Top-Down Inclusion 

Berkeley Cultural Trust reaches out to BIPOC artists

The statistic is stark: According to a recent study, although communities of color represent 37 percent of the U.S. population, they receive only 4 percent of total arts funding. (Source: Helicon Collaborative, funded by the Surdna Foundation.)

When leaders of the Berkeley Cultural Trust (BCT) saw this study, they already knew it wasn’t just about money. Natalia Neira, who co-founded the BCT’s Equity & Inclusion Committee, is also the co-executive director of South Berkeley’s La Peña Cultural Center. With co-chair PC Muñoz from Freight and Salvage, the committee began addressing the bigger picture. 

“We assessed our priority areas, and it became clear that the Berkeley arts administration world is not racially diverse,” Neira said. “Not for lack of being open to the public, but rather because of deeper historical and structural racist policies that were intentionally created to make Berkeley exclusive to white Caucasians through redlining and other tactics.”

The BCT itself is a voluntary consortium of cultural organizations and artists operating or based in Berkeley, said Co-Chair Daniel Nevers of the Berkeley Arts Center. Membership is free. “It’s a way for those of us working in the arts and culture sector to get to know one another, to seek and offer support, to find new collaborators and to advocate on behalf of the arts to policymakers.”

So, it was apparent that more should be done to reach out to organizations and artists not currently included in the BCT. “A more concerted effort was needed to outreach to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC)-serving or lead organizations, groups and artists to sit at this table,” Neira said. The effort was partly inspired by the equity work La Peña Cultural Center has done through Leverage A Network For Equity (LANE), a program run by the National Performance Network and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The BCT’s effort, it was decided, would include asking organizations to hire equity consultants to help them diversify their boards, creating partnerships and pathways to work with BIPOC organizations and artists, changing hiring practices to reach people outside of their direct network and designing more entry-level positions to advance a more racially diverse pipeline of arts administrators.

The BCT’s most recent action, launched early this year, is a direct appeal for “arts administrators, artists and other cultural workers who live and/or work in Berkeley and have a passion for racial justice” to join the BCT.

Said Nevers, “Those of us working in the arts recognize that representation matters, that seeing yourself reflected in the cultural narrative can have a profound impact on what you can imagine for yourself.” He added that there is growing recognition that for cultural organizations to truly represent the communities they are trying to serve, they have to look beyond programming “to ask who within our organizations gets to make decisions about which artists, what programs, how much budget.”

At this point, Nevers said, almost two dozen new groups/artists have applied to join the BCT, whose current membership is between 50 and 60. These new members will contribute to established initiatives of the Equity & Inclusion Committee and the BCT, propose their own initiatives, join action-oriented task forces and help spread the word about the work the Trust is doing.

The new members, said Nevers, can bring firsthand perspectives about what it’s like for them to work in and engage with the arts, where they feel included and shut out of opportunities, and what support they need to become leaders in the arts fields.

A volunteer committee is not going to fix all deep structural inequities, Neira acknowledged. “However, this committee’s greatest strength is that it is a table built by the people,” she said. “This an open call for folks to join the table, participate in existing initiatives and bring their own ideas or concerns to the table.” 

Then, as partners, the members will brainstorm and support each other in the strategy to address racist structures that “are so deeply ingrained, they’re almost invisible to folks already benefiting from the current structure,” she said.

For more information about joining the BCT, visit https://berkeleyctrust.weebly.com/news.html.

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