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Our Journey Toward Equity and Anti-Racism

In 2006, I became director of the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), a multi-disciplinary museum of California art, history, and natural sciences located in downtown Oakland, and I did what new directors typically strive to do – learn about the organization, its culture, and its history. What forms the DNA of the museum? What constitutes its culture? What are the values that have been instilled over decades? 

In my first few months as director, I dug into the history of our founding as the “museum of the people.” OMCA was born in the shadow of racial division and protest. When the Museum opened its doors in 1969, the demonstrations to free Huey Newton, founder of the Black Panther Party, were taking place across the street at the Alameda County Court House, and nearby UC Berkeley was the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement. 

It was within this context that the Museum’s founding director, Dr. J.S. Holliday, attempted to form a community advisory committee amid calls to better incorporate community members into Oakland’s new museum. He was fired for insubordination six weeks before the Museum opened, and the Director of Education, Dr. Julia Hare – a Black educator, activist, and writer – resigned in protest. Dr. Holliday and Dr. Hare were interviewed by the Berkeley-based public radio station, KPFA, to address the subject: “What does it mean to be a community museum?”

Responding to this question is still at the heart of our work. For many years, we have worked to live up to the Museum’s founding values and build upon this extraordinary legacy as the “museum of the people.” The founding mandate to tell the diverse stories of California and its people and to reflect the diversity of Oakland and the broader region has been advanced for decades through the pioneering work of our staff and volunteers, resulting in landmark exhibitions, signature community programs, and engagement with students and teachers from throughout Northern California.

While we’ve made significant strides in our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and access, the national reckoning around race that has taken place over the past year underscores that much work remains before we can truly embody our commitment to anti-racism. This article marks the first in a series about OMCA’s history in equity and inclusion efforts, the process of internal self-reflection and actions our staff and Board have engaged in, plus how we envision the next phase of our work as we emerge from a year of closure and into our second half-century as a cultural institution in the heart of Oakland.

In considering the shifts we’ve made in our organization over the past few years, there are three key pillars that I believe stand out that have been essential to moving forward in our equity and anti-racism journey: Board and staff capacity-building; measuring our impact; and new approaches to storytelling.

Board and Staff Capacity-Building

The work of equity and anti-racism requires not just organizational and systemic change but individual behavioral change. If we’re asking everyone on our staff and Board to modify their behaviors and ways of thinking, we need to provide the tools and support system for those changes to stick. Everyone comes to work – whether a staff member or a trustee – with their own set of power and privilege dynamics. We’ve invested significantly in training and knowledge-building, including:

Offered training around equity and inclusion for Museum staff and trustees. We have used multiple strategies, including all-staff training, cohort learning in partnership with community facilitators, and function-specific workshops such as customized training for frontline staff and volunteers, programmers, evaluators, and more. In addition, our Board has participated in the American Alliance of Museums’ multi-year initiative, Facing Change, focused on diversity, equity, inclusion, and access for boards from more than 50 museums nationwide. Through this effort, OMCA’s trustees have engaged in extended training and conversation that moves beyond diverse representation and implicit bias into an examination of Board policies and practices, structure, and culture.

Learned from peer museums, which is critical to understanding new ways of operating. We have sent staff to do field research at museums and invited leaders from organizations we believe are at the forefront of equity and inclusion in our industry to share their experiences with our colleagues.

Established “OMCA You,” our learning and professional development program for, and by, our staff members. The program allows staff to practice and share the technical and people skills required to succeed in a highly collaborative, community-engaged organization. We are committed to cultivating a workforce that expresses a sense of agency, collaboration, and empathy with colleagues and the external community to advance our mission, vision, and values. 

Measuring Our Impact

As a nonprofit organization, we are accountable to ourselves, our stakeholders, and our community. We have found that accountability doesn’t just happen on its own. We must be transparent about what we’re trying to achieve, measure new things in new ways, and be intentional about our actions and decision-making related to this work. Furthermore, it’s not enough that we hold ourselves accountable for achieving true equity and inclusion; we must provide the tools and resources to help our stakeholders and community also hold us accountable. Therefore, we have:

Conducted evaluations of our staff and Board to survey their demographics, attitudes, understanding of our goals, and their roles in relation to those goals. We’ve learned that describing the difference you want to see and then measuring whether you achieved it can be transformative. In recent years, we have conducted an annual anonymous staff survey to track agreement with statements like, “Our organization has a strong commitment to community engagement,” and “Representatives from our organization work to actively strengthen our ties to diverse communities.” We also conduct anonymous surveys of all staff involved in creating major new exhibitions to identify ways we can improve our work. We use all of this data to inform our planning and investments in staff training and process improvement. 

