Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.
Sandra Bonnici: So diversity in and of itself is just a fact, it’s making the commitment to inclusion that leverages the strengths of diversity.
Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Sandra Bonnici, she is the Senior Diversity Fellow for the American Alliance of Museums and she’s also a diversity and inclusion consultant. Welcome to our program Sandra.
Sandra Bonnici: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Anita Walker: This is a topic that I can with complete certainty say every single one of the cultural organizations that we interact with, that we support here at the Mass Cultural Council is focused on and concerned with. We get asked on a regular basis what can we do more to be inclusive, to diversify our staff, to diversify our board. The will is there, the ambition is there, the genuine intent is there, but the how and the getting there seems to be really, really difficult.
Sandra Bonnici: I think you’re right, I think the how and whatnot, it is a challenge. I think it’s also deeply uncomfortable work and I think it’s long and enduring work that sometimes the benefits aren’t seen right away.
Anita Walker: It’s cultural change.
Sandra Bonnici: Yeah, it is change.
Anita Walker: It’s not just a recipe of a list of tactics and, “Do this,” until we’re done.
Sandra Bonnici: Exactly. And right now I think in our country is also we are in sort of a more polarized state than we’ve ever been and I think it has heightened the need for this idea, how do we center all voices in our institutions and in the way we do things and how do we sort of start unpacking a lot of that work? And I like to always think that the work begins with ourselves first and then really thinking about doing our own work of unpacking bias and privilege and understanding big concepts like systemic isms and how they impact us personally. And then from there moving into, “What is my sphere of influence within my organization, within my community?” and then from there it kind of ripples out. And there are some strategic process that happens with that and it’s also a deeply reflective process. And sometimes that’s at odds particularly for nonprofits when everything has to be fast and efficient and we don’t always have all the time and resources. So it’s this tension that has to be held. And so I think the work builds momentum over time, I think it’s just sometimes leaning into it initially feels a lot harder.
Anita Walker: And in fact when you start to implement some of the ideas around inclusivity it can actually create more hills to climb.
Sandra Bonnici: It is hard to challenge particularly processes that have been seemingly successfully, right, but then we always have to kind of go back and ask, “For whom does this work? For whom does this harm?” and the particularly for cultural institutions, “For whom do we exist?” And those are sort of like deep questions. <laughs> And I think that it’s that constant creating a climate of reflection is really hard. I always like to look at what is the low hanging fruit if you will of things that you can do that builds that momentum, that builds our resiliency and ability to stand in discomfort and sort of try to think about, “What is our long game on this?” so that the immediate bumps in the road don’t feel quite so mountainous.
Anita Walker: So this does really start with individuals, individual people and as you were saying finding a way to address their own discomfort. Would you be willing to share a personal story? How did you start in this work?
Sandra Bonnici: Interestingly enough, so just to be very clear, I walk in the world as a predominantly white woman, but my father came from a Middle Eastern country and I’m a first-generation immigrant. And so we landed when I was in high school in Oshkosh, Wisconsin which was at that point in the late ’70s a predominantly German and Polish fairly rural community, so our family kind of blew in and my father was one of those characters that was like a combination of Zorba the Greek and Henry Kissinger and so there was nothing subtle about our arrival. And my first week at school everyone thought I was the foreign exchange student and spoke really slow and loud to me. And then shortly after that, and again it was without malice, but at the time the mascot was the Oshkosh West Indians and they asked if I would be the school mascot. And so there were these really deeply uncomfortable moments of like, “Hmm.” And I think it was the first time I was really identifying as ‘other’ and I think from that moment I really started growing this idea of, “Who do we just gently exclude?” and it wasn’t anything really tremendously harmful or injurious but it’s all those little slights along the way of othering that happens. And I think in looking back where my career’s been really focused on creating senses of belonging and inclusion I think it starts in that places of feeling deeply othered and so I would say it probably comes from that. And also as an immigrant family there were moments of discrimination for my father, most of my father’s family changed their names so that they could get jobs and so that’s always been part of my personal, complex identity, but for the most part, I’m bestowed a lot of privilege because as we say, I’m white enough.
Anita Walker: It’s interesting too, so you talked about your own story and your personal story and where you came from and when I think about so many of our organizations especially sort of our anchor museums and orchestras and theater companies, so much of where they came from is Western European and white privilege, their collections came from people of wealth or conquerors and that sort of is in the DNA of so many of our organizations, that’s tough isn’t it?
