When anyone accepts a position at the California Arts Council (CAC), one of the first documents they sign is a “Duty Statement.” This is a list of commitments, job responsibilities, and includes the core values and mission statement. It reads:
The California Arts Council values diversity at all levels of the organization and is committed to fostering an environment in which employees from a variety of backgrounds, cultures, and personal experiences are welcomed and can thrive. The CAC believes the diversity of our employees and their unique ideas inspire innovative solutions to further our mission of bringing arts and creativity to all Californians.
But when it comes to the arts program specialists, I and several of my former colleagues found it to be a space that causes fear of retaliation, targeting and silencing, and where leadership lacks accountability.
Hired as an arts program specialist, I managed over 700 grant documents, analyzed data on the arts and culture field, and developed grant guidelines. After being forced to move to take up this position during the current pandemic without relocation support, I resigned due to what I found to be a hostile work environment at CAC. During my time there, I recorded that numerous grants were awarded without signed letters of agreements; a Latinx organization complained they were dissuaded from applying to a grant by CAC white staff; and often grant budgets were unbalanced between operational funds and equitable hourly wages for teaching artists, many times favoring the operations rather than the artists.
All of these actions were specified as unacceptable in the CAC grant process and they led to interpersonal work disagreements, low staff morale, and address what several of us saw a culture of white supremacy at CAC. In July of 2020, I was directed to approve “final reports” without reviewing them and advised not to raise questions about these practices by the director of program services. All of these issues contributed to the fact that nearly 68% of CAC funding through 2020 was provided to arts organizations that are led by whites.
In September of 2020, a colleague was internally reprimanded by staff management for emailing council members without leadership approval regarding policy issues that could impact the arts programs negatively. As a result, the arts program department was directed to refrain from all direct communications with the council unless advised to do so by the director of program services. This was perceived by some of my colleagues and me as an attempt to silence our concerns. Communicating reports on policies affecting the arts with the council is written into the duty statements as an essential function of the arts program specialist position.
Eventually, the lack of support from leadership created stress and health issues for me, resulting in an emergency room visit and my eventual resignation. However, I was not the first or last person of color to resign in 2020. Before me, five people of color from the operations and programs departments departed from the agency and the director of program services, a woman of color herself, resigned in December.
Months before my resignation, arts program specialists and other members of the CAC program’s team had requested that senior management adopt a restorative justice model to resolve the issues I have highlighted. We did so referring to CAC’s Racial Equity Statement and strategic framework in order to make the case that CAC needed to live up to its own promises. As a result, the Deputy Director said the strategic framework was not meant to be used internally by the arts program department. She also stated that the CAC would consider mediation through an outside consultant while also using the term “conspiracy” in a program team’s meeting as a way to describe the staff’s allegations of inequitable grant processing. But the mediation has yet to be scheduled.
These forms of gaslighting and retaliation are traits of white supremacy culture. But they become compounded when initiated by people of color towards other minoritized groups in the workplace. When I initially started this position, I vocalized my loyalty to the Deputy Director because she is a Black woman in leadership, second in command after the executive director who is a white woman. I assumed working under the direction of a woman of color in an agency that was 70% people of color that “prioritizing diverse and underserved communities in the arts” as I stated in my “statement of qualifications” and job interview, would be considered part of my responsibility with regard to analyzing data in the arts field and organizing internal grant evaluation practices.
CAC is viewed as one of the leading arts council’s in the nation, particularly for their racial equity statement and strategic framework. Why not admit to the harm caused and accept accountability and thus lead by example and hold themselves accountable?
In collaboration with an outside consultant, the CAC developed their strategic framework and a “Decision Support Tool” embedded in this framework. The CAC Decision Support Tool is designed to lead to a more equity-based and consistent decision-making process that allows for reflection, changes in timing, and thoughtful consideration of the impact of the CAC’s actions on its entire range of constituents. So, the solution to correct the harm that CAC leadership have caused staff can be found on their website and has already been approved by the chain of command. I urge them to rise to their own challenge and apply their racial equity framework internally.