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Newfields meltdown comes amid widespread DEI retreat

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By JAMES BRIDGES

Newfields’ meltdown is pushing into a second month, with no end in sight, as the controversy transcends a single personnel move at one organization.

Why it matters: Former CEO Colette Pierce Burnette’s departure comes as historically white institutions are retreating from programs aimed at racial inclusion just a few years after those efforts peaked following social justice protests in 2020.

The big picture: Diversity programs are being cut in business, pummeled by Republicans in politics and ridiculed in academia, where donors have pulled millions, Axios’ Erica Pandey writes.

Zoom in: Against that backdrop, Burnette’s unexplained exit has left Indianapolis’ Black leaders — and the arts community more broadly — filling in gaps with rumors and sparse public statements from board members.

  • Many assume Newfields will revert to catering to a “traditional, core, white art audience,” as one infamous job posting put it.

Between the lines: Newfields made inroads with people of color through new programming, partnerships and a community council during the 15 months Burnette, a Black woman, held the CEO job.

The intrigue: Neither Newfields nor Burnette has said whether she left voluntarily, fueling speculation the two sides eventually will air their stories through litigation.

  • While there is no evidence race factored into Burnette’s exit, critics argue Newfields hasn’t earned the benefit of the doubt.

What they’re saying: “When George Floyd happened, the arts was a very visible expression of all that,” Marshawn Wolley, the CEO of consultancy Black Onyx Management, tells Axios. “What we’re seeing is a retrenchment back to the normal working order.”

  • “This is just an example of that. We had a Black person (as Newfields CEO) and now, more than likely, we won’t.”
  • “For me, as a Black person, it’s maybe two steps forward, one step back.”

Catch up fast: At least four members of Newfields’ board of trustees have resigned since November: Sean Huddleston, Sherron Rogers, Adrienne Sims and Gary Hirschberg.

  • An additional four members of Newfields’ board of governors, a separate associate board, resigned as well, including Isaac Bamgbose, Chris Gahl, Malina Simone Bacon and Barry Wormser.
  • Gahl, the chief marketing officer for Visit Indy, left the board of governors, saying Newfields’ “siloed approach to board governance goes well beyond the recent personnel decision and includes no alignment on budget operations or any strategic decision-making,” per IBJ.

The other side: Newfields is verbally reaffirming its commitment to inclusion without shedding light on Burnette’s departure.

The bottom line: To many, Newfields’ record on diversity boils down to one publicly available fact: A Black woman served as CEO for about a year and disappeared without explanation.

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