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Filling the Well

Filling the Well is a podcast created to nourish, provoke, and inspire artists and arts leaders. Hear from creative changemakers as they share their takes on how to avoid burn-out, build authentic community, share resources, shift power dynamics, and advocate for support.

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Episode 1: Resiliency, Self-Care, and Joy

Creativity can be an antidote to challenging times, but we can’t show up for our communities if we’re burnt out. Dive into the art of taking care of you with two radical self-care strategists, Dr. Joi Lewis and Joe Davis.

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Side by side headshots of Dr. Joi and Joe
Photo by: Dr. Joi and Joe

Dr. Joi Lewis

CEO, Joi Unlimited

Joe Davis

Artist, Educator, & Speaker, Joe Davis Poetry

 

Dr. Joi Lewis is a visionary community healer and facilitator of liberation and social justice As a speaker, author, scholar and the CEO of Joi Unlimited, and President of The Healing Justice Foundation, she’s on a mission to put healing in the hands of anyone, anywhere. Dr. Joi helps individuals, institutions, and communities heal from oppression-induced historic and present day trauma, using Healing Justice as an on ramp to reclaim our own humanity and each other’s. Dr. Joi’s book, Healing: The Act of Radical Self-Care, educates individuals on the Orange Method of Healing Justice, a framework to interrupt historic cycles of oppression through both self and community care. She offers this meditation to all who believe in freedom: #MayTheRevolutionBeHealing

Joe Davis is a nationally-touring artist, educator, and speaker based in Minneapolis, MN. He employs poetry, music, theater, and dance to shape culture. His work has been featured on BET, CNN, and VH1. He is the Founder and Director of multimedia production company, The New Renaissance, the frontman of emerging soul funk band, The Poetic Diaspora, and co-creator of JUSTmove, racial justice education through art. He has keynoted, facilitated conversation, and served as teaching artist at hundreds of high schools and universities including programs in New York and Boston. Please visit JoeDavisPoetry.com to book, connect, or learn more.

Bringing Self Care into Organizational Culture

Learn about several practices that you can integrate into your organizational culture to help you get grounded, get connected, and get creative with episode guest Joe Davis.

Transcript: Episode 1

Resiliency, Self-Care, and Joy

[music]

Marianne Combs: Welcome to the first episode of Filling the Well, a podcast created to nourish provoke and inspire artists and arts leaders. Over the next five episodes, you’ll hear from creative change-makers who share their takes on how to shift power, build authentic community, share resources and advocate for support. With each episode, you’ll find links to explore these ideas further and to take action in your own community, we’re kicking off the series by talking about resilience, self-care and joy.

Joe Davis: You’re not here by accident, you are here to share the stories of your sacred passage, you are the only you that ever has been, you are not the magician, you are the magic so show up to…

Joi Lewis: We are not meant to stay in trauma mode as a way of living, this is why we practice radical self-care and I tell folks… There’s only two times to practice radical self-care, when you feel like it, and when you don’t… When you feel like it, and when you don’t, [0:01:11.8] ____ then you covered…

Marianne Combs: You just heard from Joe Davis and Dr. Joi Lewis, our guests for this inaugural edition of Filling the Well. I’m your host, Marianne Combs.

There’s no sugar-coating it. The last couple of years have been incredibly hard, whether it’s the toll the pandemic has taken on community health and the economy, or the increasing frequency of brutal hate crimes based on race and religion, or the surge in natural disasters brought about by climate change. We’re all living with varying amounts of fatigue, anxiety and even trauma. Amidst all this upheaval, what are artists and arts leaders to do?

As a journalist who has covered arts and culture for decades, I’ve seen firsthand how creativity can be an antidote to challenging times. Artists serve as both healers and visionaries for their communities, bringing people together and helping them to imagine better futures. Today, we need this transformational work more than ever, and the arts has been among the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic shutdowns and social distancing.

So our first episode is dedicated to taking care of you, and we’ve brought in two wonderful guests to join us. Dr. Joi Lewis is a radical self-care strategist, mediator, coach and artist-activist who devotes herself to instigating joy and healing healers. She lives in St. Paul, Dr. Joi, welcome.

Joi Lewis: Thank you. Very, very pleased to be here.

Marianne Combs: And Joe Davis is a multi-talented artist and educator who uses music, poetry, theater, and dance to create transformational experiences. He lives in Minneapolis. Joe, thanks so much for being here.

Joe Davis: Hey, Thank you so much Marianne, I’m glad to be here.

Marianne Combs: Dr. Joi I feel like the term self-care gets used a lot in common parlance these days, but it means different things to different people, and I think there are so many people out there who wanna be doing the good work, and sometimes they run themselves ragged, they forget about the taking care of themselves that they feel like there’s this next event that I have to be at, there’s this next thing I have to do, the people need me, and forgetting to nurture themselves so that they can be there for community.

Joi Lewis: Yeah, self-care and rest is an act of resistance. As sort of counter-intuitive because you think like, what do you mean, I’m resting. Yeah, rest is resistance. I really want to emphasize the importance of this sort of reclaiming and pushing against systems of oppression that want us to be sick and tired and worn out, and that it sort of pushes against this notion of self-care as a kind of soft thing that is something extra that you do, instead of something that is essential that we do, and I always like to lift up sister Audrey Lorde who says that caring for myself is not self-indulgent, it’s self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare, and that is really the self-care that I speak about it, and we speak about that it is also self-care that is grounded in community care and actually showing up and enjoy a lot of the good work that brother Joe is doing around radical joy, and to show up in that kind of way, it’s just such a profound act of resistance. And we don’t think about it like that.

Joe Davis: Yeah. I just wanted to add too Dr. Joi, and you’ve been significant in teaching me this, but I can’t even show up in my full self in my integrity, in my authenticity, unless I am practicing radical self-care, I’m decapitated and I don’t even have the ability to offer my gifts that I can offer to the world, unless I’m first finding that time and that space to prioritize like my health and well being is deeply, deeply, deeply interconnected.

Marianne Combs: Joe you’ve taken classes with Dr. Joi, I’m wondering what were some of the most important lessons you learned?

Joe Davis: I think for me, it was about prioritizing my self-care, because the world is not gonna prioritize it for me, I’m the only one who could do that, and then also this idea of… I love how Dr. Joi, you say it, “Don’t light yourself on fire to keep other people warm,” which is a habit, a pattern that I think I’m life long on learning, ‘cause I come from a culture that has taught me to take care of everybody else before I take care of myself, and to give until I have nothing else to give, and then I’m of no service to anybody when I do that, and I understand in a different way now that I’m always gonna be a generous person, I’m always gonna be this type of person who shows up and wants to offer my gifts and create space for healing and transformation, but I can do that in a way where, I’m showing up more grounded and more centered because I’m doing… I’m doing the work, I’m doing the inner work of radical self-care.

