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HomeLife In the BerkshiresPart III: 'Change...

Part III: ‘Change Berkshire Culture’ expands out of the digital realm

The two ends of the power spectrum are both now working on different, yet perhaps one day intersecting, fronts, to begin to shift dynamics within organizations.

This is the third installment in a three-part series. Read the first installment here. Read the second installment here.

“Change” has been afoot on Instagram since the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, when Change the Museum emerged to call out issues of racial inequity in the American cultural sphere. In mid-February of this year came Change Berkshire Culture, which turned attention locally. The creators of CBC inaugurated their effort with an invitation to cultural workers in the Berkshires to share stories of ill-treatment, pay inequities, or bias. These have highlighted the power disparity between management and “front-facing” or low status, low-paid employees. The site is now up to 1527 followers, and 65 posts, as of this writing.

The two ends of the power spectrum are both now working on different, yet perhaps one day intersecting, fronts, to begin to shift dynamics within organizations. CBC’s efforts are expanding out of the virtual realm, and a large group of executive and board leadership in the county has convened to advance and expand the peer supports for the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion work already underway among most of the 32 participating organizations and businesses.

First, under the umbrella of the CBC, a five-member Mutual Aid Fund Steering Committee has created a GoFundMe campaign to support cultural workers who have been hard hit by lay-offs and the COVID-19-related economic downturn. The effort has raised $4,420 to date, from 83 donors. Once it reaches $5,000, the committee will disburse $500 mini-grants to applicants.

One of the steering committee members used to work in a Berkshire county cultural organization and is now employed elsewhere. They are most inspired by the number of small gifts from among cultural workers themselves. “Those of us who work in the sector see ourselves in the stories that have been posted, and to be able to do something substantive to support our fellow cultural workers is an exciting opportunity.” There are also hopes for greater fundraising capacity beyond that pool of donors, however, the steering committee members said. “If the majority of the CBC Instagram followers were to give $10, we’d reach our goal quickly. This is a collective.” Depending on the fund’s continued momentum, it will be kept going for multiple rounds of disbursements.

Image courtesy the MASS MoCA Union Instagram page

CBC is also working on other concrete “calls to action.” They are in the process of establishing an education task force, whose primary task will be to set up “teach-ins,” with the first likely to cover the subject of employee organizing. This work will be informed by the relationships the site creators have formed with colleagues at museums such as MFA Boston, who are now going through the unionization process. These efforts have already gotten underway locally with MASS MoCA, whose workers pledged to vote to unionize.

Going forward, the CBC community would like to build tool kits for institutions to use to create more inclusive and welcoming workplaces, and to begin to answer difficult and uncomfortable questions, such as: “How can we rethink how the board functions? Is it benefitting the employees and the public? How do we address the larger question of dismantling white supremacy, which is built into museums? Are we questioning our own complicity? Are we asking the community what we can do better?”

Still unclear is whether or not these conversations would involve both management and workers aiming to solve problems together, though CBC would like to get there eventually. “I think there is an opportunity for these conversations to merge among connected parties.”

Gwendolyn VanSant. Photo courtesy BRIDGE

Gwendolyn VanSant, founder and CEO of BRIDGE, has gotten a jumpstart on helping organizations answer the questions posed by CBC, as well as many others. She and the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation, through a Barr Foundation grant, and with support from Greylock Federal Credit Union, Berkshire Bank Foundation, and the Crane Foundation, have convened an impressive group of county nonprofit and business executives and board members, called the “Inclusive Leadership as a Force for Change” cohort. An earlier iteration engaged seven cultural organizations, and VanSant was brought in to assist with one aspect of that work. “When we started talking about audience engagement, it was clear they needed to do some cultural competency work, to learn how to engage diverse audiences. Out of that, the cohort was like, ‘What’s next? We want to keep that going.’”

The newly expanded, year-long program held its first session in early February, with an aim of providing “unique, peer-led program supports for Berkshires-based organizations across all sectors in embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) within their short-term and long-term strategies.”

Here is a complete list of cohort participant organizations and businesses: WAM Theatre, Norman Rockwell Museum, Community Access to the Arts (CATA), The Mount, Shakespeare & Company, Berkshire Museum, Chesterwood, Art Omi, IS183 Art School, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) and its Institute for Arts and Humanity, Habitat for Humanity, Berkshire Bridges, Berkshire United Way, General Dynamics, Berkshire Health Systems, Community Health Programs, Williams College, Berkshire Community College (BCC), Greylock Federal Credit Union, Berkshire Bank, Hancock Shaker Village, MASS MoCA, and the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. Sessions are led by VanSant and Aseante Renee, director of strategic partnerships for BRIDGE.

