by Emily Catherine Mealor, Arts in Communities Coordinator, North Carolina Arts Council
"Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.” – August Wilson
Last week I attended the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Conference held in Pittsburgh, PA with some of Wake County's finest. With guidance from the Office of Raleigh Arts and the United Arts Council of Raleigh and Wake County, arts (and science!) administrators across the county have joined together to form a learning community centered around accessibility and universal design in the arts. LEAD serves as a springboard for our work together during the year.
As a first timer, participants' immediate acceptance of the conference's openness policy was a big surprise to me. Conference leaders opened the first day with a blanket request for those who attend to meet each other where they're at—regardless of their using the right language or their time in the field. So with the simple drop of a "safe space" qualifier, many people would reveal their organization's shortcomings, laying it all on the table. This type of honest self-reflection is a rarity at most conferences.
What struck me most about that transparency was that it seemed to not only come from participants, but from the conference leadership as well. On Friday, a new session was added—one allowing for discussion around the diversity of LEAD's participants and speakers. It had not gone unnoticed that even within a community of those dedicated to inclusivity, there were groups of people underrepresented. And in a moment of humility, the conference leadership gave them the microphone.
What came to light in that meeting was a reminder of intersectionality, and how important it is to realize each person's entire worldview. We can sometimes gain tunnel vision in our community engagement, narrowly focusing on the specific population we are missing in our audience. LEAD reminded me that even those of us most dedicated to being inclusive can lose our footing if we are not willing to keep listening, admitting our shortcomings, and doing the work.
It's fitting that we attended LEAD as a community of learners. The conference itself started simply as, "a group of Betty's friends" (Betty Siegel being the Director of VSA and Accessibility at the Kennedy Center, the driving organization behind LEAD). Over breakfast with us Betty said that it all began more as a meeting of people with whom she enjoyed talking about access—those she trusted. Over time, the people she enjoyed invited people they enjoyed, and so the community of practice grew a little each year. Today the conference sells out to hundreds, with participants coming from across the globe to engage in the dialogue of inclusivity.
And so our group brings that dialogue home, and with it a call to action. I look forward to what comes next.