C4 Atlanta is committed to the needs of a thriving arts community in our city. To that end, we’ve been working over the last few months on exploring power dynamics and distribution within our own arts ecology and within the organizational cultures of our arts organizations. Inequality in our city is well researched and well-documented. A Bloomberg study in 2018 found that Atlanta had the worst income inequality of any major city in the United States. But wealth is only one form of power. In an industry where so-called “diva” behavior is not only accepted, but even encouraged, we wanted to see what other organizational pressures and disparities our community had faced. What had Atlanta artists, arts administrators and arts organizations experienced, and what resources existed to help us create the arts environment that Atlanta deserves?
Our second part of this series focuses on our second program around power in organizational culture. On August 22, 2019, C4 Atlanta held Arts and Leadership Forum: Diversity Equity and Inclusion with Dr. Brea Heidelberg at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. Dr. Heidelberg is an arts management educator, consultant, and researcher focusing on the intersection of the arts and other fields of study. She joined the Entertainment & Arts Management faculty at Temple University in 2017 and currently serves as Assistant Director of the program. Dr. Heidelberg is a respected expert in organizational culture in the arts, and a sought after speaker on this topic. We were honored to welcome her to facilitate the day’s activities. Organizational leaders and arts administrators gathered with individual artists to consider how toxic organizational culture manifests both in our organizations and in our Atlanta arts ecosystem. This program was once again presented in partnership with our friends at Alternate ROOTS. Here is a summary of what was discussed, what came out of this conversation, and what are the next steps.
C4’s Executive Director, Jessyca Holland welcomed participants and set a general expectation for the overall day. Lauren Tate Baeza, Director of Exhibitions for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, shared with us more about the Center and the work they are currently doing to help ground us in place.
Jessyca then introduced Dr. Heidelberg, who both shared information and facilitated conversation throughout the day regarding how organizational culture can affect diversity, equity and inclusion goals within organizations and the Atlanta arts eco-system. Organizational culture is the values and behaviors that shape the dynamics, practices and psychology within your workplace. Organizational culture is different from organizational policy, although some organizations may have policies that help shape their culture. For instance, policies about how folks are expected to dress and what happens if they are late may shape the attitudes that folks have about their workplace. But often many aspects of organizational culture are more informally shaped by whom is in leadership and the behaviors and attitudes of those who work for the organization.
Organizational culture manifests in behaviors such whether everyone gathers in the break room to discuss a TV show, how guests in your work space are treated, and even attitudes regarding what is appropriate behavior within the organizational environment (i.e. are weekends sacred or do your co-workers email outside of work hours?). An organization’s culture can also shape who is attracted or repelled from working there. If employees do not feel welcome or respected within the organization’s culture, they may look elsewhere for a place that feels more comfortable. This can work against the stated diversity, equity and inclusion efforts of an organization, and can lead to employee turnover. Simply creating policies for greater equity isn’t enough. Dr. Heidelberg underscored that organizational culture can either undo intentions or keep us accountable.
The purpose of Dr. Heidelberg’s presentation was to provide an opportunity for arts leaders and individual artists in the community to have a place to discuss how organizational culture manifests and how we can disrupt models that work against a more equitable system. Dr. Heidelberg explained the many ways that organizational culture can manifest and what it can look like for folks to feel like outsiders within the organization. Toxic organizational culture is culture that can breed unhealthy work behavior, psychology or habits. Dr. Heidelberg mentioned that she is also a consultant for organizations looking to diagnose why their organizational strategic shifts aren’t working, and this is often related to organizational culture.
Organizational culture is strong, and individuals are the culture bearers of their organizations. It is up to individuals within the culture to be accountable for culture shifts, and this can be difficult if you are the only individual within your organization working to change the culture within. Many participants expressed stress and feelings of hopelessness when working within a culture that they felt actively stifled the changes they were trying to make within to become more equitable. Dr. Heidelberg stressed that changing inequity within the arts required both a well stocked “toolkit” of resources and a penchant for self preservation. Sometimes the appropriate response to certain situations requires nuance and finesse, while humor can sometimes more effectively convey a sensitive message. But above all, she stressed that folks not be accept being abused or taken advantage of.
Dr. Heidelberg facilitated a few group discussions throughout the day. In one, participants were asked to identify indicators of the nature of organizational culture within the Atlanta arts community. Some of the following were identified as indicators:
- Artist and administrator pay.
- Attitudes towards the arts.
- Money allotted by foundations and government for arts and culture.
- Attitudes towards individual artists.
- Professional development opportunities available for younger arts professionals.
- Who is involved in conversations that pertain to individual artists and to arts organizations? Who is regularly given a seat at the table, and who is never given a seat at the table?
- Public commitment or policies for diversity, equity and inclusion with no femme-identifying senior leadership or employees of color.
- Staff turnover rates.
- Board leadership.
After this initial discussion, Dr. Heidelberg lead participants through an understanding of how to consider their own organizational culture. Steps to diagnose and change culture included:
Dr. Heidelberg stressed that policy and action plans aren’t enough. Plans are only as good as the folks within an organization that hold themselves accountable for change. Organizational culture is pervasive and stubborn. There is a REASON why that was the default culture prior to trying to shift. It’s important that EVERYONE be on board for the cultural shift. It is not one person’s job to be accountable for the organizational culture change for the entire organization, but everyone’s responsibility. Without accountability from all who experience it, previous organizational culture will not change.
To that end, Dr. Heidelberg stressed that at times that can also mean that organizational culture WILL NOT change until those who actively oppose the change or passively block change from happening end up leaving that culture.
At the end of our time together, Dr. Heidelberg asked us to come together to think about some of the aspects of organizational culture that we wanted to change within the Atlanta arts ecology and some ways to make change Some of the suggestions were:
- Nurture and provide support for employees even if it means they may eventually leave for more pay or more opportunity at other organizations that you are not able to provide. Instead of worrying about losing good people, be the best training ground possible for administrators and artists in your community.
- Where you can’t provide improvement in wages, provide training and other benefits. Examples: a seat at the table in important conversations, a fantastic work culture, opportunities to learn new skills, etc.
- Pay people a livable wage.
- Create standard procedures for exit interviews conducted by staff who are not in supervisory roles over the person leaving. Make exit interviews a part of your culture and a way to learn more about the reasons why people leave your organization.
- If you haven’t done so already, create procedures for complaints.
- As an individual, document complaints or problems in work culture that drive you to leave for your predecessor and yourself. You can share these with those who come after you to share the burden of responsibility for change with them. Additionally, you can also choose to keep this for yourself to document what you are not willing to tolerate moving forward.
- Refuse requests to operate in an inequitable way, and explain your choice to your colleagues should they request that you do so.
- Know what tool is appropriate to point out toxic behavior when necessary. Sometimes a hammer is necessary, and sometimes humor is necessary.
- Take care of yourself and your needs.
Thanks to all who attended!
Photos by Krista M Jones