Arts, Culture Coalition Calls For Dismantling Of Systemic Racism In Idaho Organizations

Sep 10, 2020

Credit Savannah Maher / Wyoming Public Media

A growing list of arts, history and culture institutions, including the Boise Philharmonic, Idaho Botanical Garden, Opera Idaho and Treefort Music Fest, are committing to action steps within their own organizations as part of a greater community-wide effort to effect change to systemic racism.

In its just-released statement, signatories commit to intentional recruitment and hiring of Black staff, leadership and board members; create anti-racist policies; and support the Black community with access to space and resources for independent projects or programs.

Leta Harris Neustaedter, actress, writer, singer and therapist, and John Michael Schert, entrepeneur, co-founder of the Trey McIntyre Project and executive director of Treefort Music Fest, visit with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the statement, who's on the list (and who isn't) and why the action steps specifically refer to the Black community.

“What are the consequences of not signing? That's a fantastic question.”

Read the full transcipt below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. Systemic racism, it's a fact now that it has been exposed to some, only recently due to the events of 2020, well, that only amplifies its stark nature. A coalition of Idaho Arts, Culture, and History Organizations is committed to taking steps to what they say could dismantle systemic racism in our community. Joining us this morning is Leta Harris Neustaedter, actress, writer, singer, therapist, and John Michael Schert, entrepreneur, co-founder of the Trey McIntyre Project, and executive producer of Treefort Music Fest. Good morning to you both.

LETA HARRIS NEUSTAEDTER: Good morning.

JOHN MICHAEL SCHERT: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Leta Harris Neustaedter, we're not just talking about a piece of paper here, we're talking about tangible commitment, hiring, policy change.

HARRIS NEUSTAEDTER: Correct. Also, content change, as far as what kinds of programmings and exhibits different organizations are offering. So we wanted to create something that would be lasting systemic change overall, not a temporary fix, but fundamentally changing the way arts history and cultural organizations are working and what kinds of programming they're offering the community. The content itself of just what is good art, music, drama, plays, all of that has been really shaped by a white lens. So, fundamentally changing what is being offered to the community as well as who in the community is being given access and being included in those conversations about what kind of art and culture and history is important for us to be showing and preserving and sharing within the community.

PRENTICE: And being in the room when those decisions are made for that programming.

HARRIS NEUSTAEDTER: Exactly. Because that's been one of the most important missing links historically in our country is that Black people have not been included in the decision making and leadership roles. And so when we have been brought into situations, it's usually after the fact, which is where we run into issues about Tokenism, where we're not actually part of the decision making, we're just maybe brought in as kind of more of a superficial stamp of approval, but we need to be in there. We need to be in the room where it happens.

PRENTICE: John Michael Schert, can I ask you to drop some names? Who's on board here?

John Michael Schert

SCHERT: We're going to be clear that this coalition is a democratic sort of entity that's living and breathing and forming itself as we go right now. So when we say the coalition, it's not like the membership is both fixed or finite. And as Leta said a moment ago, and as you pointed out earlier, the action steps, the statement that people are signing on to, it might take some of these organizations years to fully implement these action steps. Because when you're talking about systemic changes, you have to get into the status quo and into the system of itself and begin to dismantle and tinker with and change and experiment. So I say that because I'm so proud of the organization that I've been able to sign, but we also know there's dozens, hundreds, more that we'll still be signing as we continue this work.

But to do this work, when we say "work," what is that? It's a difficult conversation. It's having to meet with your board of directors and some of your largest patrons and say, "We have to make some changes and not everyone's going to like this." So I applaud the Boise Philharmonic and Opera Idaho for being able to sign their two large organizations. I applaud the Idaho Botanical Garden for being able to sign  and Treefort Music Fest. And I can tell you sitting on a leadership team of Treefort, it wasn't easy. It wasn't like we had one discussion and said, Oh, sure, we're going to agree to this. In fact, it took three, four leadership team weeks and weeks and weeks, and Leta can speak more to this, but it took two months for a working group of volunteers, from many organizations to craft this statement and action steps.

