Moments of Light

Dear Friends,

As if it is no surprise, of course I’m one of those folks who insists that every month in America is Black History Month—that any day ending in Y is an occasion to celebrate the contributions of Black folk, and that my particular lean is the cultural and artistic contributions of Black folk.

The first day of February I was in a familiar, yet now foreign space: a movie theater. Being married to a Black independent film curator will present you with many opportunities to sit in front of a screen. His Luminal Theater was selected to program satellite screenings for Sundance Film Festival, and we had the opportunity to do it in my hometown in the shadow of my grandparent’s old neighborhood—my own first Black cultural space.

Here in Columbia, SC there’s a small theater just behind a nearly-empty shopping mall where I bought my first jean jacket from GAP, having paid cash I earned waiting tables at Applebee’s. Luminal Theater was able to partner with the existing theater to present socially-distant, in-person viewing experiences for Sundance, and for free. How many folks outside of Park City, Utah can say they saw Sundance for free in their backyard?

The last film was the documentary AILEY, about famed dancer and choreographer and founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I am such a fan of the company and was treated to a large screen viewing of archival footage of Mr. Ailey himself—heard his voice, heard from people who, too, loved and were moved by him. The contemporary spotlight was on one of my favorite choreographers, Rennie Harris, whose piece Lazarus was a moving visual depiction of Black life and celebration. It’s not an exaggeration to say I was mush watching it, the convergence of of it all—Black culture in my neighborhood, Mr. Ailey and his historic contributions to dance and ways of seeing the Black body. The whole of it.

What struck me was the story of sad and great and Black love that Mr. Ailey had given us over his whole life and beyond—at such an expense to himself. What a testament to what it means to be Black in America: no matter what, until his very end, Mr. Ailey never thought he could measure up to this American project that made him, and yet (maybe a recurring theme this month and all months?) he still gave us—undeserving—beauty, and ways of seeing ourselves in song and dance. The moments of light: wading in the water, the Black body, flying.

Let’s celebrate Black culture, always.

In Black love,  

Sharing the Full Story

Dear Friends,

At least the turn of a new year gives us a chance to re-imagine the stories we want to tell about ourselves and our work, the journeys we want to take into our futures.

One of the stories I am choosing to lean into for 2021 and beyond is to remind myself that the work I do shines when I let my artist self be more visible.

Work, and the idea/drudgery of it asks that we hide portions of ourselves that didn’t directly relate to a job description. My colleagues at Red Olive might get caught up in things quote-unquote not related to work and drop it. I would urge them to go back to the story they were telling, remind them that I believe it’s all related, and to relish in the places the mind wanted us to go for that moment.

Even as a consultant-collaborator, I am trying to embrace what it means to show up, wholly, for an engagement. In a non-work conversation with the team at For Freedoms, I had mentioned my own material creative practices in poetry, music, and quilting, and I could see they saw me differently. There had opened up new possibilities. Later, for a funder’s meeting, the team asked me to open the space with poetry.

At first I balked. It wasn’t the work of fundraising! We only had 30 minutes with Ford Foundation, I reminded them. They insisted we make space for art, and even my art, and so I read a poem to clear the way for the conversation that was to follow.

In introductions, the team had named me the resident poet not our fundraising consultant. And I realized that small gesture helped send a message more than a statement. The funders could see and experience For Freedoms as a team of artists. It happened similar to this at a Black Art Futures Fund learning call this month: I was leading the conversation about year-round fundraising and storytelling, and as an aside I mentioned my collection of poetry—I was continuing to consider the art I make as an afterthought—and a request was made that I share some poetry before we closed the session.

So I offer this new year opening newsletter with a few questions: Where are you not telling the whole story of the life you live in order to do the work you do? How can showing more of yourself give way to new visions?

In this newsletter you will find our 2020 Impact report for the whole of the Red Olive Creative Consulting Universe (a more full story), an expansion of Olive’s Classroom to include a course by our colleague Sharbreon Plummer, and an announcement of Black Art Futures Fund Cycle 5.

Let’s lean into the whole of it, together. We’ll get there.

In Black love,

Celebrating Funding Small Black Arts Organizations This Fall

Dear Friends,

The past few months I have been reminded of the ways in which folks on the ground have the power to claim the future they need, and the ways in which working against the grain will get you still on the other side of something if you keep at it.

In the Radical Fundraising Discussion Club last month, we talked about the Flywheel Effect, how a singular continual push in the same direction with the same intention will eventually give way to inertia, and suddenly—Georgia can be a Blue state. Or how ,when we lead all of our storytelling with WHY we do, instead of WHAT we do, millions will be inspired to take action.

Because of increasing national and even international collective belief in the power of small and community-based Black arts organizations, Black Art Futures Fund was able to support 11 more organizations across the country this fall with gifts ranging from $2,000 — $7,500, directed by the boards of BAFF. Please check our social media for updates on who funded what. It’s an exciting list.

Y’all, we are turning the corner on an unprecedented year. So many, too many, losses. A friend was here and we were talking about Kwame Brathwaite’s Black is Beautiful exhibition here at the local museum, and now they are gone. I wish that there were fully-hopeful words I could share with you that I too believed, but more days I am at a loss of even that.