Marianne Combs: And when you talk about the inner work that you’re doing… What does that look like on a day-to-day basis?

Joe Davis: For me, it’s about paying attention to my body, being really attentive and just taking a moment to pause and to breathe, and to listen to it… What does my body need right now? Like, do I need to slow down and take a break and take a rest? ‘cause I think so often times we move in this machine like pace, where capitalism just teaches us to grind, grind, grind, work, work, work, produce, produce, produce, but it doesn’t teach us to create the space to listen to our bodies and to respond appropriately and accordingly, and so that’s the biggest thing for me, is actually paying attention to my body in a real way and be like, “Oh yeah, I haven’t drank a lot of water today, I need to go ahead and drink some more water.” You know what? I feel kind of tight… I feel a tightness in my joints, in my neck. I got to, after the Zoom meeting, I’mma dance a little bit. I’mma stretch it out. I’mma move a little bit and just listening, I think that’s one of the biggest things, is to pay attention to your body and really listening to what it needs in the moment.

Joi Lewis: You talked about, Marianne just some of the things that people are juggling the stress, the trauma, and I think for folks particularly, you got fight, flight, freeze, and I think for many of us over this past year and a half have really been stuck in that kind of freeze mode. And I use this example, when I get into my car and I pull that emergency brake, I put that emergency break on, and I get out of the car and sometimes I come back to my car and I forget to take the emergency break off, and my car will let me go…

It will let me go, I can drive with that emergency break on, and if I forget, after a while it will start hollering at me. What are you doing? It’s like.

[vocalization]

Joi Lewis: Take the emergency brake off. Like what are you… And it’s like we are kind of stuck because you’re only supposed to be in that emergency freeze mode for a minute, it’s just to kind of get you to override to say, “Hey, there’s something that’s going on,” but that’s not where we’re supposed to stay… We are not meant to stay in trauma mode as a way of living, this is why we practice radical self-care, and I tell folks there’s only two times to practice radical self-care when you feel like it, and when you don’t…

When you feel like it and when you don’t, then you covered, and that if you can do that, then you can build up enough to put into your into your energy bank, because there’s gonna be some withdrawals, there’s gonna be life that’s gonna happen, you know… Right. Before getting to spend time with you all, my cell phone went out… I don’t know why it went out, it just decided it didn’t wanna be with me anymore. You know, it’s just, it’s out and that would have sent me over the moon, that would have just but fortunately, I have enough that is stored up in my energy tank, I’m like, Okay, I’ve got irritated for just a minute… And I said, You know what, okay, maybe I just don’t need to be that connected for a minute, clearly I need to take a break.

Marianne Combs: I love it. When you talk about this energy savings account, and I love this sort of financial analogy, that is you need to have enough in the account to take you through in those times when you have to make withdrawals, what adds to your energy account?

Joi Lewis: Yeah, I really… Again, I love taking concepts like capitalism and turning them on their head, ‘cause they don’t help us out in any other kind of way, and so it’s like, we might as well use this, so I try to think about things like, who are the people in my life that whenever… I spent time with them that immediately I feel like filled up… I feel like energized. Who are those folks? And so you might, if you’re listening to this, I invite you to write down, Who are those, who are three people in your life that when you spend that time with them, you’re like, “Oh yeah, that feels good.” What are three activities that you do you know that when you do it, you automatically feel like, “Oh yes,”, I know for Joe it might be singing, it might be dancing. And you know what is it that when you do it you’re like, “Oh, that changes my mood.”

This is a fun one… What are three songs that when you play them… It just takes you there. Right, and it’s just like you can put those on your phone, have a load, have it already ready, you about to go in that meeting, that you really don’t wanna go to, and you can just pop it in real quick and it just automatically feeds you and so I think of these things as like deposits, right, at the same time, you’re gonna have some withdrawals, there’s nothing wrong with the withdrawal, if you have something on the deposit side. And I like to think about withdrawals as things that you have to do, who are three people that are in your life that you know you might love them, but you’re just like they kinda take the energy. And it’s good to be aware of there might be somebody in your family, it might be your people, it might be somebody, a meeting you’ve got to go every week, whatever.

It’s okay, but just be aware, you know, Okay, I’mma have to go and spend that time with those folks, but let me make sure I have enough on the deposit side before I go and have to spend time with them, same thing with those activities, maybe there’s some meeting you have to go to every week or whatever. And then I also like to try to think about like food, is there something that you eat that you’d like to eat, but it didn’t like you… You might not need to be eating that. So those kinds of things and just… And I like to put it, actually, on your phone, in your notes section so you can look at that really quickly, and then you got your little energy bank, ready set up.

Marianne Combs: So you’re ready to make a deposit, maybe a couple of deposits a day, check it in your list and say, “oh, I haven’t done this lately, I should do this for myself.”

Joi Lewis: Right, and the last thing I’ll say about that is that, you know, you don’t make a deposit in the bank, generally, today and then take it out tomorrow. So yeah, you know, don’t just be like putting stuff in and then just be automatically taking it out. You gotta kinda build that thing up, you know? That’s why I said there’s only two times to practice radical self-care, when you feel like it and when you don’t. And particularly when you feelin good, go ahead and put some extra stuff in there, don’t be waitin.

Marianne Combs: Oh, I love that idea. Joe, what are the things that you put in your emotional bank account to sort of beef up your reserves so you’re ready to hit those stressful situations?

Joe Davis: Yeah, Dr. Joi hit a lot of them. For me, music is such a huge part of my life, and so I don’t think I would be able to survive without music. Like, I gotta get my good grooves, I got my playlist, I got the vibes that I know would get me right, and so that for me is a big part. I have to have some good music in my life, like not only listening to music, but also creating music. I think that can be helpful as well is creating for me is really life-giving, and it really just kind of feeds my soul, it feeds a part of me that feels really good. So writing poetry, writing songs, dancing. There’s been times, I kind of mentioned it earlier, but there’s been times where I literally have just danced between a Zoom meeting, because I’ve been sitting down all day, getting that Zoom fatigue, you know, and the joints are getting kinda tight and kinda creaky and I’m like, “you know what, I gotta stretch it out, I gotta move this energy around.”

I got five minutes, 10 minutes, however long I have, I gotta take that and just use that and move a little bit. One of the biggest things for me is literally just starting off my day with meditation. I call it my rising ritual, and so before I even talk to anybody or anything else, like, don’t even have the phone on, turn off the phone, turn off the computer, nothing, and just have some quiet time to myself where I can set my intentions and say, “this is how I wanna show up for the day.” And to me, it’s almost like tuning an instrument, ‘cause you know with instruments, you gotta… You might play an instrument, you leave it for a while, it’ll get out of tune. And when you start playing it again, you have to get it in tune again, playing the piano, playing wind instruments, playing guitar, you see, you gotta get it in tune again.

