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How do we represent the diversity of our own community?

One of my least favorite things to do is to write blog posts but I force myself to sign up to deliver on said activity when it’s a topic I care deeply about. The LatinXPerience Study brought this inclination up and out of my gut and inspired my fingers to write an email saying, “I will write one!” After serving on the study's Advisory Committee and reading the report I couldn’t help but feel a mix of inspiration and honestly, a healthy dose of self-doubt. As the Executive Director of the School of Arts and Culture at MHP, what our industry calls an “ethnic-specific” arts organization, I wasn’t sure where we might stand when it comes to delivering on the three elements to unified engagement as explained in the report: cultural competence, marketing/communication and simply put, having great content.

Since we opened up shop a little over six years ago at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in the historic Mayfair Neighborhood of the Eastside of San Jose, I have felt pretty confident about our cultural competency. We have bilingual staff, some US-born, some immigrant, all deeply committed to the beauty and power of our Latino community’s cultural offerings. When a local mom comes in with her three kids asking “Aquí hay clases de guitarra? / Are there guitar classes here?," the response will be “Seguro que si, que edades tienen sus hijos? / Certainly, what ages are your children?” However, I also think we bring additional layers to our competency because we have a multicultural staff that actually reflects our Latino community’s experience in San Jose. When you walk in, you will see Vietnamese and African-American staff as well who also greet you at the Mexican Heritage Plaza. This is an important part of the offering that while the Study does not touch upon being rooted in Latino community and having a multicultural experience when you walk through the doors of an arts organization, the Study definitely made me think about the importance of it.

As for our content, over the years we have stayed committed to honoring and feeding our root Mexican culture while making dedicated space and multiple platforms for a multicultural perspective. What I have come to learn from our neighbors, families, and participants is that what they cherish about our place is that we create opportunities to create their own experiences, their own content; from a Señorita Jalisco beauty pageant to Día de los Muertos altar installation or a traditional play such as La Muerte Baila presented by Teatro Vision with members and actors that live and work in San Jose, or from Chicanas to Mexicanas, from Colombianas to Hondureñas, Estamos Presents/We Are Present. The question that tugs at me after reading the study is how much thought are we truly putting into the differences in our own Latino community and what they are seeking. Does one program such as our arts education offerings tilt more towards the Pride Mindset? And if so, how? What are we doing by design and what by accident to attract that grouping? Also, the toughest question to ask: what are we doing that pushes a group away that we should be concerned about? Are we approaching a program or a project with the right Mindset as defined by this study? Or are we making assumptions that our personal experiences as Latinos working in the arts are those of the broader community? I have been guilty of that kind of programming myself.

It seems that I have more questions than answers at the moment, however, I believe that the Study does push us to consider more deeply exactly how are we sizing up when it comes to the large differences in our diverse Latino community. Often, we get into our field because of our passion, not our analysis and this type of research adds clarity to our vision for a culturally strong community and ultimately to our daily work.

A few final thoughts: Often, those of us in the biz have trouble keeping up with all the information and analysis that comes out of our field about our field. About a year ago, I reached out to a couple of friends and asked them to form a Reading Club with me and help me hold myself accountable for reading and then doing something pretty radical: talking about the research and reports that write about us!

So if you know me, you know that I will be making some recommendations. First off, create a Reading Club. Think about your network, find the one person you consider the Intellectual or if that’s you, congratulations! That is not me or the majority of us. Ha! I especially created my club because I aspire to be the Intellectual. Now I am getting off topic. Back to the lecture at hand!

This club is to read reports such as the LatinXPerience Study, Moving Arts Leadership Forward and maybe a blog like Nonprofit AF and then talk about them, disagree with and question each other’s thoughts over the phone and practice taking risks with verbalizing your thoughts. The ones that you downplay and think are not as smart as your colleagues are. It takes a little practice (and calendar dedication) to get comfortable with this type of dialogue but in time you will find yourself weaving in your past analysis from earlier conversations. I know, it’s happening to me!

I took the opportunity to write this blog because I want to promote the idea of pushing ourselves further using research, while including our own personal and lived experiences, in the creation of arts and culture in the Latinx community. This Study does exactly that. It pushed me to think harder about the work of my organization and to think how might I actually get this kind of research read and digested by my colleagues at work and those that we partner with.

It also helps resolve another tension in our field to a certain extent. If you have ever been at the receiving end of an email or phone call from a white mainstream arts organization seeking guidance about “how to engage the Latino community,” this is an excellent starting point. I will certainly use this work to respond to those calls and then engage in an informed conversation. I invite you to read it, discuss it and to share it with your internal and external networks to get a platica going about what is truly going to be effective in engaging our community with what it already experiences without us: arte y cultura.

(all images courtesy of the School of Arts and Culture.)

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