Lessons Learned: Understanding DEAI as a Daily Practice

As we look toward 2022 and beyond, many museums are working to implement their new or existing missions, values, and initiatives that embrace and foreground diversity and inclusion. As an emerging museum professional and a Black woman who has often felt excluded from institutional spaces, this is heartening to me. But, at the same time, I wonder how museums will fulfill their promises. As someone who has felt the lasting sting of exclusion and microaggressions, I want accountability and action. How will museums invest time in communities, create inclusive spaces, and prompt staff and visitors to question the very systems of power that have built museums? Importantly, how will this work exist as DAILY truths and practices?

In fact, I believe that DEAI is activated not only by long-term goals, but also by DAILY acts. In the museum field, how are we making more inclusive museum programs, content, and spaces through everyday practices? After all, genuine DEAI work affects each employee and department daily (as my former supervisors Dionne Custer Edwards at the Wexner Center for the Arts and Sarah Durkee at the National Gallery of Art taught me). As Shades Collective states, it is a “complete lifestyle and mindset change.”

For this blog post, I discuss lessons I learned throughout my academic and professional career for implementing daily, long-standing DEAI goals. I ponder how DEAI practices are not simply initiatives but daily practices we embody.

A group of adults standing at a museum. The photo is taken from overhead looking down on them. The person in the center is clear, while the others are blurred around them, as if they are moving.

Analyze the systems around you

White supremacy and institutional racism are not abstract concepts – they live in laws and daily decisions. Therefore, we must be critical of the systems that affect our daily lives. As a college art student, I asked why art historical canons did not showcase artists that looked like me. As an English teacher, I encouraged my students to critically analyze contemporary and historical sources. As a graduate student, I researched how policies and practices (written by human authors) construct and reaffirm race through material and visual cultures.

Eventually, this analytical mindset became a daily tool for assessing museum work, whether it be in community engagement or interpretation. During an interpretive strategy meeting, I would contemplate, what art historical sources have shaped our understanding of this artist? How might these sources be biased or tell one facet of an artist and their work? How can we empower visitors to participate in discussions about exclusionary histories and power imbalances?

Learn definitions, embrace uncertainty, and lead with questions

To embrace DEAI in our daily lives, we must be life-long learners. Museum educators often share definitions with their visitors and use inquiry-based learning in their approaches. As a graduate school instructor, I learned how to ground discussions in definitions; for example, in my courses on social identity, we would spend the first week defining terms such as “cultural identity.” I realized that inquiry was essential for engaging students in conversations about social issues: inquiry-based learning, importantly, requires students to take a personal interest in and responsibility for their learning and encourages them to live with uncertainty. By following their own questions and interests, they realized how discrimination and institutional racism were part of their daily lives. Similarly, we must take ownership of our learning (i.e., researching and knowing definitions such as critical race theory) and lead with questions (i.e., acknowledging that the definitions we find are starting points – we can always learn more).

Understand your multifaceted identity and explore its relation to others  

Self-awareness is essential for DEAI work: we must recognize difference; then, we can seek collaboration through that difference. Each day, we must consider the multiple identities we hold and how they intersect with the people around us. This encourages us to reflect on how we treat others and consider how identity lives through objects and performances. For example, as an intern at the Wexner Center for the Arts, I participated in diversity training led by Dr. Melissa Crum’s Mosaic Education Network. In the workshop, we discussed our identity markers, biases, and internal conflicts. This reflective work, which acknowledged people’s different realities, was an important first step for openly discussing how inequity, privilege, and intersectionality manifest in museums.

Engage, respect, and empower multiple perspectives

Conversations about re-envisioning museum collections and programs are truly discussions about power. Who gets to contribute? Who gets to speak? How are we practicing not simply equality but equity? How are these multiple perspectives valued, listened to, and incorporated into interpretive and programmatic efforts? Here, I find the “leaderful model” applicable. The leaderful model, used by organizers in the Black Lives Matter movement, embraces horizontal, de-centralized leadership, encouraging everyone to be involved.

Who gets to contribute? Who gets to speak? How are we practicing not simply equality but equity?

In 2015, myself, students, faculty, staff, and community organizers gathered to form the OSU Coalition for Black Lives. We used this leaderful model, rotating administrative and agenda-setting duties. This allowed us to challenge traditional hierarchies and not simply listen to, but empower, multiple perspectives. Entering the museum world as an intern for the Wexner Center’s Shumate Council (a leadership group dedicated to engaging Black audiences and contemporary art), I saw first-hand how the council’s decentralized leadership allowed council decisions to be a collaborative process. These decisions built a sense of community and shared responsibility.

Certainly, a leaderful model is antithetical to museums’ traditionally hierarchical structures. But we need to listen to the knowledge that organizers, community leaders, and social activists have developed over many years: multiple voices must be empowered to have substantial change. Thus, in our weekly meetings, we can ask, especially when engaging in community-based work, are we collaborating and partnering with organizations and groups outside of our immediate networks? Are we incorporating their thoughts and ideas into design and interpretive processes? Are we collaborating with groups across several initiatives, not just for a singular exhibition or event?

Be an active listener and a humble learner 

We need to be active listeners and humble learners in everyday life. In education and communication, we often hear about the benefits of “active listening,” a concept that recognizes listening as a “conscious activity.” (Here, I am also thinking of “active listening” not solely as an auditory activity, but rather an experiential one.) An active listener approaches communication with an open attitude and a willingness to understand and adapt. Significantly, I believe that, in daily life, active listening goes hand-in-hand with what Ann Hernandez describes as “humble learning.” A humble learner approaches situations with self-awareness and observation, making sure to check their norms at the door and adapt when necessary. Humble learning, similar to active listening, infuses vulnerability and social awareness into communication and collaboration. By being an active listener and humble learner, you can approach knowledge as a shared activity and recognize the limits of your expertise, aspects that are prerequisites for DEAI work. 

Living Out Our DEAI Goals

In this post, I have discussed some ways (but certainly not all ways) for integrating DEAI work into daily life. I want to stress that daily DEAI work, while it can encompass self-reflective exercises, cannot only be internalized work. Thoughtful DEAI practices enact self-reflection and ground-shifting changes in institutional commitments, workflow processes, and funding. There must be tangible, concrete plans for restructuring: inclusive hiring practices; pay for docents; equitable pay and safety for museum educators, frontline staff, and security guards; repatriation; acquisition of more diverse works; reexamination of funding; more diverse boards; decision-making parity with descendants; reinterpretation of museum collections; collaborative community engagement; and more. As a wary but hopeful emerging museum professional, I ask, how can we support these goals every day?

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