MacDowell Aims for Generational Impact with Anti-oppression/Anti-racism Work

Julia J. Tolo and Jenni Wu - June 4, 2021

The 3rd Precinct from Afar; ink on paper; 9 in. X 12 in.; 2020; Kambui Olujimi (18) visual artist.

In the spring of 2019, when Philip Himberg was hired as MacDowell’s new executive director, staff and board came together to begin asking how MacDowell can be more inclusive and equitable in fulfilling our mission of supporting all artists — especially those from communities that we have not served as effectively in the past. A coordinated, wide-ranging focus on diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) began in earnest under the guidance of Lisa Yancey and Yancey Consulting of New York. The firm was hired with input from outgoing Executive Director Cheryl A. Young, Resident Director David Macy, and other staff and board members. In the first phase of this work, staff and board were grounded in concepts like implicit bias and structural racism, and conducting an audit to identify oppressive structures and practices within the organization.

“MacDowell attaches primary importance to the work of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. It is a pillar of our work going forward, and upon my hire we cast a lens of DEIA across every aspect of our activities,” Himberg recalled. “The MacDowell community is engaged in what it means to truly elevate equity and actively promote and model social justice.”

MacDowell signed a contract with Yancey Consulting in large part because they consider generational impacts, seeking to dismantle oppressive systems, practices, cultures, and mindsets that perpetuate organizational inequities.

As a 114-year-old organization, it made sense for MacDowell to use a generational framework when asking what it means to be an equitable arts non-profit. With a campus situated in a region that is less diverse than the population of artists we regularly bring to Peterborough, and a staff and board who are predominantly White, it can be a challenge to ensure that all artists feel safe and welcomed.

Last year, MacDowell made some significant commitments to our future. In early 2020, Himberg convened a DEIA Task Force of cross-departmental staff and board members. This group is led by Assistant to the Resident Director Ann Hayashi and works in partnership with Yancey Consulting.

“The Task Force is a group of very dedicated, thoughtful individuals committed to guiding MacDowell in this transformative work to incorporate the principles of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access throughout the organization with clarity, compassion, and courage,” Hayashi said of the group. The DEIA Task Force has started a bi-weekly internal newsletter that features interviews with staff and board, as well as recommended reading around themes like “representation in the media” and “local Peterborough DEIA resources.”

In the summer of 2020, a group of MacDowell staff participated in The Bridgespan Group’s “Non-Profit Resiliency Program.” The Boston-based management consultancy explained one of the goals of this program was to identify guiding principles that would steer MacDowell through the pandemic, economic uncertainty, and continued social unrest. In one meeting, Executive Assistant and Board Liaison Virginia Podesta proposed that DEIA should be the “spinal cord” of all of MacDowell’s work. “The expression ‘DEIA lens’ has always bothered me,” Podesta explained. “Perhaps because English is my third language, but most substantially because I believe that ‘lenses’ sounds like DEIA is an add-on to us as opposed to a reigning principle. Lenses are to see, they might inform decisions, but they don’t necessarily put things in motion. A spinal cord guides movement, sensations, and functions, which is exactly what DEIA should do.”

In early 2021, Yancey Consulting worked with the DEIA Task Force to convene six working groups of staff and board. These groups are identifying current oppressive practices and making corresponding anti-oppressive recommendations. The six focus areas are: the residency program, human resources, internal communications, fundraising and external communications, operations and investments, and artistic excellence.

"The collaboration of the board, staff, artist Fellows, and Yancey Consulting has been rigorous and thought provoking,” said playwright, MacDowell board member, and DEIA task force member Carlos Murillo. “Our conversations have gone a long way toward illuminating and eliminating the biases that hinder Black, Indigenous, and artists of color from fully experiencing the riches MacDowell has to offer. The commitment to this work will make for a better MacDowell where the values of artistic excellence and diversity, inclusion, equity, and access are not an either/or proposition, but rather complementary and symbiotic. Ultimately, we will make MacDowell truly reflect the rich multiplicity of our society, and uplift voices that might not otherwise be heard."

To help lead and coordinate the many emerging strands of MacDowell’s DEIA work, Himberg created a new permanent staff position — the director of internal communications and human engagement — in March 2021. Later that month, Yancey Consulting invited a group of Fellows to provide specific feedback on MacDowell’s practices and program. We look forward to finding more ways to engage Fellows in this work.

After funding the first year of partnership with Yancey Consulting with general operating funds, MacDowell received a grant in March 2021 to fully fund the continued work through the end of 2022. At that time MacDowell aims to be equipped to continue addressing the needs of our artists, board, and staff, and the work to center anti-racism and anti-oppression in all our practices without consultant support. MacDowell’s goal is that board, staff, and artists who contribute to MacDowell can continue learning and expanding the institutional definition of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, for as long as the organization exists.

As an organization, the work we have done so far has been galvanizing. We are determined to build new kinds of relationships among board and staff with this work. At its core, our DEIA work is about recognizing people as individuals who have their own set of lived experiences, values, needs, and creative energies, while removing barriers to participation in our program and organization that have been created by structural oppression and racism. Through this work, we are committed to building more compassionate ways to communicate with and understand each other while deepening our commitment to MacDowell’s mission, our Fellows, all artists, and the non-profit community.

We welcome observations, questions, and suggestions related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access with many thanks. Please email us at DEIAtaskforce@macdowell.org.

Julia J. Tolo is our institutional giving manager and Jenni Wu is our director of internal communications & human engagement. Both have been members of the DEIA Task Force from its outset.