22 9 / 2014
For me, fall seems to prompt changes and thoughts of moving on or letting go. Although I like fall, I always feel a little blue this time of year, letting go of Minnesota summer and it’s bare feet, eating outside, digging in the dirt, swimming in the lake wonderfulness is hard when you can’t help but remember how long it will be before we see our toes again.
This fall’s change and melancholy has held a number of moments that push me to think about place and change and art and the ways that we make our mark and tell our stories.
In my family: We are moving. We are selling our house. We are only moving 10 blocks away. We are moving by choice, but it is not without complex emotions and reasons. We have lived here almost 11 years – a drop in the bucket really, less than 10% of our house’s life. I wonder about all the other families who have called this place home, who have changed it and molded it and tended it. All the people who watched as the trees grew around them, who walked across these floorboards, who sat on the porch and watched the neighborhood go by.
We obey the common wisdom of realtors and remove our personal items from the house, paint over the weird colored rooms, and clean up the crumbs to help the next family, wherever they are, imagine themselves as the “owner” of this place. My husband and daughter and I hold hands in the living room and whisper our memories into the walls.
In my community: Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop Theater moves out of 2605 Hennepin Avenue, where the historic comedy theater has been for 49 years. The theater is moving by choice, to greener pastures and a space downtown with more visibility and less leaks and holes and places to bash your head. I worked in that space for a few brief years—a drop in the bucket compared to other actors and writers who spent literal lifetimes in the space. But it was one of the first places I worked as an actor and I met my husband in that theater, and we performed and wrote together in that theater. We learned who we were as people and as a couple in that theater. We made lifelong friends.
We gather with those friends and the many others for whom that place has meaning well beyond it’s physical structure. And we tell the stories, we shout them into the rafters, as if they weren’t already there. We write our names on the doors to make our mark, as if the building isn’t already held together by our sweat. We listen to the wisdom of Dudley Riggs with a special reverence. He tells us “Nothing is sacred. Except the circus.” I know the circus is defined by the people and the activity and not the space. The circus is moveable and so it moves.
In another place: In Fergus Falls, Minnesota. On a beautiful September day, 700 people gather to watch a play. A play, based on the history of the Kirkbride building. Vacant for the last ten years, this 120-year old building was home to the Fergus Falls Regional Treatment Center and State Hospital. It is a beautiful, sprawling campus that is awe-inspiring, contentious and complicated. On this beautiful September day, 50 residents of Fergus Falls perform in the play, which is written from 100 interviews of former employees, patients and other community members. A drop in the bucket really, when you think about the many thousands of people who have passed through that building. These stories and these voices are strong and beautiful and complicated. Together they make up a nuanced and complex history of mental health treatment and community history and pride.
The community tells its stories into the breeze and sunshine, into the ears of the generations of people who came to witness. A community imagines a future where the past is not forgotten. We walk together around the 500,000 sq foot castle and see the place in new ways. At the end we perform a kind of ritual motion together, based on a movement repeated many thousand times by a former patient at the Kirkbride. My daughter looks at me and says, “Mom, you are crying A LOT.” It is true. The stories are held in our hearts now, not just in the walls.
The leaves fall, time marches forward, we tell our stories, we make our mark, and the circus moves on.
(photo credit: Margene Newton)
21 9 / 2014
Recently my friend and colleague, Seth Beattie, asked me about a piece I wrote for the McKnight Foundation State of the Artist blog. I tried to find it online but, alas, the State of the Artist blog is no more. So I thought I’d repost it here. I wish the comments that this generated the first time around weren’t lost to the internet dustbin–there was a robust conversation that ensued and one that helped me clarify how I think about this and why I think it’s important.
The Importance of Being Ordinary
“Artists aren’t special. WE are not special!”
I’m in a conference room at a prestigious university with 30 of my colleagues from across the country and the world – most of whom I had just met. My face is a little flushed and I’m aware that my voice is a little too loud. Did I just say (shout) that? Me? Who works for an organization whose entire mission is about artists? Am I going to be escorted from the room? Is someone going to take my artist card away? More importantly, do I really believe that? Someone comes up to me at the break and asks, “If you don’t think artists are special, why are you doing this work?” Good question. Here’s my answer:
Yes, I said that. Yes, it was not very diplomatic and there was probably a more delicate way to make my point. But, yes, I do believe that.
