In my mind, the day was hot.
I was walking down the street with my Chinese parents in the small Ohio town where we lived. It was the early 1970s. Perhaps we were at an intersection, waiting to cross. Perhaps we were on the way to Moore’s for breakfast, where the three of us would split two glazed donuts. Coffee in a heavy mug, a glass of milk.
The car went flying past. The window was down.
“Fuckin’ VC!” someone yelled.
I didn’t know what they meant. It was likely before the fall of Saigon; I would have been 9 years old at most.
Not 10 years later, in 1981, another Chinese American girl from Ohio would win a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Maya Lin was only 21 and still an undergraduate at Yale. She was vilified for her youth, her inexperience, her gender, and her ethnicity. But her memorial wall, etched with the more than 58,000 names of those who served and were lost in the war, continues to bring visitors to tears and, I believe, changed the way Americans engaged with memorial architecture forever.
To experience a work like this is to profoundly understand the power of arts and culture to express our humanity when all else fails. That this particular piece was created by an Asian American woman is deeply moving to me, and it affirms a fundamental truth: that each of our stories deserves to be told, heard, and honored. It also affirms the importance of intentionally creating space for those voices, holding each of us accountable for noting who is absent, and taking one step to the side to invite in the missing.
In no city is this kind of cultural inclusion more critical than in New York. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, 67% of New York City’s population are people of color—and, according to the New York State Comptroller’s Office, 37% are from immigrant families. The city’s immigrant population, which has more than doubled since 1970, is 3.1 million people—the largest of any city in the United States. More than 200 languages are spoken here, according to the Department of City Planning.
Sadly, though, the city’s rich diversity is not reflected as much as it could be in our arts and culture landscape. For starters, many of the gatekeepers to the city’s arts and culture sector are themselves relatively homogeneous: According to a January 2016 study by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA), less than 40% of cultural workers in the thousand organizations supported by DCLA funding identify as people of color. People in management positions in those organizations are even less diverse: According to that same study, 79% of their leadership staff, and 78% of their board members, identify as white.
The study was part of DCLA’s launch of a diversity initiative meant to advance Mayor Bill de Blasio’s efforts to make New York City more fair and equitable. “Our city became the cultural capital of the world through the collective contributions of residents who, for generations, have brought their unique experiences and creative practices from across the globe,” Mayor de Blasio said when the study results were announced. “When it comes to making sure that every resident has an equal opportunity to contribute to this extraordinary cultural community, we need to lead by example.”
Based on his 12 years as executive director of the Queens Museum, DCLA Commissioner Tom Finkelpearl believes it is critical that cultural organizations have diverse staffs, which in turn would help increase the diversity in their programming and, ideally, attract more diverse audiences that represent the communities the organizations serve.
But as any artist of color in any discipline can tell you from personal experience, despite the visible success of Hamilton on Broadway—with its record ticket prices and 11 Tony Awards presented to a predominantly non-white cast and creative team—the New York arts and culture sector is not a level playing field.
And, increasingly, there’s data to prove it.
For example, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition—an all-volunteer collective of theater professionals—started counting the number of actors of color in New York City theaters five years ago. In May 2016, the coalition announced the results of its latest count for the 2014–2015 season—which included Hamilton at the Public Theater (before it moved to Broadway) and Broadway’s The King and I, with its predominantly Asian American cast. In that season, 70% of actors were Caucasian, 17% were African American, 3% were Latinx, and 9% were Asian American (in a city that has an Asian American population of more than 15%). Most significantly, the greatest employer of actors of color were nonprofit theaters—most of whom receive funding from the DCLA.
On a national level, one of the organizations trying to measure the nonprofit arts and culture sector is DataArts (formerly the Cultural Data Project). Its funders—including state and local government agencies and corporate and private foundations—participate by requiring that their nonprofit arts organization applicants fill out a detailed survey of programmatic and financial information, including the diversity of its audiences. (Among New York City funders that either require the Cultural Data Profile or request it as an option are the DCLA, the New York Community Trust, and the New York Council for the Humanities.) DataArts then provides the data sets to the funders, as well as to researchers who request the information.
But just as important as whom we’re counting is whom we aren’t counting. This includes fiscally sponsored organizations, individual artists, and the rich community-based artmaking that happens off the grid of the nonprofit arts world, such as the choirs and musical groups in places of worship and the theater productions taking place in community centers.
And yet. However imperfect these collection tools and methodologies—as well as the results—each of these provides critical snapshots of the arts and culture world. There is power in story, and these numbers are critical in providing evidence-based foundations on which to advance the narratives of our reality.
Here is one of those stories.
In March 2016, writers Meera Nair and Muna Garung led 11 South Asian American immigrant women through a series of writing workshops, “Letters Home,” on four consecutive Sundays. The immigrant women worked primarily as domestic workers, with long hours caring for the elderly or the very young. Some were proficient in English; for those who were not, Nair and Garung provided language support in Hindi and Nepali.
They started slowly. Nair and Garung encouraged the women to talk at first, engaging in exercises to elicit words and phrases expressing their notions of home. They also drew pictures on sheets of paper. Each participant was asked to speak about her words or memories; all wept. “No one has ever asked me about my home, where I come from,” one woman said.
As the weeks progressed, the women were encouraged to connect with their emotions around “home” and to articulate how these emotions felt, and what other sense memories were evoked—smells, sounds, sights. These senses were shaped into sentences and paragraphs. Eventually, the women gave a series of public readings featuring their work at venues including the Rubin Museum and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. The project was a unique collaboration between Adhikaar, a social service and social justice organization for New York’s Nepali-speaking community, and Kundiman, an Asian American literary organization.
“I was inspired by their progress, their learning curve, their determination and willingness to not only commit their lives to paper but to stand up and share them with the world,” facilitator Meera Nair said. “The letters themselves were beautiful, full of pain and longing and hope.”
I am deeply moved by the story of these women, who courageously looked into their own hearts and then stared straight into the eyes of a stranger and read their words out loud. I think of them and wonder if they ever see themselves reflected back. Will they ever have the experience that I had as a young girl, learning of Maya Lin, and knowing that another Chinese American girl from Ohio had created a space where all of us could confront our history? Would any of these women ever walk along the High Line, perhaps while on duty while pushing a stroller or a wheelchair, and see a piece of art that echoed her longing for home?
This, I think, is what arts and culture should be for all New Yorkers; this is what equity can mean in practice. That each of us can see art—on stages, in museums, in public spaces—that reflects ourselves and our experiences. The beauty and power of art is that it allows us to see our own humanity. And if we are striving to have a just and equitable city, then we as a society need to demand that we see all of our selves in the mirrors of our city’s creative outlets—not just the people who have the biggest hats or the deepest pockets. It is this multiplicity of voices that allows us the opportunity to foster genuine understanding and compassion, creating the city in which we all wish to inhabit and thrive.
This article originally appeared last fall in the bi-annual High Line Magazine, which is a benefit of High Line membership. Members keep the High Line vibrant! Your membership today will help us hire the gardeners and custodians who keep the entire High Line beautiful, clean, and welcoming. Plus, as a member, you will bring great programs and public art to the park to engage visitors of all ages and interests.Become a High Line Member