And to me, that’s what it’s like every day. When I get up in the morning, I gotta make sure that I am centered and grounded and aligned, and in that space before anybody else tries to tug at me, ‘cause there’s gonna be a bajillion different commitments that are gonna tug at my heart, that are gonna tug at me in every which direction. And I see it in… I’ve seen it happen before, where it’s like a pinball in a pinball machine, where everything that touches the pinball is bouncing everywhere, right? That’s what can happen to me and to my energy, unless I stay like rooted and grounded and centered, and then no matter what people say or do, no matter what happens, I can find that space inside of myself and say, “Okay, this is what’s authentic for me, this is where my integrity is.” I know Dr. Joi, you talked about saying no, like saying no to things. Somebody told me like your no should make room for your yes. And so just remembering that these are the things I’m saying no to, these are the things I’m saying yes to, and that is what really guides me and really gives me a sense of direction, like setting that intention, that helps me so.

Marianne Combs: Dr. Joi, you said earlier, you were talking about capitalism and that there’s really you gotta use… Turn it on its head. And I think it’s really interesting because artists are always strapped for cash, it seems, like the artist is constantly looking for resources to help them do what they wanna do. And both of you have spoken in a way that feels so joyful and abundant. For those people out there who are thinking, “great, sure, it’s nice to talk about all the good nice feelings, but when it comes down to it, I need to pay the bills, and I’m stressed.” How do we face these realities of scarcity in resources while trying to bring joy and be resilient and mindful in the moment?

Joi Lewis: I think it’s both like again, it’s holding the contradiction and recognizing that it’s real, in terms of the way that the world is set up, particularly here in the West, the way that capitalism is set up to make you like, “Oh, you gotta do this and this next thing is happening”, or whatever. But I haven’t found, even under some pretty harsh realities, worrying about them or stressing over them, it never helps. [chuckle] And so I have found that I have to look at that thing like square in the face. I think you can have toxic positivity as well, I don’t mean it in that way, but I think that there is a healthy balance around saying, “Okay, I’m gonna look at this thing, but I can also have some reality around it.” As my grandmother says, “none of us are as smart as all of us.” I think that there are resources, whenever I am not feeling like that, I have to figure it out on my own, but whenever I open up and I am able to share with other folks and reach out and say, “Hey, how might we be able to figure this thing out together?” I get crushed, and I think other people get really crushed when we are left to…Individualism and having to try to figure it out and get crushed by ourselves isn’t… And I think that that’s part of what happened, I think, particularly with the pandemic, there was a lot of isolation, and so I think they’re getting out of that isolation and reaching out and even just talking about it helps to say like, “Well, wait a minute. Oh, there may be some resources.” Sometimes you realize like, okay, this thing is not gonna happen, that bills is not gonna get paid, and facing the reality around that too, but there are some devastating things that one has to face. People are dying, there are some… There is some bad news, there are some things, but it’s something about being a community and doing that together that makes getting through it different. And that’s where the abundance comes.

Marianne Combs: Joe, you talked about how that was one of the lessons for you at this time during the pandemic, was you ended up leaning on community anew in different ways. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Joe Davis: Yeah, yes, that’s one of the things I’m most grateful for is community, ‘cause that’s where I see where the most abundance lives. It’s a reminder to me ‘cause when I’m holding something and I’m feeling overwhelmed, a lot of times it’s either because I’m holding something that I don’t even need to hold to begin with. This ain’t mine, why am I holding that? I don’t need to hold this, or it’s because I’m trying to hold something by myself that I don’t need to hold by myself. We’re here together for a purpose and for a reason. We need each other, we belong to each other, not as a sense of ownership, we belong to each other as a sense of an extension of one another, and we’re deeply, deeply interconnected in ways that are hard to even imagine or to articulate, but when I look out and see my community and the ways that they’ve uplifted me when I needed to be uplifted, and then I’ve in turn also been able to uplift them in ways. I think we only rise as high as we can lift each other, and during this time of pandemic and racial uprising, I’m needing my community like never before, I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the people around me in my life. Yeah, and I think that’s where the true abundance is, ‘cause sometimes we can get stuck, we can get stuck in that scarcity mentality and we’re in isolation and we forget, but I need people to remind me of what’s possible. Right, I’m kind of known as a person who is really joyful and hopeful, and I like to remind people of that, but there’s days when I forget too. You know what I’m saying? Well, I don’t even, I’m like, “What is happening? What is going on?” And I need people around me who can remind me, and I think that’s the beauty and the power of community. As we can remind each other, we will need to be reminded of what’s possible, remind each other of the abundance that’s real.

Marianne Combs: We’re also talking about the news and how overwhelming sometimes that news can be. Does that factor into, your self-care is what you listen to and what you take in and what you don’t take in?

Joe Davis: Yeah, I’m super intentional about the type of media I consume, like I, to this day, have not seen the video of brother George Floyd, and that’s intentional. I don’t like to watch videos of Black death, I already know. As a black man, I know the violence and the trauma, and so I don’t need to watch it on replay on any video, so as much as is within my power, I avoid watching any type of videos of Black violence and Black trauma, even if it’s in films. So I’m very intentional about that, and yet I still am staying abreast with what’s happening in the world, I’m gonna be socially conscious, I’m gonna watch the news, but I just won’t… I won’t doomscroll, I call it doomscrolling, and I think it’s like… I don’t even think that they should call it the news, my joke is they should just call it the worst things that are happening near you, ‘cause that’s like what it is most of the time, it’s just like we’re inundated with all this negativity. So yeah, I’ll tap in, I’ll check out, okay, what’s going on? But then I also gotta go out in front of my apartment door and see the community garden and what’s going on, and my, the beautiful things that are growing right here. So I don’t get sucked into that. So yeah, you gotta have balance. It’s all about balance for me.

Joi Lewis: I too also purposely did not watch the video of the murder of brother George Floyd. And the reason for that is because now I have an understanding of the way that epigenetics works and how that works for our community and how it particularly works in my own body, just the genetic mark of how trauma gets passed down and you begin to learn how things affect you, certain things you can’t just come back from, but we don’t have to consume stuff and we get to learn like, “That might not be a good choice.”

Marianne Combs: Do you think that you can build resilience by… Through self-care, you can change your own resilience?

Joi Lewis: Absolutely, it’s scientifically proven. You can rewire the way in which that we respond to things, and it’s so amazing, and it is so hopeful. On an individual and on a collective and communal level, we can shift the whole vibration of what can happen, like these diseases that are passed down that they say are hereditary, we can change the whole outlook on high blood pressure and diabetes and shift all of that. Radical self-care, it should really, in my opinion, it should really be primary care, that we can change the output for really safe communities as we know them. That’s serious.