Created a visitor dashboard and shared it widely across our staff and Board. This is one of the most critical ways we’ve tried to increase transparency and hold ourselves accountable. The dashboard tracks visitor demographics, attendance, and aspects of the quality of their experience, and it shows how we are performing against our goals. When we don’t meet our targets, we’ve had difficult but fascinating conversations across the organization about what we could do differently or how we might need to set different goals. 

Articulated and measured our social impact through a multi-year effort to describe the broader impact of OMCA beyond standard outcomes such as visitation, membership, or audience composition. Following extensive discussions with staff, Board, and community members and research into social science methodology for measuring social impact, OMCA defined its framework around social cohesion: building trust, understanding, and connection between people and communities. Prior to the pandemic and our 15-month closure, we had just completed our first full year of measuring this impact through visitor evaluations utilizing survey questions that explored visitors’ sense of welcome and belonging at the Museum, their ability to see themselves and their stories reflected, and to connect with and gain empathy around others’ stories and identities. You can read about OMCA’s work in this series of articles on Medium. 

New Approaches to Storytelling

The heart of our response to the question “What does it mean to be a community museum?” is in our storytelling. While OMCA has a long history of creating exhibitions that reflect the diversity of California’s land, people, and creative expression, in recent years, we’ve centered our exhibitions, public programming, and educational efforts on themes, topics, and practices designed to make the Museum an indispensable resource for Oakland and a platform for dialogue in the broader region. We have pursued:

Urgent and Timely Topics. Our exhibitions have taken on topics that have broad relevance for California and beyond, but with Oakland at their core. Projects such as Altered State: Marijuana in California; All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50; RESPECT: Hip-Hop Style and Wisdom; and Queer California took on significant topics and also explored often untold or under-told stories, particularly of women and BIPOC communities. The exhibitions underscore our organizational mission – inspiring all Californians to create a more vibrant future for themselves and their communities – by encouraging visitors to consider what a brighter future might look like for all people.

Collaboration, Contribution, and Co-Creation. An essential element of our community engagement practice has been consistent and sustained community involvement through a range of approaches from long-term community partnerships to project advisory groups that shape exhibition and program planning from the outset to actual co-creation of program and exhibition elements by community members and groups. Every aspect of our programming has some level of the “3 C’s” – collaboration with community members; visible and prominent visitor and community voice within gallery and exhibition spaces; and programming and exhibit elements co-created with community members.

Personal, Accessible, Imaginative, Relevant, and Social Experiences. Beyond the content and elements of any individual exhibition or program, we strive for our storytelling to capture the characteristics or qualities that define it as uniquely OMCA. Our PAIRS framework helps us assess each program for its success in delivering a memorable and meaningful experience for our visitors, beyond traditional meaning or cognitive information measurements. The social aspect of this framework has been critical to our programming, perhaps manifest most prominently by our enormously successful Friday Nights at OMCA block party that in pre-pandemic years attracted several thousand participants each week.

Collecting as Storytelling. OMCA has also revised its collecting strategies to focus on the ability of its collections to tell stories and to foster social cohesion rather than to grow holdings simply to California’s history and culture. The Museum is currently focusing acquisitions efforts on key themes that emphasize the diversity of the environments, peoples and cultures of California, our global connections, and the state’s embodiment of innovation and creativity. 

The result of all of these efforts has been a substantial transformation in who actually shows up to OMCA. In our last full year of visitor evaluation, OMCA’s audience comprised 56% People of Color and 62% of general visitors were under 45. We have seen the results of both decades of work and fundamental institutional change in recent years — and we know that the work is not done. 

As we embark on our second half-century, the Oakland Museum of California will still be asking the question: what does it mean today and in this time to be a museum that is of, by, and for its community?