Catching up with “Race Forward”, a project examining equity-oriented institutional change

Museum visitors examine a photo of how the U.S. Census counted different races over time.

June 21st, 2018

The exhibition RACE: Are We So Different? has had a measurable impact on the science center and museum field, spurring new programs, community collaborations, and internal discussions about equity. Developed through a collaboration between the American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM), the 5,000-square-foot exhibition opened in 2007, and has since traveled to more than 50 museums across the United States. There are now three copies—one currently on the road, one permanently installed at the San Diego Museum of Man, and another on display at SMM. A smaller-footprint version of the exhibition has gone to diverse institutions such as libraries, history museums, and even the Mayo Clinic.

A new project, RACE Forward: Understanding and Catalyzing Equity-Oriented Change in Museums and Science Centers, is looking at the ways in which hosting and facilitating the RACE exhibition can be used to advance institutional work around racial equity. The project compares the experiences of organizations that have hosted RACE, focusing on conditions that have led to lasting impact. It is funded by the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program within the (U.S.) National Science Foundation (NSF) (award #1516255).

In March 2018, CAISE Project Director Jamie Bell interviewed two of the project’s Co-Principal Investigators (PIs), Noah Weeth Feinstein, Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Joanne Jones-Rizzi, Vice President of STEM Equity and Education at SMM. Marjorie Bequette of SMM and Cecilia Garibay of the Garibay Group are also co-PIs. Below are excerpts of the discussion.

How did the project get started?

Noah Weeth FeinsteinNoah: Years ago I was doing a study to try to figure out how different museums thought and went about trying to do equity and social justice work in the context of their educational activities. And I began hearing stories about the RACE exhibition from museums that had hosted it, from museums that had heard about it—and it was clearly something that was happening out there in a way that very few other museum programs are. It was part of the discussion about equity, particularly racial equity, and I got really curious about it. I went to graduate school with one of our other co-PIs, Marjorie Bequette, who is at SMM, and so I called Marjorie and asked if anyone had ever done a cross-site evaluation of this—has anyone ever tried to look at what the collective impact of this exhibition was? And she said not exactly, but it was funny that I should mention the RACE exhibition because SMM was just getting ready to bring it home to reinstall. And this felt like such an exciting opportunity to both look at what the RACE exhibition meant to museums around the United States and also watch what happened at the place that created it in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association . . . to watch that place [SMM] taking it back and reviving it and using it in a way to try to push themselves forward. So that’s the beginning of the story from my end: it was out of an awareness that there was this exhibit out there that seemed to be changing what museums did and how they thought about race and racial equity, and I just really wanted to know more about that. It felt like it had the potential to say important things to the field.

Joanne Jones RizziJoanne: When we were developing the exhibition, we were talking with people and trying to involve the community as much as we could, and there was a lot of deep concern about how this exhibition would be received. There was concern that there would be strong and potentially hostile reactions to it. So as a way to try to address those worries and concerns, we were talking with people from the community, and not just communities of color, but people from various stakeholder communities. And I think there was a level of skepticism about what the science museum, which is a predominately white organization, was going to do and what would be included in an exhibition about race. One of our motivations for working on this project and taking it on initially was that we wanted to encourage a dialog about race, and we were very interested in the potential for what could happen. That’s when we started talking with a group of racially, ethnically, professionally diverse folks who are involved in restorative justice and who were very skeptical but excited about working with us because we had this idea that we wanted dialog. This kind of methodology for restorative justice and having people talk about the exhibition in a way that felt safe and nonjudgmental was something that we were attracted to . . . and when we opened the exhibition, people were just astonished that we talked about white privilege. Many said we spoke truth to power in the exhibit . . . .

This dialog-based programming that we were doing strengthened people’s depth of knowledge and experience. And for people who saw the exhibition and then participated in a dialog-based program it was very powerful. The first time the exhibit was here in January of 2007, it was here for about four months and we had about 4,000 people go through that dialog program. Initially we thought if we got a couple of hundred that would be successful.

We saw that staff were interested in having the same kinds of conversations that we were offering as public programs connected to RACE. So we started offering dialog sessions for staff as well and learned that the exhibition was this incredible catalyst for conversations about this complex topic that people are sometimes really uncomfortable talking about. And so when Noah came to Marjorie and asked about doing this research project about the exhibition I got really excited because it just felt like well this will be a way for us to actually use this exhibition for our own internal work in a very kind of meaningful way.

What has been the internal impact on the Science Museum of Minnesota?

Joanne: Some of the ways that the work becomes tangible here is through what we call the Race Forward Working Groups. There are probably about 80 staff actively involved in the project.

  1. One group, focused on HR practices and policies, changed how job descriptions are written, how some of the questions are asked in interviews, things like that. They are also looking at what kinds of embedded policies and practices we have that disadvantage some people and advantage others.
  2. In the Learning Leadership Group, we’re looking at the direction of the project and ensuring that we’re doing what we said we would do, and thinking about ways to extend the work and involve more people.
  3. One Museum, One Book existed before the project began, but we’ve kind of integrated into this project, and we’re essentially reading books as an organization. The books are focused around equity. Each month we focus on a book, people read it, there are discussions. We try to have either complementary films or some other kind of engagement tool that’s not focused on reading if people don’t have time to read a book or are not readers. And then there is a lot of discussion.
  4. The Data Group is looking at data across the museum and the ways that we’re collecting data, how we’re using that data so that there’s a consistency in how we’re using and collecting data.
  5. The Content Group is about content, not just in exhibitions, but in curricula, public programs, and everything that we’re doing that has a content focus. They are looking at our equity practices there and how equity is hidden, shows up, or doesn’t.

