‘Community,’ in Context
Lecolion Washington, Executive Director, Community Music Center of Boston
As we emerge from closures, social distancing guidelines, and mask mandates, many organizations are beginning to look outward toward the communities with which we partner. We are looking for ways to reconnect with our broader communities while reimagining what authentic and equitable community-engagement partnerships can look like. Personally, I have been on a listening tour with our partners here in Boston. But rather than asking what they would like to see in their music programs, my key question has been: “What are you solving for?” This has sparked an entirely new exchange with our partners, allowing us to have high-level conversations about their everyday experiences and the potential challenges they’ve been finding—challenges that are not directly connected to their arts programming. One simple new question has led to pathways we never considered.
Sometimes, what is missing from community engagement conversations is an awareness of the fact that we are relying on the same perspectives, processes, and systems from the past, hoping that they will be able to guide us into the future. All around us, there is less tolerance for those who try to fake the funk, and even less for those who are clearly rewrapping the same present and calling it new. Put another way, we might need to reconcile the similarities between our community-engagement work and the practices of colonization.
The first step is to interrogate the word “community” as it relates to community engagement. The Oxford dictionary defines “community” as:
- “A group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common,” or
- “A feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals”
But it has been my professional experience that, in practice, “community” takes on a different meaning: Places that privileged people don’t really want to visit in the regular flow of their lives.
When individuals and organizations state that they are “doing work in the community,” what they often mean is that they are going to a place where they have very few relationships, bringing with them a product or practice that might be unfamiliar to those in the “community” and then spreading their unfamiliar product or practice far and wide. This is oftentimes done without an interest in equitably amplifying the products and practices that are already in the partnering community. This is very similar to the practice and impact of colonization.
The website Racial Equity Tools defines “colonization” as some form of invasion, dispossession, and subjugation of a people. The invasion need not be military; it can begin—or continue—as geographical intrusion. Culturally, the invasion might marginalize or discredit the artistic creations from the original inhabitants. It is not a mutually beneficial relationship. This is how settler colonialism works, and it is within this framework that many of our institutions create and deepen partnerships: go somewhere, bring your stuff, spread your stuff, remove or marginalize whatever stuff was already there.
On the other hand, authentic community engagement aspires to be defined as: A partnership that creates a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals in service of becoming more equitably involved with one another.
For us reach this aspirational place, we must rethink the ways in which we engage communities by interrogating our relationships from three key perspectives: Power, Culture, and Money.
- Whose challenge are we solving? Are we primarily trying to encourage more people to learn about or engage with our organization (which is about us), or are we listening to partners to understand challenges and solutions that their community has identified?
- Who is creating the vision for this project/program? Did we get together with our own internal brain trust and then ask a community partner to host it, or did we co-create the project, with the partner having veto power over important aspects of the partnership?
- How are we ensuring that those who are engaging in our project also have a voice in holding us accountable?
- Whose cultural heritage are we primarily amplifying? Are we planning to share our own culture, or are we hoping to learn about, and humbly commune with, another culture?
- Are we focusing our attention on the partner’s or marginalized group’s cultural experience, or are we focused on the experiences of those who might be “doing work in the community?”
- Is our primary goal to amplify a current voice that is rooted in the communities with which we partner, or is our primary goal to introduce a new voice into a community?
- Who financially benefits the most? Are we a pass-through organization for funding, and if so, how are we ensuring that we are reinvesting in a way that opposes cultural colonization?
- What percentage of the budget is being invested in community-based artists and local businesses, as part of this project?
- Inclusion does not simply mean recognizing who is being included. It also means understanding and naming those who might be excluded. Which important constituencies/institutions may not receive direct financial benefits from this project? Is there a way to minimize this negative financial impact? If not, how will we manage this financial inequity in future projects?
These questions can be difficult to ask. They require an immense amount of courage, honesty, and humility. But the pathway forward requires us to weave our way through, rather than around, these questions that we have struggled with (or not asked at all) for so long, without fragility. From that state, we can engage in authentic partnerships that are rooted in a sense of equity and inclusion and allow us to have the sustainable and bi-directional community engagement of the future, rather than the dine-and-dash cultural colonization of the past.