September 2020: If I Had Two Wings

Dear Friends,    

The same weekend we lost Chadwick Boseman, many of the folks in my life—mostly writerly—also mourned Randall Kenan. It isn’t lost on me that both are Black men, exceptional storytellers, from the South, and only a generation apart. Randall specifically died at nearly the same age as my father (that is, below 60) who, on September 14, will have been gone from me for 2 years. 

One of the narratives that has emerged from Chadwick Boseman’s life was how he had worked so hard, had given us so much even as his body was failing him. I can’t look at any movie of his now and not see behind him the specter of death, how he tried so hard to give us beauty—light like a candle—until the wick went out. I can’t imagine for Randall there weren’t moments in August when he wasn’t preparing his lectures for his upcoming semester at UNC. I can’t help but remember our days when I was 20 and searching for words to write about my own Black Southern family, and he had set aside time outside of his course load to urge me to push my pen…what reading lists were being conjured for his students? What audiences were waiting to gather around his new book If I Had Two Wings (y’all I’m reading it now, and I’m convinced he knew the time was nigh)?

My father, Thomas W. Dameron, Jr. (a story teller in his own right), believed so fervently in the ways in which his life would continue beyond what seemed a minor inconvenience and had requested only 5 days leave for an outpatient shoulder surgery. For his hospital stay he packed his work computer, and for months after I fielded calls of work left undone. 

That same month Daddy left I begged my colleagues and clients to let me work. I wasn’t dying, per se (though I am Black in America), but something ingrained in me would not let me be idle. I continued to volunteer, continued my board chair service in some fashion, in between cropping photos for my father’s obituary I was tasked with designing and his eulogy I was to give. I joke about it now, but, I say I lost 3 months of my life—it was such a blur—blinded by grief and pushed by the inertia of work. 

I feel it now, 2 years later. What it meant to work through it all. We will see it, later, what it means that we pushed ourselves, made justifications for avoiding a type of necessary rest and reflection (those of us who could) for all of the moments and losses piling up over the last few months. 

When I told my father I wanted to be a writer, he urged me to choose a way to make money that had no room for subjectivity. He trained me to be an engineer, and more and more I find days I am so thankful for that training, to have equal commands of both sides of my brain. One of our last convos was his own acceptance of how maybe, times had changed. I was almost a year into running Red Olive full time (“quitting my real job”) and Daddy said something to the effect of being glad he was wrong, and that I had found a way to use my words, my brain to take care of myself. It was like a relief had settled over him, and I swear it was the beginning of our goodbye. 

Also not lost on me is my immense privilege in this moment. That Daddy, like my sister, would have been an essential worker all these months, and that despite how he could have jeopardized his own health and my mother’s immunocompromised health to continue the cycle of barely having enough to pay bills to get by to work, etc. etc. etc.—I am a lucky one, with my degrees, with my intellectual work, my artistic work; someone who gets to decide this month to honor my Daddy by taking time to rest, and by doing so, will seek to honor the lost loves, artists, and storytellers of my life so that I can continue to do the necessary work for as long as this world will have me—certainly, I hope, longer than white supremacy has planned. 

So, a story to say I’m taking a break for the remainder of the month, but the work continues. Please reach out to my rockstar team this month if you need us (hello@redoliveconsulting.com). Otherwise, let’s as many of us try to make it to wherever the other side of this is, whole and together. 

In Black Love, 


July 2020: Calling Out and Claiming Space

Dear Friends,    

This month’s update shines a light on Black Art Futures Fund, the philanthropic and Black arts advocacy arm of Red Olive Creative Consulting. 

BAFF was designed to act as an intermediary for small Black arts organizations across the country and the people who want to invest in their futures. 

Through our multiple entry points—volunteer application readers, advisory board, donors, collaborative learning volunteers—we imagined a platform within a larger ecosystem that could belong to and be held by many people at once, but with Black arts organizations at the center of it. One could come in and choose one level of engagement or all of the above, or we could work together to think of new ways to explore this necessary work. It has been an honor to dream with a community, and now watch that community expand. Thank you, and welcome!

BAFF certainly has emerged as our sexy wing—we get to give money, support orgs, advocate for orgs, move philanthropic needles, be responsive to the real needs of our grantees, and more.This effort is also an important compliment of  the work we do at Red Olive, an agency dedicated to moving people and resources to arts and culture nonprofits so that they can continue to do their own righteous work. 

