Managing Museum Workplace Conflict

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Recently I heard a story about a colleague’s child who was bullied at school. As heartbreaking as the actual bullying was, the more alarming part of the narrative was the school administrators’ reaction. They took the position that unless an adult witnessed the bullying, it didn’t happen. Sadly, this behavior affects not just middle school students, but working adults as well. It’s a neat trick, saying that something didn’t happen unless you’re there. It diminishes the victim, making her feelings and experience invisible. Imagine how much of life you could relegate to the “not my problem” column if you said, ‘Well, I wasn’t there, so it didn’t happen.’

How many of you have finally summoned the courage to see your executive director about a workplace conflict only to be asked “Well, have you tried talking to Jane?” as if talking wasn’t the thing that brought you to the Director’s office in the beginning? And how many of you who are leaders have responded with some version of “Well, I’m sure John didn’t mean it that way.” Really? If you need an explanation of why that’s a completely useless sentence, read on.

In the for-profit world, experts tell us as much as 42-percent of workplace time is spent trying to resolve conflicts, and their resolution can involve 20-percent of a leader’s work week. To my knowledge, no one has studied whether the museum world’s statistics are similar, but even if museums are half as conflict ridden, that’s still eight hours a week of open disagreement, passive aggression or conflict avoidance.

And to all the museum women out there, know that workplace disputes, especially those pitting one woman against another, hurt you more than disagreements involving your male colleagues. Why? The short answer is there is a lot bias about women in the workplace, but to begin, men and women judge conflict between two women more harshly than between a man and a woman or between two men. Men’s arguments are not termed ‘cat fights,’ for example. Men are expected to be aggressive, and forgiven for being rude, while women are expected to play nice, be nice and smile, and a woman’s “nice” facade may mask anger and back biting. Further, women perceive other women as more judgmental than men. As a result, they avoid female colleagues in an effort to sidestep perceived judgment.

So what’s a leader to do in the face of workplace conflict?

  • Model the behavior you want: If you get angry, direct your anger toward situations and things rather than people and their personalities.
  • Treat everyone with honesty and respect. When you meet with disgruntled co-workers, be impartial. If it appears you’ve already sided with one of them, your attempt at mediation will die on the vine.
  • Don’t let conflict fester. If you get wind of a problem, sit down with your team members sooner rather than later.
  • Talk to your staff not just about what they’re doing, but how they feel about what they’re doing. Perceived and real inequities create stress, which prompts conflict.
  • Remember to listen, and when beginning conflict resolution, remember to promise confidentiality.

And if you’re a staff member?

  • Treat everyone with honesty and respect.
  • Try not to take sides. This isn’t 8th grade. Strong bonds between co-workers may force colleagues to take sides, choosing one faction over another.
  • Don’t let conflict fester. If you’re having issues with a co-worker that don’t go away in a day or two, talk it out with your department leader or ED.
  • Try not to personalize conflict. This isn’t about you as much as it’s about work. Keep your focus on what you’re asked to do.

If you’re a museum leader, can you ignore conflict, believing that unless you see people yelling at one another, your workplace is a little Nirvana? Of course. You can follow the path of the middle school teachers in the opening story, but unlike middle school students, your staff chooses to work for your organization. If coming to work leaves them psychological wrecks, they may quit. And conflict is costly: It jeopardizes projects; stressed employees may take sick days; and conflict leads to costly resignations. And, while engaged workers make everything easier, toxic ones cost your museum money. In one for-profit study from Harvard, a toxic worker cost her organization $12,000 annually, while an engaged worker added $5,000 in terms of productivity.

Museums aren’t the high-paying stars of the non-profit world. They get by, in part, because staff has a deep love for art, science, and human experience, translating them into something experiential and understandable, and, more recently, engaging communities they serve in dialog, story telling and knowledge sharing. But organizations who don’t pay well must compensate in other ways. Creating work places where it’s fine to disagree, but where bullying and toxic behavior aren’t tolerated is a small step toward building healthy museum work environments. #bekind.

