Who are the people leading the movement for racial equity in government? We have interviewed practitioners across the country who are working to advance more racially equitable governance in their own communities. Some are working from the inside to change institutional practice. Others are organizing communities on the outside to apply political pressure and keep government accountable. What are their motivations and their challenges? What accomplishments are they proud of? This Racial Equity Leadership Profile series seeks to capture and share these stories from the frontlines of the movement for racial equity in government.
In this installment, GARE Research Assistant Mary Lindeblad-Fry interviews Dr. Anh Thang Dao-Shah, the Senior Racial Equity and Policy Analyst for the San Francisco Arts Commission.
Mary: Please describe your current role as the Arts Commission’s Senior Racial Equity and Policy analyst. How did you arrive at this role?
Anh: My background is in academia – I have a Ph.D. in American Studies and Ethnicity from USC. Eventually I received an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) fellowship, which places PhDs in the humanities and the nonprofit sector. That’s how I started with the Arts Commission. During the fellowship, I did a lot of data analysis, impact analysis and supported the agency’s strategic plan. In that 5 year strategic plan, which just ended last year, the agency highlighted cultural equity as the agency’s number one value. Cultural equity has always been the value that guided our grantmaking process. But with the creation of the strategic plan, the agency adopted cultural equity as the value for the entire agency. When I started, I looked at: how can we measure cultural equity? How can we make sure it’s not just part of the grants program but part of the day-to-day work, as well as our galleries, public art program, our collections.
2 or 3 years ago, we became involved with GARE with the help of a staff member from the Planning Commission who was going through the GARE cohort training. At this time, I (along with a few other colleagues), developed the Racial Equity Working Group and we spent this past year drafting a plan and a statement. This was a very long process because we wanted to ensure that everybody in the agency has a chance to provide feedback. In addition to that, I do a lot of data work. We are streamlining and standardizing the way we collect demographic data so we can measure the impact of our agency. I develop the demographic data survey for all of our programs and I am working on a new database that would allow us to better capture and analyze data.
Mary: Can you describe a little bit more about how your organization worked to operationalize equity? How does the data you decided to collect impact this process?
Anh: Normalize, operationalize and organize are never “neat steps” that take place one after the other. We oftentimes have to do all of them at the same time. In the first year when the four of us attended GARE, we decided that we would bring what we learned back to the agency. We introduced some of our staff to the Racial Equity Toolkit. We dabbled with it, such as taking one project or program and running it through the Racial Equity Toolkit. For example, we did this with a new exhibition in our gallery. This was part of familiarizing people with the tool, normalizing the idea that we can use equity-based tools in order to do our day-to-day work. But it definitely does not fit into the model of like, “oh, first we create a plan, talk about it, then use a tool.” We were familiarizing people with the concept at the same time that we are introducing the tool.
We are also taking a closer look at the way we support artists. The way that we make selections for commissions, the way that we select artists for our exhibitions and the way that we distribute grants – we’re going to look at all of them through the equity lens in order to ensure that we are all aligned.
Clearly, some of these items will have to be accomplished on a continuous basis – normalizing the conversation about race, familiarizing people with terms – so that people become less uncomfortable when we have those conversations about racial equity. In addition to that, we also have projects – right now, we decided we are going to have three different subgroups that will be part of our racial equity working group. For instance, one of our groups will focus on HR – hiring, retention and promotion – and how do we support people of color in our agency, but also talking to other city partners at large about how we can make sure there is racial equity in the HR process.
Mary: Can you explain a little bit more about how some of the tools you’re using – such as the demographic survey you mentioned – are incorporated in your work?
Anh: For the demographic survey, we focus on 5 buckets: race and ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and primary language. Together these provide us with a broader understanding of the communities we’re serving. We have a pretty detailed breakdown of the racial and ethnic identity – we allow people to select not just “Asian American,” but also go one level deeper: Are they Southeast Asian, for instance? They always have the option to write in a different option if they self-identify differently. This also works extremely well with gender and sexual identities. We always have the option for people to decline to state, or decline a question, because we understand not everyone is comfortable sharing their identity.
We have one survey that is now being used across the agency. The data we have is standardized, so it can be rolled into larger categories that allows us to compare to city and census data. The data is being collected via Survey Monkey, but we will soon be moving to Salesforce.
Mary: Will this survey also be distributed to the grantees and the artists you support?
Anh: All artists that we work with right now are receiving the survey. We also distribute the survey to our organization grantees, for them to identify the communities that they serve.
