Why Do I Feel Excluded From My Local Public Institution?

Ways to identify and address exclusionary practices in your organization.

Siena Beacham, Storytelling & Content CatalystApr 19, 2024 3:02 AM
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Whether you run a library, museum, cultural center, or any other public institution, there's a good chance that many people who visit your establishment feel left out. You might have systems in place that make it unnecessarily hard for interested individuals to leverage or simply enjoy the resources you offer.  If you host a space where people can meet and mingle with others, you might maintain an environment that feels inhospitable to those who stand out. With an emphasis on appealing to a broad range of interests, it may be time to hone your focus on capturing the attention and engagement of those who've been inadvertently excluded from a local public institution.

Who Might Fall Into Groups That Are Disproportionately Excluded From a Local Public Institution?

Sadly, there are very few spaces that naturally make everyone feel welcome. Public institutions have long standing reputations for being clean, quiet, and orderly spaces that cater to "respectable members of society". For many decades, museums, libraries, and cultural centers were only open to those who were well-dressed, acceptably mannered, and capable of matching societal expectations for everything from speaking volume and inflection to clothing choices. There are reasons to maintain organization and order; however, continuing to run institutions based on values that have barely evolved across time and generations creates spaces that make some feel overlooked and others feel downright unwelcome.

People of Color

For many people of color (POC), they experienced historical discrimination based on skin color in public spaces long before they entered. Visiting a public library or museum and failing to find representation justifies existing perceptions. Failing to find books, authors, artwork, and activities from one's culture makes a public space feel foreign rather than shared. In urban areas, they often overlook people of color for community outreach. They often miss out on free museum days, book exchanges, mobile libraries, and other resources and opportunities as a result.

Group of people in a training class feeling excluded in a local public institution.

English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) Speakers and Non-English-Speaking Populations

Navigating public spaces without a complete command of the English language isn't easy, but it should be. Whether people are learning to speak English or rely solely on their native or primary languages, they should always have an accessible way to ask questions, get information, and take part in membership programs. Getting a library card, seeking entrance to a cultural center, or purchasing entrance to a local museum is easier when printed resources are available in multiple languages. Failing to accommodate ESL and non-English speakers can prevent at-risk immigrants, refugees, domestic violence victims, and unhoused individuals from accessing critical resources.

LGBTQIA+ Folks

Like POC, the LGBTQIA+ community has dealt with blatant discrimination. Many people within the LGBTQIA+ community seek advance confirmation of acceptance to ensure they're entering safe spaces. Disproportionately excluded groups also want an easy way to identify and interact with others who have shared experiences. Maintaining a public space that offers an adequate number of social support can be especially advantageous to younger members of this community. They often have more questions than answers and are eagerly seeking information, acceptance, and mentorship.

LGBT members holding a pride flag together.

Those Who Are Unhoused

People who lack traditional housing face a constant fight for the right to exist. In many areas, unhoused individuals aren't lawfully allowed to sleep or even sit in public spaces. Imagine hosting a one-off event with free entry, but failing to inform the people in your community who might benefit the most. If you manage a library near a homeless shelter for families, you may inadvertently exclude these individuals by limiting your outreach. These folks may also be deliberately excluded and even policed based on social stigmas, and a perceived need to cater to more privileged groups. Unfortunately, many museums and cultural centers send out notifications of special events and discounted entry only to those in their service areas who can easily afford their fees. Unhoused and chronically unhoused individuals also face undue discrimination. This is when public spaces implement strict dress codes and purchasing requirements. They may also require permanent addresses for membership cards and other benefits.

Some of Your Patrons Belong to Multiple, Disproportionately Excluded Groups

Other disproportionately excluded groups include those battling addiction, those who are unhoused, people living with mental illness,  and disabled veterans. Unsurprisingly, many people belong to more than one disproportionately excluded group. For instance, you might have patrons who are people of color, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and currently unhoused. For these individuals, entering a public space and finding nothing that appeals to any of their interests, meets any of their needs, or reflects any aspect of their cultures is all the more hurtful.

