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The Arts Education Partnership Equity Working Group

Process over Products

By Erika Hawthorne, Engagement Specialist for the Arts Education Partnership

The Arts Education Partnership’s Equity Working Group brings together arts and education leaders to gather, study and share models of practice and lessons learned related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in arts education. Chaired by AEP advisory council member Pam Breaux, president and chief executive officer of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), this working group consists of volunteers from AEP partners and affiliates committed to advancing equity.

Established in July 2018, the group started with an exploratory phase to identify where organizations were beginning with their DEIA work, what gaps existed, and what goals the working group could potentially support. As the work evolved, the group adopted an inquiry-based learning model to prioritize the process of collective learning over producing and demonstrating knowledge through deliverables. This blog outlines how the group has progressed evolved into its current inquiry-based learning approach.

How We Started and Where We’ve Been

In the group’s first phase of work, members explored what AEP partners were doing related to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility through informational interviews with about 18 organizations. In 2018, AEP hired me as an outside consultant to conduct the interviews in hopes of gathering candid anonymous feedback. Susan Oetgen, NASSA’s Arts Learning Projects Director, played a major role in developing the survey and working with me to condense and report findings back to the group. After reviewing survey takeaways, the group compiled a list of Sample Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Definitions from AEP Partners and Tactics for Addressing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility to help organizations launch or advance their DEIA work.

Throughout 2019, the group met to participate in equity-related trust-building activities and to discuss a path forward. The group considered creating a toolkit for the field and convened leaders from across the country to gather initial feedback on what would be most useful in such a resource. One area of feedback that stood out to me was the importance of pre-work that organizations should consider before publishing materials about diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility to ensure the content reads as authentic and aligned with the organization’s internal culture and practices. Given the diverse starting points, levels of expertise, and types of Working Group organizations , AEP leadership asked members to consider if it would be more beneficial to focus our collective pre-work building knowledge and leadership capacity around DEIA concepts prior to producing a deliverable. The goal was to create a safe space for members starting at various points in their equity journey and to have dedicated time for learning, sharing knowledge, and to test out ideas with colleagues working at various levels in the arts ed ecosystem.

By consensus agreement in 2020, the group re-centered as an inquiry-based learning community. Through this revised model, AEP provides capacity-building resources for members to explore DEIA issues together, with a secondary focus on producing deliverables to support the arts ed field at large. This direction centers the value of dialogue and activities that can deepen understanding of strategies and tactics to move DEIA work forward in members’ respective organizations. This also supports AEP’s strategic mission which places greater emphasis on building leadership capacity and knowledge for arts education leaders.

You can learn more about this strategy in the AEP Equity Working Group 2020 Work Plan. Key to the process was the group’s development of prioritized inquiry questions exploring topics most important to them. For example, equitable hiring and advancement practices; prioritizing youth voices; challenging dominant narratives in arts ed that can be harmful; and centering Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) including their voices, experiences, perspectives, etc. in all areas of work. The process of creating and refining the inquiry questions supported the group’s learning as they challenged and unpacked language, naming terms with negative connotations and histories.

Meeting Structure

The working group convenes every other month with additional meetings as needed to engage in learning-oriented activities related to their inquiry questions. The group starts each meeting with a land acknowledgment to honor the histories that have led to inequities we are fighting today. Members are invited to use www.Native-Land.ca to identify the lands they are on. This guide to Indigenous land acknowledgment provides more context and tips for embracing and growing this practice. Pausing to do an Indigenous land acknowledgment sets the tone for the meeting and allows a moment of reflection before diving into the work.

The group also created a set of community agreements to guide how members show up and engage with one another during meetings. To ensure a safe space where everyone feels respected and supported, we offer an opportunity to check-in and update the agreements at the top of each meeting.

The virtual meeting structure usually features 10-15 minutes of full group engagement including practices mentioned above and a high-level overview of how the groups are progressing and where there is synergy across teams. Then members, divided into four groups, spend an hour in breakout rooms with their inquiry colleagues, with AEP staff serving as facilitators and note-takers. Each group uses their time differently to unpack their inquiry question or review and discuss resources that support their learning. One group drafted a glossary of terms related to their topic and created activities to challenge language and analyze examples of each DEIA concept in action. A team member shared that going through the action of trying to research and discuss terms in a safe group built their knowledge even without a final product as an output. Another group developed a survey to gather examples of hiring and advancement policies and practices they could learn from. A third group prepared to conduct informational interviews with youth to address their question, while the fourth group assessed examples of instances when organizations exemplified their DEIA topic or ways they could have done it better. Each meeting closes with full-group check-ins for 5-10 minutes around a reflection question and closing remarks.

For the next phase of work, AEP is investing in bringing in expert consultants and guest speakers that can provide targeted technical assistance to further build members’ leadership capacity and knowledge around their inquiry questions. The group is currently operating as a cohort to build trust and test out the inquiry-based learning community model. The group will decide when it is ready to re-open membership to expand and explore more topics with a larger group.

How it’s Going and Where We’re Headed

At a recent meeting, group members shared feedback on what has been working well with this approach including an appreciation for small group engagement and the cohort model. Members felt this approach helped them grow more comfortable working together and being curious and vulnerable in group discussions. There was also agreement that the model prompted more motivation to show up and fully engage with each other. Members also benefit from working with leaders across the county in such an intimate setting to break down barriers and build genuine connections.

Based on additional feedback, AEP is currently considering ways to 1) make more space for open organic conversations, 2) build in time for teams to engage more across inquiry groups, 3) make space for group members to build their muscles as facilitators so they can lead similar conversations in their organizations, and 4) address additional topics the group is interested in.

For me personally, supporting this working group has been a fulfilling and challenging learning journey. Strategizing with NASAA and AEP leadership along with current and past members of the working group has helped us co-create opportunities that are most helpful to the members. Many of us are conditioned to be very action- or task-oriented, with an emphasis on what we can produce to demonstrate our expertise. The inquiry-based approach allows us all to challenge our sense of urgency, hold space to deepen understanding, uncover truths that may contradict current thinking and habits, and build camaraderie with colleagues that can support us beyond the group meetings. Some of my favorite moments have been the informal follow-up discussions with members to further unpack concepts mentioned in a meeting or to brainstorm how they might approach their organization’s board or staff with ideas shared in the group, or how to lead similar learning communities at their organizations.

Our entire AEP team has been hands-on with supporting this group and learning alongside the members. For me, an important part of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility work is building a community of support to advance shared goals and hold each other accountable. I believe this group is a strong start and can lead to continued growth for the members and our respective organizations. These sorts of spaces and opportunities for relationship building play an important role in advancing systems change. I’m excited to see what the group uncovers in this next phase of our work together.

To learn more about the AEP Equity Working Group or to access resources the group uses to support continuous learning, please contact me at ehawthorne@ecs.org.

To hear more from Erika about the group, listen to or watch her Arts ARE Education Talk it Up Podcast


Erika Hawthorne is the engagement specialist for the Arts Education Partnership (AEP) where she cultivates relationships with over 120 AEP partner organizations and a growing network of affiliates and conducts outreach to support policymakers with their arts education goals. Her expertise and interests include arts management; grantmaking; communications; and a dedication to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and access. Erika also provides support for AEP’s Advisory Council, working groups, and the partner application process.


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