Learning Fund Connects DEI Training Across Network, Guest Blog by Mary Bevans Gillett

by admin July 10, 2023

By Mary Bevans Gillett

The Northwest Michigan Arts & Culture Network is built on foundational beliefs in collaboration and collective impact. In serving over 100 organizations and thousands of individuals who infuse the region with arts, culture, and creative endeavors, we work together on our strategic priorities of connecting, capacity building and communications to strengthen our creative sector while also building cultural vitality in our many communities. 

Key to building capacity is a commitment to continued learning. We do so through many tactics - webinars, roundtables, training sessions, mini-grants, and our annual Northwest Michigan Arts & Culture Summit. One of our most successful and impactful experiences was made possible through Rotary Charities’ Learning Fund. Last fall, the Network received a $2,000 Learning Fund grant which, along with grants from Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation’s DEI fund and Michigan Arts & Culture Council, allowed the Network to offer a deep dive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) workshop series which benefited Network members and colleagues throughout Northwest Michigan and beyond. Specifically, we were able to engage the nationally respected Journey Theatre Project (JTP) to present three half-day sessions that introduced and built on DEI concepts with interactive learning, hands-on strategies, and new tools. The impact will continue to ripple through participants’ subsequent work well into the future. 

We looked at the learning fund as an opportunity to stretch resources far beyond sending a single representative to a conference or individual professional development – while we certainly respect that those learning opportunities are also extremely valuable. However, we hoped to multiply benefits by collectively accessing funding, sharing the experience, and then seeding subsequent impact. The Learning Fund helped us to do that, providing multiple benefits—most notably access and content.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion work has been of keen interest in our network, as has been the case of many nonprofits in northern Michigan. The topic was highlighted during panels and breakout sessions at the 2021 and 2022 regional arts and culture summits, but many attendees requested further resources and learning options. The Network was able to share online tools, member expertise, and related resources but was unable to share deeper dive expertise due to funding.

Most of our members, as well as the Network itself, are small organizations with few staff and very tight budgets. This is especially true now as many continue grappling with the devastating impact that the pandemic inflicted on the creative sector. Many DEI trainings were unattainable due to cost, rurality, and organizational capacity.  The Journey Theatre Project usually works with large organizations, often for-profit entities with greater financial capacity. While JTP offered a very fair, nonprofit discount to the Network, the cost was still beyond our budget without help.

Accessing the Learning Fund allowed the Network to do more collectively than any single one had the capacity to do alone. We were able to offer more sessions to more attendees with greater interaction and engagement through digital delivery of all three workshops and related tools, which was especially beneficial for those in remote areas. This has contributed to greater collegial support as we move forward together as a Network. 

In terms of content and presentation, JTP provided an embodied approach to diversity, equity, and anti-racism. They used applied theatre strategies, including critical dialogue, creative reflection, and embodying action. Each workshop offered multiple opportunities for participants to engage with their own experiences and grow through conversation with others. By utilizing a scaffolding approach that introduced new concepts, then built and reinforced learning while also “meeting all where they were,” many individual learning needs were met, regardless of the extent of prior training. Bringing many together to learn, discuss and engage created a shared narrative with strategies and learning that could be tailored for local implementation while also sharing resources, ongoing support, and contacts for subsequent integration.
What did we learn? “Race & You” introduced implicit bias and systemic racism with data, definitions, and historical context. “Dress Rehearsal for Change” built on the first session with further information as well as opportunities to share experiences and reflections. “Necessary Conversations” was held two months after the first two workshops, offering further strategies as well as the opportunity to share experiences in implementing prior learning into their organizations or creative practices.  

What’s next?  Impact will continue to ripple within organizations, spreading to the communities they serve, and then across the region with principles, awareness, and tools incorporated into daily operations as well as long-term planning. And we will continue to learn, support each other, share, and strengthen DEI culture independently, collectively, and as a Network thanks to the seeding done by Rotary Charities Learning Fund.

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