Reckoning: The Initiation of Cultivating Safe Spaces in Theater Education

“You’re the best friend type.”

“Sing ‘Breath’ from In the Heights.”

“You’ll be in West Side Story 100 times.”

“Now, more than ever, is the perfect time to be a POC in the theater industry.” 

“You need to change your last name if you’re ever going to make it in this business.”

“Can you make this character more SPICY.” 

“You don’t have a dancer body.”

“You can’t play *insert character here* because you’re not white.”

“This is the most diverse Broadway has ever been. You have sO mAnY oPpOrTuNiTiEs.”

“You’re a bit of a problem child.”

“You’re a diva.”

“You’re difficult to work with.”

“I don’t think you’re understanding the weight of the word ‘barbarian’ when LADY THIANG is describing the King.  Take it from the top and replace ‘Barbarian’ with the N-word.”

*** Do not get me started on the fact that The King and I is:

  1. Problematic to begin with
  2.  I am not an Asian person
  3. Barbarian was used synonymously with the N-word

*** That’s for a whole other blog post, so I digress.

These were statements made to me by people who consider themselves theater educators.  This is the short list. Over the last six months I have had a lot of time to think, to sit with myself, to resurrect trauma. Trauma that I had become so good at compartmentalizing, when it regurgitated back into my memory, I recognized it as “well meant advice” and “truths from the experts.” But as I embraced the reckoning on my industry and this country, for that matter, I was able to regain some clarity.  These statements, these small quips of “advice” were acts of violence.  Full. Stop.

From the inception of the BFA/Institutional audition, we are made to pay them to see us. It is no wonder when we graduate from these programs, we do not know our worth or how to negotiate for a livable wage. For this queer, mixed-race, Latinx, Bronx native, it goes beyond the BFA industrial complex and dives deeper into the tokenism and isolation that comes from institutions wanting to diversify their programs while remaining ill-equipped, uneducated, and upholders of white supremacy.

At the beginning of 2020, I found myself burnt out and lost.  The reckoning only brought on more questions and a deep seeded feeling of purposelessness. How would we push forward? When the smoke and ash clear from burning “it” down, who would be left standing to rebuild.  Why rebuild at all? Why? Such a powerful little word.  I went back to Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk and his Golden Circle framework and asked myself this very question. Why am I here?  

I was 2 years old when I threw myself headfirst into a pool, sans floaties, with the inability to swim.  My mother, flailing with panic, enrolled me in swimming lessons the minute we returned from our trip.  This incident would prove to be the foundation of how I approached my everyday life, throwing myself headfirst into an experience, feeling the fear and doing it anyway

 I knew what I wanted to do: Be a storyteller. I knew how I wanted to tell stories: Collaboratively. But my why was fuzzy and needed grounding. I needed to rebuild from the inside out. At the beginning of my why discovery, I asked myself, “Who has made a positive impact on my growth as an artist? When did I feel  seen, heard, and held by my educators?”  Though the times were few and far between and the list was unsurprisingly short, they each shared a common denominator: Representation

 I grew up in a community that valued the arts, culture, and education and believed that each could not exist without the other.  We were a local Latin dance school in the Bronx, but our motto was always “More than dance.” From the time I was 5 years old, this community invested in my future, met me where I was, saw me as a full human being, and treated me with respect and dignity. I was recognized for the fullness of my potential and encouraged to seek out my dreams. At only 14 years of age, I began teaching in my community. I felt at home in this position of leadership and understood the immense responsibility of being in this posture. Yet, as I grew up, I lost that sense of abandon.  I stopped allowing myself to feel the fear and do it anyway.  Once I moved away from my safe haven and came face to face with the “experts,” I shied away from all positions of leadership. 

Over a decade later, I found myself wrecked with insecurities, broken from violent, oppressive teachings, and limited by the box I had been forced into.  The beginning of my career was daunting, and I felt the need to say yes to every job opportunity, return to unsafe workspaces, and comply with the standards that my industry was, surely, living up to.  But like most times of reckoning, there is a calm before the storm.

I sought out my people, my short list, the change makers in my industry and my life, and became much more selective with the work I would invest in.  Working with directors and educators like Marcos Santana , Jasmin Richardson , Gregory Omar Osborne , Jillian Carucci , Jen Waldman , Billy Bustamante  and Jenn Susi unlocked the door to my why, my purpose as a storyteller. Each of these remarkable human beings encouraged and inspired me to explore the expansive possibilities that this pause would allow. 

So here I am, 6 months into a global pandemic, our country faced with a reckoning that has presented me with a golden opportunity.  I am re-exploring and reexamining what it means to be an educator, using my brand-new toolbox to reimagine how we push our fellow storytellers and artistry forward. I am standing in my power and in my truth ready to ask the hard questions, ready to bridge the gap between student and teacher, ready to be the representation I once wished I had. There is so much to say.  Maybe the book will come one day, but one thing is for certain: I finally understood what it meant to be an artistic citizen.  I recognized my responsibility in my work and that it wasn’t a matter of either/or, but yes/and.

There’s no reason any artist should have to choose between their gifts.”  – Jillian Carucci

 I may not have years of teaching under my belt.  I, certainly, don’t have all the answers.  I am not even abandoning my life as a performer, but rather using those experiences to cultivate safe, equitable, brave, and thriving learning environments for those who will come after me.  I am diving headfirst into this posture and feeling the fear and doing it anyway.  Here comes the storm. 

In an Unpredictable World, Rigidity Holds Us Back

Miss Rona began shaking the world before we even knew what she was up to.

Scientists apparently knew about COVID-19 well before this pandemic hit, but the virus seemed to descend upon us with unprecedented suddenness. I didn’t understand the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic until my flight home from Chicago in the first week of March. I’d planned to go to a conference in San Antonio, but because of the outbreak there I redirected to visit some friends. As I boarded the plane back to Philly, I looked around and realized each passenger had an entire row to themselves on a Friday afternoon flight. 

At BAFF, I’d spend February updating the application to reflect lessons learned in previous years. We had just finished collecting this year’s applications and were working to assemble volunteer readers, who would also facilitate between BAFF and applicants during the second stage of the application process. 

By mid-March, though, we realized that the application process was not appropriate for the moment at hand. Art organizations of all sizes were suddenly forced to reevaluate finances and operations in unprecedented ways; small Black art organizations were among the most severely impacted. BAFF’s mission to support Black art workers is incompatible with a traditionally bureaucratic grant process during times of extreme change and strain on all Black art community members, and especially art administrators who invest in Black art. 

For this reason, the decision was made to pivot and create an emergency/relief grant in place of BAFF’s third cycle of grants. The new application aimed simply to get money into the hands of Black art administrators as efficiently and fairly as possible.. We prioritized previous finalists, who would have been awarded a grant in previous years if BAFF had the financial means. We also prioritized Black art organizations with less regional access to philanthropic resources, such as rural organizations. And all organizations received the requested amount, except in cases when other foundations were able to support, so that more organizations could receive emergency funding overall.

By remaining practical and flexible in the face of the pandemic, we were able to respond to the immediate needs of the Black art community in a completely new situation, helping Black art organizations sustain themselves and put their people first (starting with administrators and other key staff.) In this rapidly changing socio-economic climate, it’s become clear that no one can prepare for tomorrow. We must remain responsive to circumstances while also grounded in our values. In doing so, we are facilitating mutual cultural investment in the Black art world in order to ensure its sustainability.

 —Noor Ibn Najam, BAFF Spring 2020 Grant Cycle Coordinator

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.