So, this work is not easy- and I've named a few large organizations - but we've also opened it up to individual artists and historian. So when you see this list of co-signatories, it's everything from some of our largest cultural orgs to individual artists, with everything in between and to build a real coalition, we thought that was very important.

PRENTICE: Do you think it's because this is tangible … because these are action steps … and that's where some organizations might be hesitant? It's one thing to say something, it's another thing to sign something; but quite frankly, it's a big deal to do something.

SCHERT: Yeah. And I think when you look at certain institutions like Boise State, segments of Boise State really wanted to sign. The Morrison Center was the one who initiated this entire convening to begin with and funded. Morrison Center is not able to sign, primarily because of [Idaho House Bill] 440. So, when we're looking at systemic racism, you also have to look at real structures and laws that prevent some of these action steps from being implemented.

PRENTICE: And simply put, [in HB 440],we're talking about state funding to those organizations; and the shackle that comes with that.

SCHERT: Yes. And so when we look at this list of signatories and co-signatories, there's still ongoing work happening in every organization. And I think that's what we're most proud of is the difficult conversations that continue. And the organizations that have been limited in their ability to sign are also showing incredible other ways of supporting. The city is not able to sign for legal reasons, but the department of art and history has given a grant to continue this anti-racism work amongst the coalition. So I think there is a lot of ways we're going to see the entire Boise Arts, Culture, History community continued to do anti-racist work. But the, I think is important because it says something difficult and it says it out loud. And it says it in a unified message. If this was an easy statement to sign on to, and everyone had to sign it after one conversation, then we wouldn't be doing the work.

PRENTICE: Leta can you give me your vision of holding organizations and people of influence people of power accountable.

Leta Harris Neustaedter

HARRIS NEUSTAEDTER: That is a really tricky topic that we as a collective ... Because everything that we do with this coalition is decided by the group among the group. What are the consequences of not signing? That's a fantastic question. Do we call out organizations who haven't signed? Do we shame them? I mean there hasn't been a discussion about what do we do with the people who haven't signed. For me personally, as a Black person working on this, there's a personal element that is unavoidable for me. And with some of the organizations who haven't been able to sign because of some kind of barriers that they're working through and working on. That's one thing, but there's other organizations that just don't want to, they don't want to do the change.

There is systemic racism within their organizations, and they don't want to face it and change it. And that is a harder pill for me to swallow. And so my instinct is to want to call them out. But overall, I'm trying to keep in mind that the best way to really create lasting systemic change is to focus on the people who are on board and how we can move forward. And hopefully over time collect more of these people who maybe initially weren't onboard, but over time, will see that this is the right thing to do. It's a better way to be in community with everyone in the community.

PRENTICE: Leta, it's important to note that the statement is specific in that. Well, it talks about Black people as opposed to other races, how come?

HARRIS NEUSTAEDTER: Well, we found across the country that when we have diversity and inclusion efforts that are more broad and include all people of color that Back people still tend to get left behind in those efforts. And that those ambiguous diversity efforts are not as effective as very specific anti-racism efforts that are identifying the most marginalized of the marginalized communities. And when you lift up the most marginalized - in this case, Black people - then everybody benefits. So it's not that organizations can only be focusing their efforts on Black people, but it's that they have to at least be doing that.

SCHERT: I think we've seen similar sort of analogies like in the queer community for so long. The benefits of queer liberation have mainly benefited white cisgender men. And so there's a movement to say Black trans lives matter. If you're always looking at who are the least protected and provided for in a sub-group and you elevate them, it elevates all. A member of the coalition made the great point that you go to the Anne Frank Memorial, not just to honor and think about the plight of Jewish people during world war two. It's a memorial to all of humanity and all of human rights, but it's using the specific group as a story in a path for [inaudible 00:09:14] point. When you focus on the traumas and the history of Black people in America, and you begin to really look at what changing systemic racism is for Black people, it will benefit all. But this statement was very crafted to be very specific because it helps focus the effort.

PRENTICE: He is John Michael Schert, and she is Leta Harris Neustaedter. Great. Good luck to you. And thank you.

HARRIS NEUSTAEDTER: Thank you.

SCHERT: Thank you, George.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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