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Changing California

California has always been associated with radical transformation. Consider the dream factory of Hollywood. Game-changing social movements in Oakland like the Black Panther Party. The digital revolution initiated in Silicon Valley. The locavore food movement in Berkeley championed by Alice Waters. The visionary environmentalism of John Muir and his successors.

Today’s California is no different. The state is experiencing changes—environmental, technological, demographic, and cultural—at breakneck speed. And to truly be the Museum of California, OMCA is looking at new ways to be relevant, inspiring, inclusive, and trailblazing in the midst of all these changing dynamics.

Lori Fogarty, OMCA’s director and CEO, says the Museum isn’t just a place people visit and passively receive information. It has increasingly become a community resource, an interactive place for public discourse, and an activist organization dedicated to social justice.

“I often get asked, ‘Are you a museum or a cultural center?’” Fogarty says. “And I say yes. Because we are both, and I don’t think there’s a conflict in being both.”

Demographic Shifts

One of the ways OMCA has achieved this is by welcoming people who aren’t considered “traditional” museumgoers. California’s demographics are much different than they were even a few years ago, with the growing Latino population, the aging baby boomers, the huge number of millennials, and the reconceived definitions of what constitutes a family. OMCA has made it a top priority to connect with these changing populations, often by reaching them in their own communities, beyond the Museum’s walls.

“We are addressing these demographic shifts in many ways,” Fogarty says. “We create inclusive social experiences, such as Friday Nights @ OMCA; we offer multilanguage materials in our galleries; and we have increased accessibility for all by reducing the cost barrier through our monthly First Sundays @ OMCA program and the Museums for All program.” Additionally, OMCA partners with community organizations including the Oakland Asian Cultural Center and the YMCA of the East Bay to bring cultural experiences into different neighborhoods and increase civic engagement.

New Directions in Education and Technology

Education in California is evolving, too. With the implementation of the Common Core Standards, the knowledge, concepts, and skills that K–12 students require have undergone a major transformation. By moving away from standardized testing and toward performance-based assessments, the Common Core Standards are encouraging more interdisciplinary, project-based courses of study.

OMCA, which has been a leading resource to schools for decades, is well positioned to meet the changing needs of educators and students. The Museum encourages visitors to experience its offerings as an integrated whole, not as separate silos of art, history, and natural sciences. To ensure it continues to serve the educational community, OMCA is working closely with the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) to find new ways to encourage participatory experiences for students and teachers. These initiatives involve new school programming, increased attention paid to digital outreach, and the incorporation of engaging and interactive technology in the galleries.

These efforts have been tremendously successful. Louise Music, the ACOE executive director of integrated learning, says students increasingly feel as if OMCA is their museum. “The Museum invites kids to touch things and make things,” she says. “The fact that OMCA welcomes the thoughts and perspectives of kids alongside artists, scholars, scientists, and historians sends a huge message that artists are everywhere, even among children. OMCA is saying, ‘We can be a place of solution-finding and connections.’ It’s opening its doors and arms. We can survive and achieve anything as long as we are connected, and OMCA is helping us to see that.”

A Call to Action

OMCA is using its expertise and resources to be a force of change. One way it’s doing so is by inspiring others to be forces for change, too. The Gallery of California Natural Sciences educates visitors on climate change, the state’s epic drought, and diminished wildlife habitats. By encouraging visitors to get involved with citizen science projects like ZomBee Watch or the Great Sunflower Project, OMCA is helping communicate the urgency of environmental stewardship among community members.

But to be a truly catalyzing force for change, OMCA is rethinking its role as a local institution. It has started working with LeaderSpring, an Oakland-based organization dedicated to leadership development for nonprofit entities primarily committed to social justice causes. “At OMCA, we think about issues of power, privilege, and equity,” Fogarty says. “We see ourselves as a social justice organization as well as a museum. So we’re learning fresh ways to realize our goals of mobilizing social change. And this is always done in partnership with the community, never by imposing upon it. The intent is to create unforgettable experiences, invite differences of opinion, and foster civic pride.”

Renato Almanzor, LeaderSpring’s senior director of programs, echoes that sentiment. “OMCA gets that it’s not enough to house artifacts,” he says. “They want to be co-partners in the storytelling. They want to produce opportunities for the community’s expertise to flourish. And they’re doing it consciously and compassionately.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Inside Out, the Oakland Museum of California’s Member magazine.