Joe Davis: And that’s one of the things that really excites me about this work is that I’m impacting generations beyond my own, I wanna carry forward this legacy that my ancestors have given to me, that I’ve inherited and the resiliency that they’ve built up, that lives in me, but also the things that they weren’t able to build resiliency around, I can build on that, and I can impact the future generation and that’s so empowering. I think about… One of my favorite quotes of this season has been from Alice Walker, she says, “The most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any,” and I think the resiliency is accessing the power that we do have, and cultivating that together. We are incredibly powerful, we have so much resilience, we have so much wisdom and healing within our bodies, within our community. How do we access that, how do we tap into that and grow that and cultivate that together? That’s where my radical joy comes from, this deep-rooted knowing that that’s possible for us.

Marianne Combs: Is there a way to take these lessons and apply them to teams, to people working together in communities? Dr. Joi, what do you think?

Joi Lewis: Oh yeah, absolutely. As we were thinking about it, we were talking about the idea of the energy bank, for instance. I’d love to work with organizations and teams so think about their organization bank, their organization energy bank, and what are those things, particularly as we think about a lot of our non-profit organizations who might be on the struggle bus, in terms of like, “We didn’t get that grant,” or “We don’t have that.” Okay, but whose culture has capital, there’s a lot of different kinds of capital beyond economic capital, and so identify what are those things that you are… Whenever you do together that it excites you, what are those activities that you participate in and… Don’t do it just once a year. Can you all do that at least once a week? Or are there daily things that you all do and that it becomes this list of things that’s embedded and part of the culture. How about you start your meetings off… How about you start with some meditation, how about y’all do a dance work. What are some things that are a part of the culture? And sometimes those things feel awkward at first, so you feel like that you can’t, but those things fill people up.

People know if I show up, you going… Everybody gonna get their minute, everybody gonna get their time, everybody’s gonna get heard. And that matters to folks, whenever you are in cultures where you don’t get your turn or you’re not heard, or you’re not seen, or you’re not affirmed, or validated. And whenever you are creating a culture where people feel like, “My voice matters, I’m seen, I’m affirmed,” that’s good money, and people will show up because they’re like, “I’m valued here,” and so those are radical self-care practices, you get some time off… I ask people, “Do y’all take lunch away from your desk? Do you go… Do you know that there’s a park across the street? Have you gone over there?” You know that those things matter, but if you’re just sitting up and you never are moving your body, you’re not dancing, you’re not taking a break to eat, all of that stuff adds up.

Marianne Combs: Dr. Joi, you call yourself a joy instigator. I feel like you just instigated right there, but is there other stuff that you do when you think about instigating joy? And what does that look like? Is it in terms of, how do you walk into a space and instigate joy?

Joi Lewis: I look and I try to see, like when I walk in the room, how can we hold space to give each other to each other? Joy returns, will we get to actually be connected to each other, right. And so how can we have more opportunities to be able to just get to find each other, to get to talk to each other, to get to be connected. Because people just want… And they be like, “I did not think I found that… I did not think that I could get connected. And it’s just people who they thought they never would have anything in common with, and it’s a joy, it’s really, really fun to watch people get connected.

Joe Davis: love that you said, you keep saying like space and spaciousness in creative space, ‘cause that’s really what this work is about, it’s like the joy is present, sometimes you gotta unearth it. When I even talk about radical joy, like Angela Davis is radical, just means grasping at the root, so sometimes the joy just got buried underneath all those other stuff, so how do we move things around and really just brush it off, “Oh there it is, I knew it was there all along, I missed you,” return into it and creating that spaciousness for us to breathe and for us to be together in ways that I think we’re meant to be together originally.

Marianne Combs: I love that idea that creating space for connection helps us to unearth or re-discover joy. I want to take a second to look to the future, knowing that we are in a space where there’s a lot going on, that we’re holding joy while also holding the realities of the world we live in, and think about the role of creativity in transforming and connecting communities. What is your vision for where we need to go next, what do we need to do to take best care of ourselves and the community moving forward.

Joe Davis: As an artist, I really feel like artists, all artists are uniquely positioned to offer a vision to the world or to even offer this invitation to people to vision together, to practice imagining, to practice embodying what’s possible. And so for me, it’s always about that invitation, always about that offering, so when I show up in the space, I’m like, okay, what are we dreaming up of together, what are we practicing together, what are we embodying together? And I don’t always have it all figured out, I got certain things that I wanna do, you know, that I think are fun, that I think are cool, but then I get with somebody else and they got something else too, and we put that together and it’s even more fun and even cooler and more beautiful than what I could’ve come up with by myself.

So when I think about envisioning and embodying I’m really intentional about saying both envisioning and embodying, ‘cause I don’t want us to just get stuck in our heads. I want us to embody all those possibilities, but when I wanna envision and embody the future alongside other people, I need other people… If we’re talking about collective liberation, we need the collective… Yeah, I just, I again, I come back to that spaciousness, creating a space for us to dream and to imagine and embody that are… Like some of that has to do with slowing down and just being intentional about our time and energy, but that’s the type of world I want to live in is where we have that space to do that together.

Marianne Combs: Dr. Joi.

Joi Lewis: Yeah, I think brother Joe said it very well, and I think just… I think what the artist does is give us reason and purpose to come together, the artists like theorize what’s happening in a variety of different ways and different perspectives. Which I think is really important. I think that because there’s so much that’s happening right now that I’m just thankful for artists, that there are so many different ways to engage when you can’t grasp it in one way, and you can look it, okay, am I gonna feel it through a song am I gonna look at it through a painting, am I gonna hear it through a poetry am I gonna… Am I gonna need to dance it out, Am I gonna… Is it gonna be through graffiti? There’s so many different ways. And we need all of that. I don’t even wanna know what it would be like [chuckle] without art.

Marianne Combs: You’ve both said, you’re both obviously joyful people. Are you hopeful?

Joe Davis: Absolutely.

Joi Lewis: Yes. Absolutely.

Joe Davis: Unquestionably.

Marianne Combs: Even with all that’s going on in the world?

Joe Davis: Yeah, I love this idea that brother Dr. Cornel West talks about, he’s not too fond of the idea of having hope. He says that’s too spectatorial. You are just kind of looking at the hope, but he says he talks about being hopeful and embodying that hope and trying to activate it within yourself and within your community, and that’s really what I’m about.

And the reason why I have that hope is because of what I’ve experienced throughout my life, like I know what’s possible. I know what my ancestors accomplished and what they showed me… And it may not always feel that way. Maybe I don’t always feel it. Maybe I don’t always see it, but there is an inner knowing where I’m like, Yep, I know things can be different, I know we can change, I know a new world is on the way. It’s deep rooted, even when I can’t always feel it or see it or taste it or touch it, it’s there.

