Confronting Homogeneous Culture: Hiring & Retaining a Diverse Workforce Panel Recap

On Tuesday, July 24th, ArtsBoston hosted Hiring and Retaining a Diverse Workforce, a panel featuring Wyona Lynch-McWhite, Vice President of Arts Consulting Group; Lecolion Washington, Executive Director of Community Music Center of Boston; and Harold Steward, Managing Director, and Evelyn Francis, Director of Programs, of The Theater Offensive. The panel was moderated by Natalie Rice-Harris, Human Resources Manager at the Institute of Contemporary Arts/Boston.

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Key Finding from the Race to Lead report

“Diversity” has become an buzzword in the arts and culture sector, and in this discussion, it’s important to note that diversity is intersectional. It is not code for “ethnic” or “of color”. While this conversation spoke most frequently about racial or cultural diversity, ArtsBoston and the majority of arts organizations in our sector still have a long way to go in terms of disrupting our homogeneity. We firmly believe that arts and culture benefit from true diversity of perspectives and experiences, and encourage our colleagues and member organizations to expand their organizational structure to welcome people of all races, colors, creeds, genders, sexual orientations, and nations of origin.

According to the Race to Lead report Building Movement Project released earlier this year, people of color are as educated, as experienced, and more interested in advancing to non-profit leadership positions than their white colleagues. However, in the last fifteen years, as the population becomes more diverse, less than 20% of executive leadership at American non-profits identify as people of color.

Wyona (left) makes Lecolion and Natalie laugh during the panel.

Wyona (left) makes Lecolion and Natalie laugh during the panel.

Despite the occasionally heavy subject matter, our panelists met the conversation with humor, hope, and practical tools for disrupting systems of oppression in the process of making one’s organization more equitable and inclusive. Here are just a few of the takeaways from this rich discussion:

On Organizational Analysis

An organization needs to look inward before they invite underrepresented community members in, either as audiences or employees. Our panelists agreed that Boston as whole has to learn to look at itself in a new way.

Lecolion, who recently moved here from Memphis to accept his position at Community Music Center of Boston, brings an outsider’s perspective to a city infamous for its covert racism. “It’s important to have diversity as a value and a practice,” Lecolion said in his opening remarks, “because this is a place that is uncomfortable even talking about that idea of homogeneity and its impact on the field, and the community that we all serve. Diversity is a buzzword to people it doesn’t mean anything to, but to people who have spent their whole lives unpacking that word, it means everything. In our organizations, we’re going to have people who feel that way about it and they’re the ones who see when we’re not doing this work very well. So it’s really important that those of us in leadership bring an agency and skill set to the conversation, because everything really starts with us. If we’re not champions of it, then it doesn’t actually happen.

Lecolion Washington keeping it light has he talks about his journey from Memphis to Boston.

Lecolion keeping it light has he talks about his journey from Memphis to Boston.

“We also need to talk about whiteness in this city”, Lecolion went on.

“I’ll just throw out the words ‘white supremacy’ out there,” Harold added.

“Is there a trigger warning on this panel? You’ve all been warned!” Wyona quipped. We were off to the races.

Harold provided resources to the attendees as they came in, two handouts titled White Supremacy Culture and Continuum on Becoming an Anti-Racist Multicultural Organization, that are excellent conversation starters and references for organizations looking to reflect on their internal culture.

When seeking candidates of color, Harold advises: “if you’re not ready, you’re not ready, and admit that you’re not ready.”

“If you can’t say ‘white supremacy’ in your organization, and you work at a non-profit, or in the arts, in these white supremacist systems, you’re not ready,” Evelyn added. It’s important for organizations to take time to address their institutional systems of oppression that could harm candidates and employees of color before welcoming them into the fold.

On Hiring

When talking about her work on executive searches with Arts Consulting Group, Wyona got frank: “I’m going to be incredibly honest, almost every single arts organization gives lip service to really caring about diversity.” According to the 2017 Lead With Intent study put out by BoardSource, 65% of chief executives are dissatisfied with their board’s racial and ethnic diversity, but only 21% of those same executives have made changing or strengthening their recruitment strategies a priority in recent years. “What we’re looking for is not just the intent,” Wyona went on, “but that plan.” For search firms and candidates alike, a lack of action in moving the needle towards equity can be red flag for white supremacist culture.