Yours for a conflict-free workplace,

Joan Baldwin

 

 

 

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Leadership and the Game of Checkers

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Before we begin, I’m old enough to remember when having a great designer–and that meant print–and a wonderful, smart, people-loving group of museum guides meant your organizational persona was in good hands. Not true today, which is why when the inimitable Mar Dixon sends this blog post, I read it. If your organization is big enough to have its own communication department filled with creative souls who make magic with memes, gifs, Instagram, and other metaphorical moments, you should read it too. Right now.

Since I often write about workplace issues in MuseumLand, it was arresting that the first explanation blogger Lori Byrd-McDevitt mentions for the exodus of social media folk from our world is “Burnout and mental wellbeing are not proactively addressed,” and the second is “It’s hard to be under-resourced and unvalued, yet overworked.” This is a wake-up call folks. It’s not like these symptoms aren’t happening elsewhere in the field. The difference here is that, as far as I’m aware, education curators, directors and collections managers aren’t able to leverage their talents to the likes of Elon Musk or Khorus. Share this with your board.

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When I was a child I spent summers with my grandparents. When twilight came, and the dishes were done, I played checkers with my grandfather. He was not a new-age granddad who believed in letting his grandchildren win. I lost with startling regularity. After a double or triple jump I glowed only to be whipped back to reality as my checkers disappeared from the board. It took multiple summers before I realized that what was important wasn’t necessarily what happened in the moment, and that sometimes sacrificing a piece provided an advantage.

Why the checker story? Because leaders not only need their own ideas about what a museum or heritage organization can be and where it might go, they need to predict the future. This is where the checkers metaphor comes in. Good leaders look across the board, not just at the move in front of them. They do scenario planning — daily, weekly, monthly, annually. They don’t assume if visitation is up that it will continue to climb. They watch for the next new thing, making sure it’s not just a shiny object. They try to understand which community alliance will grow and which will not, and to decide which underwriting will support their museum’s goals and which will end up kidnapping them.

And who is successful examining the future and why? Certainly not everyone. Some leaders are fearful, holding a rigid middle-of-the-road course that drowns their museum in mediocrity. Some are simply blind, running into one obstacle after another. Others get tripped up by detail, and fail to look at the big picture. And some don’t consider more than their own point of view or at least their point of view as echoed by a like-minded staff or board.

Understanding what’s coming means listening to a variety of voices. Voices that challenge, authentic voices, courageous ones. Whether you’re a board member, director or program leader, don’t be seduced into believing that because something is currently moving one direction it will continue to do so. That kind of thinking will lock you in. Bad trends prevent you from experimenting, and if things go well, you won’t try anything new because you don’t want to rock the boat.

To truly be attuned to the future, you need to watch, listen, and understand the people who make up your community–your museum workplace, your volunteers and members, and your wider community. Listen for more than a sound-bite. Be deeply engaged for more than a moment at a time. Empathize, empathize, empathize. The future will still come at you fast, but you’ll be better prepared.

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Last, an invitation: The new edition of Leadership Matters is out.  If you are coming to the American Association for State & Local History’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia August 27-31, please join us for a book signing August 29 between 3-4 pm. We’d love to see you, and maybe sign a book for you.

And if you see any of the book’s newest interviewees, congratulate them! They are: LaTanya Autry (Newark, DE), Cheryl Blackman (Toronto, CA), Karen Carter (Toronto, CA), Sean Kelly (Philadelphia), Lisa Lee (Chicago, IL), Azuka MuMin (Columbus, OH), Frank Vagnone (Winston Salem, NC), Hallie Winter (Oklahoma City, OK), and Jorge Zamanillo (Miami, FL). They join the 27 Leadership Matters museum and heritage organization alumni in the NEW edition of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord.

Joan Baldwin

Image: From “How Checkers Was Solved,” The Atlantic


Working and Leading Through Tears

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Picture this: You’re in a meeting with a direct report. Things are not going well. Her creative impulse seems laser focused on deconstructing everything you’ve built. You cannot understand how someone who’s ostensibly a colleague, and who came to work for you willingly, has misunderstood you and your museum to such a degree. Suddenly you’re crying. Worse, you’re angry that you’re crying, which makes your tears harder to control. Sound familiar? Well it should. According to a 2018 survey, 45-percent of people report crying at work.

