Transcript – Episode 59

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.

David Howse:  Even before the organization changes the individual has to change.  We as individuals who have privilege and power and position and decision-making rights have to actually shift our individual thinking before we can expect the organization to shift.  So I always say start with one’s self.

Anita Walker:  Hi.  I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud.  Our guest today is David Howse, who is the Executive Director of ArtsEmerson.  Welcome to our program.

David Howse:  It’s good to be here.  Thanks for having me.

Anita Walker:  Now, as you know, the Mass Cultural Council funds about 400 non-profit cultural organizations in every corner of the Commonwealth.  And I can tell you that approximately 100-percent of them are interested in community engagement.  How do we diversify our audiences?  How do we reach audiences that wouldn’t know to come and participate in our programs?  You’re going to tell us the truth about this topic because some of us are doing a lot of talking, but it’s just not working.

David Howse:  Yeah.

Anita Walker:  What’s going on?

David Howse:  Yeah.  You know, I have to say that I love the energy and the intent and the effort to think about the new normal, the way the world has changed, the way our communities have changed, and how we as institutions must respond to really become a part of that change.  But, I have to say I’ve spoken with a number of these institutions and my sense sadly is that while there is really good intention, the action doesn’t always follow.  And I talk about institutions wanting to get credit for the intent, but not being held accountable for the action.  And I say that because it requires institutions to actually shift and think first about why do we want to engage the community, and what communities do we want to engage?  And thirdly, we are the community.  Institutions are a part of an interesting and fabric that make up our various neighborhoods, but this notion that an institution is ready just because it’s sort of the flavor of the day.  Diversity, equity and inclusion is the flavor.  Like everyone’s talking about it, and people are developing programs, but again, haven’t done what I call the self-study, haven’t looked internally to say, are we as an institution ready?  Have we– is our staff reflecting this new normal that we want to see?  Are our boards reflecting that new normal?  Is our programming being responsive?  And is it programming that we think the community wants as we are reaching out, which is a term that I tend not to use because that seems– “to reach out” means that you have what someone else needs when in actuality the institutions need what the communities have.  And so, there’s this sort of shift that we need to have as institutions to think about first what do we need to ourselves to make sure that we’re prepared and we’re ready to engage and collaborate and welcome community into these venues before we can actually go out and say, “Now, we’re ready to engage communities”.  I think there’s an inauthenticity.  Can we use that word today; a lack of authenticity when we’re trying to engage communities.  And I think communities can see straight through it, and this is why we’ve had so many issues trying to really bring all the parties together.

Anita Walker:  So, it’s not easy, number one.  It’s not a tool kit checklist – do this, this, this or this and now you have achieved diversity or community engagement.  And what I’m hearing you say is it starts with one of the hardest things, which is probably culture change within the organization.

David Howse:  Right.  And that culture change has to be up, down, through, all around.  It can’t be a singular person trying to move it.  It can’t be a department that’s charged with engaging community.  It has to be a complete integration.  And I think for a lot of institutions that’s scary because, again, we all have what I call assets.  We have people who have been invested in these organizations who have deep interests in sort of adapting to change as long as it doesn’t impact my experience.  And so, I think what happens is when an institution begins to talk about this, it becomes sort of surface.  I think that really difficult work is to say, look, as a board, as a staff, what do we need to do prepare; where are we making mistakes before we begin to reach out.  I think– and it requires us to bring new people onboard.  It requires us to bring new people into the staff.  It requires us to listen and not just assume that we have what everyone needs.  And we can’t stand in our temples of culture and expect people to come.  We actually have to partner with communities, sit in communities, live with their experiences and understand how we can learn– there’s a bilateral learning that has to happen, and it’s not a one-way street, you know.  We’re an institution.  We know that you need this particular performance.  So just come and see it.  We actually have to sit in performances in communities to understand what is it that you’re doing and how do we honor that in a way, in the similar way that we want the communities to honor what we have in our institutions?  So that requires a deep exploration of self, or a deep exploration of institutions to prepare themselves to actually begin that sort of difficult and authentic work, particularly in today’s political environment and social climate.  There’s such a lack of trust amongst individuals, amongst institutions and individuals, amongst institutions and neighborhoods.  And unfortunately, we don’t have a solid history that allows us to sit comfortably in that.  And so, we have to be very honest with ourselves around the bridges that have to be mended before we can actually think about a real sense of community engagement.

Anita Walker:  So, tell us a story.  How have you undergone this process in an organization at ArtsEmerson for example?