Mary: Can you describe why you personally think it’s important to address systemic inequity within an arts and cultural context?
Anh: Racial equity in arts and culture is definitely not something new. The field has been talking about it for the past 50 years! The crux of the problem is that despite all the talk that we’ve had, there is still a lot of inequity within arts and culture at large. Research within the past 5 years has shown that the field is extremely white, especially within leadership. For instance, 89% of book reviewers are white. If you look at executive leadership such as artistic directors, you see that more than 80% of them are white. If you look at museum leaders, the numbers are more or less the same. If you look at the way that arts and culture sector is being funded, 60% of all funding from foundations goes to 2% of organizations, which are presenting primarily Western European art forms. The disparity has been documented for years. At the same time, arts and culture has always been used as a tool in order to address racial equity. We know that others are at the forefront of all kinds of social movements – whether you look at social justice, food justice, artists are always at the forefront. Artists of color have always done the organizing work. Communities of color have always worked to push this needle forward. Art is uniquely positioned within our system, and truly reflects broader systemic changes because of the way that passing culture is so involved in other movements already. To focus on arts and culture in this sector will allow us to significantly improve the impact in other sectors as well.
Mary: Is there anything else you’d like to add regarding the role of the Arts Commission in addressing inequity?
Anh: In our last strategic plan, the Arts Commission really tried to rebrand itself as the convenor in this sector. We are uniquely positioned in-between the arts nonprofits and city government, and we are already translating the needs of communities through our city partners, explaining all the city regulations to our nonprofit partners who oftentimes don’t understand. Our racial equity work falls within the framework of being a convener. How can we support our nonprofit partners and community partners to do this work, if they’re already doing this work in the community? How do we convene organizations that are not yet doing this work? As part of this process, I’m working with the Human Rights Commission and the SF Symphony to create a one-day event focusing on racial equity in arts and culture. We are going to have a three hour racial equity foundation training/workshop, followed by a keynote where we invite Joseph Conyers from the Philadelphia Orchestra to come and discuss how racial equity manifests in his work as one of the first African-American principal conductors on a national scale orchestra. We are going to close the event with an accountability session, where we’re going to talk about next steps and how to leverage this event into a larger movement, with other organizations of all different sizes in San Francisco.
Mary: The idea that these deeply-entrenched and highly respected arts institutions (such as the symphony) are becoming more accessible and equitable in a systematic way is very intriguing.
Anh: Yes, the current focus is on larger organizations presenting western European art forms, and to help them systematically think about how they can advance racial equity beyond doing one program per year with an artist color, or distributing free tickets to a show to a marginalized community. To really ask them to think about – how it starts with the artists you employ, the leadership that you have, the board you have…this all determines the strategy of where the organization can go. Going deeper than diversifying audience, which is usually the term that is being used. At the same time, highlighting and providing the space to organizations that have been doing this work all along. We don’t think of ourselves as the experts, we think of ourselves as the conveners that are bringing people together, and giving them the space to learn from each other.
Mary: What do you hope to see accomplished within the next 5-10 years?
Anh: That’s a long time! But within the next 2 or 3 years, I hope we can develop a system for us to measure the progress and the impact of the work we do. I’m hoping for a movement in arts and culture in San Francisco that other people in the country can look at and learn from, in relation to the event we’re going to do in February. And sadly, I really think it is the right time for this because there is a loss of a lot of interest in arts and culture. Hopefully by next year we’ll have a sector-wide working group going, measuring our progress, and identifying performance measures that will help us evaluate impact our working group is making.
Mary: Do you have any advice for other jurisdictions that might be just getting started in addressing equity in their arts and culture sector?
Anh: I would say, work with your community partners. Because chances are, there are a lot of experts in the field already, so if there are organizations led by people of color and working in communities of color, work with them. I also think that systems are very important because normalizing racial equity takes a lot of time and involves uncomfortable conversations, but sometimes you need to make a leap. So for us to have those uncomfortable conversations during a staff meeting, this is taking a risk, because it is not the space where people expect to have those uncomfortable conversations but we are establishing a norm. I would advise other jurisdictions to try new things, be persistent, and sit with the feeling of being uncomfortable until we can tolerate it, and continue the conversation. And one last thing is, I think somebody told me when I first started here, Iit is a marathon, not a sprint!” So you need to really think about it as a long term project and establish goals for yourself that you can achieve. Make sure you get buy-in from as broad of a base as possible, because you will need those people to support you along the way. The working group is the only way we could have achieved this. I could not have done it alone. It really requires a village – or rather, a working group – to do this work!