We can still create community though, and that keeps me. Red Olive sponsored two Drive-in movie experiences in my hometown of Columbia, SC, and explicitly worked with The Luminal Theater to ensure that it was for a part of town that has seen significant divestment and is 20 minutes away from any named “Cultural District’. The Luminal Theater showed The Wiz and The Last Dragon and each film was preceded by a short film by a local Black filmmaker and Q&A with Luminal programmers.

When we started setting up for the Drive In, well before the listed “doors open” time of 6:30pm, cars were already peppering the parking lot, some of them coming from as much as 2 hours away, and some “just up the street”. Many with their kids and their snacks, angling to be front and center, unfolding their lawn chairs and blankets to spread out in the back of their pick-up trucks. And, they were almost all Black faces in their cars in the crowd.

This is a long way to introduce a Red Olive initiative—Nurturing Neighborhoods—but I am excited to share more and infuse the South and South East with more residential cultural Black experiences, for the people who may need it most. A deep, communal work.

In Black Love,

DéLana R.A. Dameron

Unbossed & Ungoverned

Dear Friends,

I’ve been thinking deeply about the work of Black Art Futures Fund, and all of the ways the project moves through the world, all of the ways in which we are seen or unseen, what assumptions come with those perceptions, and so forth…and the influences to the wider field—mostly unattributed, but we know the conditions under which we dreamt up such a thing as BAFF.

In 2015, I was a Development Director at Weeksville Heritage Center, and trying desperately to continue down the roads of my predecessors there, as well as attempt to chart new pathways—thinking about how to move people and resources to a Black space with so much culture and history in New York City. I considered it at the time to have been my dream place to work. I had arrived. I had energy and vision.

Meeting after meeting though, with major funders, were often met with a type of exasperation. That’s the only way I can describe the vibes. Many of my colleagues at small Black arts spaces know what I’m talking about. Questions about why was the institution still small; still struggling with fundraising and the identified financial difficulties. It was only the second year of operation since the organization had taken up residency in a newly-constructed 19,000 square foot facility, and even though it was a city-owned building with its famed nominal rent, the reality was that it still cost us approximately $10,000 a month then to keep its awarded LEED Gold Certified lights on, much less sufficiently staff it (where are the panels and the stories about life post-building-campaign? I have a few gigs worth of stories).

I know now the impossibility of the task before me then: right-size an institution who had to triple its budget just to pay a utility bill in an environment and a time that did not normalize the idea of institutional racism, did not have wide public language and dialogues around funding inequality with money moving as a result; an institution who had been told again and again despite its legacy as a neighborhood museum—community members donated items in the 70’s and 80’s on a hope and vision that one day they’d have a place that truly was a reflection of their contribution to society—Weeksville was told by funders who had resources to change its life and the people who worked there that it was “too small” then for some of the requests me and the Executive Director at the time were making. Just to thrive. Just to be able to do the thing that Joan Maynard set out to build back in the 70’s. It was not lost on me, and I continue to remind folks that Studio Museum of Harlem was founded the same year. What divergent paths. What drastically different futures.

When the bank balance ran out again (within its walls, we had to normalize this occurrence and understand the forces beyond us), and with no entity to save us, no emergency fund, no rallying cry, no initiative—our hours and our salaries were reduced. Some of us were laid off. Others of us were furloughed to approximately 20% of our salary. All of us mourned—it had felt that just as we were getting our collective groove, the rug was pulled from under our feet.

I did not at all want to go to the institution I landed at afterwards, but because we understand now the generational wealth disparities and health disparities, I will tell you all that I had a mother who was only then a few months post-stroke, who had suffered right-side paralysis and aphasia, and my father had turned to be her full-time caregiver. In turn, I had to travel home to South Carolina monthly and send money home monthly because generations of folks depended on my singular salary. The same old story of Black America. Anyways. I left Weeksville. I had to. Whatever happened after at that white cube art space where I landed is a story for another day. But when I was pushed out 10 months later, Black Art Futures Fund was started, with friends who I had invited to award, to celebrate, to invest, to create a whole ecology around the small Black art spaces that move with our collective futures in mind, in spite of access to funding.

We have been able to do it, and continue to do it, I think, because BAFF is not an official organized entity, though of course to do radical work there is an underpinning of organized efforts. We are not a nonprofit organization, not a foundation. I used to call us a foundation-in-training, but that’s not our ministry, not right now. Some days, I call it, an amoeba. Not quite giving circle, maybe close to mutual aid, but more. Unbossed & Ungoverned. We shift and shape to the needs of the time and field, and in 2017, we needed more people to raise their hands and say they believed small and community-based Black arts organizations deserved to be with us in the future and that individuals like you and me working collectively could make it happen. See below for just a portion of the folks who’ve joined us in the efforts!

Through the process, intricate networks of support wrapped around these groups, and, at the risk of sounding sappy, friendship and love fueled and continue to fuel us. What is ungoverned, that is formed without ceremony or law presiding over, is exactly the connective tissue that allows us to operates in the ways each moment we face—even 2020—asks us to, and to believe in the possibilities of the Blackest artistic future possible, with small arts organizations having more of what they need at the center of it all.

In Black Love,

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 ( 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, 

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, 

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, 

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,

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


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,