17 7 / 2014

The Power to Change Our Communities

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Going Home Again

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?
say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like 
before answering.
Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say We should get together
say why?

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.

Springboard for the Arts Asks: How Do Our Artist Selves Change the Organization?

08 4 / 2014

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(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:

  1. do you love and understand the mission deeply?
  2. 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

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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:

08 1 / 2014

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There are abundance people and scarcity people. And there are organizations that have abundance cultures and organizations that have scarcity cultures.  I really believe that organizations and people that operate from a place of abundance are happier, more satisfied and more effective. It can feel paradoxical–the more you give, the more you get back. Not in a magical thinking kind of way, but people and organizations who are generous with their time, resources and connections build more social capital and bigger networks, which then results in more time, resources and connections for them. I know this is true in my own work, if there is one thing that I think has contributed most to the success of Springboard in the last 8 years, it is a culture of abundance.

That culture isn’t an accident–collectively we work hard to create and maintain that culture. No one can operate from the abundance place all the time: we all get scared, jealous, protective, competitive and tired. Abundance is a learned behavior–a practice and habit that becomes self-perpetuating over time (and unfortunately, scarcity is also a self-perpetuating habit.) I’m grateful to have many great people and lessons that shape the organizational culture we practice and aspire to have. Here are some of the practices that help me make abundance habitual:

Buy the air conditioner: About 3 months into my tenure at Springboard, things were not going well from a financial perspective. Our very small budget was stretched very thin and our cash flow was…well there wasn’t a lot of flow. My paycheck sometimes sat in a drawer for a while before I could deposit it.  It was also a very, very hot summer. Our office had a single window-unit air conditioner and it was dying a painful death. I was having lunch with our board president and relaying to her how things were going and added, “oh, and it’s really, really hot in the office because the air conditioner is dying”.  Without hesitating she said, “Laura! Buy an air conditioner!” And so I did. I didn’t know exactly where that $200 was going to come from budget-wise, or what it would mean in the long-term, but I realized there wouldn’t be any long term if we didn’t take care of some of the short-term needs, like the need for the staff to not melt into puddles at their desks. And you know what? It worked out. Now that we are an organization with a luxurious 6 window-unit air conditioners, I may not have to worry about cash flow in the same way, but I still use that lesson: investing in the health, safety and satisfaction of the people who make the work is never the wrong decision.

Pick up the check: When you go to coffee or lunch with a colleague, just pay the bill. Social interactions are so much easier when you’re not spending time dividing the check. Your organization can afford the $4.00 mocha, I promise. You can let a community group use your copier without charging them or tracking how many copies they make. Small generosities are an easy way to practice abundance and they really create the foundation of a culture that feels flexible and trusting. I’m all for being a careful steward of resources and rigorous tracking and accounting, but please, I’m begging you, don’t conflate those things with policies and bureaucracies that inhibit your ability to trust yourself or your colleagues to use good judgment. Investing in relationships is part of your mission and should be a program expense.

Employ the reckless yes: I can’t remember who said this phrase at Springboard first, or where it came from. But I love it and now use it frequently. Sometimes, just say yes and see what happens. Say yes, because it’s easier, or say yes because it seems like the right thing to do, or say yes because it might pay off later, say yes because you can. Obviously, we can’t say yes to everything, but sometimes a collaborator approaches you and asks you to work on an exciting project with them and you just say yes. You have no idea how you’re going to pay for the work or where you’re going to find the people to do the work, but you know the work is important and so you say yes.

Trust your gut: So much of this is about developing your own barometer for when to buy the air conditioner, or pick up the check or commit to a big, bold reckless yes. Pay attention to your intuition about people and opportunities. You know when a partnership is going to feed your work and when it’s going to suck you dry. Pay attention to what feels right. I know that when someone calls Springboard and is super excited about a program we’ve created and wants to adapt that program for their own community it feels right (and much more fun!) to just give them anything I can to help them. And it feels wrong to hold up that exciting, momentum building conversation with a talk about what they should pay me for my information.

I still fail at being generous all the time. Sometimes that well-meaning informational interview just feels like too much to give in a busy week. So sometimes abundance has to be mean grace and forgiveness for ourselves—the recognition that we’re never going to achieve perfect generosity nirvana…that we will always make some decisions based on fear or fatigue. The trick, I think, is to find a spot on the abundance end of the continuum and then work at pushing ever further in that direction.

Let’s have coffee soon, ok? I’m buying.

03 1 / 2014

Here’s my recent talk at the ArtsFwd National Innovation Summit:

Artist/Community/Reciprocity: Helping Communities Ask More From and For Their Artists