“Almost every single arts organization gives lip service to really caring about diversity.” — Wyona Lynch-McWhite

Going about hiring and recruitment processes the same way and expecting different results is counter-intuitive, so Wyona provided a road map for avoiding common pitfalls. “One that’s always there is the set of unrealistic standards or barriers around education requirements. I’ve written about this in the museum field. I’m still not sure why the person in the gift shop, being paid minimum wage, needs a bachelor’s degree. I’m not sure I get that. There’s often unreasonable rules around degree requirements or years in the field.”

Wyona and our panelists argued that the professionalization of the field through arbitrary degree requirements contributes to inequity in a field where practical job experience is often more valuable and financially attainable than university classes. Having a long list of specific requirements in job postings, educational and otherwise, also creates gender inequity, as it’s reported that male candidates will apply to a job if they meet six out of ten qualifications, whereas female candidates won’t apply to a job if they have less than nine.

Harold relayed to the group that he doesn’t hold a bachelor’s degree, but clearly his way of knowing has served him well in his career. He emphasized the need to take a chance on candidates who might not seem like the obvious choice. “If you can’t take a chance on someone’s potential, maybe you’re not a learning organization,” he said, encouraging groups to look at why they might be more hesistant to work with employees who have nontraditional paths in their careers. “Maybe you [as an organizaion] don’t invest in professional development or mentorship. You don’t even believe in yourself to lead a candidate to where they need to be, so that someone has to come in to your organization knowing everything. That’s unrealistic.

Evelyn tells her impassioned conference anecdote.

Evelyn tells her impassioned conference anecdote.

Evelyn also pointed out the hardship of arts workers not making a living wage, when they have likely gone into great debt to complete seemingly compulsory degrees. “I was at a conference,” she relayed, “which in and of itself has its privilege, right? You get to go to a conference, your organization can afford to send you to a conference. I was in dialogue with a woman who worked for a well-known children’s theatre in DC. We were having a heated debate on credentials when hiring someone. She insisted that her teaching artists have master’s degrees. Master’s degrees. So I said to her, screaming across the circle, ‘how much do teaching artists make in your organization?’ And she kind of mumbled, and avoided the question. And eventually she said that they start at $12,000 a year. And I almost crossed the circle and slapped her in the face. How can you demand that a teaching artist have a master’s degree when you’re not paying them anything?”

“And they had hundreds of teaching artists at this organization,” she went on. “It was just a common practice. Mommy and Daddy have to be able to support you in your first couple of years on the job. But otherwise, how do you survive? How do you feed yourself?” By setting overly restrictive hiring guidelines, organizations risk adopting socio-economic homogeneity, where working with them is a privilege reserved for the independently wealthy.

Finally, Wyona encouraged attendees to take a look at Project Implicit, a series of tests designed by a team at Harvard University to help measure your unconscious bias. “We all have bias,” she said, suggesting that Arts Consulting Group’s blind submission practices, designed to help remove some of that bias, could easily be applied to individual organizations as well.

Of course, it’s not always so clear cut. “Some people lie to us and say ‘oh, we’re really looking for diverse candidates.’ But in the back of their head, they’re like ‘no, not really.’ And that’s difficult,” Wyona confessed. “Because you can’t change that right away. But through the process, we bring up issues about being inclusive, casting a wide net, bias, those sort of things. And hopefully through this process, we’re also being change agents.

Lecolion, in closing the section, wanted to remind attendees that hiring really is step one. He told the board at Community Music Center of Boston in his final interview for his position: “If you hire me, don’t feel like you’ve done something.”

“Even if you hire a black ED, you’ve done nothing,” he reiterated. “The work begins after I get here.”

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Left to right: Evelyn Francis, Harold Steward, Wyona Lynch-McWhite, Lecolion Washington, and Natalie Rice-Harris.

On Human Resources

It’s no secret that many arts organization in the Boston community and beyond lack traditional human resource infrastructure and are often severely understaffed when it comes to leading a candidate search and maintaining day-to-day operations. Often, organizations are concerned with just finding someone to do the job, but this frantic mentality can damage any chance of those in the hiring process thinking creatively or daring to reach outside their comfort zone.

The Theater Offensive’s national search for a new managing director that ultimately led them to Harold took over a year. “It was long and hard…but it was worth it,” Evelyn noted. “Harold is undoubtedly the right person for the job.” She went on to say that every time TTO felt like throwing in the towel and rushing the hire, they had to call into question if having the perfect candidate, a leader of color in the arts, was more important than getting a warm body into the office. She commended the invisible labor of the staff members of color at The Theater Offensive that had to pick-up the slack when Harold’s position was vacant, as well as Harold’s willingness to hit the ground running and quickly resurrecting the programs that went underwater without someone at his desk.

