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Deputy Director, Programs & Interim Accessibility Coordinator

NEFA’s strategic plan for 2018–2021 guides our work with a set of values that include a statement of commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility (EDIA): “NEFA values an equitable, diverse, and inclusive world, which we interpret as all people having fair access to the tools and resources they need to realize creative and community endeavors. We acknowledge structural inequities that have excluded individuals and communities from opportunity based on race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, class, age, and geography, and strive to counter those inequities in our work.”  As we take steps to integrate this value fully into NEFA’s programs and practices, I had the good fortune to participate in a cohort of 12 grant makers from the U.S. and Canada who came together with the purpose of examining and identifying ways to strengthen equity in grant decision making practices.

RE-Tool: Racial Equity in the Panel Process

The major outcome of this cohort’s work is a toolkit for equitable grant making drawn from the lived experiences of each of the cohort member and our organizations.  Over the winter, spring, and summer of 2018, we each committed to making changes in our grantmaking and panel review processes toward greater equity in the applicant pool, selection and training of panelists, panel experience and transparency in the grantmaking process.  

NEFA’s work in evolving panel practice with our spring 2018 panels focused on selection and training of panelists.  Our goals were to:

  • Increase the different perspectives and experiences that panelists brought to their review and discussion
  • Promote awareness of personal biases as well as other knowledge, experience, and resources in the room
  • Develop shared agreements about working together
  • Build greater consensus on shared language and interpretation of program goals, priorities, and criteria


Evolving Panel Practices

NEFA’s practices around selection of program advisors and panel composition provide context.  Current goals are to include more artists and others most affected by the grant decisions.  Program staff work toward a balance including where panelists are geographically based, race, ethnicity, languages, gender, disability, sexual orientation, class, age, current work in the program’s field, and other experience and knowledge of the applicant artists. 

NEFA’s major national programs, the National Dance Project (NDP) and National Theater Project (NTP) implemented expanded multi-part orientations to emphasize EDIA in preparation for the spring 2018 application review meetings. Some of these practices were also tested in a one time, one-day panel of six for NEFA’s largest regional grants program.  Enhanced orientation/panel training included multiple components:

Orientation Webinars
Advisors participated in comprehensive webinars with program staff around the time they received the applications and in advance of panel meetings.  These webinars included:

  • Overview of NEFA, the strategic plan and the EDIA values statement
  • A set of questions to raise awareness and identify potential biases that might arise in application review and panel discussions
  • Program specific overview and goals of the review process
  • Roles of panelists
  • Discussion of the program criteria with translation for any meanings that panelists find ambivalent and how criteria relate to the questions applicants are answering

Orientation at the Panel Meeting

Though it is always challenging to spend significant time on introductions and program information prior to digging into discussion of applications at the panel meeting, we expanded several components of the orientation conducted once the panel was convened in person.  The following are descriptions of the major activities that comprised these in-person orientations.

  • Introductions – Personal introductions were framed by statement of intentions to bring each participant at the meeting fully into the room, to raise awareness of power dynamics, potential areas of bias and blind spots, as well as to surface valuable experience and knowledge that would contribute to equitable evaluation of the proposals. 
  • Group Agreements – As part of working toward an organizational culture that incorporates EDIA values, NEFA staff has developed a set of discussion guidelines/group agreements.  These are communication parameters that allow for an honest and respectful environment encouraging the sharing of differing perspectives and opinions.  Generating a specific and personalized set of group agreements has become a practice at the top of all NEFA panel meetings.  Themes from the agreements established by spring 2018 panelists included:
    • Openness to others’ points of view, being present even if disagreeing
    • Awareness of power dynamics
    • Positive spirit, generosity, laughter
    • Full attention to discussion, limiting distractions,
    • Letting others speak, finish thoughts, deep listening
    • Challenging ourselves to speak even when uncomfortable, using “I” statements
    • Acceptance of multiple communication styles
    • Staying grounded in the guidelines and criteria
  • Review of Criteria – Each panel agenda allocated time for lengthy discussion of criteria, allowing for multiple interpretations to be raised and clarified and time to develop shared vocabulary and understanding before launching into discussion of applications.  NEFA staff facilitated meetings to encourage structuring comments around criteria.

Impact and Early Learning

Impact Observed by Panelists and Staff

  • The webinars prior to in-person meetings resulted in better understanding and advance preparation in relation to NEFA’s EDIA priorities, the program criteria and the review process.
  • At the meeting, taking time for the more in-depth self-introductions, focused on knowledge and bias, built group cohesion, self-awareness, and mutual respect. 
  • Developing the group discussion agreements immediately following the self-introductions brought the panel cohorts together in a collaborative activity and set a tone of listening, presence and positive intent to move into the discussions. 
  • Allowing for lengthy discussion focused on criteria developed more shared understanding and language to frame discussion of each project and to reinforce priorities around EDIA.  Awareness of various considerations in balancing diversity and inclusion were kept in the conversation throughout the review.

Learning and Work Ahead

  • NEFA staff will build on the practices implemented this year, with learning about increasing their effectiveness, as well as potential additions. Returning panelists benefit from orientation as much as new panelists and we’ll work to reach all program advisors with pre-meeting webinars, and to include all panelists in each component of the orientation.
  • During the review of each application, it is critical to allow time for multiple voices to weigh in.  We encourage panelists not to repeat points already made or to recap the application, but to present additional perspectives and to stay grounded in the criteria.  We’ve observed that it’s possible for panelists to be too deferential – multiple and sometimes divergent views are important and are necessary to reveal bias. 
  • While group agreements create a more equitable space, it will be important to develop practices around accountability and how to address situations when agreements are not being honored. 
  • We will continue to explore practices around raising awareness and revealing biases and blind spots.  As part of operationalizing NEFA’s strategic plan, all program language and criteria will be reviewed through an EDIA lens to infuse NEFA’s values in all considerations affecting grant distribution. 

NEFA will continue to evaluate and improve our practices and share resources with the field. Please let us know your thoughts.