Access, equity, and inclusion: That is what the PowerPoint slide read in our all-staff meeting of the same title. As a Latina, I was really excited about this talk, and in fact, left the talk inspired. Here, the institution I worked for, an internationally renowned museum, is working to make an effort in order to close the diversity gap in major cultural institutions. Now, if only my immediate directors believed in the same thing. In the vein of Dear White People, please allow me to explain some of the problems and ways that cultural institutions really can close the diversity gap.
According to an August 2015 study conducted by the Mellon Foundation, non-Latino white staff continue to dominate the job categories closely associated with the intellectual and educational mission of museums, including curators, conservators, educators, and leadership. In these positions, 84% of employees are non-Latino white, 6% are Asian, 4% are black, and 3% are Latino. Meanwhile, non-white staffers primarily remain in security, facilities, hospitality, and human resource jobs.
First and foremost, a museum — which is an institution of public learning — cannot have accurate cultural programming if doors for minorities from disadvantaged backgrounds are continually closed. Leadership must be there to mentor their employees and give them the proper tools to grow.
Keeping growth in mind, museums and cultural institutions are trying to change. The first is a trend many institutions are picking up, and that is to pay their interns. Paying interns at least minimum wage for a 20-hour-per-week job is crucial. Most people who come from “diverse” backgrounds also come from disadvantaged backgrounds. According to the 2014 Kaiser Family Foundation Poverty Rate by Race/Ethnicity report, in the state I live in, Illinois, 28% and 23% of those in poverty are black and Latino, compared to 9% of whites. Take into account all of the budget cuts the Chicago Public School system is currently undergoing, and you have a huge group of people going to universities or community colleges without the proper tools to succeed. And those who do make it out struggle to succeed in higher education and beyond, because they are playing catch up.
Let’s say a person, much like myself, put herself through college. She learned and picked up some good research, analytical, and public speaking skills, and she finally gets a job. “Hooray, I’ve succeed,” she may think. That is what I thought and how I felt when I got my job. But then I faced what I feel a lot of young professionals from disadvantaged backgrounds feel: that I was undertrained. I didn’t know how to make an Excel sheet (thank you, Google, for teaching me) or how to write the way my directors wrote. I had no idea how to do things the particular way my directors wanted me to do them, and they refused to teach me to do things their particular way. In short, I felt like a complete failure.
Here lies the rub of who is successful in life. To move between internships and entry level positions to become full-fledged professionals, people need on-the-job training, mentorship, and the opportunity to prove they are more than competent. You need to have certain skills to grow in any profession, and you learn those skills on the job. It is not fair to suppose or assume that the person you hired knows how to do things the way a major institution does them. And any institution that is truly committed to equity, diversity, and inclusion must be conscious about this. Also, not everybody who is seeking a career is fresh out of college; some have been out for five years or more. Having paid internships and entry-level positions open to people of all walks of life will give you a more diverse applicant pool.
I am a Latina who was the first person in her mom’s family to graduate from college. I went to Indiana University, and learned how things worked by doing them. After three months in my position, my director hired an intern, a white girl who went to Columbia University, whose mother was an attorney and who had a far more privileged life than I did. Every day, I fight to prove I am worthy of success, yet slowly, my director has been giving the things I do to the intern, while I have to find new things to do with little to no direction. Although my director may not see it, it is an unconscious bias.
I did not have the opportunity to go to an Ivy League for undergrad, but if I can succeed in my entry level position and gain the tools and skills I need, I can perhaps have a chance to obtain a graduate degree at an Ivy League, and I can perhaps be one of the keyholders to open the doors to others who come from disadvantaged backgrounds like myself. Training is key. Give people the opportunity to learn and the room to fail, and from that failure, a chance to grow. Teach people the proper tools and skills they need to succeed, and that will make a huge dent in closing the diversity gap.
Top photo: Dear White People
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