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A full house leans in to listen to our panelists.

Evelyn also noted Harold’s unwavering confidence in the face of adversity. “The backlash against having people of color leadership is real. Harold experiences it every day, and I witness it every day.” Historically white organizations can’t be afraid to ruffle some feathers in their community as they hand over the reins to employees of color and other traditionally disenfranchised groups, and must also be ready to support their employees of color in their new roles.

Lecolion noted that it’s the role of leaders, particularly white leaders, to uplift people of color’s voices inside their organization and community. He advocated for leaders in the arts to fight the status quo, instead of upholding it. He mentioned that welcoming in new voices for open conversation can break down societal barriers, particularly along racial lines. “There are things we say when we’re not with y’all,” he admitted, speaking about racial affinity spaces. “What if we had space to discuss these things with you, instead of talking about you? That’s when the real work can start.”

However, Lecolion, as well as our other panelists, spoke about the problems with traditional diversity statements. “My perspective is that those things are whack, because they speak to intent. And intent is irrelevant. So you have this wonderful statement that speaks to ‘we want to be blank and we want to be blank, and by 2050 we’re going to be blank’, but next year we’re going to be the same. That’s the issue with me. When I see the diversity statements, I typically push back.”

The original job description for his current position, however, spoke to Lecolion in a different way:

“The very first thing on it was talking about diversity, equity, and inclusion, and it was talking about it from a very disruptive perspective. ‘We want someone who will challenge the status quo; who will challenge our board to change the way we think; someone looking to develop new programming that will advance our future; and looking to cultivate a staff that demographically matches the communities we are serving.’ I was like ‘I don’t want to leave, but I would leave for that.‘ I had seen other ads, but I was at a place in my life where I felt I was becoming more marketable, and I didn’t just want to go to another place to go to another place. But there was something about how that job description was written, I realized it was actually written for me.

Moderator Natalie Rice-Harris in action.

Moderator Natalie Rice-Harris in action.

Lecolion has seen the damage poorly executed diversity statements can do, too. “Unless you’re absolutely going to hold yourself accountable, and hold people’s jobs accountable on whether or not you’re moving certain metrics inside of your organization, or whether or not there’s certain culture coming to your organization, then then words are cute, and they make you feel good and you can pat yourself on the back, but you’ve actually done nothing until it has an actual impact on the organization, followed by the sector, followed by the community, followed by the city. But if you’re not holding yourself accountable for that, it’s about feeling good, but it has no real impact.”

On Retention

The arts sector, as a part of the larger non-profit world, is known for employee burnout, due in part to office culture. When building an office, Evelyn spoke on the importance of paying attention to both internal and external shifts:

“I think shifting culture in the organization starts with being in conversation with community first. What community are you serving? Not the funders, that’s not a community. The people who are participating in your work, audiences who are seeing your work. Who is the community? Define that. And then try to understand how your staff reflects that community, and then make sure the culture of your office reflects the community and your staff. There are many ways I think [The Theater Offensive] is successful in this. Queer culture is alive and well at our office! We have to say to interns, ‘Don’t do this anywhere else. Don’t have this conversation anywhere but here!’ Because it’s a very culturally-specific environment. But it’s important for people to feel like they belong here, that there are people like me here. And it’s important for those interns to feel like they have a home, creative or otherwise, in our offices. It should feel like sand under your feet, really. Every new staff person, every new intern, brings in something and offers something new to the culture. And if you don’t pay attention, that will continue to be a revolving door. I think non-profits and arts organizations in general just accept, ‘Oh, people don’t stay. That’s just kind of how it is.’ And don’t accept that maybe we don’t pay people equitably.”

By creating space for a multitude of cultures in your office, as well as supporting staff with the resources they need, arts organizations stand a better chance of retaining talent from all walks of life. Lecolion pointed out that, “too often organizations realize, ‘we don’t have enough brown people’, and then try to toss some brown people in there, but guess what? Brown people don’t want to go there. And when they leave, you’ll say ‘well, we tried’, because you didn’t fix the actual problem.” The only way to make lasting change is to keep listening and digging deeper to challenge the establishment.

Want to experience more of this amazing conversation? Watch the entire workshop below, courtesy of our friends at HowlRound!


Audrey Seraphin is the Membership and Capacity Building Manager at ArtsBoston. She is a member of the Front Porch Arts Collective and a proud graduate of the Theatre Studies program at Emerson College.       twitter-4-512 @audreyseraphin

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