Joi Lewis: Yeah, and I love this idea of being and my daily prayer is about asking my Higher Power who lives in me really about what would you have me be, instead of what would you have me do. And being hopeful is part of that, being light, being kind, being thoughtful. I’m trying to not have to do lists, but having to be list and just trying to just be… And being hopeful is part of that. Looking at the devastation and those things are real, but not letting that them consume me and saying, how can I just look at the next thing? Just pay attention to what’s in front of me. That’s all I can do. And that’s not by my… That I’m not all by myself, when I think it’s all upto me, that’s when I get devastated…

Joe Davis: Yeah. That’s true.

Joi Lewis: It’s not all up to me, when I look out and realize, oh, there is a whole community of folks then I’m hopeful. I can say it in hope.

Marianne Combs: Dr. Joi, Joe, thank you both so much for this conversation. I feel…

Joe Davis: Thank you.

Marianne Combs: More joy now than I did an hour ago as when we started this conversation.

Joe Davis: That’s beautiful.

Marianne Combs: So you are both amazing at what you do. Thank you so much.

Joe Davis: Hey, thank you.

Joi Lewis: Thank you.

Marianne Combs: You’ve been listening to Filling the Well. Our guests for this episode were radical self-care strategist, Dr. Joi Lewis, and artist and educator, Joe Davis. I’m your host, Marianne Combs. Want to dig deeper into the ideas behind this episode, visit the Arts Midwest ideas hub, a collection of free curated articles and tools to help creative leaders foster growth within their organizations and communities. Go to artsmidwest.org/ideas for more. On the next episode of Filling the Well, we talk about the shifting power dynamics in philanthropy.

DeAnna Cummings: What if we practice trust-based philanthropy? What if we didn’t make folks have to prove to us that they’re doing the right thing every three to six months to a year.

Tish Jones: I’m excited for philanthropy to encourage people to move away from telling the story of their trauma. We’re not asked to dream big, there’s no invitation to do that in the process, there’s no inclination that philanthropy is willing to fund our wildest dreams. So we forget to do that.

Marianne Combs: That’s next time on Filling the Well. I hope you’ll join us. This podcast was produced and edited by Emily Goldberg and mixed by Eric Romani with original music by Dameun Strange. The Filling the Well series is made possible with financial support from the Barr Foundation based in Boston, the Barr Foundation’s mission is to invest in human natural and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.

Episode 2: Shifting Power Dynamics in Philanthropy

For any non-profit, funding is a perpetual worry. But what if philanthropy shifted power and encouraged organizations and communities to dream big? Explore trust-based funding models with two thought leaders, DeAnna Cummings and Tish Jones.

Listen Now

Side by side headshots of DeAnna Cummings and Tish Jones
Photo by: DeAnna Cummings, Tish Jones

Tish Jones
Founder & Executive Director, TruArtSpeaks

DeAnna Cummings
Arts Program Director, McKnight Foundation

Founder & Executive Director of TruArtSpeaks, an arts & culture nonprofit based in Saint Paul, MN, Tish Jones is a poet, educator, cultural strategist from Saint Paul, Minnesota. She has performed poetry in venues throughout the United States. Her work can be found in A Moment of Silence(Tru Ruts and The Playwrights Center, 2020), the Minnesota Humanities Center’s anthology entitled, Blues Vision: African American Writing from Minnesota (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2015), and more.

Currently a Metropolitan Regional Arts Council Next Step Fund and Waterers Future Building recipient, she has been awarded fellowships from the Arts Matters Foundation, Springboard for the Arts, the Intercultural Leadership Institute, and more. Former Director of the Brave New Voices international youth poetry slam festival, her work explores the ways in which art can function as a tool for social transformation, liberation, and education. Jones has always had a passion for bridging arts & culture, civic engagement, and youth development. For more on her personal praxis, see Jones’ TEDxMinneapolis Talk on Spoken Word as a Radical Practice of Freedom.

DeAnna Cummings joined the McKnight Foundation in June 2020 as Arts program director. Cummings is also a co-founder and former CEO of Juxtaposition Arts (JXTA), a social enterprise business in north Minneapolis that trains and employs historically underestimated youth as a springboard to higher education and careers in art and design. Established in 1995 as an after-school program in the North Side’s Sumner-Glenwood neighborhood, JXTA has become one of the most important cultural institutions in the Twin Cities.

Prior to co-founding JXTA, Cummings served as a program officer for the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council and as a senior administrator for the Council on Black Minnesotans, since renamed the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage.

Cummings has served on the Bush Foundation’s board of trustees since 2013. She is a 2016 Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal Women in Business awardee and a Minnesota Public Radio 2013 Arts Hero. From 2016 to 2018, she was a DeVos Institute Fellow in the selective fellowship program in arts management at the University of Maryland, College Park. She holds a master’s in public administration from Harvard University and studied sociology and psychology at the University of Minnesota.

Shifting Power in Your Organization and Community

Deepen your understanding of power and learn about power-shifting practices that you can integrate into your organizational culture or community with Dr. Deryn Dudley.

Transcript: Episode 2

Shifting Power Dynamics in Philanthropy

Marianne Combs: Welcome to Filling the Well, a podcast created to nourish, provoke and inspire artists and arts leaders. I’m Marianne Combs.

For arts and culture organizations, funding is a perpetual worry. Many live from grant to grant and are forced to dedicate long hours to filling out applications when they’d rather be making art. And nonprofits run by and for communities of color, know that fundraising is just one more way in which they are vulnerable to long-standing racial inequities.

The fragility of this existence was laid bare in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States. Suddenly, performances were cancelled, cultural spaces were forced to close their doors not knowing when they’d be able to open them again, and then just a couple of months into the pandemic, George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer. In the turmoil that ensued, it became clear that the organizations best suited to doing essential community work were the same organizations that had been historically underfunded.

In this episode of Filling the Well, we’re going to look at how some foundations are working to change their funding strategies. We’ll imagine what real equity and funding might look like and explore how it can help communities connect with one another and deepen their impact.

My guests for this conversation are DeAnna Cummings, Arts and Culture Program Director of the McKnight Foundation based in Minneapolis. Previously, DeAnna was the co-founder and long-time CEO of Juxtaposition Arts. DeAnna, welcome, thanks so much for being here.

DeAnna Cummings: Thank you, Marianne. It’s great to be here.

Marianne Combs: And, we’re joined by Tish Jones, Founder and Executive Director of TruArtSpeaks based in St. Paul. Tish, thanks so much for being here.

Tish Jones: Peace, peace. Glad to be present. Thank you for having me.

Marianne Combs: DeAnna Cummings, you joined the McKnight Foundation in June of 2020, right in the midst of all of this. What was that like? What conversations were you having about how best to respond what you were seeing?

DeAnna Cummings: On my very first day, hours before, I had been up looking at my cell phone with helicopters overhead, watching the city burn, and then I opened my laptop and I was the director of the Arts and Culture Program at McKnight. The crises, the multiple crises that I sort of inherited and found myself wrestling with were so big, so that’s on the one hand. Something like 90% of arts organizations were closed. More than 50% of people who work in arts and entertainment were unemployed on the day I started at McKnight.