I name this now to call out the ways in which Red Olive and BAFF exist in the same, we’ll call it, universe together with other initiatives, existing and to come. But for now, some BAFF updates!

In the last 3 months, we have moved $66,500 in two rounds in May and June of emergency general operating grants to 18 small Black arts organizations, many of whom have an average organizational budget of $242,000. Thank you. 

BAFF is special to us, because we believe in being “more than a grant” and we are very clear that while a $5,000 check can be impactful, it won’t change the life of the organization. So we look for ways to stand in that gap, and offer a year-long collaborative learning environment for grantees to engage with professionals and volunteers and experts in the fields of organizational development, fundraising, communications and beyond. We hold space for cohort learning, network building, and cannot wait to get to know these groups closely, and in more depth, so that we can report out to you all, our beloved community, what all we’ve journeyed together and what challenges and triumphs small Black arts organizations share for the communities they dedicate themselves to—Black people, Black artists, Black culture bearers and those who love us. 

I’ll end with 2 quotes: a quote from Ashleigh Gordon, Executive Director of Castle of our Skins, a 2019 BAFF grantee, and we were so proud to learn, their first institutional funder, and Sylvia Jung, Development Manager of Grantmakers in the Arts who was a 2019 volunteer application reader.

Being part of the Black Art Futures Fund cohort has been a blessing to say the least. In addition to the financial support, I have received a wealth of knowledge from regular co-learning sessions. Plus, personal guidance from DéLana if/when needed. All I had to do was ask. I found I was able to not only carry the newfound knowledge I learned from her and the sessions to my board, but I was also able to bring my board to our co-learning sessions (a pivotal, “ah ha” inspiring moment for my Board Chair who left the meeting fired up and ready to take charge!). BAFF has truly shown its deep level of care and consideration every step of the way, from providing time and space for professional development to financial support (pre and knee-deep-in-the-thick-of-things COVID-19 era). Thank you for your presence. You’re truly an invaluable asset to the Black arts community! —Asheleigh Gordon

When I applied to volunteer as a reader for Black Art Future Fund’s 2019 grant cycle, I was eager to learn about the work of small Black arts organizations nationally. After working in nonprofit fundraising for over a decade (and being born and raised) in New York, I was surprised by how few of the New York City based Shay Wafer Legacy Grant applicants I knew about – in particular, organizations like viBe Theater Experience. viBe is an organization and Toya is a leader that intimately, and with care, love, and respect, centers the girls, young women, and nonbinary youth of color they serve. As a product of New York City public education, I know how important the work viBe is doing, and how important it is to me. Many of my friends, like me, have become donors to viBe to ensure they continue and expand the ways they can positively impact the youth and young folks they serve. –Sylvia Jung

Let’s continue to build the Blackest Artistic Future there is possible, together.

In Black Love, 


June 2020: Calling Out and Claiming Space

Dear Friends,    

Three Junes ago, I left my full-time job as Development Director at The Drawing Center, a visual arts space in New York City. I was there not even a full year—and, honestly, still overstayed my “welcome”—out of some tired feeling of responsibility to “the work” and not wanting to “burn bridges,” I left… quietly, without fanfare, without any recompense for the ways in which I had sacrificed whole parts of myself to an institution that did not care about me, in the way that too many workplaces fail to care for their Black employees.

I continue to say of those 11 months —without hyperbole—that I felt many nights I was going to die as I laid down to prepare to return to the stress of my workplace environment the next day. I had gained almost 45 pounds over the course of my tenuous tenure. I had cried over too many whiskey and ginger ales to too many friends at too many bars over things like: constantly being second-guessed in my work; made to feel completely worthless; gaslit over racially-insensitive artwork that I was being asked to promote and fundraise for; at almost every turn reminded that my Blackness at the leadership table was a decoration, a window dressing in the beginning era of “museum diversity” (that summer the Mayor had threatened that if institutions didn’t diversify, funding would be cut).  As I had been recruited, brought in for interviews, and hired and I was told repeatedly, explicitly and through executive actions, that I “did not understand the art world” (maybe I wear that statement now, with pride) and that the whole of the institution had “taken a risk” by hiring me. 