We’ve also developed theory of change documents for each of these groups and have been using those and sharing them. One of the central things that has come up in all of this is that one of our goals is to decenter whiteness. And within the museum that’s been a very interesting process as we’ve shared it with people who aren’t involved directly with the project. We’ve done a museum-wide survey and we’re just about to do our second one where we had about a 60% response rate to understand where people are in the museum in terms of their understanding about equity, how it relates to their day-to-day work even if they’re not directly involved in an equity-based project or program. And this next one that we’re about to do is going to be much shorter. The other thing is that we’re developing this statement of equity and inclusion, to accompany the museum’s statements of global climate change and evolution, which are used by staff when we have people come in and ask questions.

What’s been happening at other museums and organizations?

Noah: We’ve been talking to people and organizations around the country, about 30 so far, and there have been a whole range of challenges involved in trying to put that data together. The organizations that host it are vastly different. They’re different in type, they’re different in size, they’re different in audience, they’re different in leadership structure. And so trying to figure out what it means for a very small museum to host the RACE exhibition versus what it means for a gigantic one with a big tourist base is very challenging. And so we’ve been gathering perspectives. We’re about to launch another round of data collection where we go into more detail with a smaller subset of places that hosted the exhibition.

One of the things that we’ve learned is that RACE represents a different stage of the journey for every organization that hosts it. We went in with this naive vision, which is a very sort of researcher thing to think, that I’m sure no one besides us thought. We thought that a museum would decide to host the exhibition, and it would come, and then that would be the intervention. We thought its presence would be the thing that changed the organization, or had the potential to change the organization. And in fact, what we’re learning is that the conversations that happened before hosting the RACE exhibition, the way hosting it fit into the other work the museum was doing or not doing . . . we’re a long way from our final findings, but one of our big learnings as a research team, has been figuring out how to fit that event into each organization’s journey and understand it as a process of ongoing change rather than as a thing that happened.

The big finding from our first round of data collection is that the large majority of the places we talked to said that hosting the RACE exhibition did produce some organizational change. Well over half said that it produced some organizational change related to the way that they thought about and acted upon racial equity. Now, not all of those changes were equally large, but learning that was a really exciting moment. Because we had this hypothesis that the RACE exhibition—we knew from the experience at SMM, and from watching what happened, how powerful it could be. But we also had this hypothesis that it was significant for the places that hosted it. And we found out in their own words that it was meaningful. That it did help move organizations along. That was very compelling for us and very exciting.  

Going from initiative to infrastructure

Joanne: At the same time that this project was being initiated, SMM was going through a strategic planning process and the leadership of the organization changed with the appointment of  a new director. Equity, inclusion, and access are now a part of the strategic plan in part because of this project. I don’t know that that would have happened without this project because the strategic planning process involved a lot of people who were involved in the Race Forward Working Groups. This project is really a part of all of our work, and we say it is not just the people working on the project, this is the work of the whole museum.

This idea—that people who do this work in museums is “flash-in-the-pan” work—showed up within Noah’s research in the field. You come, you do it, then the people are on to something new, onto the next thing. And that we’ve been very mindful of. What Noah surfaced is that a lot of the people that we were in contact with initially, who were working on the RACE exhibition, aren’t at those institutions any more. It’s a really good reminder to us about the value of this work. And this is lifelong work—we are not going to make the kind of change that we want to make or that the project talks about in my lifetime. Having people who are committed to it, and having the institution as a whole commit to it, is really important. The proof of the commitment will be after the NSF funding is over and if we still have what that looks like.

What are we learning?

Noah: I think that it is true that there’s no generic journey towards perfection on racial equity across all these organizations. And that we’re constantly struck by the different ways that those challenges manifest. It’s been a struggle in our team process in trying to figure out what’s the balance between understanding equity in context, and understanding equity as a shared collective mission that we have as a field.  How does an organization decide what it’s contributing to? It’s contributing to equity right where it is. It’s contributing to the end of racism in the United States. And those are both places, both planes on which organizations try to act. One thing that I will say which has been sort of a minor finding but one that’s stuck with us, is that a lot of places have a lot of fear around hosting the RACE exhibition. And the typical thing that we heard from organizations who hosted it was, “We were really worried about it, and then we had it and there was nothing to be afraid of . . . like it was great.” And that sort of fear it is racialized, right? There are things that we’re scared of talking about. White organizations are scared of talking about the things that white organizations are scared of opening up. And to me it’s both sobering and encouraging that the places that got asked that and had that discovery, that it was easier to have that conversation, and they were more ready to have that conversation than they thought they were.  

Congratulations to Joanne, who was just honored with the American Alliance of Museums’ prestigious Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion award! For more on how museums can work toward being more inclusive community institutions, watch this ASTC On Air.