Marianne Combs: Foundations are often portrayed as not being nimble, that they move slowly when it comes to their end of the process, or they might demand immediate response from the artists who are receiving funding. But when it comes to them actually changing their ways and responding to something, it often takes a long time. So how did you adapt or address that?

DeAnna Cummings: Sure, and I am not claiming that foundations are not slow, and I am not proclaiming that McKnight Foundation isn’t often slow. But, the enormity of the crises that we were dealing with required everybody to act much swifter than we ever thought we could, and to do some things much differently than we ever conceived that we could.

So in the case of McKnight, in the arts program, we extended all of our grantees, current grants by a year, just automatic extensions at the same level that had been their funding level before. They didn’t have to submit any paperwork, they didn’t even have to submit a report for their previous grant, we just extended it.

Our immediate goal was, “How can McKnight be a source of stability right now?” And in particular in the art sector for arts organizations and artists, who were some of the most vulnerable during the pandemics. How can we be a source of stability when everything is unknown and unsure and unstable? What can we do to stabilize?

So we extended everyone’s operating support grants by a year automatically. We also made some one-time $100,000 COVID relief grants to BIPOC organizations, arts and cultural organizations, who were anchor institutions, anchor organizations in their communities or in their sectors, or in their fields. Again, unapplied for, just awarded. And then thirdly, within two months of my starting at McKnight, the weekend before Labor Day, we got a call from Darren Walker from the Ford Foundation. So this was two months after, three months after George Floyd was murdered.

Ford Foundation offered $5 million to Minnesota to support BIPOC arts and culture organizations via McKnight, and McKnight matched that contribution with $5 million. And the reason that is important is that we’ve shifted from “how do we divide the pie differently,” McKnight pie differently, $9.8 million grants budget for the arts, to “we’ve made the pie bigger.” And the additional portions of the pie are entirely going to BIPOC, Black, Indigenous and People of Color led arts organizations and artists. And I think that that is more and more the way we’re thinking about accomplishing equity in funding.

Marianne Combs: Tish Jones, your work at TruArtSpeaks is grounded in spoken word and Hip Hop, and helping youth and adults find their voices. And you’ve been doing this work for 15 years now. As a nonprofit leader, what have been some of the most common struggles for you over the years when it comes to funding?

Tish Jones: I think because we spend a lot of time working with individuals, one of the common threads has been the process of applying for grants. And individual artists, specifically feeling the need to perform their trauma or perform their experience with oppression as a means to access funding.

And I think organizationally, it’s somewhat similar, this sort of performative aspect of why your work is valuable, how your work is valuable, to your earlier point when you were introducing this podcast, it’s like, our work is valuable, we work boots on the ground. And yeah, I think that that’s been the common narrative from an organizational perspective and from an individual artist’s perspective.

How do these systems work against us in terms of the ways in which we have to apply for this funding? The ways in which we have to seek the support, the hoops that we have to jump through, what story we think we’re supposed to tell versus the story to tell, who’s sitting on the panel, what makes what we do, valid and not valid? Who defines art? And is this cultural practice art?

Is this specifically thinking about Hip Hop, which is still not, as much as it is a global culture, a global phenomenon, and it’s embarking on his 50th year, it’s still a controversial cultural practice in a local manner, in a state-web manner, in a global manner. It’s still a culture of controversy.

So are we valid? Is our practice, is our approach valid as an organization? It depends on who’s reviewing the panel at that time, right?

Marianne Combs: So, first off, justifying the fact that you’re a valid art form, and you mentioned the hoops you have to jump through, and I think this is something that has come up a lot, is the notion of trust in time. So much of artists time is spent seeking funding that might last for a year, and then as soon as you get that funding, you have to start preparing the application for the next round of funding. As DeAnna alluded to with the Ford Foundation, one year after the death of George Floyd in partnership with the Ford Foundation, the McKnight announced 10 unrestricted grants of half a million dollars or more to what DeAnna, you called Cultural Treasures in Minnesota. BIPOC-led organizations that have traditionally been underfunded. First off to you DeAnna, what do you hope these grants accomplish?

DeAnna Cummings: In terms of what do we hope this funding can do? Three major things, one is to shine a spotlight on organizations who are real jewels. Jewels that should be valued as such, treasured as such, and known as such to this region, without a TruArtSpeaks, without an Ananya Dance Theater. Without an Indigenous Roots, Minnesota is less healthy, less vibrant, less just. It’s a less awesome place to be, so that’s one thing.

On the second hand, we hope that organizations get some breathing room, that they come out of the pandemic better financially, economically, artistically, in terms of their HR structure, so structurally, than they were when we went into the pandemic.

And then I would say the third thing we hope to accomplish is that we influence philanthropy, that’s corporate foundation, government and individual donors to value and support arts and culture that is rooted in communities of color, and again, is in part what makes this place a great place to live and raise children and so on for many people in Minnesota. So those are the three things that we hope to accomplish.

One piece, I’d just love to riff on is Tish’s point and your point Marianne, about the perpetual cycle of applying for funding, reporting on funding, applying again sort of year after year, and just highlight that that practice is really rooted in a lack of trust by philanthropy. Our belief that we have to keep a short leash on grantees, we have to check in on grantees on a very regular basis, less our money, our money, which of course is not our money, be misused or misappropriated, or the goals that were set out to be accomplished can’t be measured and proven as to having been accomplished.

And part of what we’re talking about, what we’ve been talking about over this past year as we’re looking at these issues of equity, is what if we practice trust-based philanthropy? What if we didn’t make folks have to prove to us that they’re doing the right thing every three to six months to a year?

Marianne Combs: I would love to explore that more in a bit, but first I wanna hear from Tish. What does a grant like this grant, the Cultural Treasures Grant do for an organization like TruArtSpeaks? How… Has it changed the way you work?

Tish Jones: I think, to DeAnna’s point, the breathing room is what feels really good. And just in conversation with some of the other grantees, this… What this grant does is allow us, not just in relationship to the pandemic, but for many of the organizations that were listed, we were going to do the work anyway. We have always done the work anyway, we have always found the resources or been the resource ourselves.

So this grant, it’s a morale booster for some of us for sure, to be seen as these regional cultural treasures and to have the work that we have done and the labor that we have put and acknowledged, and then to have that work supported into the future.

And a grant of this size is substantial to DeAnna’s point because it gives us the opportunity to increase our capacity in whatever area that’s appropriate for any particular organization. So if there is some structural or institutional development that needs to happen, we have the space to do that, we have the resources to do that, and grow to be the organization of our choosing, that is still rooted in our cultural practice.