Every time I called out injustices against myself or my department (fully-staffed by people of color:the other Black woman I hired, and a Filipino gentleman), I was ignored, or told that I was overreacting or “reading too much” into things. Once, we were told that during the 40-minute seated portion of a fundraising gala, we would not have a plate or a literal seat at any of the 30+ tables we had personally set and made placeholders for; that we would not be welcome to sit among the 1500 guests we had handwritten addresses for invitations to. When I brought up the optics of it all—that the only institution staffers who were not white would not have a dinner place setting,— was met with eye rolls and resistance. 

We pulled up anyways, in the back corner, and toasted our contributions to the highest-grossing fundraising event the institution had seen in its then 40 year history. We had great pours and nice portions of food because of course we treated the catering staff like human beings and it was then I understood that after this massive lift I would begin a new fight: two weeks later, or 10 months in, I was told it would be time for me to complete a performance review. I did not have—despite being deemed a “risky investment”t—a 90 day review, or a 6-month review, and I had checked with folks who had been there for years, and they had not had annual reviews before. 

Knowing my boss didn’t want me in the office and that I didn’t want to be there (because truly, I wanted to live), I didn’t fill out the review and mentioned that I would support staying until the end of the fiscal year. So that was that. I had a little over a month left, and a few more paychecks to figure out my next move: throwing myself full-throttle into Red Olive, and, I didn’t even know it yet, making room for Black Art Futures Fund to form within me. 

It didn’t soften the blow when my position was posted at a 46% increase over my salary offered at hiring, for the same work, while inheriting the solid team I had helped develop. Despite my success after my departure, and despite the fact thatI now cannot imagine a full-time job that would bring me back into the office, in some ways I still feel as though I left defeated. White supremacy will do that to you. Strip you of every fiber of confidence in yourself and your years’ experience despite your commitment to excellence in the workplace against the odds and in the face of all forms of racial terror. 

It’s become so clear to me that we have had art in this world all this time in spite of an environment that was hostile and life-threatening to so many of us. Red Olive and Black Art Futures Fund stands in solidarity with Black culture workers across the United States who are speaking out after days, weeks, years of enduring erasures and violences toward their personhood, their important and necessary contributions to the field at large. Speaking out to secure their future as a no longer invisible, no further maltreated, workforce. 

As we celebrate our 7th year as a firm this summer, Red Olive will continue to think of ways to push the conversation forward, and continue to advocate for the workers, the doers, in all of our engagements, which has been a core tenet of our work. Black Art Futures Fund also moves to position our work to highlight the people who, especially for small Black arts organizations, do so much of the culture work while under- or unpaid. This is the work of today. This is the work ahead. 

In Black Love, 


May 2020: Living in the Love Economy

Dear Friends,    

Of course I know charitable giving can happen year-round, but I have to admit, I got caught up in the energy and inertia of the #givingtuesdaynow movement on May 5, 2020—a new initiative with the energy and branding of Giving Tuesday to raise funds for the nonprofit sector impacted by COVID-19. I was so excited to be able to participate in and with my hometown, also, and contributed largely to Columbia, SC – based groups: the Riverbanks Zoo, Sowing Seeds into the Midlands, the Richland County Library, Historic Columbia, and a memorial scholarship fund set up in honor of Landrum Washington, a middle school band friend of mine who died in a car accident at 22, just before college graduation. In South Carolina alone the state raised almost $10M! All those folks on one day joining together to consider what they could do. It felt good to have a task that I could complete, and that could feel like it did some good. I encourage y’all to do it now, if you are able.

In a conversation with a client recently, I talked about capacity and what we can do. While I was explaining, I thought about Brooklyn-based Southern Black poet Patricia Spears Jones, and her poem “Living in the Love Economy,” published in 2009 in Kweli Journal. In the poem, she says: 

I can do two major job applications a day…”

And later: “What I can’t do is parse the future.” 

What I love about these lines are the simple truths. The control, and the surrender. What I can do, what I cannot. Most days, that’s been hard for me to admit. What I can do today. What I cannot do today. What guides me is a constant inner inquiry, and standing in my truths: here is what I can control. Here is what I cannot control. 

Last month, we learned what had been suspected: Black Americans and other racial minorities were among the highest-impacted populations of the devastation of the virus. In South Carolina, as of May 1, 53% of deaths were Black. 52% of the confirmed cases, Black. This month, the New York Times continues to reminds us that water is wet, and that “race is still a factor in who gets what” with regards to philanthropic dollars. What can I do? I can write about it. I can call out these injustices when I connect the dots. I can make appeals. I can make some donations. I can help a nonprofit organization think deeply about the way they articulate need in this moment. 

