to riots in LA provoked by a culture clash of the 1960s. Since that era, proponents of different political and philosophical points of view have made concerted efforts, overt and covert, to bend our government and institutions to their interests. When rhetoric and actual facts on the ground have diverged (as often happens), we must look deeper to really see “what’s going down.”

Consider, for example, the diminishment and/or disappearance of arts education in our schools. This is truly harmful to our society in light of data clearly demonstrating that exposure to the arts in the lives of school children better prepares them for the complexities of life in our culture and, in particular, for success in our modern information age. So it is heartening to see that while our common narrative holds that arts education has disappeared from our schools due to a lack of funds and the need to focus on building other skills, “there’s something happening here.”

We are now seeing public and private efforts, some coordinated and some not, to successfully rebuild arts education programs in pre-K-12 education. After so much debate and rhetoric, some people are again acknowledging that exposure to a broad and diverse set of subjects are critical to a thriving civic and business environment -- and art must be one of those subjects. This acknowledgement stands in the face of the longstanding argument that because literacy in math and science are critical for success and advancement in our technology-driven information age, and because the US has fallen behind in these areas, we must focus funding and standards on those areas, to the specific detriment of literacy of the arts.

At the beginning of this decade, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities called for reinvesting in arts education in K-12 schools. Its report noted growing data showing that arts education increases academic achievement, school engagement and creative thinking. Since then, repeated studies have further shown that arts education increases student graduation rates, improves performance on standardized tests, leads to a better understanding of higher-level areas of knowledge, enhances critical thinking and processing of complex information, and elevates social capabilities, including the ability to understand others. The Committee has invested time and funding in schools around the country testing this proposition.

At the same time, significant efforts in Boston, Dallas, Seattle, Chicago, NYC and LA are adopting related, but different, approaches. The results, while not enough in and of themselves to address the pervasive problem, show definite levels of engagement that contradict the commonly promoted rhetoric that there is diminished or no arts education in schools. In some cases, public schools, private citizens and nonprofit organizations coordinate to provide strategic and philanthropic support and a number of these groups have even built a consortium to exchange ideas, results and strategies. Almost all of them are now documenting improved access to arts education and student performance, though some still have a long way to go.

It is in the nature of the culture we inhabit today that no public debate is free of extreme, often misleading rhetoric. We argue in sound-bites rather than holding a rational consideration of facts and ideas. Half a century ago, some of those unhappy with the direction of the country successfully promoted the idea that we cannot afford arts education in the face of more pressing needs. As data continues to emerge that more and more reinforces what we know about the importance and benefit of arts education, the case gets stronger and stronger to bury the old thinking, once and for all.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.