Vicki Meek

Equity vs. Diversity

In her latest ART-iculate column, Vicki Meek wonders how the City of Dallas misunderstands the difference between cultural equity and cultural diversity.

published Wednesday, June 29, 2016



Dallas — Recently the Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) initiated a new funding program that was supposed to address the issue of cultural equity. This issue is one that has been discussed and debated for over 40 years by organizations and institutions of color around the United States having been first framed by a group of artist activists led by Dr. Marta Morena Vega, founder of The Caribbean Cultural Center, Dudley Cocke, founding member of Alternate ROOTS, and John O’Neal, co-founder of Free Southern Theatre & Junebug Productions. In my view, it was critical that OCA get this right because, as the City of Dallas’ official funding arm for arts and culture, it sets the tone for the importance of ethnic specific cultural organizations to the city’s cultural ecosystem, thereby helping the private funding sector share this view.

Cultural equity is not the same as cultural diversity, although it seems from the looks of what OCA drafted for guidelines for the Cultural Equity Initiative Program, the staff doesn’t know this! The other telling thing indicating a total ignorance around the definition of cultural equity is the manner in which this program was launched, i.e. announced and an application deadline of less than three weeks after.  But the most upsetting thing indicating how little knowledge OCA staff has on this subject is who was eligible to apply for the funds and who ultimately walked away with the dough!

Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Vicki Meek

Cultural equity is all about achieving an equitable place at the cultural funding table for arts organizations of color and rural cultural organizations (the latter of which none exist in a big city). It’s about helping these organizations get a leg up after being under-resourced for decades. What it is NOT about is giving funds to non-ethnic-specific cultural organizations to present programs to communities of color! That folks, would be cultural diversity and not cultural equity—and Dallas has seen plenty of this kind of funding support going to the major cultural institutions over the years. By now they should all be doing this routinely and not need special funding to do it.

So what went wrong here with the Cultural Equity Initiative Program? Well let me start by saying the first thing OCA staff should have done was consult people who actually know what the national narrative around cultural equity is since our city hasn’t a clue! Second, after so doing, they should have hosted a series of workshops to acquaint the groups cultural equity is meant to benefit with what it means. Third, the application process needed to be designed to accommodate small and mid-sized groups, none of whom have development departments, so turning around a major proposal in less than three weeks is a tremendous burden. Most of these organizations are woefully understaffed to say the least. Fourth, and last, the selection panel should have been made up of knowledgeable people unaligned with OCA. That means having a panel that is comprised of more than half OCA Commissioners is hardly a panel of impartial community members, and like staff, they all should have been trained in the concept of cultural equity.

The organizations that should have benefitted from a true cultural equity initiative were pretty much shut out of the process since the minimum annual budget requirement of $100,000 with a 1:1 match effectively squelched their chances of competing for these funds. In order to receive the maximum amount of $20K, they would need $20K sitting around waiting for this match opportunity. Add to this nonsensical situation the fact that the projects needed to be completed by September 2016 (that’s an application deadline of mid-April 2016 and decision made sometime before the first start date of May 2016) and I’m guessing, since I know how long it takes for an OCA contract to be approved, money needs to be fronted before the city match is available, and you so have a joke of a program if cultural equity is the desired outcome.

As someone who has worked on crafting a cultural equity program for a national service organization, I find it difficult to accept that the City of Dallas would make so little effort to get this right, given the amount of lip service I’ve heard about addressing this issue. Way back in the 1980s, when I was asked to design a program that would encourage the major institutions to diversify their boards and programs, I designed the Minority Arts Incentive Program that had a goal to partner smaller organizations of color with the majors to develop more diverse programming.  Unfortunately, this program failed because rather than becoming true partners, the majors coopted many of the ideas of the smaller groups and because they had the administrative infrastructure, ended up with the designated funds. It seems the Cultural Equity Initiative is déjà vu!