Sandra Bonnici: Well I think in that difficult place is a beautiful opportunity. I think yes, it’s a challenging history to think about decolonizing your collection. I think what the opportunity is is to look at centering other voices to tell the full story, not to erase what has already been established but to somehow– it’s like when you’re focusing on a camera that you can manually adjust the focus, you can shift the way that lens is so that something in the background can come forward and vice versa and I think that’s sort of the metaphysical idea that I hold within art museums or cultural institutions to think about what are the other stories that surrounded this and how do we incorporate that not just in the idea of separate wings or activities and how do we move beyond sort of what I call the food, flags and festivals way of addressing other voices and cultures, but really kind of like what are those stories, what is the art, who gets to determine what is art. And my work is definitely deeply rooted in deep community engagement, how do we go out into our communities and really understand what are their hopes and aspirations, what are the challenges, what are those stories and how do we incorporate that all into the stories that we’re telling because I think that’s the beauty of cultural institutions, that we’re amazing places of story. And right now where are those places where people can connect and have dialog and story and potentially healing as well around so much that’s going on in our world right now. So we have this amazing opportunity, this amazing power and sometimes it’s just taking the courage to center other voices and sometimes even de-centering our own expertise sometimes, that there might be different ideas out there that can ride alongside what has always been.
Anita Walker: Because we do have professionals in our cultural organization who think and believe that their job is to be the one who knows and to share the information to everybody else and what I’m hearing you say is there are other experts.
Sandra Bonnici: I think there’s room for it all, I really do, I think there is that idea of staying in curiosity of asking those questions again, “What else is there about this story? Whose voices are also a part of this story,” even if it’s a part of a painting or a sculpture or a performance, “What are all the stories that may have impacted that one story that we’re telling?”
Anita Walker: One of our museums, the Worcester Art Museum like so many encyclopedic museums has a gallery where sort of the Colonial fathers of our country and some of their wives have their portraits hung and the labeling next to the portraits was, “This is,” whoever this was and, “This is where their wealth came from,” but they didn’t really tell the whole story of where the wealth came from and in virtually every case slavery was part and parcel of where the wealth came from. So Matthias, the director of the museum actually hired a researcher to dig a little deeper into the rest of the story and then added a second set of labels that kind of peeled the layers of the story back to show the ties to slavery and plantation life that were part and parcel of who these people were.
Sandra Bonnici: I’m new to Boston and I’ve been of course going around and checking out all of the cultural institutions and what I’ve been noticing is this growing sense in a lot of the labeling and the storytelling that’s happening of acknowledgement that all this happened at great human cost. I think one of the most dramatic ones was standing in Faneuil Hall and thinking about all the things that went into building that and there was signage that acknowledged that who Peter Faneuil was, how he made his money and that we’re standing in a place that came at great human cost and I thought that opens up a dialogue, and I think encourages us to lean in to some really hard realities particularly as white people that we have to acknowledge and that for people of color that they have had to live with.
Anita Walker: We’ve talked a little bit about sort of the programmatic aspect of how more voices can be centered and reflected in the work that our organizations are doing, but the other question we hear so much is, “How do I actually make diverse voices and faces part and parcel of the governance structure and staffing of this organization?” And our organizations struggle with that.
Sandra Bonnici: I’m sensing that there’ll be sort of a ground swell of change that’s going to happen in the way we look at board governance and fundraising. I think the big nugget that stands from what I’ve been hearing in the way sometimes is a false dichotomy of we want to be diverse but we need to fundraise. And somehow we are making this assumption that the two are separate entities versus combined ideas, so thinking about who serves on a board and where that decision making is. Now the evidence suggests that when you have diverse experiences and voices at the table, your decision making is better. So a board’s job is decision making and stewardship and as our climate, our both political and environmental climate changes the ability to have innovative ideas and good decision making at the very top of our institutions is paramount, we have to have that type of innovation and it’s not just about are we doing the good thing or the right thing, are we doing the necessary thing to be sustainable, to be able to keep our doors open, to be able to be thoughtful and relevant to our communities, those are really deep challenges that express themselves in many ways and oftentimes because of the way we are funded we think about it in terms of who is donating, who has voice. And I think the reality is I don’t want to dismiss wealth and income gap that is part and parcel a structural racism, but I do think that we are assuming that when we are diverse that we will lose money or donors and I think that’s a false assumption and I think there’s a false dichotomy there.
Anita Walker: To put a finer point on it one of the issues that we hear our organizations talk about is, “Should we have a giving policy to be on the board? Should we set an amount that a board member has to give in order to be part of that?”