David Howse:  So, I joined ArtsEmerson, which is, we like to say Boston’s premier presenter of contemporary world theater, really pushing the boundaries of theater and to dance and circus and these kinds of things.  And so, I joined about two and a half years ago after, you know, 10-11 years at the Boston Children’s Chorus where this all started to form in my head.  But at ArtsEmerson, I joined a team that was already on the right path to thinking about what we call curatorial listening; so sitting in communities, understanding what are the issues.  What’s relevant to you today in your community?  And that could be the circus community.  That could be the African American community.  It could be the Asian community.  It could be, you know, any community, right?  What’s relevant to you, and how can we listen and then present something on stage in conversation with you and then come back and say, “Have we gotten it right,” right?  But before we get there, I came to the organization and said, “Look, if this is our intent, then we actually have to change the way that we look.”  Like most organizations, when you pull back the curtains, the majority of the people behind that stage are White men.  And these are the production– and I said it’s not just about the out-facing people who are presenting what you want to see; everything has to change.  And so, we began to undergo training, you know, race training, bias training, accessibility training really to think about where are our gaps and where can we shore ourselves up to be sure when we’re actually in the community we understand or have a better sense of where that community sits and some of the issues that are going on and how we’re showing up in those communities.  So, we first started with ourselves.  Let’s do our own work.  Let’s figure out what are the resources can have to actually make sure that we’re ready.  And then, we began to go out, not just to say we’re reaching out to you, but we’re actually partnering with communities to develop programming, to develop initiatives.  We have an engagement team.  Their whole purpose– and there are three folks on the engagement team who are look at how we’ve become better citizens, citizen organizations who are living beside these maybe smaller organizations to think about the work that we’re doing together.  And again, we’re holding ourselves accountable by saying, “Check us.  Like if we’re on the wrong path, let us know.  Demand something different if you’re not seeing what you want.”  And I think people– that sort of authentic and very vulnerable position as an institution, because that means some community could say, “Yeah, we don’t want to see that” or “That’s not the way that we want to have it presented.”  If we’re not listening to that and actually trying to respond in the best way we know how, then we’re actually not meaningfully trying to engage in a community way.  Now, we’re just getting started.  I mean, we’ve been doing it for eight years; the organization is eight years old, but we’re really just getting started.  It takes time to build those relationships and to build that trust, but we’re actually seeing it happening in really special, special ways.

Anita Walker:  You know, you’re describing something that really up ends sort of the classic attitude of a lot of cultural organizations.  We know best.  We’re educated.  We went to acting school or came out of the conservatory and therefore, we are giving to the community the wisdom of years of training and expertise so that you can benefit from this wisdom.  And it’s saying, we don’t know.

David Howse:  Right.  And I think, yes, there is a lot of education.  There’s a lot of scholarship.  There’s a lot of rigor in what we might call as high art, you know, or traditional cultural venues.  Like there’s that same wisdom, that same level of excellence, that same level of history and practice in communities that we, as institutions, don’t value the same.  And so, what I’m suggesting is that who gets to define what’s excellent and what’s great?  And there’s excellence and greatness in different pockets and seen from different views.  And if we can only sort of disrupt our imagination in a way to imagine that what might be happening on a street corner or in a church basement could have the same rigor and expertise and skill and impact as what you might see on one of our stages at The Majestic.  I think it’s just shifting our imagination that allows us to see the world and ultimately benefit from the world in a much more magical way.  But, it does require us to sort of reimagine, just open our eyes to a different perspective that allows us to grow as a– grow together as community, but also grow as individuals.  So I challenge this notion of, you know, the “haves” and the “want to bes” on this side or the high art and low art.  It’s all art, and we value it in different ways and we have to respect what each side, if there are sides, brings to the table.

Anita Walker:  So what is the hardest part when you start again, that culture change, that mind shift, that sort of flipping the paradigm of where the knowledge resides, where the wisdom exists in communities within the organization?  What’s the hardest part?

David Howse:  I think probably the hardest part is making the commitment to doing it.  So I think the hardest part is to say, “We have to change.”  And I think for institutions who have been around for years and years doing it the same way, working for the same traditional audience, doing much more of the same, that sort of shift in mentality is the biggest hurdle.  Once you’ve decided there’s a different way that we might be able to look at it, then I think things begin to fall into place.  You begin to follow the action with the intention, it begins to fall in place.  But, I think the biggest step is to begin to see that there’s value outside of our institution that we can learn from.  There’s a bilateral learning that we can benefit from if we humble ourselves, if we move out of our own way to actually experience it.

Anita Walker:  So, the organization changes and that means that maybe the programming changes and that means that the audience or the community changes.  What does that look like?

David Howse:  Even before the organization changes the individual has to change.  So individuals make up an organization, right?  And so, we as individuals who have privilege and power and position and decision-making rights have to actually shift our individual thinking before we can expect the organization to shift.  So I always say start with one’s self, right, individuals.  Then that helps to change the organization and then that does actually change who you see in your audience, what you see on stage and then further, who’s inclined to support your efforts, right?  And so, what we’re trying to figure out at ArtsEmerson is, like, if we are engaging Boston’s full diversity or Massachusetts’ full diversity, who then gets to show up, and who then gets to participate and own the work?  Most of our institutions are funded by, and we are grateful for traditional donors who have been giving in very traditional ways.  But, there are other people who are willing to give who have resources and have often never been asked, have never been invited to the table.  So it not only changes what your organization looks like, what the programming looks like, who shows up to that programming, but it also then begins to shift who actually supports that work.  And we have recently hosted what we call our World Alive event where we bring together the people who have been in our work, or who have shown interest or leaned into that work.  And I have to say, when you pull all those communities together in that same space, it is such a special experience, one that we don’t often have.  Usually, our galas, they kind of look the same, right?  And so, when you actually bring people together who share the value of believing that arts belong to all people and are willing to support that in a significant way, that’s when we begin to see that community building happening in the most magical way.

Anita Walker:  Community building that starts with the one.

David Howse:  That’s right.

Anita Walker:  With the “you”.

David Howse:  That’s right.

Anita Walker:  David Howse, ArtsEmerson, another Creative Mind Out Loud.

David Howse:  Thank you so much.  It’s been a pleasure to speak with you.

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