What I can’t do is cut the millions of dollars of checks needed right now. But I can make more appeals. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with philanthropic partners across the country in the past few weeks—some hard, for those that fall into the category of not considering Racial equity, even in moments like this, & other conversations are hopeful. Through outreach to some philanthropic colleagues, two small Black arts organizations that we were unable to fund at Black Art Futures Fund, (because the need was so much greater than our pot) were later funded. 

Is it a long term fix? Who knows. I hear Patricia Spears Jones, again: “What I can’t do is parse the future.” So much of this is still yet to be uncovered. So much of this is asking us to wait, and be patient, to consider our capacity for today, and today alone. 

My planning self wants so badly to know what the future holds, to be able to work with my clients to fundraise against it. It wants so badly for me to exist future-forward, and to be able to stand on my two feet and say with my clients what is possible, and certain, instead of asking “What can you move forward into the future without?” But that is increasingly becoming the hard question these days. 

Patricia writes, and I nod, “The Love Economy is complicated.” 

What’s on your lists? 

In solidarity,


Readjusting the Center / Stabilizing the Base

I have been thinking about and writing about, and in my consultancy meetings with small arts organizations, wrestling with folks on Simon Sinek’s challenge to start with their WHY—the pivotal/central stories that mobilize people and resources to help organizations achieve their missions. At its core, this gesture is rooted in the organization’s ability to answer the “Need” question on a grant application, or when seated in front of a major donor. To be able to answer WHY an organization exists, and WHY it is in need of funding and support and WHY it does the programs it does the way it does, might offer up a clear pathway to stewarding the resources necessary to continue forth. That was in the last world. That was before COVID-19 completely upended our understanding of safety and security, before it distanced us from each other, and the art that keeps us. 

 

In the last few weeks, as the COVID-19 crisis intensified, I have witnessed folks begin to prepare either 1) how they should respond if they were in a position to offer support to the arts + culture field, or 2) how they should respond if they found themselves in a position requiring that support. And now we’re here. Week after week: new layoffs. Furloughs. Whole departments slashed. Employees given a week, a day, to understand that they would no longer receive a paycheck from their place of employment. Whole groups sacrificed for whatever attempt the organizations sought to “salvage”—for what? For whom? For a tomorrow none of us are sure of? 


If the raison d’etre of an organization starts with WHY, as Sinek argues, I want to argue here, in this new world, that maybe the how of it, starts with WHO. The people. Here’s my diagram. I argue we readjust the center. Especially now.

Keep People / Employees at the center. 

I’ve been thinking about this increasingly when, during a podcast interview about my Red Olive Creative Consulting / Black Art Futures Fund (BAFF) Multiverse (see what I did there?), I was asked who we serve and the interviewer quickly said you serve Black artists and arts organizations, right?. I thought about it for a second. That was true. But there was something more true: we also serve the volunteers who want to understand how philanthropy works, we serve the donors into the BAFF fund who, through some of our efforts get to stand closer to the multiple organizations we support by welcoming them into the wider community, and we serve the folks who make it all possible through direct client services to arts + culture organizations. People are at the center of it all. 


My team at Red Olive Creative Consulting is mighty fly, and creative and collaborative. If there was a different visual that depicted the ways in which my priorities are stacked, how I secure the base of a pyramid or hierarchy of organizational needs, it’d look something like this:

Last month, in a webinar on Philanthropy’s Response to COVID-19 hosted by Grantmakers in the Arts, I spoke about the different ways arts and culture organizations intervene in their communities, and why ensuring their survival is not only about capital “A” art. In the same week, a Foundation funder of a client, a Black arts organization, prefaced their potential canceling of years-long support with the argument that the foundation was in search of supporting “more pressing, critical needs” for the “more vulnerable” populations. Imagine that. 


This moment right here, arguing for the necessity of culture, is something I’ve tried to wrestle with before the crisis, and I think my own central mission continues to be getting to the heart culture’s case for support in order to make it undeniable:

Only through the philanthropic sector’s investing in people, that is, allowing for a true realization and thrivability of the engine of the nonprofit arts + culture sector, will art prevail. People first.