Even if you’re in the dry-eyed 55-percent of American workers, given that we toil outside our homes an average of 90,000 hours in a lifetime, and one third of us work more than 45 hours every week, it’s likely, some day, some time, you’re going to cry at work. Is crying a bad thing? The experts say not really. According to the same survey, CFO’s and people over 55 are the most forgiving when it comes to tears, reporting that unless it happens frequently, it’s not a problem. Crying is after all a human emotion, and far less toxic than yelling, which also happens in some workplaces.

As with many things in life, how crying is perceived depends on context and culture. In fact, the person crying often reacts more negatively than those around her who may not know how to react. Crying, after all, violates what anthropologists call “display rules” or a social group’s informal norms. Traditionally, our workplaces–and museums and heritage organizations are still wallowing in a whole lot of tradition when it comes to human behavior–aren’t places for overt emotion; ergo, don’t cry.

If you identify as a woman, you may be told by mentors, friends and leaders to avoid crying at the office like the plague. Why? Because museum workplaces are staffed by humans, not Artificial Intelligence, and humans are full of subconscious biases. For many, whether we acknowledge it or not, crying indicates weakness, emotionality, and a loss of credibility. And women who cry are treated as if the next stop is a rest cure and  basket weaving classes.

There are biological reasons that women cry more than men. Women have more prolactin, a hormone that stimulates tears, while men’s higher testosterone levels may prevent them from crying. Men cry less frequently than women at work, but those who do are generally not penalized. Crying somehow humanizes men, while in women it can mark them as weak or hysterical.

This leads women to slink alone to the bathroom, where they sob in a stall before returning to their desks as if nothing happened. But something did. And weirdly, the way your workplace handles crying may be an indicator of how evolved and inclusive it is. In an old school, hierarchical, and male-dominated workplace, crying is a red flag. If it happens too often, your tears–and everything they represent– stamp you with a sign that says “emotional,” and future moves become challenging when you’re described as a good worker, but too emotional. In a more inclusive work environment, where stress is acknowledged, crying is shrugged off as part and parcel of being human in a complex and demanding world.

So what should you do if you find yourself in tears at work: 

  • Acknowledge what’s happening–“I’m upset and I need a moment here”–and step away. Blot your tears, breathe deeply, return.
  • Do a self-check in. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know we advocate for weekly check-ins.) Are you under an undue amount of stress? At home? At work? Are you getting enough sleep, exercise, time for yourself? If the answer is no, can you change any of those patterns?
  • If you know some situations make you prone to tears–the board member who winds you up, the umpteenth building crisis with the misogynist plant manager, the unnecessarily sassy staff member–plan for them. You know what frustrates you makes you cry, and once you cry, you’re angry, and things escalate. Anticipate situations like this by role playing and rehearsing ahead of time so you respond with words not emotion.

If you’re a museum leader, and a member of your team cries:

  • Be kind. Be mindful that it’s not all about you. Or even necessarily about work. You have no idea what’s going on in your staff member’s life. Instead, ask whether there is anything you can do, and whether they want to be alone for a little while.
  • Normalize the behavior with a phrase like, “I think we’re all a bit stressed at the moment.” Again, offer the person crying space if they need it.
  • If it’s appropriate, respond with your own story of crying at work. In doing so, you  help create a culture that’s accepting, not embarrassed, about emotion.

How do you deal with emotion in the museum workplace? Let us know.

Yours for a tear-free August.

Joan Baldwin

 

 


When Audience Members Violate Your Organization’s Core Values

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First, a thank you to everyone who responded to last week’s post. Leadership Matters doesn’t receive a ton of comments so last week was a happy surprise. Many of you–especially Millennials and Gen-Xers– thought your point of view was missing, and sent examples. Clearly there’s more to say on generational collaboration and conflict in the workplace. We’re working on it, but if you’re drawn to this subject, and you’d like to write a guest post, let us know. Our email is leadershipmatters1213@gmail.com.

