I was raised in a small, artistically vibrant mountain town—far less diverse and, in many ways, more privileged than the communities of Oakland, California, where I live in now. Having worked with arts organizations both large and small, I have learned that it is the leaders at the grassroots level who actually represent and reflect the diverse communities that their programs and organizations aim to serve. Meanwhile, the larger institutions—such as museums, operas and symphonies—are facilitating conversations around the need for greater diversity in arts leadership, but most have not yet overhauled their own practices for cultivating diverse leaders.
One reason for this might be that the arts leaders who are emerging in marginalized communities (i.e. those who are non-white, non-gender-conforming, less privileged and less educated) are simply not prepared to be competitive candidates for leadership positions at the larger arts institutions. These institutions are looking for significant experience in areas such as fundraising, marketing, board engagement and program design. Many candidates emerging from grassroots communities do not have experience in these areas, and those that do, don’t have enough of it. The arts field needs to invest in developing the necessary leadership skills of emerging professionals whose marginalization is keeping them out of the running for leadership positions at larger arts institutions.
One approach taken to developing a more diverse leadership pool is the two-year Fellowship program that Youth Speaks launched in 2015. Aiming to support the growth of emerging arts leaders, this Fellowship program specifically targets alumni of organizations and programs within Youth Speaks’ international Brave New Voices (BNV) Network. The organizations and programs that comprise this network share Youth Speaks’ commitment to empowering youth who lack access to opportunities for success through writing and performance activities.
For the first cycle of the program, eight Fellows were selected and placed as full-time salaried staff at eight different BNV Network organizations around the country. Rooted in communities as distinct as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, each Fellow provides crucial administrative and programmatic support for their host organization. Their on-the-ground experience is supplemented by professional development that Youth Speaks provides through ongoing, virtual training sessions. After only one year in the program, all of our Fellows report feeling more encouraged to seek leadership positions in the arts. Their individual growth is palpable through their improved communication and organization skills, as well as their facility with cultivating relationships and producing large-scale events.
However successful we have been at preparing and positioning these Fellows as leaders in the field, it is not likely to be a sufficient investment. While we have sparked a pipeline for professional opportunities within our own network, the reality is that many of the programs and organizations this network supports are too under-resourced to pay a living wage. So, the question is, where do these emerging leaders go from here? As a field, we need to invest not only in preparing marginalized leaders to step into positions of power, but also in preparing the institutions they are stepping into to help foster their development. Until then, emerging leaders from less privileged backgrounds will not have the experience necessary to compete with more privileged candidates. Arts institutions will continue to hire the most privileged candidate for the job, perpetuating a system that does not make space for diversity, and strengthening the status quo.