In the exchange though, I reminded the representative of the Foundation that not only did my client serve explicitly Black artists, who live precariously above the federal poverty lines, but that also because of years of field-wide Philanthropic underinvestment (or divestment, or NON-investment) and restrictions on 10-20% of grant funds for administrative operations means that they were already a body of Black people working in an unstable environment, made more unstable through institutional funding racism, and if you’ll allow my generalization—they were Black folk who through historical and empirical data continue to suffer from the deep and vast disparities in wealth between white and Black households. If my white colleagues in the field are despairing right now, where are Black folks? What is below despair?

 

And, finally, I argued

Black arts organizations, and especially community-based organizations, serve a critical need to the people they employ, if they are so lucky. 

(see: institutional funding racism and the razor-thin margins of general operating dollars). They can secure the bottom of Maslow’s cultural hierarchy of needs through the maintenance of a payroll. As a result of that one critical investment, organizations could help staff in the procurement of critical needs for each employee, and perhaps even a broader community: food, shelter, security…which then allows for the employees to show up more wholly in the workspace (even in the now virtual world, maybe especially now), be a contributor in the community of the organization, which then allows for room for THE WORK—however it is manifest in this COVID-19 -present and -post world. Even though I am speaking explicitly about small Black arts organizations, who need some spotlight, I am positive this can be applied to any organized body of employees. 

 

But for the cultural sector, here’s the truth. None of this is possible without continued philanthropic partnerships. 

None of this is possible without philanthropic partnerships, and when they revoke or change their commitments, as I am watching some do, it puts nonprofit employees at risk, and ultimately their ability to secure the future of the culture-makers who will, through art, help us make sense, thrive, and convene at this exact moment. 

By readjusting the centers and securing the bases of these organizations through fearless, brave, and deep philanthropic gifts, community-based Black arts organizations can be fully realized: as centers of resource sharing and safety—even virtually—as the vulnerable populations (artists, nonprofit employees, contract support services, all) look to the organizations to provide beauty, meaning, sanctuary, respite, reprieve. 

 

Certainly no group will emerge whole from this, or return to base operations prior to the global pandemic. But as I read the news and hear from my friends across the country about the ways in which their own security has shifted and how institutions and foundations with billion-dollar or million-dollar endowments continue to practice contrition at this moment instead of emergent, unprecedented generosity, I mourn. I get furious. I mourn some more. 

 

How do we come back to a place that, in moments of crisis, have shown through sweeping actions and statements like, “funding the critical needs” and “more vulnerable populations” that maybe they don’t believe in culture’s true power, its ability to be an acceptable vehicle of service to the people they say they are now pivoting towards? And we can’t have culture without the people lifting it up?

 

How do we reframe our thinking about the art + culture field in this crisis moment, and yes, support the artists, and beyond the artists, remember the people…who are so often still artists, and the administrators, and the contract educators, and the fundraisers, the part time visitor services, the receptionists, the building maintenance crews, the invisible third shifters…and include them in the “vulnerable populations” worthy of funding? In the space for which we will fight for funding, for their critical inclusion in the path towards whatever tomorrow holds? And then, when we get to tomorrow, continue those commitments? 


My refrain for these last few weeks when someone from the philanthropic sector has asked my advice on how to respond, and I say swiftly, and without hesitation: Cut the checks.

Culture can’t move without its people.

Culture cant move without its people. 

April 2020: Pacing Ourselves for the Long Journey Ahead

Dear Friends,

Once upon a time I was a runner. After several years of false starts, I decided to complete the New York City Marathon the Fall before my 30th birthday. 

I learned through the process that you had to submit everything to it—your mental, emotional, nutritional, physical, time, sleep, all of it—to train your body to conquer 26.2 miles safely. 

I finished the NYC Marathon in just over 6 hours and 30 minutes in 2014. We had a headwind the whole day. I woke up before dawn and crossed the finish line after dark, when they were starting to break down parts of the course, etc. I still contend that more amazing than finishing the 26.2 miles was the fact that I had crossed, on foot, from Staten Island, across Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and into the Bronx (and that was only mile 20!). 

I learned lessons while striving to reach that goal that are guiding me today, just over five years later, in this crisis moment that feels very similar to endurance and long-distance training. This moment requires more than all we can give, and then even more than that. Here are some lessons I learned and tested during the five months training that I find myself leaning on again today. 