Special is different from important.
Artists are important – artists illuminate truth, offer transcendent experience in a far too literal world, challenge us to feel, and connect us to a common humanity. Artists make vital contributions to very practical real-world issues – economic development, education, community building, healthcare. That’s important. You know who else is important? Police, firefighters, community organizers, teachers, lawyers, doctors…pretty much all the “people in your neighborhood.” We need lots of people and skills to make a healthy community, and artists are one part of that. I believe deeply that artists are necessary for a healthy community – but not any more or less necessary than all those other parts.
And when we say that we’re special, we define artists as “other” or different. By putting artists up on that pedestal, we actually make it harder for our communities to see their value. In an effort to validate the work of artists, we end up mythologizing the idea of artists. By trying to prove how rare, how talented, how hard, how special; we end up reinforcing a stereotype that there is a chasm between “real people” and “artists.”
I know, I know, if we let just anyone call themselves an artist, how will people know what good art is? How will they find the transcendent experiences among all the ghastly youtube videos? Maybe I’m naïve, but I trust them. Plenty of people are runners, even call themselves athletes, they don’t get confused and show up at the Olympics. Quite the opposite: being an athlete gives you a whole new appreciation for the talent, and work and guts it takes to be a pro.
The truth of the matter is that artists are everywhere. They are in every part of our community, our neighborhoods, our schools, our churches. Heck, if you poke them long enough most of those police and doctors and organizers, and, yes, even the lawyers will admit that they are artists, too. One of my favorite activities is getting the people in my neighborhood to admit their art. My bookkeeper is an actor, my lawyer is in a band, my exterminator is a hip-hop artist and my senator is a comedy writer.
And that’s why I do this work. Because artists are important and ordinary.
A little post-script: That’s the original piece from 2012. I my mind it was longer! Last week, another friend and colleague, Roberto Bedoya, wrote an amazing, critical and beautiful piece for Creative Time Reports that introduced me to the term Rasquachification:
“Evoking rasquachismo from an artist’s perspective, Amalia Mesa-Bains calls it ‘the capacity to hold life together with bits of string, old coffee cans, and broken mirrors in a dazzling gesture of aesthetic bravado.’ When I think of rasquachismo, I think of repurposing a tire into a flowerpot that you would never find at Home Depot. Such an object signifies the imaginary structured by resourcefulness, and prompted by poverty, which is distinct from the imaginary imposed by the monetization of neighborhoods, a prevailing objective in urban development.”
“It is a call to hold on to the stories told on the streets by the locals, and to keep the sounds ringing out in a neighborhood populated by musicians who perform at the corner bar or social hall.”
There’s so much about Roberto’s piece that resonates for me and provides a frame and context for the work I care about and for me also begs the question of who we allow to own the label of artist and receive support and resources for their work to make their place more creative, healthy and vibrant. I believe the movement around creative placemaking has tremendous possibility to become a support system for the creative ideas and actions of residents, to support, as Roberto says, “the people who shape communities from the ground up—the urban residents who practice the art of poiesis, or making in the sense of transforming the world.”
In the two years since I wrote the piece above, I’ve come to believe this even more deeply, that we need a new definition of who gets to be an artist, one that allows and encourages everyone to tap into their creative capacity. I believe if we can do that, paradoxically, the relevance and perceived value of art and culture will actually increase. Special is different than important.
17 7 / 2014
“This work should be the work that we do together because we cannot do it alone: to build places that are equitable and healthy, community developers, artists, and community members must build deep and lasting relationships.” - See more at: http://arts.gov/art-works/2014/power-change-our-communities
22 6 / 2014
Last Tuesday I rode the train from my house to downtown Minneapolis, got on another train and rode it to Springboard’s office in St. Paul. I rode the train to work!
For years, I’ve known it would be possible, but it seemed so distant and abstract, it wasn’t really until I was there, on the train, that I realized what a momentous occasion it was. It was my own little private Green Line launch party, a chance to reflect on all that has happened.
For the last 3 years Springboard has lived and breathed light rail. The construction impacted our everyday lives right outside our building. It was watching that construction and it’s impact in our own neighborhood that motivated us to design Irrigate, along with Twin Cities LISC and the City of Saint Paul, in the hopes of bringing some creative thinking to a very big challenge.