And I think that’s the benefit, not just of the size of the grant, but the type of funding that it is. Gives us a lot of opportunity to be rooted in what we do well and how we do that thing well, versus having to meet X, Y, and Z criteria from the funder, based on a grant of the size. Which is more normative. When you get a grant of this size, there are certain markers that you are made to reach, and with this grant, we have the freedom to continue to be great, rooted in the practice that got us to this point, and that made us that the treasure that we have been awarded to be or acknowledged to be in this community. I think that is really important and not a normative practice in philanthropy.

I also think it’s honoring, the word honoring feels really important. We’ve been reflecting it through our speaks that our team is also full of practitioners, everyone is an artist. And one of the things for the last six or seven years in terms of independent research and projects that I’ve been a part of, and just in this community and in this experience, in Minnesota, many of our artists are not honored and are not taken care of.

When our young artists transition into elders, they often transition from this plain of existence, without healthcare, without support, without life insurance, needing a lot. And our community, because we’re such a rich arts community, specifically the Black, Indigenous and people of culture community. We hold our own, we hold our people up and together, but also what does it mean to honor the folks who are doing this work? And when we think about historic injustices, the history of oppression, and the history of white supremacy and institutionalized and structuralized racism, it’s often Black, Indigenous and people of culture who do not have access to insurances and access to benefits and different things like that.

So really also thinking about this opportunity allows a really large number of Black, Indigenous and people of culture to honor themselves in this work, to take care of themselves in this work, potentially depending on how different people are using these funds, and that’s just again, not something that we always have access to in this field or others.

DeAnna Cummings: Tish, so to build on your point, this is something that’s become more visible to me from my seat in philanthropy, that it was visible to me from my seat as a practitioner and arts administrator. And that is that people of color, artists of color, and cultural workers of color, tend to be funded to do the art, to make the art that is entertaining often and able to be commodified and sold.

What philanthropy has a harder time funding when it comes to funding people of color is us, our health and well-being. The funding we need to make sure our building doesn’t fall over and kill some people, our PTO benefits, our retirement funds, our health insurance, we didn’t get health insurance at Juxta until we had been in the work for 15 or so years. We had to go to the pay-as-you can, or the free clinic, that’s where my kids grew up, we did not have health insurance. While, it was perceived that Juxta was getting all the funding because we were identified as the one that philanthropy was crazy about, so we got funding to do the artwork and to do the thing that people could see and could make them feel good. So that’s one thing.

Marianne Combs: To that topic, Martin Luther King Junior, once said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic justice, which makes philanthropy necessary.” The whole notion of the structure of who is in control of money, why that exists that way, and where the money goes to. And it really feels like DeAnna, to the work that the McKnight has done this past year, it feels like an amazing amount of change and a huge shift from what we have seen previously in grant making. Which is really lovely.

Historically, funders have been very prescriptive about their funds could and should be used as we’ve discussed. They’ll say, “Oh, this is for a grant in which you’re gonna work with an artist from a different culture and partner on something.” And suddenly everybody has to do partnerships with artists from other cultures in order to qualify for the same grant. So when you talk about trust and philanthropy that’s built on trust, and also I’m hearing a lot these days about sharing power with the organizations that they fund.

What does that look like? Sharing power, having the philanthropist or the foundation share power with the organizations that it funds?

DeAnna Cummings: So I’ll just give you a couple of examples that come to my mind, one of which is a McKnight Foundation example, and it’s a small thing, but it was what I was thinking about when I was thinking about systemic change, it’s with regard to the regional cultural treasures, the 10 organizations that are regional cultural treasures, what would typically happen is that those organizations would get their grant amount, their grant award, and then the McKnight Foundation would say, We’re gonna pay this grant out evenly over five years, ‘cause it’s a five-year grant program.

What we decided to do instead was say, grantee, how would you like to have your payment structured? Some grantees ask for all of the money upfront, in part because they said, We’re going to use it over five years, but we want to have that money sitting in our coffers, in our investment portfolio, so we can be gaining the interest on that half a million dollars versus the foundation holding it and giving it to us $100,000 at a time over the five years.

Some organizations said, I wanna wait, I don’t wanna get the money yet. There’s a couple of things we need to put in place. We need to get prepared for our audit because this is gonna trigger an audit, some organizations said, We currently work with a fiscal agent, we’re gonna switch from working with this fiscal agent, so we want you to just hold the money for a moment, hold it for a year, and then starting next year, we’d like it evenly spaced over the next four years.

So every organization devised a different proposal for how the funding would best benefit the work that they wanted to do, and McKnight is open to it. We ask some questions to say, Have you considered this? But we said, you know best how the funding needs to come to you, so that’s one example.

The other example I would give is the Bush Foundation, who is currently in the midst of selecting two community stewards of $100 million, which the Bush Foundation borrowed because interest rates are great right now, and we have great credit, and we have the ability to borrow that much money, and because the need in community is so great right now, Bush said, We’re gonna borrow this money and we’re gonna put it in service of closing the wealth gap between Black and Indigenous people and white people in Minnesota.

And those two funds, $50 million each will be granted to community steward organizations who will be entirely responsible for working with community members to decide how those funds are distributed, and it’ll be one fund for the Black community, one fund for the Indigenous community, and in everything that the Bush Foundation is doing right now, the foundation is leaning away from it being the funnel through which all decisions are made toward turning over resources to community and trusting and investing in community to make the decisions about what is best for its people, for its community members.

Marianne Combs: Tish, what would you like to see from funders to help you do your work and to take your organization to the next level in terms of sustainability and being able to thrive and not just survive?

Tish Jones: The truth is that I’m really interested in seeing philanthropy, this continued to follow trends, but to set them. What we know and what we see, and I think it’s been present for a long time, is the whole person, if we’re just focusing on the arts sector, the whole person needs to be taken care of, so I think it’s really outdated for us to follow the changing trending buzzwords, we went from diversity to equity thing, we’re doing the semantics game every year to have a new priority that outcome or product-related, ask is also outdated.

It’s strenuous, is laborious. It’s somewhat disrespectful of the artist as a whole person who has to put their body on the line, you can’t make the product and generate the product if you’re unwell, you can’t generate the product if you don’t have a place to create, a place to live and exist. I’m interested in us just recognizing that and being honest,

I’m saying us because I think that we’re all interconnected, and I’m hoping that artists, community members, everyone can hold philanthropy to that standard, like this feature in setters and not trend followers and do what we know we need to do.

Marianne Combs: DeAnna, I read a recent article that you posted to the McKnight Foundation website, in which you talked about the fact that 1300-plus arts organizations in Minnesota, of those only three that have budgets over $1 million are led by people of color, and of those three only one owns its building, and you said, Why does this matter? Because it indicates that communities of color in Minnesota, of every generation have had to recreate their cultural organizations from the ground up, the Black, Indigenous, Asian and Latinx organizations we have supported at any given time, don’t last beyond one generation of leaders. We want to change that.
How can philanthropy change that?