  1. Trust your training. We can’t predict what the weather will be come race day, but hopefully we’ve trained through some of the elements before. Remember the lessons of past austere moments and use them now. Remember the community who held you in previous moments of grief—call on them. Remember what brought you joy and hope and creativity—make room for it, even and especially now. 
  2. Start out strong, but not fast. Sometimes adrenaline tricks us into believing we have more “fuel” in the tank than we do. Folks who start out with record time for the first few miles will undoubtedly hit “The Wall” faster and harder. This is the tortoise and hare theory. The tortoise measured his exertion and was able to finish the race strong (note: this process also ensures a faster recovery!). Folks who immediately went virtual with the bulk of their programming—is this a long term strategy? Can we pause and strategize toward sustainability, now that we know we’re in this for the long haul? 
  3. Have a personal cheer squad. Starting mile 7, I had someone meet me to give me a snack (refueling my tank!) every three miles until the end of the race. Some even ran with me. The marathon is an individual race, yes, and also a collective one. Your community can propel you forward, as my cheer squad helped me cope with mounting exhaustion and pain. 

There’s more of course, but I hope you get a sense of how I’m trusting my own training, calling on my community, and embracing the tortoise side of myself. It’s the only way I can avoid hitting “The Wall”—the inevitable moment when, during a marathon, physical and mental capacity breaks down. Though all I want from life, especially now, is to be a hare, I need to be more careful with my energy and resources when so many groups, family, friends might depend pon me more than usual. 

That, and obsessing over my vegetable garden on a daily basis, are helping me navigate for now. 🙂 

Tell me, what are some of your techniques you’re leaning on more these days? What training are you trusting? 

In solidarity,


Arts & Culture for ALL

DEAR FRIENDS,     

It’s Black History Month, so I’m going to take up some space. For the Black culture. 

Last year Renée Watson, founder and volunteer (read: unpaid) Executive Director of i, too, arts collective and I had what was to be our last business call. Before our conversation devolved into the gasps and giggles of the mid-season finale of Grey’s Anatomy as a conversation with someone who has become a true friend of yours does, I took a moment to celebrate. The collective was dissolving, and moving out of the Langston Hughes house in East Harlem, and we were sad, but also, I wanted Renée to understand what incredible work she had truly embarked on.

What was a privately-owned space known as the last residence of our bard Langston Hughes was given to us, the public, because of Renée’s tireless work, visioning, and daring to move with steadfast conviction against what we might call conventional wisdom. We have no idea of its next life, if we’ll be able to gather around the mantle, piano, or typewriter again, or hold our hands along the same balustrade that Hughes must have held as he retired after a night of hosting artists and writers in his parlor. 

But Renée gave us this gift. Shared experiences. Community. This contemporary moment in the house. No matter what history has in store for the space, she was the instigator who brought Hughes’s legacy into the 21st century; brought it alive in a way that the public could hold and put our arms around. 

For the hundreds of us, the generations, that were able to walk through the doors, we were loved in that space. Truly, we knew that we were in a special place. Once, at a Gala, I met a woman who had flown  from Texas with her ball gown so that she could know what we had such quick, neighborly access to! 

At the Langston Hughes House, because Renée believed, we were seen. We had stories and a platform. Under her direction, and with the support of the community that formed around her, the space brought Langston, literature, literary excellence, Black artistic contributions, and quite honestly one of the strongest senses of community I had ever witnessed into the public consciousness. The board, the staff, the volunteers—they are who I think of now when I continue to think of what it means to care for culture.

I often speak about the work of other organizations like i, too, arts collective—the small community-based Black arts institutions that strive day after day to produce programming for their constituents. In these conversations at tables and in conference rooms and funding pitches, I hear statements like, “We can’t save them all” as a gesture towards conflation, towards some type of thinning out of any perceived redundancy. Questions like: “Do we need another group that does X?” or “Can’t they just join/merge with this other group doing the same work?” 

How swiftly white supremacy inserts itself.

A small story to get us home to my point for this Black History Month message: within a few years, the same period in which the radius my late father could travel comfortably was getting smaller and smaller, my hometown of Columbia, SC consolidated its grocery stores on our (Black) side of town and retail stores moved 10 miles north and east, or down towards the city limits (You can imagine the non-existent cultural offerings in this area, and the bustling cultural district just beyond the horizon). I think about this methodical stripping of a community that happens and its after effects. These days, when we talk about food justice and food insecurity and food deserts, we argue that every person should have a right to convenient and affordable access to healthy food. No question. Philanthropy gets to swoop in to correct capitalism, so it goes.