Irrigate grew out of a small pilot project we did in 2011 with the Hamline Midway Coalition. While we were still planning that project we found ourselves facing an open door. Through this door there was an amazing opportunity to do the work at the scale we thought necessary, to make long-term commitments to partners, and to see what was possible if artists were meaningfully and deeply engaged in this big community challenge. There was also pressure, visibility, skeptics and doubters. We walked through the door.
Here we are 3 years later. Nearly 600 artists. 150 collaborative projects. More than 30 million positive media impressions about the Green Line neighborhoods. Hundreds of partners who have new relationships with the creative people in their community and are working together in new, deeper and more meaningful ways. And thousands of moments of joy in my life.
Those are the things I thought about as I rode the Green Line for the first time. Looking out the window, I see projects that are very visible—murals and installations that now serve as testaments to resilience and survival. And I also see projects that are invisible to other passersby—a parking lot where I saw a play that is now full of cars. The dirt I sat on to watch a performance that now holds up the tracks. The dozens of restaurants and stores I experienced differently because something fun and interesting and weird and wonderful was happening inside them.
I’m making a final editing pass on a toolkit for Irrigate while I’m riding. Trying to figure out the right way to impart, not just the logistics of how all this happened, but the values, the principles, the people that made it work. Trying to see if I can explain, or if I even know, how all this happened.
It happened because people took risks, it happened because people loved their neighborhood, it happened because people want to help, it happened because people said “why not?”, it happened because people worked really hard, it happened because you can trust people to know what’s best for their own place, it happened because people showed up, it happened because we worked together.
However daunting, however bold, you can do it. But only if you don’t walk through the door alone.
19 5 / 2014
I wrote this piece for HowlRound about what it’s like to go back to the theater after 8 years away. I’m so incredibly lucky and happy to have had the opportunity to work on this show and also really grateful to HowlRound for giving me a place to share a bit about what it’s meant.
15 5 / 2014
I am traveling. Which mostly I love and feeds me and the work. But sometimes it’s hard—not coal miner hard, just kind of sad, lonely, tired hard. And so I do weird things like hide in bathroom stalls for a few minutes or sneak out of a reception to put on my pajamas and sit in bed and stare at the wall. And I cling to this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye…who read it at the very first out-of-town professional conference I ever attended. She knows.
The Art of Disappearing
by Naomi Shihab Nye
from Words Under the Words: Selected Poems. © The Eighth Mountain Press
When they say Don’t I know you?
When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
If they say We should get together
It’s not that you don’t love them anymore.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.
Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.
When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.
When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.
Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.
15 5 / 2014
At Springboard we got together and made this drawing of what it means to be an organization run by artists. Then I wrote about it.
08 4 / 2014
(stock photo people looking bored in a meeting)
I’ve been thinking a lot about nonprofit board structure lately. It’s not something we talk about much in the field—other than to complain about boards who don’t do enough, or overreach, or don’t understand their responsibility. And then we observe with outrage (or schadenfreude) when something goes horribly wrong at an organization: “Where WAS the board, what were they thinking?!” or “Who do they think they are?! They clearly don’t understand the mission.”
This week the New York Times published this piece by Paul Sullivan: Before Joining A Board, Size up the Job and the Mission. It has some valuable advice for prospective board members but it also makes a lot of assumptions about who board members are and should be (even just by its placement in the ‘Wealth’ section.) And then this quote:
“‘For every nonprofit, the No. 1 task at hand is having access to funding,’ he said. ‘No. 2 is you have to make sure that as board members you are good stewards of that institution.’”
This made me feel very, very sad. No wonder we have problems in the sector when we think that fundraising is MORE important than being a good steward of the institution. When it comes to boards, we seem to take a lot of things for granted—the size of our board, their role, their terms, who is and isn’t a good board candidate. There are a lot of assumptions masquerading as best practices. I think that board structure is ripe for innovation and reinvention. The truth is, in the realm of organizational change, adaptation, and mission fulfillment the board of directors is one of the most important levers we have. Here are some assumptions about boards that I am particularly bored by:
Bored Assumption #1: Who Makes a Good Board Candidate
Especially when you compare it to changing staff composition, changing your board members is actually relatively easy (please tell me you have term limits.) I’ll be blunt here: if you’re not thinking about how your board represents your community then you’re not building a relevant organization. When we are looking for new board candidates at Springboard there are two criteria:
- do you love and understand the mission deeply?
