Reflecting on the Process of Equity Work at the Museum

The Portland Art Museum recently publicly shared its Equity Statement. Members of the Museum’s Equity Team and Board Committee for Equity and Inclusion were asked to talk about the process of equity work. The Museum Equity Team comprises staff from across many departments and represents a range of gender, sexual orientation, race, age, job position, and seniority, among many other intersectionalities. 

Equity and Inclusion slide: Defining the words we're using
Visual notes from the March 2018 all staff equity training.

Why has it been important for you to dedicate your time to the Equity Team? 

  • This is the first organization where I have worked that has an equity team, and so I wanted to take part. 
  • For me, trust was a big factor. I was not a member at first because, as a person of color, I didn’t trust the work that the Equity Team was doing. But after I saw the commitment and Museum-wide buy-in, I felt like I could be a part of the joint work. I wouldn’t be a token member and my voice would be heard. 
  • I am learning valuable life skills like listening, being present, and working collectively. It has been a powerful experience to be heard and have my identity validated. I feel like I am making a difference.
  • The Equity Team has been a catalyst to help the Museum build trust and have hard conversations. The equity process overall has driven home the fact that we are a human-centered place—changing and not static. 
  • Before I joined the Equity Team I was aware of my identity as a queer woman, but less aware of my identity as a white person. It’s been a big shift in the way I see the world, and I want to help others shift their way of seeing also. 
  • Accepting that as a white woman it’s not if racism is occurring, but how and when. Acknowledging my part and working everyday to be actively anti racist is important. This is deeply personal work and I have a responsibility to do my part, and bring others along.  Author Robin DiAngelo has said “When we move beyond the good/bad binary, we can become eager to identify our racist patterns because interrupting those patterns becomes more important than managing how we think we look to others.”
  • I think it is of the utmost importance to community and funders to approach equity in a timely manner.  
  • I am glad the Museum is acknowledging its past and is building pathways for communication that calls out disparities and addresses them. Ongoing behavior and assessment is important.

What forward movement have you seen in terms of equity and inclusion? 

  • We are redefining what success means, and evaluating how we do our work from the inside out. It has been said that equity work is transformational not transactional. The process we are in is life long. 
  • The Museum is normalizing talking about race and equity.
  • I want to emphasize that with every forward movement, there is a lot of hard work and harm that comes with it. This doesn’t stop us, but it needs to be acknowledged.
  • The overall atmosphere is improving so much. Museum staff are are so much more open to discussion, there is a greater curiosity, and tolerance that didn’t exist before. 
  • I see a lot more thoughtfulness in exhibition planning, and that is exciting. 
  • Hiring, exhibitions, and consciousness among the members of the board of trustees, Museum leadership, and responses from the visiting public.
  • We hired our first ever Head of Accessibility last year, and we are already seeing progress in that area.

What are the biggest areas for opportunity? 

  • Normalizing the conversation around race with all of our stakeholders including visitors, members, the board of trustees, volunteers, and docents among others.
  • Our process for getting new hires the information and resources they need to get up to speed on equity and inclusion. 
  • Maintaining momentum is a challenge, as is getting better participation in learning opportunities throughout the year. 
  • More engagement from people of color across all areas of the Museum. How can we remove language barriers and overcome preconceived notions? 
  • Engaging more people from marginalized communities on the board, as employees, and as visitors. 
Equity and Inclusion slide: Cycle of Empowerment
Visual notes from the March 2018 all staff equity training.

What do you think is most important for visitors and community stakeholders to know about the Museum’s equity and inclusion work?

  • People should know that work is rooted in racial equity, and that the work will never end. 
  • That this is not box checking. There is real emotion, energy, and personal commitment involved in this work. We are changing the core identity of this place.
  • That we are not patting ourselves on the back. We are cautious about grandstanding, but also know that the public looks to us, and we want to be leading on equity. 
  • That we will listen to feedback — feedback is a gift.
  • That the Museum is committed to equity and inclusion at all levels and that is evidenced by noticeable progress.

What has been your biggest surprise in doing this work? 

  • How racist and obstinate people can be. But I am also surprised when people change their minds. 
  • How personal the work is. Taking a hard look at yourself, in a work environment, is not expected or easy. 
  • Realizing the joy that can come from this work. White people can experience a lot of guilt when doing equity work, but by involving more perspectives from people of color I have found that the guilt shifts to joy, and all our work is made better. 
  • How perceptions and reality may differ in an equity and inclusion context.
  • I surprised myself with my own bias and want to continue to learn.  As a trustee I think it is important to look at ourselves because we also represent the Museum.  

What motivates you to keep going? 

  • I can’t stop. I have to keep doing something.
  • Hope. I cannot give up hope that what we are doing will have at least some small impact. Nothing will change if we stay silent. Once the veil is lifted on the inequities and disparities, you simply cannot look away — it’s a call to action.
  • While so much of this work is personal and relevant to me, I know that it can’t help but radiate outward. 
  • I want to keep questioning and challenging to make even more change. 
  • The Equity Team and racial affinity groups are communities themselves. There is a feeling of support that I have not had before. 
  • The tone that we are setting. For example, our job postings now lead with equity language, and people are noticing. 
  • The changes that I am seeing. For example the visitor services reorganization is rooted in making people feel welcome, moving away from policing the Museum. That was really hard internally, but as things have settled, the positive progress is being seen. 
  • I feel honored to be a part of the board committee, and making change. 

How can you learn more, or help to advance equity and inclusion at the Museum?

  • Email to reach the Equity Team with ideas or questions. 
  • Send an email or write to Museum Director Brian Ferriso, who is a member of the Equity Team, and tell him you support equity at the Museum. 
  • Here are some resources that the Equity Team recommends: 
    • Book – “So you want to talk about race,” by Ijeoma Iluo
    • Book – “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo 
    • Portland Art Museum Equity Team Glossary of Terms. Taken from The Center for Equity and Inclusion, and Anti-Racist Education Terminology as compiled by Keonna Hendrick and Marit Dewhurst.