The following open letter to board members of arts organizations was written by marcus d harvey. This blog originally appeared as an article in the Spring 2020 edition of the Teaching Artist Guild’s TAG Quarterly on Friday, June 5.
June 1, 2020
Hello Board of Directors—
I am writing to you at 3:40am because I can’t sleep.
Many of you don’t know me and probably will never have any interaction with me beyond this point but I wanted to introduce myself.
I am marcus d. harvey (all lowercase letters) and I have been a teaching artist at YOUR ORGANIZATION for over 11 years now. Maybe you know my name as I have worked with one of the signature programs pretty much exclusively since my time at YOUR ORGANIZATION.
I hold my undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill, a graduate degree from NYU and a graduate degree from Brooklyn College. I am an actor. I am a director. I am a writer. I am a college professor. I am a mentor. I have been stopped by the cops, racially profiled, called the N word. I have been overlooked by jobs not because I didn’t have the qualifications but merely because my blackness makes white people feel uncomfortable (I have been told that by people “off the record”). You wouldn’t know anything of that by looking at me. What you will know by seeing me is that I am black and male and there is nothing any of you can do about it.
For years, I have worked at YOUR ORGANIZATION with a smile on my face and my head held high because I believed in the work of YOUR ORGANIZATION, or at least I used to. I have survived YOUR ORGANIZATION through many transitions and yet I am only part-time. I am asked about students who have been through your program by grant writers and others, but yet I am not on staff full-time. I watched someone who worked under me as a teaching artist, a white man, get a position where all of a sudden I had to report to him and seek his approval for even being in the room. Within YOUR ORGANIZATION, there is systemic racism.
YOUR ORGANIZATION, like most arts nonprofits, will romanticize the struggle of black and brown children to donors and sponsors while many of the staff in the office of these organizations are white. Do you recognize this as a problem? I, a black man, have always had to report to someone white about a program dealing with a black playwright. Think about that for a minute. My blackness has to be approved by white supervisors. That is systemic racism. I, a black man, have had to sit in training sessions led usually by non-black people on how to deal with black and brown youth. That is systemic racism. My entire existence within YOUR ORGANIZATION is on the approval of the white people who “approve” my work and my timesheet. That is systemic racism.
If you are uncomfortable with this email, imagine being me, I have been uncomfortable for some time now and afraid to say a word out of fear. Fear that the whiteness around me will see me as problematic and I would be let go. That is systemic racism.
I am NOT asking you to make room for me at the table where you currently sit. I am asking you to examine who’s at the table, dismantle the table and build a new table that will make room for people like myself to sit.
As the board of directors, I imagine part of your obligation is to guide and direct the organization towards growth but how can an organization grow when it doesn’t examine itself internally. When I say internally, I don’t mean hiring an outside organization run by white people to take a look at the systemic racism within YOUR ORGANIZATION; I mean by inviting black people at YOUR ORGANIZATION into the room to be heard and seen. If there are not black people at YOUR ORGANIZATION, ask yourself WHY?
It appears black lives only matter when it’s time to raise money but otherwise black lives are erased and black voices are muted.
What is the action plan of YOUR ORGANIZATION going forward?
How will YOUR ORGANIZATION make room for voices that are black and male in the room?
When will black lives matter?
Here’s the reality, at any point, my black maleness can be seen as a threat and I could be taken at the hands of the cops simply by existing. At any point I can become a hashtag.
What will YOUR ORGANIZATION do to ensure the safety and growth of black people who are on the frontlines doing the work stated in the mission statement?
It is no longer acceptable to sit in silence, while you have the power to examine yourselves and impact the change needed within the organization.
In the arts,
marcus d. harvey
As a board member responded to my email, the response reminded me how much systemic racism in rooted in who sits on these boards and who nurtures and guides these organizations to higher heights. It was clear my voice was heard and email wasn’t read. I have to ask: When will there be a new wave of leadership? When will black lives and black voices matter in arts education? To board members everywhere….What are you willing to sacrifice for my freedom?
marcus d harvey is an award-winning actorvist, director and writer. He holds degrees from UNC-Chapel Hill, New York University and Brooklyn College. He’s a teaching artist at various organizations, mentor and an adjunct professor of Acting. Website: www.themarcusdharvey.com Twitter: @marcusdharvey