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While questions of intergenerational workplace collaboration continue to simmer, we’d like to talk about a different sort of leadership challenge. This came to our attention through Laurie Norton Moffat, director and CEO of the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA. (Parenthetically, we should add something: Over the years we’ve ranted about how museum leaders need to read (and listen) widely–absorbing poetry, podcasts, science, philosophy, long-form journalism, novels, you name it—because it makes you more empathetic, broadens your perspective and helps you connect the dots in many unexpected ways. Moffat is that person. If what she posts on social media is a taste of what’s on her bedside table, screen and other devices, she’s an example to us all.)

This week Moffat posted an op-ed piece by Pamela Tatge, director of Jacob’s Pillow, Becket, MA. For those unfamiliar with “The Pillow” as it’s known locally, it is home to America’s longest running dance festival. Tatge’s piece details the interaction of a woman of color and members of the Pillow’s opening gala audience. Needless to say, it wasn’t good. The interactions were demeaning, objectifying, and horrifying. In fact, as Tatge reports, it’s a wonder the patron stayed for the whole event. What’s interesting here is Tatge’s reaction. First, let me say that everything I know about this incident is in her piece. There is nothing on the Pillow’s website, and only two dismaying follow-up letters in the Berkshire Eagle.

If a member of your audience insulted another visitor, how many of you would bare your organizational soul in the newspaper? The Pillow’s experience brings to mind the incident at Boston’s MFA in May where middle school students were subjected to racist comments by security guards and other visitors. In that case, reading between the lines, one of the most horrifying things was the sense that the museum might not have acknowledged what happened had the teacher not come forward on Facebook. In the end, the MFA revoked the visitors’ membership and banned them from the museum. In addition, it says it plans to provide additional training for guards in how they engage with visitors inside and outside the Museum.

One of the places organizations turn in crisis is their value statement. And while Jacob’s Pillow is curiously silent about Tatge’s piece on its own web site, it’s clear her actions were rooted in the Pillow’s Value Statement, which includes the following:

INCLUSION
We encourage a broadly diverse group of individuals to participate in our programs and join our Board and Staff, and insist on being inclusive of all peoples regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic background, physical or mental ability.

LEADERSHIP
We listen carefully, take the time to reflect on our successes and challenges, admit when we do not know something, and are accountable for our actions; recognizing that a crucial part of our role is to mentor the next generation of artists, arts administrators, and production staff.

Of the many issues on your 2019 leadership plate does audience behavior keep you up at night? What can and should a museum leader do to forestall racist behavior or hate speech in its galleries or heritage site? Is Tatge’s transparency the way to go?

Not that we haven’t written about this before, but here are some things to think about when your audience attacks its own:

  • Use your value statement. Presumably you all–board, staff, volunteers–played a part in its creation, and live it day-to-day. Where else can your patrons read the values statement besides the web site? How often do board and staff talk about it? Is it clear to your visitors that your museum has a code of conduct?
  • Silence is death. Don’t fetishize silence. Not saying anything will land you in a world of trouble. It will also make a mockery of your carefully crafted values statement. If you believe in something, stand by it, but have a plan.
  • Think ahead. What steps should you take to ensure the right messaging in the event of controversy or crisis related to your organization and its values? Role play possible controversies to make sure your organization reacts as a team.
  • Show some humility. Even if you aren’t the cause of the hurt, the hate speech or the racist comments, you are the venue in which they happened. Own what’s yours. If you hosted a cocktail party at home and one of the guests insulted another, you’d apologize wouldn’t you?
  • Talk about these issues with your board. It’s easy to say what a museum or heritage site should do, but how (and when) does a board choose to discipline its audience, the very audience that is its lifeblood?
  • Does your museum have a clear and easy way for visitors to let staff know when something bad happens? Once you say what you stand for (see the first bullet point), you have to provide the opportunity to express how the experience measured up. Help your staff learn to listen and respond accordingly.