As I stated earlier, cultural equity is all about achieving an equitable place at the cultural funding table for arts organizations of color.  If we are ever going to see this concept realized in practice, OCA should get some folks to school its staff on what a program addressing cultural equity should look like.  As a starter, I recommend reading Voices from the Battlefront: Achieving Cultural Equity by Dr. Marta Morena Vega and Cheryll Greene. Maybe then they’ll get it right and Dallas ethnic specific organizations will finally gain equity!


» Vicki Meek is a former arts manager, a practicing artist and activist splitting her time between Dallas and Costa Rica. ART-iculate explores issues around race, politics and the arts. You can also keep up with Meek's musings in her blog Art & Racenotes.


Editor's Note: A response from the Office of Cultural Affairs has been added to the comments of this column, below.

» Previous ART-iculate columns:

  Thanks For Reading


Ariana writes:
Wednesday, June 29 at 11:10AM

I usually like to highlight a quote I like from the article a la Facebook procedure. But it is impossible to do with this article, I would just end up quoting the whole thing. So all I can say is "YAAAAAASSSSSSS!"

David Fisher writes:
Wednesday, June 29 at 5:18PM

As the project manager for this program, this article, and more importantly this discussion, is very timely as organizations and local arts agencies across the country are discussing and wrestling with the issue of cultural equity and have been for many years.

This past January, before the OCA began drafting its new Cultural Vitality Program (of which the Cultural Equity Initiative is just one part), David met with 40 urban arts agency leaders and staff from Americans for the Arts (AFTA) who were working on a national policy statement on cultural equity. This policy statement was recently adopted by AFTA and discussed in depth at the annual convention in Boston.

In Dallas, staff met with many artists and organizations to identify just what was needed and what cultural equity meant for Dallas. We knew that equity was not synonymous with diversity. Clearly, this is indeed an important and hot topic and there have been multiple definitions which we needed to consider.

We took our lead from other Foundations, organizations like Americans for the Arts, and cities like San Francisco and New York that have also recently piloted new cultural equity programs. Here is AFTA’s definition of cultural equity:

Cultural equity embodies the values, policies, and practices that ensure that all people—including but not limited to those who have been historically underrepresented based on race/ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, geography, citizenship status, or religion—are represented in the development of arts policy; the support of artists; the nurturing of accessible, thriving venues for expression; and the fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources.

We assured the local cultural community throughout the process that we will continue these discussions, solicit much feedback, and continue to significantly refine the process and the program. Two such community meetings are being scheduled for July and the discussion will continue over the summer and well into the fall before the program is opened up for FY 2016-17.

Before those meetings, though, we’d like to point out several significant factual inaccuracies in the article.

  • The Cultural Equity Initiative was just one part of a larger funding program called the Cultural Vitality Program which had two complete other initiatives focused on Neighborhood Engagement and Operational Sustainability.
  • The program required a quick turn-around because if the projects were not substantially completed by September 30, 2016, the funding would be lost. Subsequent years will not have this challenge. We believed it was right to pilot this program in FY 2016.
  • There was absolutely no budget minimum or match requirement for the Cultural Equity awards. Any artist or organization could apply and no match was required. That requirement was for organizational sustainability awards only.
  • The application process was the easiest that OCA has ever presented. For the first round of the application process, all that was required was a one page letter describing the project. The final applications with all of the project descriptions, budgets and information only ranged from 4-8 pages long.

A workshop was held by arts community members, and attended by OCA staff, to discuss the new program and assist anyone wishing to apply. Artists were able to ask questions, brainstorm and refine ideas and give their feedback. Additionally, OCA staff answered dozens of emails and phone calls and held many one-on-one meetings with artists and arts organizations. Based on the early feedback received, the program requirements were even edited “on the fly” to give greater access to individual artists.

As for who ultimately “walked away with the dough,” of the three initiatives that were part of the larger Cultural Vitality program, over 50 percent of the funds ($125,525) went to the Cultural Equity Initiative. 76 percent of those awards ($80,525) went to individual artists or small/emerging nonprofit organizations with budgets less than $150,000 a year. Less than 16 percent of the awards went to what could be called traditional or “mainstream” organizations and all three of those projects used the organizations’ resources to create or broaden their engagement with children and youth in underserved communities.

