Two years ago, the Arts Council of Greater Kalamazoo (ACGK) began intentional self-reflection in order to fully live into its name. Its board of directors had recently experienced a large changeover and new members were interested in exploring how the Arts Council could reach a more diverse group of people.
"If our mission is to support art and artists in greater Kalamazoo it’s important to discuss who we are supporting now and who is missing from that conversation," said Kristen Chesak, executive director of ACGK. "The first step to answering those questions was to examine ourselves. It was the only way we could be inclusive."
And until now, the conversation had never been had through the lens of justice and equity.
"We were only asking about who we are not connecting with, not who isn’t at the table – and doesn’t want to be at the table – based on invisible stop signs and barriers we unintentionally create."
The team approved a new strategic plan that created an internal structure and culture that supported "who the organization believes they need to be for the community." The new plan led to a new vision, mission and values for the organization that center access, inspiration, dialogue, empathy and sustainability.
Hiring practices also changed to decrease institutional bias. It’s led to a more diverse staff and new voices in the room.
ACGK didn't stop with itself. They also wanted to bring other arts entities along with them on the journey. Through grant funding from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation, the Arts Council is hosting one-day justice and equity trainings tailored for arts organizations. Staff, board members and volunteers from local organizations such as The Gilmore, Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, WellSpring Dance Company, Stulberg International String Competition and the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts were invited to attend the trainings at no cost.
The workshops, hosted by consultant and educator Mia Henry of Freedom Lifted, explore topics of identity, equity, relationships and how they might affect interactions with patrons, audiences, the public and other artists.
Over 50 members of the arts community attended the first workshop in January.
"Feedback has been positive," Chesak said. "The goal was to come to the agreement that arts organizations have an internal culture and it is biased. Being on the same page helps us move forward together and opens up the conversation."
Rufus Ferguson attended the January workshop. Ferguson is the education manager at the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (KSO). The programming he oversees at KSO offers courses about classical music and symphonic instruments to students in Kalamazoo County and surrounding areas. It was the first time he attended an equity training.
"I felt it was important for me to know what the barriers are, what my advantages are, and how I can make the learning experience better for everyone around me," Ferguson said.
According to Ferguson, in symphony culture it’s common to highlight white, male composers and it's important for institutions who promote this music to do a better job of featuring a wider variety of composer and musical styles.
The training taught him how biases can influence arts curriculum and the type of programs offered to the community. Growing up, Ferguson’s classical training did not expose him to composers of color or who identify as women. It wasn’t until he was a jazz student at Western Michigan University that he was introduced to women composers or composers of color. Nadie Boulanger, a woman composer he never heard of until college, is now one of his favorites.
"Equity is definitely relevant to what I do as an arts and education professional," Ferguson said. "If we can expose students to more diverse composers and artists at an earlier age, it allows for a deeper and more informed lens into art and culture."
"Artists are in a unique position of being story-tellers in our community," Chesak said. "The stories – and the people who participate in those stories – make the difference between a community divided or a community that is enriched and engaged with one another."
Chesak is already noticing changes. Last fall, El Concilio applied for and received an ACGK Arts Fund of Kalamazoo County grant for its Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) community celebration. Day of the Dead is a traditional Mexican holiday where families celebrate deceased loved ones through music, dance and extravagant altars decorated with flowers, photos and special food.
The Arts Council also partnered with El Concilio to create a Day of the Dead altar in the Epic Center to remember local artists who had passed away over the last year. It was the first time the cultural celebration was featured as part of an Art Hop.
"We are changing the dynamic," Chesak said. "We are not trying to take over someone else’s celebration, but we're now being invited in, experiencing it with them and exposing the community to it as well."
For those who may believe the justice and equity conversation doesn’t have a place in the arts world, Chesak said, "There is so much arts and culture that is currently overlooked and missing because of bias. If more cultures felt safe enough to be in the space, our community culture would be so much richer."