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How to write a cultural equity statement as a framing tool for design thinking

Drafting a cultural equity statement
author writing
Author Sarah Minegar using rubrics to draft the cultural equity statement for Morristown National Historical Park.

This guest post is by Sarah Minegar, Ph.D., Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park.

In the realm of pedagogy, design thinking is a page right out of the educator’s handbook; accessible in concept and practice, adaptable and flexible in approach, and inherently iterative. I’ve been utilizing human-centered problem solving and “problem finding” with teacher partners at the Morristown National Historical Park for several years (read more). Inviting collaborators into our interpretive process has been an important step toward achieving equitable narratives. It has also been imperative that we use framing tools to help us anticipate blind spots in our projects, processes, and systems.

Although we have our own in-house indicators of success at Morristown National Historical Park, we try to stay abreast of the evolving measures of best practices and industry-specific metrics. One framing tool that lends itself to adaptation and iteration is the cultural equity statement. (See the Morristown NHP Cultural Equity Statement below).

Intern giving a gallery talk
An intern at Morristown National Historical Park getting peer-to-peer feedback.

What is a cultural equity statement?

A cultural equity statement is a succinct document that aids institutions in addressing, at a glance, the ways in which their missions, actions, practices, and leadership are steering their organization toward justice, equity, and inclusivity. Unlike an outcome-oriented matrix or a categorical rubric, this tool is a checklist of sorts to help you determine if an equity measure is in place.

A cultural equity statement should:

  • Be concise (generally 1-3 pages).
  • Include a summary of how cultural equity is defined and performed as part of your institutional mission.
  • Contain brief statements of acknowledgement, action, and sustainability. These statements should represent the essential objectives of equity in practice and do not need to include details, specifics, or action agendas.

Like any litmus test, you will know immediately where/if an equity consideration is missing. You should ideate or iterate accordingly.

Author Sarah Minegar working with potential high school student interns, per an action step in the cultural equity plan.

Cultural equity statement template

Americans for the Arts has an editable template for drafting your own. While this document may seem fairly simple in design, having one prepared will streamline your evaluation process, help you identify the gaps in your planning, and focus attention on your programming, processes, and leadership pipeline.

Using a template like this also removes some the pressure of getting started and drafting language from scratch; it helps you move into action quickly, and parse through the technical language of equity in a constructive manner.

Empathetic Museum Maturity Model

If you are looking for specific examples of how to determine success in practice, you might also want to pair your cultural equity statement with the Museum Maturity Model. This rubric, available in English and Spanish, was created by the The Empathetic Museum to help organizations determine how they perform in the way of diversity, equity, and access, and move toward inclusive futures.

The Maturity Model is divided into five characteristics: Civic Vision; Institutional Body Language; Community Resonance; Timeliness & Sustainability; and Performance Measures.

The Model is designed to be used alongside your institution’s strategic planning process and to provide benchmark examples of success. Ideally, it can also help you plan and critique new initiatives or pilots. Access the complete instructions and the downloadable rubric in English and Spanish here.

Summary

The cultural equity statement and empathetic maturity rubric are helpful starting points for museums striving to improve and evolve services to their communities. These tools provide scaffolding on which to organize needs and begin the design thinking process.

Inclusive design and equitable programming are about removing barriers and making accessibility a foundational consideration with every project. As museum professionals, is our duty to make sure no accommodation feels like an afterthought or is any less sophisticated in its design.

Sample Cultural Equity Statement

Below is the cultural equity statement from Morristown National Historical Park. This is an evolving statement and the version here is from April 2019. We used the editable template from Americans for the Arts; some of it is verbatim and some has been customized.

Morristown National Historical Park
CULTURAL EQUITY STATEMENT

To support a rich and dialogic learning community for all, Morristown NHP commits to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower just, inclusive, equitable experiences.