A decade ago the glittery object among museum thought leaders was the idea of museums as a third space. As a concept–the museum as neutral ground where people gather and interact–is laudable if slightly utopian. But if the last 10 years have taught us anything, it’s that saying you’re the third space won’t work with a community clamoring for you to take a stand, to believe in something, and when appropriate, to say something. Hopefully museum staff, boards and volunteers agree on their common values, but your audience? It’s the wild card, the known-unknown you must court, charm, and cultivate. And what happens when the audience values don’t align with institutional values? If a visitor related an experience like the one Pamela Tatge heard, what would you do?

Joan Baldwin

Image: The National Liberty Museum


Bias, Ageism & the Museum Workplace

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In a lot of small ways work is like school. We do it because most of us have to. Some do well; some not so well. And it’s a place where, like it or not, our likes and dislikes are frequently on display. As leaders, you need to make everyone feel valued, wanted and needed. You need to banish your own biases so others can and will too.

One of the hardest things about workplace bias–and I say this from my place as a white woman of a certain age and privilege–is to flip what you pay attention to. If you continually look for the source of your hurt–the colleague who reminds you that you are over weight, disabled, LGBTQ, a woman, really tall, a person of color or some combination of all those things– you’ll find it. That’s called confirmation bias. You may feel momentarily better about feeling bad, but will your interactions with problem co-workers change? Probably not.

Please note: I do not, under any circumstances, want to diminish the effects of bias. Implicit or explicit, it is hurtful, demeaning, and isolating. It diverts focus, and it shouldn’t be allowed. But we work with humans. And we’re all needy.

Having said that, I want to talk about being old(er) in the museum workplace. Depending on your age, older could be 40, but for this post, let’s assume older is Boomers, members of your staff born between 1946 and 1964. First of all, in case you haven’t noticed there are a lot of Boomers, 77 million to be exact, and while 10,000 retire every day, many Boomers have inadequate savings for retirement, and need or want to work longer. So, if you’re the typical museum leader your staff will likely include Millennials (currently the largest segment of the workforce), Gen-Xers and Boomers, and range in age from early 20s to early 70’s. That means every time you gather for a meeting you’re bridging a 60-year life experience gap, not to mention differences in approach to work. When many Boomers came of age, they expected to find a job, get promoted, settle down, and 35 or 40 years later, say goodbye to colleagues, and retire. Millennials may have as many as a dozen jobs throughout their careers. Coaxing these groups into teams, building respect, and parking bias at the door is a challenge.

So do Boomers experience ageism? The short answer is yes. If you’re unfamiliar with this, here are some common examples:

  1. She should retire already. Alternately known as “When is she going to retire so I can get promoted?” Let’s bust that myth by asking why one generation’s work needs supersede another’s? People between 55 and 75 continue to work for personal fulfillment and financial gain. While there is opportunity to retire, there is no rule that says you have to.
  2. She can’t use a Google doc. Shouldn’t that be a requirement? As hard as it is to understand some days, our lives aren’t all about IT savvy. And if a Boomer needs to use a Google doc–in fact, if everyone does, then make it a requirement, and teach everyone. Don’t equate tech savvy with museum or heritage organization savvy unless you’re hiring for IT.
  3. She couldn’t even remember the phone code. Maybe she’s got Alzheimers. All of our heads are clogged with too many numbers and passwords. Further, it’s a fact that over time, a full mind impacts short term memory like remembering a number or password. It’s ageist to assume that not being able to remember one of the gazillion numbers or codes the modern workplace requires is a symptom of a serious disease associated with aging.
  4. If we’re going to hire, I’d rather have someone younger who’ll have more energy.  Every life chapter comes with issues, and being under-40 may mean there are other drains on a person’s time–children, training for a marathon, finding a partner, getting married–that a later-in-life employee will have passed through. Energy and focus are individual characteristics. If you hire for passion and energy, you’ll get it regardless of age. And P.S., according to the AARP, not getting hired is the most common type of age discrimination.