It’s with this same conviction I continue to ask: What if we moved, in concert, against cultural deserts?

If every place had centers of artistic and cultural offerings so that we could reach out, from whatever dwelling or neighborhood we find ourselves, and find within relative proximity: art, representative cultural offerings, community. A different and significant nourishment. Then I ask, in my refrain, what if those spaces thrived?

Of course I’m asking for maybe the exact antithesis of the “We can’t save everyone/every organization” mindset. I’m especially asking this question under the threat of the whims and capitalistic violence of white supremacy. At times it seems like a fruitless endeavour. Like, if we focused our energy on fewer groups, the bigger field might improve? I get it in a practical sense, but, why do we fight the impracticality of white supremacy with practicality? Maybe I’m just more interested in building bigger and stronger boats…with rafts & life preservers for all of us.

This month we are highlighting but a few Black arts organizations “worthy of saving” in our Impact Report for 2019, but we encourage you to find your own Langston Hughes House, and ask what if a community formed here? What if we invested resources here? Bring your community to its steps and ask: What do you need? What can we do? If we wait to be asked, it might be too late.

Here’s a list of groups that have come across our desk since we started Black Art Futures Fund in 2017. We very much want them—and the ones we’ve yet to learn about—with us in the future. 

In solidarity,

January 2020: Starting with Why

Dear Friends,

While I look to January as the start of a new year and a time for intention-setting, I am reminded that the start of the year is also a great chance to tell again the stories of why we choose the work we do.

Recently, over coffee with Ken May, the former Executive Director of the SC Arts Commission, I had the opportunity to say it plain: My personal mission, at its core across projects, is first in service to the preservation and sustainability of Black arts and culture, both artists and orgs. I gestured with my hands a core, as though cradling my mission like a cup. Pulling my hands wider apart I said, then: small arts organizations of color. Pulling my hands wider still, I concluded, and finally: small arts & culture at large.

I had embodied the idea of the Golden Circle, Simon Sinek’s framework for his approach to leadership. Here’s an image: 

The WHY: our raison d’etre

The HOW: value proposition; differentiation of services from others

The WHAT: products/larger industry

Many leaders often start outside with WHAT, the visible aspects of running a business or an organization, then go in towards the core, the gravitational pull of the center.

Simon argues/advocates that we go from center out. Start with why. Then, he says, “The WHY [can be] offered as the reason to [invest/get involved] and the WHAT serves as the tangible proof of that belief.”

When I think about the initiatives I’ve launched, they are largely vehicles to move resources (human, financial, intellectual, volunteer) to Black arts organizations and their artists. This year, I’m exploring what other resources—

Land & Housing?             Employment?             Technology?

can I move towards the WHY of it all?

Just last month we went to bed on 2019 hopeful for what a new year would bring us and woke up on the precipice of another unending conflict in the Middle East, a tough and long election year, and fires burning in the distance, creating an impact that will reverberate for generations.

I don’t have an answer for any of that, except an even larger internal imperative to urge us all to continue to hold and believe that art (and here I am specifically arguing for Black art) remain a part of the future we all fight for.

What would it mean to journey through all of this and leave the beauty—the stories and storytellers—behind us?

In solidarity,


2019: Deep Listening, Intentional Building

Dear Friends,

In June, I decided to take my own advice. For years, I’d hear Red Olive Clients and Black Art Futures Fund (BAFF) grantees speak about capacity and their organizational limitations. I’d say something to the effect of, “You don’t have to do it alone,” and we’d explore ways to invite support to help them achieve their mission-based programs and fundraising goals.

But what would that look like in my own everyday practice?

I tested what it would mean to invest in team DéLana R.A. Dameron (Red Olive & BAFF) in order to grow & work with more organizations who need support most.

Here was my hypothesis: adding team members could change the way I (now we) work for the better. It turns out—the changes would be exponential.

