Powering Diversity and Equity in Black Arts and Culture

February 13, 2018

Editor's Note: We are honored to cross-post this piece, the first in a series of posts that the Seattle Foundation is running on their blog throughout February, Black History Month, to promote and lift up different perspectives from nonprofit leaders on the state of funding black-led organizations locally. Guest contributor Sharon Nyree Williams leads the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas, a nonprofit that presents and produces Black cultural programs in the Greater Seattle area. 

Riding into work this Black History Month, I drove down Martin Luther King Jr. Way, in Martin Luther King Jr. County, and pulled into my office at the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute, in the historic Central Area. This district was once designated as a Black neighborhood, and suffered the effects of redlining -- painted with inferior values so banks wouldn’t loan money to homebuyers. Now, it’s largely gentrified, creating a whole other set of issues and a conversation for another day.

I lead the Central District Forum for Arts & Ideas (CD Forum), which was founded by Stephanie Ellis Smith in 1999 to share the creativity of African Americans in the arts, sciences, humanities and public affairs through a lecture series. This mission was crafted by the original board of directors, Theaster Gates, Jr., Jana Fankhauser, Rick Simonson, Quintard Taylor, E. Diane Farrar, Constance Rice, who were soon joined within a year by Vivian Phillips and Paul Tolliver. In addition, Stephanie had the full support of her husband, Douglas Smith.

In that one paragraph there is a vast representation of Black history in Seattle. The leadership of those board members is a wonderful representation of diversity in and of itself, and came at a time when diversity, equity, inclusion and access were not as popular as they are now.

CD Forum today is continuing the legacy that was laid before us, with a mission to provide a platform for provocative arts and ideas that foster awareness of and involvement in Black experiences. I can only imagine how hard it was for the supporters back then to start CD Forum because I know that sustaining the organization in 2018 is challenging work.

Fortunately, CD Forum has the pleasure to be in a program offered by the National Performance Network/Visual Arts Network’s (NPN/VAN) called Leveraging A Network for Equity (LANE). LANE brings together extraordinary leaders from arts and culture organizations to address racial and geographical imbalances in the field together. NPN/VAN, with support of the Mellon Foundation, sees a path toward equity and recognition for critical cultural work. The first cohort began in 2016 with a focus on sustaining our organizations, which come from New Orleans, Denver, Knoxville, San Jose, Helena and Seattle. And if I can be honest, it hasn’t been an easy journey, but it’s been one that has challenged the traditional operational and financial models for nonprofits, and encouraged dreaming big, all while working hard to pinpoint systemic issues and develop collaborative solutions.

The program goes beyond an analysis of the arts and culture sector or basic funding for survival, by providing tools and resources, including consultants from the Non-Profit Finance Fund. We have two mandatory meetings a year with the entire cohort, whose participants are encouraged to bring a board member to accompany them through the process. Over the course of this four-year program, consultants guide us through analyzing our business models and making strategic plans to sustain our organizations. The funding phase of the program comes in three parts. First, we receive a set amount of unrestricted funds each year for the length of the program. Second, we receive recovery capital that pays down the debt of the organization. Last, comes change capital – funds to help move the organization forward.

The importance of CD Forum in our community is as great today as it was when the organization was started. By being a part NPN/VAN’s LANE program, we have an opportunity to continue sharing the truth about Black experiences. Our sustainability plan includes growing our staff, working with consultants and upgrading and purchasing technology, while gradually increasing our focus on programming and developing artists as creative entrepreneurs. As in our origins, we will continue to provide for the community through the lens of Black arts and culture.

The good news is that in Seattle and nationally some funders and stakeholders throughout the field agree that it is deeply important to develop a funding practice and structure that includes diversity, equity, inclusion and access. The reality is that only a few of us will be around to see it come to fruition. CD Forum is proud to have our little part in making Black history.  

Learn more about the Central District Forum for Arts and Ideas and Seattle Foundation's Arts & Culture element of a healthy community. You also can read about more local organizations providing equitable access to the arts in Seattle Foundation's Heart & Science Magazine Vol. 2 (pdf).