DEFINITION OF CULTURAL EQUITY

Cultural equity embodies the values, policies, and practices that ensure that all people—including but not limited to those who have been historically underrepresented based on race/ethnicity, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, socioeconomic status, geography, citizenship status, or religion—are represented in the development of public history policy; the support of learners; the nurturing of accessible, thriving venues for civic engagement and dialog; and the fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS & AFFIRMATIONS

  • In the United States, there are systems of power that grant privilege and access unequally such that inequity and injustice result, and that must be continuously addressed and changed.
  • Cultural equity is critical to the long-term viability of the public history sector.
    We must all hold ourselves accountable, because acknowledging and challenging our inequities and working in partnership is how we will make change happen.
  • Everyone deserves equal access to a full, vibrant civic life, which is essential to a healthy and democratic society.
  • Historic sites have traditionally been safe spaces for reflection, connection, dialog, and galvanizing cultural shifts that challenge inequities and encourage alternatives.

MODELING THROUGH ACTION
To provide informed, authentic leadership for cultural equity, we strive to …

  • Pursue cultural consciousness throughout our organization through substantive learning and formal, transparent policies.
  • Acknowledge and dismantle any inequities within our policies, systems, programs, and services, and report organization progress.
  • Commit time and resources to expand more diverse leadership within our board, staff, and advisory bodies.

FUELING FIELD PROGRESS
To pursue needed systemic change related to equity, we strive to …

  • Encourage substantive learning to build cultural consciousness and to proliferate pro-equity policies and practices by all of our constituencies and audiences.
  • Improve the cultural leadership pipeline by creating and supporting programs and policies that foster leadership that reflects the full breadth of American society.
  • Generate and aggregate quantitative and qualitative research related to equity to make incremental, measurable progress towards cultural equity more visible.
  • Advocate for public and private-sector policy that promotes cultural equity.


Sarah Minegar

Sarah Minegar, Ph.D. is an Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park. An academic historian and former classroom teacher, Sarah specializes in artifact-based inquiry and collaborative learning. She is a facilitator and design thinking practitioner. Read more about the unique collections housed at her institution and her teaching practice.

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Design thinking for equity in a national park: an interview with Sarah Minegar of the Morristown National Historical Park

Morristown National Historical Park
Sarah Minegar
Sarah Minegar and colleagues examining primary documents. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

This month I interviewed Sarah Minegar, the Archivist and Museum Educator for the Morristown National Historical Park Museum & Library in Morristown, New Jersey. Sarah talked about the challenges of bringing design thinking into the National Park Service, adopting an audience-centered dialogue, and how design thinking can help create more equitable spaces.

Tell me about your role in the National Park Service?

We are the first national historical park in the National Park Service. I’m part of a curatorial team of three, and about 23 of us work in the museum. We’re small and we have fluid roles. I do the archives work, process special collections, and I’m also the museum educator.

How are you using design thinking?

I’ve been practicing design thinking for about four years now with my teacher partners to create innovative educational programming. I’m very interested in how we can decolonize some of our spaces and I have been actively focused on sharing the stage with teachers and adopting an audience-centered dialogue.

 

Prototyping with teachers
Teachers prototyping lesson plans and activities at Morristown National Historical Park Museum. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

We’ve transitioned from programming consisting of entirely staff-led offerings to teacher-staff co-led endeavors and teacher-led field trips and workshops. Instead of running informational workshops, I’ve been collaboratively prototyping lesson ideas with teachers so they become familiar with our resources and leave with something tangible.

And you know what? When I include stakeholders (teachers) in the process, 99% of them return with their students and participate! In the past, when I ran a massive informational-style workshop for 75 teachers, only two teachers would come back, even after I got feedback that they loved the professional development.

I’ve also used design thinking to discover gaps in our program here at Morristown. This is why I sometimes call design thinking “problem finding.” It illuminates issues and ideas we hadn’t even recognized as gaps in our program.

I really love the inclusive and iterative approach of design thinking. Not only do I have permission to mess up and try again and do better, design thinking mandates this.

