Confronting Demographic Denial: Retaining Relevance in the New Millennium
A Common Vision: ASTC's Equity and Diversity Initiative
By Eric J. Jolly
Once in a great while, an event occurs that shifts our collective consciousness. This shift compels us, as individuals and as a society, to reexamine our assumptions and realign our perspectives on past, current, and possible future events. In the aftermath of September 11, many of the world's cultural institutions are struggling to redefine their relevance. "Traditional" museum visitors are rethinking their priorities, especially in leisure opportunities. Likewise, major funders are reconsidering their funding focus.
Among the more immediate consequences in the United States (as of this November 2001 writing) has been up to a 50 percent decrease in general attendance at some of our major cultural institutions. In many of our cities, school visitation programs at science centers have all but come to a halt. In addition to these incredible and unforeseen forces, museums are also facing dramatic changes that were foreseeablethe shifting demographics of the communities they are charged to serve. These shifting demographics, and the social and financial realignment of the nation, require science centers to make a clear and unequivocal bid for relevance in the future.
Though many organizations have acknowledged for years that promoting diversity has been an important issue, it has never had a prominent place in their agendas. Now, more than ever, these institutions must broaden the community base that they serve.
What is diversity?
I have a phrase I often use when I talk about promoting diversity: Diversity isn't about feeling good; it's about doing good. In the wake of recent events, some of the implications of this aphorism bear examining.
Diversity isn't about putting off the important work that needs to be done today because it's only happening somewhere else. It's about realizing that cities like Leicester, England (the first non-White-majority European city); Frankfurt, Germany (one-quarter immigrant); and Amsterdam (projected to be half immigrant by 2015) are snapshots of our future. What can we learn from what is, and is not, happening in these cities? How can we address the needs of the newest members of our communities, as well as those who are historically underserved?
Diversity isn't about paying lip service to the results of the latest U.S. Census; it's about understanding that 80 percent of the increase in the U.S. population over the last 10 years has occurred in what is identified as the "minority population." There is research indicating that minority children account for as much as 98 percent of the increase in the under-18 population during the last decade (see Endnote 1). What proactive measures will promote the science literacy of every child, so that she or he can advocate for the relevance of science centers to her or his life and to the community's well-being?
Diversity isn't about quick fixes; it's about considering what it means that one in five U.S. children today is the child of immigrants, and that by the year 2040 that figure will be one in three (see Endnote 2). How will the United Statesidentified by the United Nations as one of eight "low-fertility countries" (along with France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom)ensure that the following observation by a U.N. official about the need for ongoing immigration becomes a reality?: "While international migrants would incur some costs, such as education and health care, studies show a net gain from workers, as opposed to a net loss" (Endnote 3).
Diversity isn't about compliance; it's about asking your science center's web design and IT team, "How accessible are our web pages for the more than 2 million people who use text-recognition programs?" U.S. Census data suggest that the likelihood of experiencing a disability increases with age (see Endnote 4). How well-prepared are science centers for the geriatric boom that will occur between 2010 and 2030, resulting in more than 70 million older persons dealing with limitations in vision, mobility, and fine-motor coordination? What are science centers doing to begin creating multisensory experiences for all visitors?
These demographics are no longer trends; they are descriptions of what our world looks like now. In my work with science centers over the past five years, I have noticed that there are usually a few people on staff who have a sense of these demographic data and are concerned about the disparity between the backgrounds of who is in the community and who runs the science center. Too frequently, these individuals do not possess the power or position to implement the policies and practices that result in truly sustainable diversitya concept that must be understood in terms of what it is not, as well as what it is.
- Sustainable diversity entails
- mutuality between the science center's decision-makers and community leaders,
- ongoing relationships with current and potential audience members, and
- opportunities for all staff members to develop the skills to support the organization's leadership.
Sustainable diversity is not
- relying solely on outreach to work with underserved audiences,
- offering a heritage month event once a year, or
- expecting the community to be content with handouts in the form of finite programming tacked onto a grant award.
The crux of sustainable diversity is building the caliber of relationships that will enable leaders of today's science centers to understand why community members do not, cannot, or will not visit the museum. It's similar to the level of effort expended on cultivating and retaining funder support. We, as nonprofits, work long and hard to demonstrate how our mission fits with that of the funder. If the relationship breaks down, we work just as hard to restore it. We need to treat all our communities with the same level of regard.
The question affects the answer
Who informs, forms, and benefits from the work of a science center? Given that board and staff are both critical elements in a sustainable diversity equation, answering such questions means devoting equal resources to building the cultural competencies of current staff and board and recruiting and retaining new staff and board members.
Who informs our work?
More specifically, who sets the agenda for our work, sits on our advisory boards, and identifies the priorities, form, and substance of our programming? When those who inform our work are diversified, we will begin to address questions and concerns of greater relevance to even larger numbers of people.
It is probable that during this process we will find ourselves asking questions we hadn't previously considered. For example, what are the implications of the fact that the diabetes rate is more than 200 percent higher in the U.S. Latino population than in the White population? (see Endnote 5) How will this inform the focus of our exhibits on healthnot to mention such seemingly mundane issues as the balance of diet and nondiet beverages in soda machines, or the need for needle-disposal units in restrooms?
Who forms our work?
Until diversity is incorporated into the warp and weft of our institutions, efforts will continue to look like "diversity projects," add-ons that fail to show a deep appreciation for the whole of the community. Actively incorporating the knowledge bases of people from different backgroundsdiverse language groups, multigenerational families, persons with disabilities, nontraditional familiesis much likelier to produce sustainable diversity than input from a group of advisors.
Who benefits from our work?
Finally, we need to examine the outcomethe focus or goals of our institutional practices. Whom do we have in mind when we design programming? What assumptions do we make? What segments of a community benefit from outreach programs? What relevance does the programming hold for the intended recipients?
It is critical to consider who in the community is invited to participate and at what stages. Another critical component is to look at who conducts the evaluation. In the proceedings of a recent National Science Foundation workshop on educational evaluation, one of the first recommendations was that "cultural awareness of the environment from which the [program] participants are drawn must be emphasized" (Endnote 6). The way the question is asked affects the answer.
Pathways to engagement
It's all about service. Reaching whatever sustainable diversity goals an institution sets requires effortful enhancement of the institutional and individual capacities to serve. The goal of serving increasingly diverse communities is not distinct from the ongoing missions of science centers; it is simply that now is the time to create operational definitions and the corresponding commitment to activities and outcome measures.
There are many paths to constructively engage the diverse communities of our futures. Listed below is one set of simple principles that can help encourage engagement around the critical issues of who informs, forms, and benefits from our work. These are not definitive answers to the myriad issues that confront each science center. They are simply one point of departure for beginning to examine these questions while attending to the institution's mission-related needs.
Make the unknown known.
Look at who is not coming, and find out what their reasons are. People unfamiliar with science centers may find it hard to imagine how these institutions compare to others with which they are familiar: Is there a dress code? How should children conduct themselves? Will there be food? What are the real costs (i.e., is IMAX included in the price of admission?) and benefits of the visit?
Make the culture of the science center or museum known by letting communities and families know what to expect. Identify and make allies of individuals who can act as intermediaries and convincingly convey information about the science center. For example, science centers could host breakfasts during which staff spend time getting to know religious and civic leaders. Place ads in community newsletters that answer these questions respectfully.