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Helping Black arts and cultural organizations thrive during pandemic

Originally published Nov. 19 in Inside IUPUI

Black arts and cultural organizations have long been pillars of their local communities, offering a variety of artistic opportunities to families as well as important community support. So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and social distancing orders were announced, these organizations – and the families who rely on them – were hit especially hard.

IUPUI’s Joseph Lennis Tucker Edmonds and Lasana D. Kazembe are assessing the important contributions of Black arts and cultural institutions in central Indiana and beyond and are working to identify ways to support their ability to survive and thrive during the pandemic.

October 2020

“We are looking at how community organizations have pivoted to be more nimble and resilient in terms of their cultural products, but also in terms of other services they provide their communities – both of which can be impacted by a loss of funding or lack of access,” said Tucker Edmonds, assistant professor of Africana studies and religious studies in the IU School of Liberal Arts at IUPUI. “Black arts and cultural organizations have always been responsible for the overall well-being of the community, and these additional services become even more important in times of crisis.”

Community members often look to these organizations for a variety of needs. They may provide meals to families or offer homework help or tutorial services to local children. Youth in their programs also benefit from services such as professional readiness and mentorship, and they gain a strong understanding of cultural literacy through their participation.

Tucker Edmonds and Kazembe will shine light on the importance of Black arts and cultural organizations when they launch a digital platform later this year. It will be an online space where organizations can gather information but also share their own stories. They plan to offer free membership profiles and anticipate a site filled with success stories that promote the work of Black arts and cultural organizations.

An important feature of the site will include data Tucker Edmonds and Kazembe will collect through local and nationwide surveys created by IU’s Center for Research on Inclusion & Social Policy. The surveys will allow them to identify models for collaboration, capacity building and long-term sustainability. While data from researchers is often inaccessible in terms of the format or access fee, they plan to offer their findings for free, written in an easily understandable way. Black arts and cultural organizations can use the data to help tell their story and apply for funding.

“Other surveys across the country on the impact of COVID-19 do not ask the questions around culture and race and the other services these organizations offer, because they are focusing on the mainstream services organizations provide and not thinking about the holistic components that often times Black arts and cultural organizations are committed to,” Tucker Edmonds said. “Our goal is to bring that to the front, and hopefully as other groups do surveys and analysis, they will also begin to ask a better set of questions so they can more fully assess the broad diversity of arts and cultural organizations to see what they are doing.”

To gain first-hand knowledge of the pandemic’s true impact on Black arts and cultural institutions, Tucker Edmonds and Kazembe are working with a group of five central Indiana organizations – Asante Children’s Theater, Iibada Dance Company, Kheprw Institute, Freetown Village, and the Indiana Performing Arts Center. They want to provide these groups with an opportunity to share their stories, highlighting their resilience and response to COVID-19 in ways that are meaningful to them.

IUPUI’s Joseph Lennis Tucker Edmonds and Lasana D. Kazembe are assessing the important contributions of Black arts and cultural organizations in central Indiana and beyond helping them survive and thrive during the pandemic.

While their focus is initially on central Indiana, Tucker Edmonds and Kazembe hope to extend their reach and help foster important connections with Black arts and cultural institutions regionally, in cities like Chicago and Louisville. A regional collaborative would provide an opportunity for these organizations to share and learn from others with similar offerings and needs. It will also offer an opportunity to better connect these groups to important funding opportunities, which has been made even more difficult to the pandemic.

“Black arts and cultural organizations, Latinx organizations and Asian organizations get around two-percent of the funding that is available nationally even before COVID-19, so what was once a bit of a trickle in terms of funding these organizations received has now turned into drips,” said Kazembe, an assistant professor in the IU School of Education at IUPUI. “We want them to build more, do more, build their organizational capacities, and serve their audiences. They contribute so much to the arts and cultural landscape of the city and of central Indiana.”

Tucker Edmonds said they hope that by telling these narratives and sharing the data, funders and other individuals interested in the well-being of Black and Brown communities will understand the obstacles these organizations face, and that they may also be open to funding some of the other services they provide. 

During the project, Tucker Edmonds and Kazembe hope to use their expertise in helping Black arts and cultural organizations best serve their communities.

“These organizations often don’t get the benefit of connecting with university researchers in a way that the researchers are sensitive to what they do and how they do it and can assist them with bringing their stories forward,” Kazembe said. “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to use our scholarship insights and expertise to connect it to the work they do, to introduce their work to a new audience, and to really elevate what they do.” They expect to have their digital platform live by the end of the year for organizations to contribute data and share their stories, and they plan to launch the public-facing section in 2021

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