Sarah Minegar, Morristown National Historical Park


What’s an example of how you’ve used design thinking to find gaps in your program?

A couple of years ago, we were noticing a continual decline in student engagement and habitual distraction, so I set out to explore this with my student interns. And we uncovered so much beyond “student distraction.”

We invite classes here to this learning space, but we would start in the auditorium and reproduce a traditional classroom dynamic. Then we would bring out a worksheet and ask the students to work on document analysis of a primary document — often one that was in cursive, something that many of these students are not learning in school. We were giving them so many things to do out of their normal classroom, and then we’d say, “Oh, they aren’t focused!”

We started to realize that there were issues of learning intimidation, relevance, and trust, and we had insights into some low-hanging changes we could make to could have a big impact. For example, to break the traditional “classroom layout,” we arranged the chairs in a circle to keep energy and attention. This was a change I could make with no budget. And now we have a more equitable space, not one that says “I’m the expert up front.”

Students seated in a circle
Changing the traditional classroom layout. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

Another thing we wanted to do was lower the anxiety around looking at documents in cursive. So we began to institute a “gripe session” in which students can actively complain about how difficult the document may be to analyze. This provides a safe way to direct nerves and feelings of intimidation, and it’s an outlet for kids who want to be funny. It gives us a shared place to put our frustrations before we look at the primary documents.

We also got rid of the multitask with the worksheet, and incorporated other equity exercises. I’m really interested in how equity shows up in how we tell history. And I want the students questioning whose voices are missing when we go into the galleries.

So, this was something that started out with an issue of “student distraction,” but then we learned a lot about ourselves and the role we played. It just shows you how when you start to empathize, you learn so much.


How did you get interested in design thinking?

Testing a prototype
Testing a prototype in the galleries. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

I’m a former classroom teacher, and as a teacher, I’d been practicing empathy and human-centered problem solving for years, but I just didn’t have the language for what I did.

My dissertation focused on literary utopias as explorations in human ecology and social planning. When I discovered design thinking, the overlapping human-centered approach was apparent. I had this whole new vocabulary to express the work I was doing, but through a collaborative lens. And that was the big Aha, for me — that I could do this work collaboratively. As teachers, we work as independent units. But design thinking gave me a way to do this collaboratively.

So I started to take different courses online, such as an IDEO U course. And then I would try out the activities and exercises here at Morristown. Instead of it all being theory, like my grad school courses, it was very tangible.


What’s been the reaction to bringing design thinking to Morristown National Historic Park?

Brainstorming
Intern Jariah Rainey brainstorming a learning tool for families. Image courtesy Morristown National Historical Park.

My teacher colleagues love this way of working. They love getting to share authority around stories. Many of us have practiced what we call “audience-centered dialogue” and we also incorporate an equity focus, and design thinking has been a great way to teach change through your own actions. It’s very empowering.But others have had a more mixed reaction. The National Park Service has traditionally taken a “Ranger-led” approach to dialogue with the public. That’s part of our culture. For a long time, we’ve done things a certain way, and there has been some push back.

But now that audience-centered dialogue is the new approach, it can feel scary and threatening. Even if it’s in our interpretive plan, it can be a hard sell sometimes.


So how do you push forward despite resistance to this way of working?

Well, I’m very persistent and enthusiastic! When I see resistance to a specific tool, I try another one.

I really love the inclusive and iterative approach of design thinking. Not only do I have permission to mess up and try again and do better, design thinking mandates this. You don’t call it quits when your colleagues are not on board or something does not work. And that’s freeing.


What advice do you have to others who encounter push back with this kind of work?

Don’t call it “design thinking” or “facilitation” or “audience-centered learning.” Some people hear that and they think it’s all “let’s hold hands and sing kumbaya!” Even the word “design” is a huge barrier.

Just take action and call it whatever you want. It’s that action part that makes my heart swell when I think about design thinking.


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