And Here Come the Heritage Months
Chapter Leadership Brief 1.26.24
By Jonah Nigh
Senior Vice President for Development and Alumni Engagement
The New School
I love New York City because it is a city of doers. People are fast, smart, ambitious, and unsettled by the status quo. Whenever I visit family in the Midwest or West Coast, it takes about 48 hours before I get twitchy and start to feel like a corvette in a school-zone. Frankly, it’s not a city to me unless I need to regularly jump over bags of garbage, dodge an Elmo, or completely dissociate during “showtime” on the A Train.
It is with the ideas of action, and inaction, in mind that I want to talk about the punch list of Heritage Months, next up being Black History Month (February); Women’s History Month (March); and Arab Heritage Month (April). As a unicorn in our field–and a senior unicorn at that–I am routinely called upon to play special roles in May (Asian American Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month) and June (LGBTQIA+ Pride Month).
I resented these extracurricular duties until my colleague, Melanie Hart, challenged me with, “What will you be proving by saying no? Are the places asking you to partner consistent with your values? If they are, get on that stage and own why you are there.”
She challenged me further with the most succinct framework I have ever heard regarding the alphabet soup that is DEI, DEIB, IDEA, EISJ, and so on. To paraphrase:
Diversity is a fact.
Equity is a choice.
Inclusion is an action.
Belonging is a result.
How many of us have rushed to frame public programming or special initiatives as an effort to promote “belonging”? I would offer that without intentional choices and action around resources, hiring, and promotions, we are giving ourselves too much credit. Since 2020, our field has passed resolutions, made websites with hyperlinks to books written by BIPOC authors, held symposia, and talked about ideas. But let’s not fool ourselves; our field is stubbornly homogeneous. *83% of front liners are white. In my 18 years in the field I have seen almost no progress in this regard, let alone movement at the senior leadership levels.
However, one of the reasons I said yes to becoming the President-Elect of AFP NYC is that I can envision a time when our field will be able to show our values, not just talk about them. I can imagine this because of the many great people whom I have met and worked with in our field who recommit themselves to this work daily despite the fact that DEI efforts are under attack in many parts of the country.
As a fundraiser I feel very comfortable asking for things, so I would like to make two asks today:
To women and/or BIPOC fundraisers: Do. Not. Work. For. Free. Who among us has not been asked to do more for less, especially under the banner of advancing the field concerning DEIB? The ending of unpaid internships was a good start. Let’s move toward an industry-wide understanding that we are not extras on a reality TV show that can be slotted in as needed. Volunteering is one thing, but work is work. We all know the difference, and so do the organizations that ask us to do things for free. If, as a collective, we hold steadfast, I believe this will change. If people continue to do it for “exposure”, there will be no progress. To paraphrase one of my mentor’s mentors, devaluing yourself like that is “beneath your greatness.”
To allies: Inaction is an action. If you truly believe in advancing a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging in our field, I would ask that you be intentional about your choices and actions, especially regarding who you hire, promote, send to conferences, ask to do your panels, and mentor.
We can say we value anything. But until I see it, I don’t believe it. If you are motivated by this conversation but feel stuck, please consider joining AFP NYC. There is a place for your energy and ideas. Or you can always email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss the many ways we can move our field forward together.
*Source: Data USA; Advancement forum interviews and analysis.
Jonah Nigh is the Senior Vice President of Development and Alumni Engagement at The New School. Prior roles included positions at The Jewish Museum (CDO), Lincoln Center, Columbia University, Opera America, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among other institutions. He began his career as a classical musician and has been involved in the production side of live events as a booking agent and concert coordinator. He earned his undergraduate degree in vocal performance at Lawrence University and a Master of Music from the New England Conservatory. Performance credits include roles at the Aspen Music Festival, Boston Lyric Opera, Dorian Opera Theatre, Opera Boston, and on TV and film. A frequent public speaker, he has served in a variety of roles for NBC, ABC, WNYC, France TV, the National Endowment for the Arts, NYC Pride March, Asian Leadership Collective, The Janchi Show, Museum of the City of New York, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. On the topic of fundraising, he has partnered with CASE, Aspen Leadership Group, Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, Con Edison Musicians’ Residency Program, Columbia Business School, Florida State University, among other organizations.