The Folk School Fairbanks
Diversity Working Group 2021: Summary
By Jessica Austin & Kerri Hamos
In March and April 2021, the Folk School Fairbanks (FS) formed a Diversity Working Group and held weekly sessions for six weeks. The group included a diverse sampling of members of the local Fairbanks community. Each week, a different member of the group led a discussion on a specific topic. This working group was part of the Leading From the Roots project supported by the FEAA and the Folk School Alliance.
Building diversity in an organization can often feel like a chicken-and-egg problem. This working group was successful in breaking out of that cycle because it was formed from members of the community who do not typically participate in FS planning, and these members were allowed to lead the discussions, and encouraged to share their honest opinions. With this structure, the sessions offered a fresh perspective to old problems, and resulted in a wealth of possible avenues the FS can pursue over the next year and more.
Session #1: Introduction. How is the Folk School viewed in the community, with respect to inclusivity? The primary issues brought up here were: the FS feels like a social clique, that is predominantly white due to the word-of-mouth nature of our growth, and does not feel welcoming to people of color, and the cost of attending events is a barrier to inclusivity. With this feedback, we came up with a list of session topics to dig into possible solutions to these problems.
Session #2: Class topics. How can diversifying the types of classes lead to student and leadership diversity? During this session we brainstormed possible class topics, and instructors, to involve members of the Fairbanks community that don't typically attend FS events. Examples included: events to celebrate Juneteenth and Black History Month, beading or kuspuks for the Alaska Native community, and spoken word events for Pride Month.
Session #3: Marketing. During this interactive session, we developed a marketing plan that would encourage a greater diversity of participants in FS activities. This plan includes: our target audiences, our communication objectives, barriers to action, benefit promise, tone, and execution. This session generated a wealth of ideas too numerous to include here, but some specific campaign ideas were: targeted outreach beyond typical FS advertising channels, a focus on introductory events where someone new to the FS could attend for free, and partnership with local organizations to introduce the FS to new audiences.
Session #4: Leadership. How can leadership at the FS be more inclusive in their decision making? We also acknowledged that being a board member is a big commitment, and there are other avenues to be part of FS decision making. For example, the board should form more community working groups to get fresh perspectives. One idea was to form a youth working group to develop a set of classes and events during a summer. The board should also lower the barriers to entry for leadership by: making the board's activities more transparent through social media posts and member profiles, developing a mentorship program, and sharing "job descriptions" for specific board member roles.
Session #5: Financial equity. How can we make participation more affordable, and thus more inclusive? How can we encourage more people to use the FS scholarship fund, which is historically under-utilized? We acknowledged that asking for scholarships can be socially awkward, so we explored the idea of introducing a pay-what-you-can structure for some classes, and use the fund to make up the difference if needed. Other ideas included: regularly offering free classes, especially for target groups and first-time attendees, and conducting outreach to specific groups that may need financial assistance but don't know that it's available.
Session #6: In this final session, the group summarized the key takeaways and possible action items, which could then be shared with the FS board to implement.
Even while the sessions were ongoing, the Folk School began making changes based on feedback, for example ensuring more diversity in website photos and posters. The board integrated many of these action items into their strategic plan during their May retreat, and are following up during each monthly meeting. The FS also plans to check in with the working group members periodically to ask, "How are we doing?", to make sure we stay on track.
For a small organization, taking on the pressing issues of diversity, equity, accessibility and inclusion can seem like a monumental task, but by being honest about the current situation and open to new ideas from a diverse group of supporters, The Folk School in Fairbanks was able to start taking steps in the right direction. In keeping with the tradition and history of folk education, we relish the opportunity to better support our community, break free from past mistakes, and diversify both our leadership and student body, and we hope to see other schools diving into this work as well.