Part of my work as a consultant, and even with BAFF grantee learning calls, is deep listening for the “real problem.” Often there is a stated need (“we need to raise more money!”) but, with a little digging, we uncover the deeper need (“we need more people who think like fundraisers on our team”). For myself, that inquiry was similar: I needed to streamline the processes for BAFF in order to raise more funds to grant to small Black arts organizations, and I needed to figure out a way that I could better address or support the real needs of my clients. That meant that I needed more folks who thought like fundraisers and exceptional arts administrators on my team. This year we welcomed seven Advisory Board members to the Black Art Futures Fund team, and already their contribution and energy has allowed us to skyrocket more than halfway towards our ambitious $50,000 Cycle III goal.

As someone whose work experience started in the educational space, I lean towards mentorship. I brought on several team members for project-based and long-term support. In total, six women worked with me to support small arts in the second half of 2019! What was most exciting is that half of them had not thought about arts administration or fundraising as a work thing they could do, let alone something that, if done with the organizations we so love, could be work that could bring them so much joy.

Being a team that is distributed across projects (Red Olive & BAFF) and states (New York City, South Carolina, Virginia) meant thinking differently about work. It also meant thinking differently about the ways we can support our organizations.

We listened more deeply and heard the “capacity” need rise up, and began to test the idea of what it might mean to lend capacity to an arts organization in the areas of fundraising and development, especially when an organization is going through a deep transition. We began working with two clients as their Interim Development Agency, managing their grant proposal and reporting portfolio, executing cultivation events, and supporting their end of year fundraising efforts.

I continue to look for more ways to leverage our growing knowledge base for arts administration, especially in developing and employing arts fundraisers of color in 2020 and beyond. Thanks for journeying with us, and I hope we can continue to build together for the artistic future we all need, especially now.

In solidarity,


Small Ship, Big Sails: Asset-based Storytelling

Dear Friends,

We’re here. The end of 2019 is upon us. While we at Red Olive are working with almost 15 groups across the country to tell their organization’s story in order to garner financial support for the arts & culture we so love, I want to take this moment to hold space for the administrators who make it all possible. Make the work seen. 

Because Red Olive’s mission is to be a critical fundraising expert firm to small arts & culture organizations, it never ceases to fascinate me the lengths to which the administrators—interim & permanent executive directors, the editors-in-chief, the all-volunteer staff with no official title or compensations, the board members who step in during times of critical transition, etc—put the needs of artists before their own. 

But shouldn’t art be the focus & get the bulk of the resources? Yes, and—. I think this question & positioning is a by-product of a dated philanthropic investment philosophy whose mathematical evaluation for a “successful” (read: “worth funding”) organization was one that did not spend more than 20% on administrative or “overhead” costs. So we’re trained into this mode of thinking that one must deny the self (or the armature on which good art is made!) in order that the art shines through. Imagine that. 

Last week I had the chance to view the HBO documentary The Apollo at a friend’s house. Present in the screening room were three generations of diverse folk. & maybe all of us were arts administrators in our own way: theater, visual arts, literature, communications specialists and editors, executive directors, producers, & then me. We bopped to the archival music. We cried. We smiled. We shared in critical community & space-holding after, well into the night. 

Of the Apollo Theater’s importance, Patti LaBelle said, it was a place that made artists feel like they were worth it, “not because we weren’t worth it, but because we weren’t allowed to be worth it [before the Apollo].” (emphasis mine) That stayed with me. From multiple entry points, it’s how I come to the work of Red Olive, of Black Art Futures Fund.

Also last week, with that statement echoing in my ear, I asked an unpaid arts administrator in our 1:1 coaching call what it would look like if they had adjusted the budget to include both the stated raises for artistic contributors, and maybe a stipend, at least, for the other folks like herself who make all of this possible: the creation of a space that made writers feel like they were allowed to be worth it. The call went silent for some time as she sat with it. While it was considered what it meant—to be allowed to feel like the unseen efforts of the administrators are worth investment, a budget line, a fundraising effort. 

One of the other pieces from The Apollo that stuck with us—all 3 generations—was that we had no idea that there was a time for which The Apollo went dark. Closed its doors. After a few false starts and short ownership, it went from a for-profit entertainment venue, to the space that is closer to being what we know today. But the message: our spaces we love and need so much could close. & what would it look like if we took care of them? 

What a world we could live in then! If the orgs we love remain sufficiently resourced, then the art we so care about can, too, be sufficiently resourced & nurtured & brought forth for generations to come. 

Our artistic futures are worth that investment & dreaming. 

In solidarity,