Equity in Informal Science Institutions: Insights and Practical Suggestions for Organizational Change

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March 29th, 2021

When it comes to equity, there is no neutral ground.

As our society faces twin crises—the global COVID-19 pandemic, with its glaring health inequities, and the chronic racial injustice embedded in our social system—museums, science centers, and other informal science organizations have a role to play in creating a better and more just world. Often, organizations have good intentions with respect to equity, but are not sure where to start. Is equity work optional for informal science institutions, or is it vital? What does it mean for an organization to commit to equity as seriously as it commits to budgeting? Strong, internal work that examines our own role in perpetuating or breaking down inequities can help our institutions to fulfill their potential. Our report, Organizing for Equity-Oriented Change in Museums: Insights, Practical Suggestions, and Stories from the Science Museum of Minnesota, shares some of the processes, strategies, activities, and ideas we have developed or used as we move toward being a more equitable institution.

This document emerges from work that the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM) has been doing for decades—through our youth development program (the Kitty Andersen Youth Science Center), the creation of the exhibition  RACE: Are We So DIfferent?, and numerous other projects. Our conversations have shifted over time as we understood that in order to make equity sustainable, we had to change our culture to center equity. We were able to make significant progress during our participation in a larger NSF-funded national study on the practices that build capacity at museums and science centers to create and sustain equity-related organizational change, called RACE Forward (NSF AISL#1516255). That project allowed us to talk regularly with co-PIs Noah Weeth Feinstein and Cecilia Garibay, and team members Cori West and Esther HsuBorger, who all played multiple roles, including coach, critic, and cheerleader, sometimes all within one phone call.


Setting Up for Success: Cross-Organizational Working Groups

Using an adapted Team-Based Inquiry approach, we formed practitioner groups across key functional areas of the institution (e.g., human resources) to adjust policies, procedures, and staff supports to center equity. These groups were designed with distribution and redundancy in mind. We invited group members from across multiple levels in the organizational hierarchy, who represented departments from across the organization, so we could ensure that the policies and practices we put into place would be carried back to all areas of the institution.

Key to the success of these groups were the following:

  1. They had two leaders to support their work;
  2. They established group norms, routines, trust, and willingness to talk;
  3. They had a group charge specific to their functional area and were able to move quickly from conversations to actions
  4. They supported both group membership and connectedness to their own roles within the institution; and
  5. They built in reflection and documentation for planning, learning, and sharing across the institution.

Museum cultureOver time, these groups began to cultivate a shared vision and vocabulary related to the work. Ultimately, we created a Theory of Change (See Image on left) to describe the organizational change that might emerge from our work and developed concrete action plans in each of the group’s functional areas to operationalize the work that needed to happen. A key part of embedding equity organizationally was including it in our communications with our partners, stakeholders, and broader society. We discussed and then crafted an SMM institution-wide Statement on Equity to express our learning mindset, intent to create organizational change, and commitment to accountability.


Engaged Equity: Strategies for Sustainable Organizational Change

The report provides examples from our experience of what we have come to understand as “engaged equity”—equity work that is “regular” work—which is essential to long-term success and organizational change around equity. Engaged equity means that everyone within an equity-focused institution is vigilant about, and thinks carefully about, how they contribute to equity and inclusion. It also means that the institution intentionally engages in transforming organizational structures. When we didn’t adequately support our equity initiatives, or when our responsiveness to equity situations fell short, we met those challenges by having internal dialogues, changing policy, and better preparing staff to understand and sustain the work.

Three strategic areas where organizations can start to focus their equity work are leadership structures, public accountability efforts, and operationalizing the work in daily practice. The report contains the activities, examples, and processes that we tried for each of these approaches.

  • Leadership in institutional equity needs to be distributed and supported across the institution, and executive leadership should actively engage in learning from the many leaders in equity work across the ISE field and within their own community contexts, particularly leaders of color and those from marginalized communities.
  • Public accountability in institutional equity means acknowledging the inequities present in local contexts, as well as any institutional (current and/or historical) complicity; communicating about the institution’s aspirations, actions, and shortcomings regarding its equity initiatives; and being responsive to the needs and requests of the institution’s public(s).
  • Operationalization of institutional equity involves developing, in individual staff and across the organization, the practical pathways by which to move from vision to action by trying things, being willing to fail, learning from those experiences and trying again.

If organizations continue to work with existing audiences, following the usual practices, we will continue to support the status quo, which results in inequities in access to and engagement with science at a pivotal time in human history. Again, there is no “neutral” choice regarding equity for informal science institutions. In spite of working hard toward equity, we have learned that it is not enough for a public-facing organization to have an intention of creating full participation and inclusion among its staff and its visitors/participants. There is still potential for exclusion and harm.

However, an institution that can 1) leverage its strengths to support equity work, 2) respond directly and with openness when experiences of exclusion occur, and 3) plan for challenges and resistance is better positioned to do the work of organizational transformation around equity. It also must be prepared to adopt processes for relationship repair, think about where challenges may come from, and be responsive to conflict when it occurs.

We hope that the examples in our report, Organizing for Equity-Oriented Change in Museums, provide some inspiration and guidance for other organizations who recognize that we must urgently move toward equity in order to truly be places that live out our missions to engage the public in science.