Janis Martinson. Photo courtesy The Mahaiwe

Janis Martinson, executive director of the Mahaiwe, is participating in the cohort, and was engaging her staff and board internally before it came into being. She recognizes that others in the field were, as well. “I know that some organizations that were called out early on [by CBC posts] for deficiencies are also among the organizations that are really making efforts.”

Kristen van Ginhoven, artistic director and co-founder of WAM Theatre, was involved with an earlier iteration of the Barr-funded project, along with six other cultural organization leaders. In the current, much larger group, her experience thus far has been positive and hopeful. “It’s a very self-reflective and committed group of folks. We have to realize everything we don’t know. We have to gain the cultural humility. We have to understand what we’re doing that causes harm, and we have to adjust. I’m learning about how there is an inherent power dynamic and the impact I might have on other people. The impact is different for different people in the hierarchical structure.”

A special March meeting of the cohort invited cultural organization directors to address the CBC posts directly. VanSant called that meeting “intense.” She stresses that the commitment within the cohort is to accountability, to acknowledging what needs to be listened and responded to. As she put it: “If we are parents and the kids are screaming, what do we do about it?”

Kristen van Ginhoven. Photo courtesy WAM Theatre

Van Ginhoven said of that conversation, “Aseante Renee reminded us that movements like this [CBC] don’t happen except as a last resort. What’s the invitation that’s being presented to us? We dug deep to try to see the opportunity in hearing what people have been feeling. This is people who have not been feeling valued or seen.”

VanSant is very excited about the potential long-term impact of the cohort on advancing DEI work, and especially about the fact that it is made up of nearly one third people of color. This, she said, reflects the fact that nearly all the participating organizations have been working on DEI initiatives for years now, and have hired people of color to oversee them.

It was VanSant’s idea to make the cohort cross-sector. “My desire was to connect the dots, and connect resources, because they have such impact with all our communities.” The program assumes a certain level of familiarity with DEI work, and is not an introductory-level training. She calls it a “300-level course,” with accountability being the guiding principle, and “accountability buddies” ensuring progress. “We are infusing this group with as much information as possible, building out peer leadership structures, sharing best practices in what has and hasn’t worked here.” The hoped-for outcome would be the implementation of four high impact projects, with the specifics yet to be determined.

Image courtesy the Change Berkshire Culture Instagram page

Among the cohort’s activities is likely to be the completion of a 108-question equity benchmark survey that asks questions on such things as diverse vendor representation and pay equity, and focuses on gender representation, disabilities, and race. Everyone will measure where they are in 11 different categories. “We are all talking about the privilege and influence people are in and how that impacts other people. Class is a big issue here, so we use Ruby Payne’s framework for understanding poverty.”

Cohort participant B. Carter White has a background in finance and has served on more nonprofit boards than he can now remember, including, back in the 1980s, Hancock Shaker Village, working alongside museum founder Amy Bess Miller. He is currently representing The Mount, as the organization’s board treasurer, on the board member arm of the Inclusive Leadership Cohort. He’s attended four two-hour sessions thus far.

He sees pay disparities as the root of the problem, pointing out that a full-time, $15 per hour worker earns just .15% of what many for-profit CEOs earn annually. “That is the gross problem … a level playing field, which involves education, credit, medical care, housing … I think the problem there would dissipate if you were to get at the underlying causes.”

Image courtesy the CBC Instagram page

There are signs of local progress in that direction. MASS MoCA has an election scheduled for unionization, and management has decided not to fight the organizing effort and, in a significant move, Barrington Stage Company recently raised the weekly pay for interns to $350 per week plus housing for the 2021 season. Jon Hed, BSC’s director of marketing and communications, said, “We have been very focused on a variety of equity issues over the last year,” and the increase is part of that work.

Change Berkshire Culture agrees that, “it all comes down to fair pay. We have spoken to BIPOC colleagues and they say, ‘I need to be paid. I’m barely compensated for my labor.’ We need a baseline of humane treatment that supports a quality of life.”

Perhaps CBC and the Inclusive Leadership Cohort can, somewhere down the line, commit to common goals. VanSant didn’t think the issues raised on the CBC page would be brought up so soon after starting up the cohort, but she calls the timing “serendipitous” and likely to keep the conversations real and urgent.

What she’d really like is something much more ambitious. “My vision is getting everyone together in the same room.”


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