As stated above, OCA believed it was better to pilot this program, even imperfectly, rather than wait another fiscal year. The discussion of cultural equity has been going on for decades and will continue for many years. The OCA is completely open to ideas, feedback, guidance and opinion. We are all in this together to make our city a more wonderful and equitable place to live.

David Fisher & Jennifer Scripps, Assistant Director & Director, Office of Cultural Affairs

Vickie writes:
Thursday, June 30 at 9:19AM

BOO-YAH! Thank you Vicki Meek for your clear articulation and analysis. Hopefully after reading this OCA and all of us will be clear on just what Cultural Diversity IS and what it is NOT. Excerpt: "What it is NOT about is giving funds to non-ethnic-specific cultural organizations to present programs to communities of color!"

Vicki Meek writes:
Wednesday, July 6 at 4:03PM

Let me just say that the statement David Fisher makes about who was consulted regarding the definition of cultural equity highlights the problematic nature of this issue. Americans For the Arts, although a very laudable organization, is not who defines the issues affecting people of color; the organizations that represent the cultures of those people do. So the first people who should have been consulted regarding creating an effective initiative to address cultural equity should have beenthose people of color who have been at the forefront of this movement for decades and those who have picked up the torch and are carrying it forward today. The OCA would have been better served by consulting with people like Keryl McCord & Carlton Turner of Alternate Roots, Keryl being a veteran of this fight for many years and Carlton being the new guard; Roberto Bedoya of Tucson Pima Arts Council who has done some of the most comprehensive writing on this issue; Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, Founder of Caribbean Cultural Arts Center & one of the drafters of the first call for cultural equity in the 1970s; Vicky Holt Takamine of the PA'I Foundation, Lori Pourier of First Peoples Fund & Maria Lopez De Leon of NALAC all of whose organizations are partnering with Alternate Roots to address this issue, & MK Wegmann of NPN/VAN, the only arts service organization that isn't ethnic specific to launch a comprehensive cultural equity program for its partners.

Cultural equity has become a 21st Century buzz term for mainstream arts organizations much the way multiculturalism was in the 1980s. The definition has been expanded to include a whole lot of entities who are not people of color (or, as in the original call for equity, rural arts organizations) such as small and mid-sized organizations. This dilution of the original intent has been embraced by many municipalities, taking the focus off issues of racism and its affect on equity in funding as well as pitted non-organizations of color against those serving this population, to divide up the already smallest piece of the arts/cultural funding pie. David's comment that OCA thought it was important to launch this program even though it was imperfect suggests to me that there is little understanding of how this statement reads to those of us who've been fighting for cultural equity for many decades. It is not acceptable to just put something out there because there's money on the table that has to be spent by the end of a fiscal year. This issue demands a much greater commitment to "getting it right the first time" than simply throwing something together so a pilot can be launched. My notion of a pilot program is one that has been carefully and thoughtfully designed with consultation provided by those engaged in best practices on this issue. There is enough bad blood already between the organizations of color and the arts funding community in Dallas to risk a rush to initiate a program that has so much to lose if it fails to address cultural equity effectively. And to the statement that the only part of this initiative that required a 1:1 match was the Sustainability Program, once again I offer that OCA should be aware that sustainability is at the heart of the cultural equity issue. Funding a bunch of projects, although useful on one level, does not address the deepest problem organizations of color face in Dallas and across the country i.e. sustainability. So I stand firm in my position that OCA missed the boat on this one and if indeed there is a commitment to addressing cultural equity, some more comprehensive homework be done before the next effort gets launched.

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Equity vs. Diversity
In her latest ART-iculate column, Vicki Meek wonders how the City of Dallas misunderstands the difference between cultural equity and cultural diversity.
by Vicki Meek

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