Veteran in military uniform in a wheelchair.

What Institutions Unknowingly or Unintentionally Do That Leads to Exclusionary Practices

According to researchers at the University of Basel, even if exclusion doesn't cause physical harm, it does activate the same region of the brain that perceives and responds to physical pain. Unknowingly and unintentionally excluding people in public spaces is far more impactful than simply denying them fair access to the resources and community support that everyone should benefit from. Experiences with exclusion can harm a person's self-esteem and make them reticent to attempt social engagement in the future. It can also prevent high-risk individuals from connecting with urgent forms of aid. These include interventions for self-harm and suicidal thoughts, emergency shelters or food assistance, and general mental health or medical support. Unfortunately, making vulnerable, at-risk, and consistently overlooked demographics feel left out is all too easy.

It can be as easy as:

  • Having membership systems that fail to acknowledge different genders, identities, and names
  • Failing to provide a diverse range of materials and subject matter
  • Lacking printed materials in multiple languages and at multiple levels
  • Charging prices or fees that don't acknowledge inequity in pay, quality of life, and stability
  • Overlooking or ignoring key religious or cultural differences
  • Maintaining a staff that lacks representation from multiple ages, backgrounds, and cultures

Going to the library and checking out a book is easy for someone who maintains their birth name, original ID, and other identifying documents. However, it can be devastating for a transitioning or newly transitioning teen who must reveal their dead name to get a library card. Paying a hefty entry fee at a local museum might not be a big deal for someone who received a first-class education. However, it will prove more challenging for those who labor in blue-collar jobs and receive far fewer early-life opportunities. People who belong to under-represented, overlooked, and disproportionately excluded groups face challenges like these all of the time. The good news is that you can work to minimize, correct, and hopefully eliminate these barriers in your organization.

How to Know When Members or Visitors Feel Excluded in a Local Public Institution

If you're lucky, you'll have a few outspoken members reach out to let you know that your establishment is selectively meeting needs. You can also solicit feedback from your patrons regularly. Visitors can submit their comments anonymously and without feeling as though they're being judged. Meeting the needs of all guests is of the utmost priority. It's also a good idea to host surveys, track memberships or patronage, and simply determine who isn't showing up. If you've unintentionally created a space that's unwelcoming to a specific group, there's a good chance that representation from this group is increasingly scarce. For instance, a recent study found that Black people account for 13% of the nation's population. However, they only account for about 3% of museum attendees. Finding representative displays on bottom floors, in dark corners, or lacking substance, many POC report feeling all-around unwelcome in these environments.

What You Can Do About It

When exclusion is discriminatory, it's an intentional, ongoing effort to deter specific people from attending. But, feeling excluded in a local public institution can simply be a matter of oversight and a lack of understanding. In these instances, fixing the problem starts with communication. After all, you can't find out why people feel left out and include them until you understand the nature and nuances of their needs. You can start by holding one-on-one conversations with individuals who hang back during group activities or reach out to express their discontent.  You can also:

  • Organize community events to solicit more opinions
  • Expand your outreach when hosting special events
  • Print your informational materials in multiple languages and explore your options in virtual translation services
  • Connect patrons with outside resources for clothing, domestic violence intervention, food and rent support, and transportation
  • Host joint outreach events with local social service organizations, charitable groups, and community partners
  • Streamline application and membership processes to reflect the unique needs of vulnerable demographics

Understanding is the key to meeting the needs of everyone. It's not enough to know that people feel left out and why. It's also important to understand who they are, what makes them different, and what you can do to acknowledge and celebrate these differences.

At OF/BY/FOR ALL, we're committed to creating a world where civic and cultural resources are shared equitably. We offer powerful tools for creating and maintaining welcoming, inclusive spaces. We ensure that all people can benefit from the art, interaction, information, and support that community spaces are intended to provide. Find out about our upcoming events and discover new ways to listen and learn from your patrons. Get in touch with OF/BY/FOR ALL today!

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