Framing Discourse Around Equity

By Jennifer Edwards

The following conversation took place on Twitter during the Dance/USA Forum in New York on January 11, 2013:

Me: #APAPnyc So in this conversation of shifting demographics and “diversity” I have heard the word “queer” exactly once.

Ellen Chenoweth: @jenniferedwards great point, would like to see graphs around age and demographics there too.

AXIS Dance Company: @jenniferedwards true. We also see[m] to be forgetting disability as a form of diversity here #Apapnyc @danceusaorg

Dance/USA: @jenniferedwards @AXISDanceCo @elchenoweth Yes, diversity has many facets and we’re diving deep into one aspect today in time available

Me: @DanceUSAorg @axisdanceco @elchenoweth how can we work to develop / deepen / continue this conversation to be more inclusive?

Dance/USA: @jenniferedwards @AXISDanceCo @elchenoweth Easiest place to start is the Forum Survey staff reviews all comments

Afterwards, Lisa Traiger, editor of Dance/USA’s From The Green Room blog, asked me how I felt about the forum. In a moment of complete honesty I shared that, as a queer woman, I didn’t feel particularly included in this conversation. She asked me to write about it.

First, let me say that I’m happy this conversation can continue in a [semi]public space. Second, I thought the speakers were all excellent, and this is not a critique of their presentations in any way. I am glad that Dance/USA decided to focus on this topic, as many of us find the level of systematic exclusion discouraging, disgraceful, and maddening in arts communities nationwide. However, the framing of this topic is what I’d like to draw attention to, as it is the lack of clarity and inclusivity that I find most problematic.

How To Frame Equity
Seneca Falls, Selma, Stonewall: President Obama’s Inaugural Address on Jan. 21, 2013, was a shining example of the thoughtful convergence of seemingly disparate movements and political interests. I also heard this type of framing applied to a conversation on prison reform by former Black Panther Party chairperson, Elaine Brown, at the 2004 National Conference on Organized Resistance. In less than five minutes, she broke down walls around gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity by sharing the process through which party founders realized they could not fight for the rights of one marginalized group without inviting all marginalized voices to the table. Indeed, many people within civil rights movements began with a generalized focus on equality and were then forced to choose one fight over another by the structures of organizations. Elizabeth Cady Stanton spoke of the connection between her work as an abolitionist and her work in the suffrage movement. This is a new and critical era, when we have the opportunity to understand the power of elevating and amplifying the work of marginalized groups in solidarity and as one giant shift toward making art without entrenched gatekeepers — for as audiences shift, so must focus. Relevance must be the guiding directive for the future.

For centuries people have revered artists as truth-tellers, as the members of society who are ahead of the curve in our thinking. Yet this is not what I see in most arts organizations. Nothing speaks more loudly to the lack of listening and resistance to change than the our misunderstanding of equal opportunity and access. Shifting demographics signal not only a change in what audiences look like, but also the needs, preferences, and values of arts participants. We cannot indoctrinate these people into appreciating white, male, heteronormative structures. These are not audiences for the work that exists. By and large, these are audiences for the work that is yet to be made, the work that is yet to be supported, work that is accessible to marginalized populations because it is reflective of their experiences.

The Dance/USA Forum reminded me that words are not interchangeable. Equity is defined as “the quality of being impartial or reasonable; fairness.” The word “equity” connotes an environmental structure based on the needs of all, developed with an impartial mindset. This is different from “diversity,” which signals the diverse representation of people allowed or invited into an existing system. Likewise the word “equality” tends to connote endeavors intended to make one group equal to another, by inviting a lesser represented group into the system where the majority already exists. If we wish for a future where dance artists thrive, we must first develop tools of good communication and flexible thinking. This can not happen if we continue playing a diversity numbers game installed within the current static framework.

Moving Forward
We work in an art form focused on physical alignment — no matter the type of dance, knowing where you are in time, space, and in relationship to others in crucial. We have yet to imagine how organizations — both presenters and creators — can work on their alignment within the communities they dwell. There are certainly a small hand full of examples of this type of thinking. Urban Bush Women and the Life Is Living festivals developed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph are shining examples of aligning with communities for the good of all who participate.

I also appreciated the comments during the forum that reflected on elements of space, room temperature, and seating arrangement. These are structural building blocks with which we can develop inclusive spaces and common language. If everyone in a room is uncomfortable — too cold, seated for too long, craning their necks to see the projected images on a screen — then we all feel alienated and like we aren’t welcome. Conversations about inclusion and creating systems wherein everyone can thrive begin with small things — like rearranging a room, stating that change is scary, acknowledging that it is out of risk that the best creative work grows, and perhaps taking a few minutes to look around the room, acknowledge the people representing the multitude of “minority” groups in the audience, and invite us all to the table.

Jennifer Edwards is a choreographer, writer, performing artist, and organizational development and communications consultant based in New York City. She is currently a visiting professor at Skidmore College, piloting a course on arts and entrepreneurism and has served as a Scholar in Residence for the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. Known for her work in both dance and spoken word, Edwards has earned titles including Sister Spit Slam Champion and her album Exposed won an Indy Girl Music award and was nominated for Just Plain Folks and Outmusic awards. Jennifer’s most recent projects include her newly released app called Grounded and choreographing Expatriate, a play by Lenelle Moïse. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and writes for Dance Magazine, and In Dance. In conjunction with her arctic work, Jennifer is a sought-after speaker and facilitator who’s been called on by organizations like The American Heart Association, Columbia University Medical Center, and The Juilliard School. Major publications have written about her work in stress management including The New York Times and Martha Stewart’s Whole Living Magazine. Edwards is the founder of JenEd Productions, a media production and distribution company, and is the co-founder of Edwards and Skybetter | Change Agency, a consulting firm that works predominantly in the cultural sector.


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