What if you are an older employee:

  1. There’s a law that protects you: The Age Discrimination in Employment Act. While it differs from state to state, and it applies only to workplaces with more than 20 employees, it prohibits age discrimination in decisions about hiring, firing, layoffs, pay, benefits, promotions, demotions, performance reviews or any other condition of employment.
  2. Don’t act old: I mean that in the kindest way. Don’t come to work and act as though you wish you were home in your La-Z-Boy. (Actually, that’s true for everyone, but it fulfills every stereotype when someone over 55 does it.) Continue learning, read widely, engage, engage, engage. You and everyone around you will be better for it.
  3. Don’t use your past experience as the reason not to try something new. If you’re over 55, how many times have you felt younger colleagues eye-roll when you launch into a story about the time your museum tried a variation of the thing your Millennial co-worker just suggested. The operative word here is “try.” Ask the questions that you wish someone had asked the last time this particular program, exhibit, or idea was launched, and then go with it. Listen, participate. Ask more questions and use the teachable moment to its best advantage.
  4. Be humble, and steer away from age-centered comments. Don’t try to bridge the age-gap by talking about your 30-year old niece. Your colleagues don’t need to know they remind you of much younger relatives or children.
  5. Be wise, not a know it all. With age comes the ability to synthesize. The more information you have in your brain, the more you can detect patterns. Be the person who (gently) helps co-workers see the big picture.

So for those of you who aren’t Boomers, the next time you’re feeling the need to eye roll in a meeting as that guy drones on or that older woman dithers, remember, age is egalitarian. Unless you die young, some day you’ll find yourself the oldest person in the room. So grow some empathy, and learn to work with everyone.

Joan Baldwin


“Fetishizing Silence” No More

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A confession: I don’t like Twitter. In fact, I find it visually distressing. I know that’s not the point, but as a result, I don’t tweet, and only check Twitter haphazardly. All that’s preamble to saying that this week I found the link for LaTanya Autry’s Social Justice & Museums Resource List on Twitter.  Yes, it’s been around and growing since 2015, so I guess that’s a lesson I should visit Twitter more often.

Now I’ve found it, a huge thank you to Autry who likely has a gazillion other things she could be doing rather than putting this list together. But there it is, a labor of love, and ours to read, absorb, use, amend, edit and add to. And by being open and editable by anyone, the list is a model for the change we all hope is on its way in museums and in the museum workplace.

Another and perhaps more important thought about Autry’s list is this: If you’re having a particularly bleak week or month–it is February after all–think about what this list means for the museum field. Try and imagine Autry, or anyone else for that matter, creating it a decade ago. I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened, but it didn’t. There wasn’t any appetite for it, and the field–except at the margins– was content being its benign, patriarchal, misogynist, racist self.  Even the list’s vocabulary highlights change. Take the verb “decolonize,” which by the way, wasn’t added to the Oxford English Dictionary‘s new word list until 2018. The earliest pieces on the list using “decolonize” date to 2016. And yet, today the word is everywhere.

None of that means there wasn’t good work being done 10 years ago or that there weren’t folks saying that the emperor had no clothes, but museums and heritage organizations weren’t the most woke job sector. Are we there yet? Good Lord, no. But have things changed? You betcha.

If Autry’s 47-page list isn’t enough, she’s also one of nine new interviewees for the revised edition of Leadership Matters due out this fall. That group of nine is a powerful band of humans with a lot to say. While we utilized the same criteria looking for new interviewees as we did for our original book in 2012–equity and variety in race, gender, geography–six years made a huge difference both in the what people were saying, the work they do, their willingness to merge personal and organizational values, and their belief that the days of a single, preeminent, white, binary narrative superseding all others is OVER.

Do I sound too Pollyanna-like? Maybe, particularly when you compare this post to last week’s. But if I do, it’s because I’m old enough to remember a time when discussion of any of these issues often resulted in a conversation that went something like, “You might want to think about what you just said. This is a small field and you don’t want to damage your chances of moving ahead.” Sean Kelly from Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), and another of our nine interviewees, used the phrase “fetishizing silence” in a radio interview recently. He was talking about the way ESP administrators used an unholy quiet to inspire penitence, but that phrase could just as easily apply to the way the museum world approached workplace grievances, racists remarks, and sexual harassment. If you deny it’s happening and fail to provide appropriate avenues to file grievances, you can almost pretend all is right with the world.