Sandra Bonnici: I think a lot of boards have different strategies and I think many boards are starting to open up that concept. Some boards that I’ve been working with have these wonderful concepts of a doer, a donor or a door opener. So how to get around that idea of how much you donate might be in the form of who can you connect us to, it might be in the terms of service. I used always put it in the context of work, wealth and wisdom, what is the…
Anita Walker: Time, treasure and talent.
Sandra Bonnici: Exactly.
Anita Walker: We’re very good at alliteration in our field.
Sandra Bonnici: I love it.
Sandra Bonnici: We got to make that case quick and fast, right? But I think some other structures I’ve seen is opening up committees to have as stepping stones to board service, so opening up committees for more community members to have a voice and to one both become invested in the institution and give their gifts to the institution and then as a pipeline to board service. So I think there’s a lot of strategies that museums are doing and cultural institutions are doing, I think it will take some time to feel that those things are evidence-based, I think as more and more institutions are sharing their stories of how they’re making changes at the board level, I think it will become a body of practice that we can think about.
Anita Walker: We talk about how it’s important that within an organization a commitment to inclusion must start from the top, the top has to be engaged and supportive of that idea. But in our field a commitment to that should also start at the top and you are the Senior Diversity Fellow for the American Alliance of Museums and can you talk to us a little bit about how this alliance is thinking about their leadership role, they do credit our museums around the issues of inclusion?
Sandra Bonnici: Well I think the American Alliance of Museums has been focusing on diversity and equity for a really long time and sadly what we haven’t seen is as much change as we would like. I think as a populous, I say we would like. And I think it is looking at where is the change at the top. I think our programs and our staffing has been changing, but when you look at the leadership of museums and then board leadership, there’s a lot of studies out that really kind of show that it is still predominantly male and white and so that presents a challenge. And I will say that AAM has stepped into that brave space of saying, “We are embracing and doing this work,” they’ve put together a task force to really look at this. And I believe these ideals around diversity, equity and inclusion or going to be folded into accreditation, so trying to encourage this idea that it isn’t just this separate thing but how do we put equity within all of our operational procedures. And so what that looks like then with this Facing Change Initiative, the task force identified five insights and those insights and that report is available online at I think aamfacingchanging.org. And so the first insights are really about everyone has to do the personal work of unpacking bias and privilege and how do you do that, how do you support doing that and that’s a lot of the role of the fellows is helping CEOs and boards do that personal work. I think it’s looking at not haggling over definitions of what does it mean to be equitable, inclusive, what are those definitions and they had some really nice ones that can be used and they are encouraging people to use those definitions and then I think it’s about how to really commit to inclusion. So all of AAM senior staff are going through personal work in terms of looking at– we’ve identified using the Intercultural Development Assessment tool as a way to say, “Here’s where I am on a continuum of cultural competency and here’s my plan then for how to move along that continuum.” Because the idea of having the capacity to work across differences is what makes leveraging diversity happen, because we’ve seen that too often, right, we can put a lot of diverse voices on our team but somehow it doesn’t seem to actually still be performing as well as we were hoping. So diversity in and of itself is just a fact, it’s making the commitment to inclusion that leverages the strengths of diversity. So what does that look like then is really about reviewing policies, of reviewing again I think some basic questions. “Who’s at the table? Whose voices are centered? Who is harmed? Who is helped by these policies? Who are we not reaching? What more can we do?” is that constant reflection. And then really kind of understanding the impacts of policies and are they really getting us to that place of inclusion. So AAM is doing that work, the fellows are all working with museums that have elected to be a part of this first pilot program of facing change and doing that work with their boards. And so hopefully by 2021 we will have had some opportunity to really have good data, anecdotes, understanding of the process of how to get there and the ideal being that the museums will have inclusion plans for their board as well as encouraging more candidates of color particularly to be in board service on their boards.
Anita Walker: It’s slow patient work, it’s not, “Do these three things and tada, we’re done.” But in the end of the day I can’t imagine a field better suited to lead really the rest of society in ideas and actual practice around embracing inclusion.
Sandra Bonnici: I think it’s in our DNA, right, our field is committed to telling the story of our humanity and inclusion is part of our humanity, right, we all want to belong to something and the more belonging that we have in all of the communities that we belong to, I think that just creates an opportunity to have that ideal sense of what it means to be human, what it means to be fully our authentic selves in all aspects of our lives.
Anita Walker: Sandra Bonnici, Senior Diversity Fellow for American Alliance of Museums and Diversity and Inclusion Consultant, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Sandra Bonnici: Thank you so much, it’s been a pleasure to be here.
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