In a country divided, Maine artists consider what role they play in creating a more equitable culture.

Maine is the least diverse state in the country, so it follows that there are relatively few artists of color working here. For that reason, it may seem as though there’s not much to talk about, at least through the lens of race, when it comes to cultural equity in the arts in Maine.

But precisely for those reasons and many more, the Maine Arts Commission will spend a lot of time this week encouraging artists and arts administrators in Maine to promote cultural equity, or to ensure that all members of a community are represented fairly by policies supporting the keepers and bearers of culture and history.

Beginning Thursday, the arts commission hosts a two-day conference in Lewiston and Auburn to talk about the subject. The group has tapped an artist of color from Maine to lead the conversation. Crystal Williams, a poet, essayist and educator from Bates College, will deliver the keynote address Thursday evening at the Maine International Conference on the Arts.

In addition to issues of equity, the conference will address the intersection of art and industry, and the potential for more international collaborations.

Williams, a one-time slam poet champion who is now a senior administrator at Bates, has spent much of her creative life elevating people whose voices aren’t heard. She writes about identity, race, class and gender. Her latest collection of poems, “Detroit as Barn,” portrays the beauty and spiritual strength of her native city that many people overlook, with words that are full of joy and hope.

“One of the things I know about arts communities across the country is that people have incredible goodwill,” Williams said. “They want citizens of their state and their constituents to have access to the arts. It’s never a question of principle. It’s a question of how do we go about doing the work. Because of the work that I do and have done, I hope to bring to bear some of the expertise and knowledge I have in translating ideas into action.”

Williams’ topic is “Practical Approaches to Creating Impact: Getting to Cultural Equity.”

A NATIONAL TOPIC

The Maine Arts Commission chose cultural equity as a conference theme because it’s a national topic. Conversations about minority voices in the arts mirror larger conversations in society about race, religion and gender. As our society becomes more divided along those lines, it’s important that artists, administrators and policymakers in general enact policies and programs that help all voices to be heard fairly, said Clayton Lord, vice president of local arts advancement for Americans for the Arts. The Washington, D.C.-based organization adopted a statement on cultural equity this spring and encouraged its member organizations to pick up the conversation.

Julie Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, thought it would be good to see how cultural equity works in Maine, specifically because the state lacks diversity. “Since Maine is the least racially diverse state in the country, and most of the states think of this in terms of racial equity, it intrigued me. I began thinking about how we should approach this and how we might apply it to our work,” she said.

In Maine, that means finding ways to integrate new Mainers with old Mainers while sustaining traditional culture and encouraging new creative expression. We’ve seen that happening in Lewiston, where new Mainers from Africa share the French language with French-Canadian immigrants who have been here for generations. In Bar Harbor, the Abbe Museum has made it a priority to tell the Native American story with Native voices, instead of from the non-Native perspective.

The two-day conference will take place at the Franco Center for Heritage and the Performing Arts, the Bates Mill and at other venues across Lewiston and Auburn. In addition to speeches and break-out sessions, the conference will highlight the traditional arts in Maine, the role and history of craft and the importance of the master-apprentice relationship in keeping traditional arts alive.

As Richard and her staff began looking for speakers, colleagues around the country kept suggesting Williams, who until this conference has maintained a fairly low profile in Maine. This week marks her first major speaking engagement in the state outside of the Bates community. She has spoken about this topic nationally.

Williams, 46, came to Bates in 2013 and serves as associate vice president for strategic initiatives. Her work involves ensuring that Bates’ policies and practices elevate the campus environment in healthy and respectful ways, across all aspects of campus life.

LEWISTON, ME - SEPTEMBER, 29: Crystal Williams, a Bates administrator, will be giving a talk about cultural equity in Lewiston. Thursday, September 29, 2016. (Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

Crystal Williams by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

She started her career in theater and moved into performance and poetry after arriving in New York. She joined the Nuyorican Poets Café in the early 1990s, which for 40 years has used jazz, theater, hip-hop and spoken word to empower minorities.

She followed that path into academics, teaching at Reed College in Oregon, where she sharpened her activist skills. She worked to create a more inclusive and diverse campus environment, which led to internal promotions at the school and an appointment to the Oregon Arts Commission. In that role, she expanded her advocacy work statewide.

She has published four books of poetry since 2000. “Detroit as Barn” was a finalist for the National Poetry Series and the Maine Literary Award. Her previous book, “Troubled Tongues,” was a finalist for the 2009 Oregon Book Award, and her poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies.

It’s taken Williams a few years to acclimate to Maine, which is why she has kept a low profile. She wanted to take the time to get to know Bates and Lewiston first and to focus on her campus responsibilities.

CULTURE AND COMMUNITY

Cultural equity doesn’t have to focus on race or color, she said. It’s about culture in a broad community sense, and in Maine that includes communities with large populations of French speakers or even a concentration of military veterans, whose presence can influence the programming and funding decisions of arts organizations serving those veterans, Williams said. It can also be about gender equity, geographic equity and socioeconomic equity, especially in northern Maine and isolated Down East communities.

Mitchell Thomas, executive director of the Franco Center, said cultural equity is an important subject, even if most people don’t know what it is. In practical terms, for Thomas it means finding ways to include programming that appeals to all French speakers in the community, and not just Franco-Americans who make up the traditional audience of the center. “Our roots are Franco-American, of course, but Lewiston has seen an influx of some great folks from central Africa most recently, and many are from French-speaking countries. They hang out here because French is spoken here,” he said.

He’s pleased the Franco Center is hosting the conference, because it gives him the chance to tell the center’s story to a wide audience. The center hosts African dancers, musicians, lectures and films, he said, and can serve as an example to other arts groups in Maine about serving diverse audiences.

Lord from Americans for the Arts said the conversation is timely and important, because it recognizes that “a lot of mostly well-intentioned people” have created systems that repress many forms of cultural expression.

“This conversation is a recognition of that and a reckoning of that, and it’s way overdue,” he said. “Integral to that, it’s important to understand what happens when a cultural life is not supported in a community. We risk losing that culture, and we can’t afford to do that as a society.”

That’s one of the reasons Williams wrote her book of poetry about her hometown, “Detroit as Barn.” The national conversation about Detroit has been mostly negative. She wanted to change the tone, so the stories of the people she knows in Detroit could be heard.

In her hands, Detroit is seen as a broken barn, but one deserving of praise for the sturdy timbers, strong nails and human spirit that have kept it standing.