- will you energetically represent the organization to your community and your community to the organization?
By making those the only criteria, it means we are intentionally rejecting other criteria including wealth, power, and board experience. It’s not that we haven’t had some board members who are experienced or powerful, but it’s not why we picked them. It also means we are inviting and expecting board members to change the organization with their ideas, their perspectives and their questions.
Bored Assumption #2: What the Board is Supposed to do
The assumption that a board’s primary responsibility should be fundraising is such a given in the nonprofit world that we rarely question it. And we should. I’m not saying that you can’t have a good, engaged, relevant board that also helps with fundraising, but you’re likely going to be more successful on both counts if you are intentional and thoughtful about aligning your requirements for board service with your mission, values and culture.
So what does a board have to do? If you’re interested in more in depth resources about the legal requirements, MN Council of Nonprofits and Guidestar both have good resources. But the upshot is that fundraising is not a legal requirement: being steward of the financial health of the organization is.
What if we thought about building boards that deeply contribute to the fulfillment of the organization’s mission? What if we built boards that understood the guiding principles and values deeply so that they could ask energetic, hard questions that make the work stronger? What if we built boards that made our work more relevant, more useful, more engaged with the community around us? Suddenly I’m not as bored.
23 2 / 2014
Q: Describe your organization’s outreach strategy
A: We’re going to do an information session(s) about our programs so we can better serve XYZ community.
We’ve all read that answer to that question a thousand times and most of us have probably written it, I know I have.
It makes a kind of logical sense—we really want to serve more people, we really believe in our work, therefore, we should tell more people about our great work so they can have the benefit of our product or services.
But, we’ve made a lot of assumptions already: That the problem is lack of information—if only XYZ community knew about us, they’d want/need/use our product or service. That XYZ community doesn’t have a similar or better product or service already. That people will come to an info session. That we know enough about the XYZ community to find the right people or make our service relevant.
And so “outreach” has become just another in a long line of words that we’ve ruined with our good intentions and bad actions…a word like “service” that puts us in the position of power and resource and doesn’t really do much to make authentic, reciprocal change. And most info sessions are a waste of everyone’s time—sad rooms with small attendance and stale cookies that net very little impact for the organization or the community.
And yet I believe that we need to share and decentralize our resources and I believe there is a need to collaborate across sectors, geographies and cultures to strengthen our work.
So how to recalibrate, rethink, change our perspective and approach?
What if we change the definition of an info session to mean that you are going to spend time with XYZ community learning, listening and gathering information about the assets, opportunities, needs, challenges, hopes and dreams of that community? Information from the community before information thrust upon the community.
What if we made a rule that you have to at the very least spend one night or have a good meal with a community before you could do an info session? Or make a rule that you never do an info session on your first visit to a place? And if you can’t commit to that, then it’s probably time to question whether you really want to work with that community in the first place.
And what if we when we say “outreach” we actually meant just that—to reach out, to stretch with all our might, to open our arms wide, to offer ourselves humbly and honestly in the hopes that we might be useful, but without the assumption that we already are?
We have to start somewhere. Because we know that as we reach out we are completely dependent on someone reaching back to keep us from falling.
21 1 / 2014
update: I also wrote about this experience for The Huffington Post: you can read it here
Recently I was honored to participate in the Aspen Challenge
"Launched by the Aspen Institute and the Bezos Family Foundation, and inspired by the Bezos Scholars Program, participants are empowered to use their imagination, enthusiasm, competitive spirit and sense of global citizenship."
As a part of the Challenge I got to go to Denver and issue a challenge to a group of high school students from the Denver Public Schools (along with several other fantastic people) I was a little nervous about it - I wasn’t sure if high schools students would connect with my work or if an arts-challenge would stand up to all the other compelling issues that were presented. But I came away from the challenge inspired and excited about the future of the arts. And with a deep sense that we should make sure we’re not getting in the way of these bright passionate minds as they take the reins. Here’s a video of my talk, but if you want to be reassured about the future of the arts (or the future in general) just skip ahead to the 17:00 mark and see the great questions these young people had for me: