ArtPlace America
Senior Fellow
PLACES 2014 Cohort

Erik Takeshita remembers a theater experience that stuck with him while growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, where race was often regarded in the binary of black and white.

Takeshita is fourth generation Japanese-American. There was a burgeoning Asian-American arts scene at the time and he saw a play at a local theater based on Japanese folklore, called Peach Boy.

“Being able to have this organization present work that was about me, by people like me, was a place to find myself in this community,” he said. “It was a way to locate myself in this place.”

Takeshita said even though he was from St. Paul, at times people made him feel like an outsider.

“Being asked, ‘Hey, where did you learn how to speak English so well?’ and other dumb questions people ask you,” he said.

Seeing the Asian-American experience portrayed through the spoken word on stage made him realize he wasn’t alone.

“Just knowing that other people experience this, that resonated,” he said.

Takeshita is also a ceramic artist who’s worked in community revitalization and development work for more than 20 years. Building stronger and equitable communities, he said, is a lot like trying to transform a lump of clay into a cereal bowl.

“The journey of envisioning something that doesn’t exist and making it real — that’s what artists do,” he said. “And I think that can be applied in creating healthier communities.”

Why did you get into philanthropy?

For me it’s all about platforms. What is the best platform to pursue my passion?

People try to pigeon-hole me as the “arts guy,” but what I tell them is the unit of change is community and the unit of intervention is the arts and culture.

To me, arts and culture give people that confidence they need for community problem-solving. It expands people’s thinking about what is possible. Art and culture can lead to better economic outcomes and health outcomes.

We’re looking to make the region better and build people’s capacity to solve problem on a regular basis.

What was your PLACES experience like and how has it impacted your work?

That experience was really transformative for me. It helped me identify some of my experiences as a person of color, in the Midwest in particular. PLACES helped me understand I have this double privilege of understanding what it means to be a person of color, but also what it means to accepted by the dominant culture as a “model minority” because I’m Asian-American. I’ve been given access to whiteness, but I have also experienced blatant racism.

I exist in a sea of white supremacy and PLACES was an opportunity for me to exist on land, where I was in a place not centered in whiteness. It was somewhat odd and it could be disorienting at times. The activities and exercises in PLACES created an environment where we could engage in hard conversations.

I have an acute awareness of my role in a private foundation that has really been centered and grounded in dominant culture.

It also gave me a community of support that says, just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean it has to be that way in the future — that something new is possible.

How are you building for equity?

From 1970-2015, our foundation invested $120 million in arts and culture. Almost 60 percent of our investments had gone to a handful of organizations. Twelve to be exact. Less than 5 percent of our funding had gone to organizations led by people of color or Indigenous people. And less than 5 percent had gone to rural communities and small towns.

It’s like going to the gym and working out your left arm only. Turns out, we needed to build a new set of muscles.

This last year, 2018, we rolled out a new program: $5.4 million over three years to serve people of color and Indigenous people in small and rural communities and towns. The requirements are that half of your board has to be people of color or rural, your executive director has to be a person of color or rural, or the same for half of your supervisory staff. You have to meet two out of the three.

That’s how you do it. You start asking different questions and tracking data and being sharper and clearer about how you design programs. There’s something about making it explicit to communities and organizations that have historically been marginalized: “We want you, we want to work with you.” We haven’t done that in the past.

If you could write a very short letter —“Dear People In Philanthropy…” What would it say?

Dear People in Philanthropy,
We can make different choices. It takes courage. We need to be clear-eyed about data. We need to be intentional about the changes we’re seeking. And quite frankly, we need to tackle systemic changes. Racism in America has existed as long as America has existed, and in order to make changes we have to be honest about how long that will take.

I’m acutely aware that I work in a private nonprofit on the 25th floor of a literal white ivory tower. I always remind myself, “Remember where you sit.” I have something to contribute to the conversation, but whose voices aren’t here? How can we include those voices in the conversation?

The answer exists, but I don’t have the answer just because I work at a foundation. I can contribute to the conversation. That’s our role as people in philanthropy: We are stewards of resources.

Is there an internal question you’re constantly asking yourself while doing this work? What is it and how do you answer it?

If we’re going to ask our community and grantees to think bigger, how are we thinking bigger?

To the extent that we as a foundation meet the needs, hopes, dreams and desires of our community members, I’m interested in that.