After working with nonprofit organizations for a zillion years, I don’t put much faith in mission statements, for one simple reason. The process of articulating identity and values can be exciting, fun, and satisfying; to be sure, living the examined life is as important for organizations as for individuals. But most of the time, once crafted and plastered onto websites and documents, mission statements subside into meaninglessness. They could serve as yardsticks to measure meaning and accomplishment: we said this or that about our purpose, but are we really living into it? Without assessing every action, program, and statement in light of our stated intentions, how do we hold ourselves accountable? Writing it down and forgetting qualifies as magical thinking in my book, so if that’s what will happen, why bother?
But some organizations have high standards. They make frequent use of a verbal yardstick — a statement of mission, vision, and/or values — to measure their assumptions and actions, to align their programs and processes. For them, here is a line that if currently missing needs to be added to their mission statements posthaste:
We embrace our full share of collective responsibility to redress the inequities of this society and to address the crises created by a system that treats some lives as mattering more, that puts profit over people, that threatens the very life of the planet.
Why? A friend who runs an excellent and socially engaged arts organization shared its new mission statement with me. It spoke of transformation and change, two important capabilities of artists whose work brings hidden realities to light and urges us toward our own agency. But transformation for what, I asked. Change toward what end?
The answers are often assumed because they are embedded in the organization’s work. If the group is engaging artists and communities whose voices need to ring out, if the themes of their projects reflect a passion for justice, the organization’s leaders may rightly feel that no one will mistake their group for its opposite, a stodgy institution with more regard for the glory of its donors than the state of the surrounding community.
So if work speaks for itself, why is my new line needed? Because I see arts organizations scurrying to respond to the terrible and urgent crises of our time with actions that gesture at justice rather than pursue it. If they choose to actually be guided by their mission statements, they had better include something that speaks to the historic potential of the day, something that compels them to tear down the border wall between art and life that has stood in their midst for so long.
Case in point: there is ongoing pressure on largely white organizations to “diversify” their boards and staffs by increasing the number of people of color in meaningful positions. There is no pressure directed at BIPOC organizations to add leaders from outside their designated communities, which is why this makes sense to me as part of redressing historic racial injustice, a kind of long-delayed reparations that looks toward a future free of racism. But often it isn’t done with that intention. Very often, an opera or ballet company, a museum or repertory theater will seek board members of color who share the politics and class position and possess the discretionary income of white counterparts, who themselves are too often chosen primarily for their ability to give or attract significant donations to continue a line of work that began decades — even centuries — ago, with little questioning of its assumptions and biases.
An organization led by people who accept — and more than that — embrace a full share of collective responsibility for healing this broken society must face its own historic role in both worsening and repairing the injustices that have brought us to this pass. That organization must support questioning that goes to the heart of its work: the artform itself; its tacit and stated aims; its relationship to those who make, present, and engage with the work; and its actual and potential impact.
Deep questioning catalyzes change. If it is deep enough, it demands even the most difficult changes, a new set of acceptances and rejections. As I write this, I’m thinking of something Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, former Director General of UNESCO, said in opening an African Studies seminar in 1979:
The only pertinent question facing us today is not only of choosing between an outdated past and imitation of the foreign but of making original selections between cultural values which it is vital to safeguard and develop — because they contain the deep-lying secrets of our collective dynamism — and the elements which it is henceforth necessary to abandon — because they put a brake on our facility for critical reflection and innovation. In the same way we must sort out the progressive elements offered by industrial societies, so as only to use those which are adapted to the society of our choice which we are capable of taking over and developing gradually by ourselves and for ourselves.
Which elements of the current U.S. arts organization landscape “put a brake on our facility for critical reflection and innovation?” Which contain “the deep-lying secrets of our collective dynamism?” These questions are more than worthy of being asked, but only by those who embrace a full share of collective responsibility for the past and the future. From my perspective, in practice, thinking this doesn’t need saying amounts to saying it doesn’t need doing.
The Cowboy Junkies’ version of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.”