Arts can open the lens on how we see equity

Who gets to tell the story? Not just white men

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By Lacey Sikora

Contributing Reporter

Our public institutions are working to formulate and implement equity policies. But what about  equity in cultural institutions? Elizabeth Chadri, program director for the Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation, plainly states, "Arts and cultural organizations have the potential to bring about social change and should therefore reflect the diversity of the community. The arts play a significant role in engaging our community, and they need to reflect our community's diversity."

Camille Wilson White, executive director of the Oak Park Area Arts Council, agrees and sees a two-pronged approach to making this a reality. First, she touts the benefits to all from having a diverse range of arts organizations at work together in the community. She then says that the community needs to broaden access to the arts as a way of creating a more equitable landscape.

Wilson White praises the wealth of arts-related non-profits at work in Oak Park including numerous theater groups, choruses, visual art organizations, dance and musical groups. 

"There truly is a diverse group of organizations here that we help carry on the impact of their work."  That said, she points out, "Thirty-two organizations applied to OPAAC for funding. How many were organizations headed by people of color? Not many. How many heads of arts institutions here are people of color? Not many?"

Maui Jones, founder and artistic director of Oak Park's Echo Theater Collective, is pushing that narrative and stresses the important role the arts play in conversations about equity. "We've been conditioned to see the world through a singular lens -- that of the straight, white male because that's who was in charge.  The arts convey more than words. They convey emotion and allow you to see the world through another lens. When done responsibly and with intention, art can show people another world. After they've seen that story you shared, perhaps they can bring that lens into their everyday lives."

Through his productions of "Blues for Mister Charlie" and "Free to Be You and Me," Jones has worked to provide that lens, and he, like Wilson White, champions the idea that equity in the arts depends upon access to the arts.

Wilson White points to a few local initiatives that are making access to the arts easier for people of color. She was a founding member of PING! (Providing Instruments for the Next Generation) which helps provide instruments, mentoring and scholarship opportunities to band and orchestra students in Oak Park.

 "Two other moms noticed that there were very few students of color participating in District 97's concerts. PING! set out to remove all barriers. A child going into fourth grade can choose any instrument, sign a contract and get a PING! mentor. A lot of kids who participate happen to be children of color whose parents don't have the means to purchase or rent instruments. We are able to level the playing field.

PING! also works to provide scholarships to music camps such as Blue Lake and Interlochen, and Wilson White notes that many former PING! recipients go on to be PING! mentors. She's also proud of OPACC's Off the Wall program, which provides summer arts employment to youth aged 16 to 22. They create murals in Oak Park and the surrounding communities, are paid and are mentored by professional artists.

Off the Wall has expanded programming into Austin, and youth from Oak Park are working side-by-side with youth from Austin. "We always talk about what bridges can we build between the two communities? The arts build that bridge," says Wilson White.

Jones knows firsthand that access to the arts is key. As a child growing up in California and the Oak Park area with a mother who struggled with addiction, he was always interested in arts and theater but did not have the means to pursue artistic endeavors. Later in life, he acted in a small production of "Guys and Dolls," which he said reignited his passion for theater and led him to question who was telling the stories. "I came up with three tenets for what I want to do: education, information and empowerment.  With the first, you need to use authentic voices. If you're talking about race in America, whoever's telling the story has to understand it. Information means it has to be responsible storytelling. How do we approach the material and casting so it's not exploitive? Third, we are continuing the story. If people are inspired by what they see on stage, we can plug them into local, grassroots organizations."

To that end, Jones has a dream of creating a cultural center in Oak Park that would serve children in need and provide a different perspective to the community, "If we have the space, my hope is that it can become an engine for social change. Giving people tools to see the world through a multitude of lenses rather than shutting down on certain situations is the answer."

While acknowledging that we might be relatively comfortable in Oak Park, he points out that our neighbors are hurting and there are those in the community who also feel marginalized. "If we believe that there is a clear and present danger; if we believe all of these things are dire, why aren't we sacrificing anything or investing our money in things that will move the needle? Everyday that we don't do something, another black kid gets shot or another immigrant gets detained. If we tell the stories through art, maybe people will wake up."

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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