Incremental Improvements and Visionary Shifts: Understanding the Pace of Change
So much of what seemed impossible this time last year is now happening. Police abolition is part of the mainstream discourse, all of the jobs that we were told couldn’t happen without an office might be remote permanently, and the buses in NYC are now all free. The Overton window has shifted dramatically for a number of issues over the past few months.
So much more is on the table, and collectively we can all recognize new places for our society to become less racist, less transphobic, less classist, less ableist, and more equitable overall.
Some of these changes are relatively small – minimizing daily microaggressions, paying marginalized people for their labor, supporting businesses that don’t work with ICE, investing more in schools than in a heavily militarized police, firing people in leadership who egregiously abuse their power, having more than one POC voice on a panel or performing on a bill.
But some of the changes that we’re talking about now would deeply transform our daily lives; defunding and abolishing policing and prisons, guaranteeing housing, truly giving communities the resources they need to thrive, ending office jobs for good, and addressing violent and toxic behavior without relying on carceral frameworks.
While all of these changes, big and small, are about creating a more equitable world, there’s a tension between the smaller changes and the larger-scale revolutionary shifts. And a tension between the people who focus on these different scales. Identifying the contours of this tension, can help us ultimately collectively build the future we want - both in the immediate future and in the long-term future.
I tend to think about it in terms of the short game and the long game. The short game is full of the changes we need to make in order to have a world that is more immediately habitable, to mitigate the worst symptoms of systems like racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, homophobia, the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and more. The long game is about building a future beyond these systems.
The smaller, incremental changes tend to be more focused on making life more bearable under fundamentally oppressive structures. For example, agitating for better pay for entry-level employees can bring about crucial help for workers, but still functions within the brutal mechanics of capitalism. Larger-scale changes seek to build new structures – for example, beyond capitalism and wage labor. These changes can be so lofty that they feel unattainable.
The Short Game
Working towards short-term change can have the most immediate, tangible impacts on daily life. Short game changes can mean that a family has enough food to eat for a given month, or that they can better navigate our country’s asylum system. Short game changes can mean that people are able to use the bathroom without fear. Raising minimum wages, or freezing evictions can make a huge difference in an individual’s life.
But, the risk is that focusing exclusively on short-term changes can end up focusing so much on the symptoms that the root causes don’t go addressed. For example, eviction freezes don’t ever address the root causes of housing insecurity like redlining, economic discrimination, or domestic violence. The risk is that focusing on the short game just makes violent systems slightly more habitable, and therefore makes individuals more complacent. It’s tempting to think that once you’ve elected a progressive candidate or pushed through some reforms that “the work” is done, or is out of your hands.
Those who are focused on the long-term, radical vision of the future can sometimes see the short-term solution finders as limited in their scope; too willing to compromise within violent and cruel systems. They can think that incremental changes within a system just make it easier for those systems to perpetuate themselves.
The Long Game
Seeking visionary change in the long game is less about working within the systems that exist and more about envisioning and building new systems. Rather than working to reform our current criminal justice system, a long game strategy focuses on how to build community safety and how to hold people accountable within communities.
Long game changes are sweeping, visionary, and inspiring. Long game changes are idealistic and transformative. They are also incredibly challenging to bring to life.
People spend their whole lives working towards visionary change and rarely see the needle moved too far. It can be disheartening to spend your time and energy trying to break apart the violent structures that our whole society is built on. Additionally, an idealistic focus on the long game can sometimes be uncompromising in its vision, which makes it hard to build coalitions.
People who focus on shorter-term change can think that the people focused on the long game are impractical – too dreamy or ideologically pure to effect any real change.
The trick with justice work is that it requires us to balance the short game and the long game, to make materials conditions better for one another in the immediate, while still working towards building new structures and systems that don’t produce the massive violence and inequality we experience now.
The Short Game and the Long Game at Fractured Atlas
We think about balancing the relationship between the short game and long game of change at Fractured Atlas in a number of ways.
We think about it in terms of how we support our artists through the world of grants and grantmaking. Through our fiscal sponsorship program, we help artists access a wider field of grants. We provide introductory information about grants, advice about how to find grants, how to talk about your art for a grant application, and how to align your fundraising with your values. We also share monthly roundups of upcoming grant deadlines for artists to apply to. This is all about helping artists stand a better chance at succeeding in a flawed system, which is a short game strategy.
We want our community of artists and arts organizations to stand as good a chance as possible when seeking funding because we believe in their work. But we also recognize that grants aren’t enough to really sustain the arts. Grants are built on legacies of inherited wealth, and in the case of many institutions, that wealth was originally obtained as a result of some kind of exploitation. Grants exist within the context of capitalism, where some people have more than enough money and others are barely scraping by.
In addition to helping artists play the short game, we also encourage them to play a longer game about finding new ways to work together and create a sustainable arts ecosystem. The longer game here is about developing new economic models to support creative work, and about building collective power for job security and to survive COVID-related closures. We want artists to get grants, but also consider other ways of funding their work.
We also think about the short game and long game when we think about our own internal workings as an organization. We’ve implemented a Negative Customer Service Interaction Tactics Guide to empower our Program Associates to engage with members in ways that support their needs and capacities, and recognize that “the customer is always right” is a product of white supremacy culture. We instituted race-based caucusing to create a more anti-racist workplace.
We’ve also thought about the longer game – how to create a work environment that’s aligned with our values. How can we create a work culture that isn’t toxic, that replicates white supremacy as little as possible? That work is more nebulous.
Some of our strategies towards long-term change include experimenting with shared leadership, de-centering New York City through a long-standing remote work policy, and using fixed-tiered compensation to pay the staff. But ultimately, we recognize that these shifts are still within the confines of wage labor and the mechanisms of capitalism. So, there’s a real horizon on our capacity as an organization to build new structures.
In reality, both at Fractured Atlas and in the larger movement, we need to play both the short game and the long game. We need to make life more liveable right now, while still working towards a more joyous, easeful, and equitable horizon. And as we work towards this horizon, some of our skills will be more aligned with one time scale rather than another. But all of our skills are needed.
If you want to start taking some first steps towards a more equitable workplace, here are our suggestions for places to start.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.