Scanning the articles on this list, it feels like we are in the middle of a sea change. Maybe not everywhere, but enough so there is a new normal. And for anyone suffering from “otherness,” anyone who needs support, ammunition, a sisterly voice, a shoulder at the barricade, it offers aid, examples, history and context. Use it, add to it, keep change happening.

Joan Baldwin

Image: Changing Tides by Ellis O’Connor


Leaders, Know Your Words Matter

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Leadership, in museums and non-profits, isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. And for me, as an observer, a writer, and a commentator these last few years have been a zip-line of learning, yanking me out of my white, straight world, and forcing me to do more than tell myself I’m a good person and not racist. There were some rough moments, particularly when, while writing Women in the Museum, I struggled to understand intersectionality. And that’s not to say I’m perfect, but I’m aware.

This week I read a piece by the wonderful Vu Le, who writes the blog Nonprofit AF. (Hint: If you don’t follow Vu, you should.) In it, he describes what he calls “funder fragility.” Essentially, it’s the reaction of largely white foundation funders when non-profits of color point out that 90-percent of grants go to mostly white organizations. Leaving aside the financial inequities of this situation, here’s what’s odd. According to Vu, when this is pointed out to foundation staff, their reaction is personal, defensive and sometimes a bit weepy. The conversation sidebars while white, privileged staff assure their grantees that they are not the problem. Here’s Vu’s summation: “A group that has privilege and power is criticized, and a member of that group becomes hurt and defensive instead of reflecting on and trying to see systemic challenges and their role in it. Often times, the conversation is derailed and enormous time and energy are spent to reaffirm the offended/defensive individual and make them feel better.”

This struck a chord for me, not on the funding side, although I’ve no doubt it’s true, but on the human behavior side. What is it about human nature that prevents us from separating ourselves from what’s actually going on? This is not dissimilar to what happens when an individual shares that a family member is gravely ill only to end up comforting one or more people in the group about their own troubles.

Personally, one of my biggest struggles in my intersectionality learning curve was recognizing that even though remarks about things I’d written felt personal, they weren’t, and I needed to see it that way. The individuals who were gracious enough to talk to me about intersectionality didn’t know me from Eve. They don’t know how or where I was raised, where I went to church, whose 9th grade class campaign I worked on or who I dated. They only know the words I used. And in the moment, I’m the only person responsible for those words. If they are wrong, then I’m wrong, and I need to stop and listen. My response shouldn’t be resistance and prevarication, but a request for help:  Help me understand.

As we’ve said about a gazillion times on these pages, words matter. Racist, sexist, misogynist speech is rarely one-off, White Supremacist-vitriol that’s immediately actionable. More often it’s experienced as the belittlement of a thousand remarks. As leaders, whether executive directors, curators, team leaders or board members, we are responsible for those words. There is no age, place of power or privilege where we get a free pass to be offensive, even unintentionally. So….

  • Be purposeful in your communication. Make a habit of scrolling sentences in your head or on paper before speaking. Be conscious of how, even when you don’t mean to, words privilege one group over another.
  • Recognize that silence also communicates. If you hear something that’s offensive, stand up for your staff and your colleagues. Not speaking up normalizes a destructive narrative.
  • Your life isn’t the Hallmark channel and nobody will change in 45 minutes. Challenging a narrative is a reminder that needs to happen repeatedly before behavior changes.
  • Learn to listen. Ask for help. Grow your understanding of the people you work for and with.
  • Use your position. As Franklin Vagnone says: “It’s important to utilize privilege in ways that expand equity.”
  • And if you’re a person of color, queer, transgender, listen back. Understand that for a tiny second someone who frequently has all the power and privilege needs your help, and is asking for some support and context, however awkwardly.  Be kind if you can.

This is Black History Month. Next month is Women’s History Month. Maybe in addition to the proverbial Instagram posts about the achievements of women of color, for example, you could make an institutional commitment to eliminating bias from hiring, HR policies, exhibit text, and your Web presence. There are a lot of words out there. Perfection is difficult, but a statement about how your institution feels about bias says volumes.

Still learning,

Joan Baldwin