DeAnna Cummings: So I think the same way that we’ve made generational investments in predominantly white arts organizations in this state, we should be thinking about how we’re making generational investments in Black, Indigenous, Asian American, Latinx and other underrepresented artists and art forms.

I pause a bit on what I just said, because I said in the same way that we’ve done it before, and I guess I wanna correct myself, we should not do it in the same way, but we should understand that investment in physical campus matters, investment in long-lived leaders of cultural organizations who have been at the helm for decades matters, investment in organizations engaging in planning for secession of a long-live leader matters. Investment in audience development in the same way that 10 or 15 years ago, there was so much money available for audience development for theaters, for predominantly white theaters, because the audiences were aging and are still aging, and folks were saying, What are we gonna do to get younger people to buy tickets to theater? Philanthropy put money behind audience development, so what are the particular challenges that people of color face in building institutions that are durable that can last into future generations, what are those particular things that are needed?

In our case, it’s generally not audience development, we know how to get people to come to what we produce, right? But it may be about, what do we do to attract individual donors? And we can’t use the same model that was built by predominantly white institutions with regard to individual donors, our individual donor fundraising has to be closer to the ground, but whatever those things are, philanthropy needs to invest in those organizations from a perspective of thinking of BIPOC cultural organizations as generational assets for our state, and understanding that if every generation has to re-create the institutions from the ground up, that is a loss for our state because we aren’t able to capture the efficiency that you pull forward when you have something that is existing for multiple generations, everybody’s starting again from the ground up. So those are a couple of things I would say.

Marianne Combs: When we talk about these kinds of issues and about sharing power with arts organizations and the idea of funding with trust, are you seeing an appetite for this within the philanthropy sector across the board or is still viewed as sort of a, oh, it’s this kind of cutting edge, I don’t know how I feel about it, or do you feel that there is a real movement behind this that other foundations are following and are ready to get on board?

DeAnna Cummings: Yeah, I would say that there is a movement, a bubbling movement. However, I would say that it is a small group of funders that are doing more than talking about it, that are actually taking the action and are taking big action, and the Bush Foundation being one of the funders in the country that is out ahead in terms of taking a big action, lots of funders are in a conversation stage and are making small shifts, small to medium shifts.

I would categorize the shifts that are happening at McKnight right now to be small to medium shifts in terms of our processes, so I think that with every movement, there are gonna be people who are out on the front edge of the movement, the real progressive radical front edge of the movement, and then there are people who are inclined in that direction, but who are more sort of moderate. And then there’s people that are gonna be more conservative, that have a long way to go. I’m okay with the people that are the moderates that are being pulled by the radicals and progressive toward a more progressive way of working than they would be if those radicals and real liberals didn’t exist.

So I would say that the people that are out on that far edge are a small group of people, but there’s a lot of people in the middle who are interested in talking and learning and making some shifts as they can, but still have a ways to go. Still have a ways to go.

Marianne Combs: DeAnna, you touched on earlier, and I just wanna address it straight on this notion that foundations and funders often have of return on investment, is that an expectation that needs to change or shift in terms of how results are quantified, viewed, judged in terms of when they give out money? There’s just a sense that funders wanna be able to say, Look at what we did when they’re in a report, see, we funded this and this happened, we funded this and this happened. Is that the right way to go about it?

DeAnna Cummings: So I guess I have two sides of thinking about the question Marianne, So on the one hand, I wouldn’t prescribe a right way, number one that I think we get into trouble because we are often looking for the answer or the right way, and in fact, I believe there’s always many right ways. That being said, I think at the root of that desire for return on our investment is capitalism, so it’s a big question in terms of, is this idea of always needing to prove return holding us back?

I think the answer is yes, yes, yes. And on the other hand, I don’t think we would expect that an organization like a foundation whose work is about investing money in work that’s helping to bring about a better, more just, more equitable world, wouldn’t want to know that the investment that we’re making is making a difference, it is helping the world become this better place that we want it to be. So the idea that there would be no requirement or no desire on behalf of the foundation to see that the investment that’s being made, or the resources that are being put out into community are making some difference, I think is not realistic either, I guess the gist of it is that it’s baked into our DNA in terms of the reason for our existence.

Marianne Combs: It’s also normal to want to see an impact, you wanna know that what you didn’t help somebody in some way, so that kind of return on investment is also understandable.

DeAnna Cummings: Understandable. And I think that in philanthropy, what we are increasingly recognizing is that there are many ways to show impact, and then this idea of a quantifiable measurable, data-driven return on investment does not encompass the fullness of what impact looks like, and in fact, again, boxes us into a particular kind of outcome that is perpetuating racism and white supremacy in all the ways that it manifests in our world.

Marianne Combs: We’ve done some visioning in this conversation, but I really wanna hear from you as to when you dream big about funding and the arts, where do you go in your head, what does it look like? What do you want to see change, Tish?

Tish Jones: I mean, again, DeAnna call that earlier, that trust is really important, and I also think in awareness, I think an awareness of varying cultural practices and intelligence is also important.

So in terms of how we go about funding, some folks are just not going to be successful at the two-page narrative, it just is not going to happen. Some of those folks are then under-resourced to the point where they cannot hire someone to write the grant for them, they have to be the grant writer, or someone within their cultural institution is the grant writer and this just might not be the strength.

So I’m hopeful because I know that there are some really radical models being presented right now, the models that are centered on trust, models that are about how long have you been doing the thing? And who has benefited from that thing or who passed on this cultural practice on to you, that you then practice, teach, keep within community and are in community with the next generation so that you’re moving it forward? I’m interested in that, I’m interested in more radical models that are not centered on Eurocentric ways of expressing intelligence for Eurocentric ways of record keeping, so especially as a poet, right? The real one by writing them down.

That’s not where it comes from. So I have to be in that practice in this work, in this Eurocentric model and framework, but the real is, is that I put my story in my body, that’s what feels the most real to me, is that it exists in my body, and I’m an oral storyteller, and how do we honor other ways of being of knowing and other types of intelligences? Yeah, I’m interested in that, I’m interested in that. And so much more trust and radical approaches to being inclusive.

And to the earlier statement, I’m excited for philanthropy to encourage people to move away from telling the story of their trauma, so the individual artists and arts organizations feel like they have permission to dream big ‘cause I think a lot of it is that we are stuck in like, this is what our community needs, in our community has been and so on, I don’t even think that the questions or the processes are framed in such a way that inspires us to dream when we’re applying for these things, it inspires us to be like, Oh, this is this group of oppressed folks that we’re working with, and this is this group of historically oppressed folks that we’re working with, and here’s the story of this oppression and we need your money to help us move through this oppression.

We’re not asked to dream big, that there’s no invitation to do that in the process, there’s no inclination that philanthropy is willing to fund our wildest dreams. So we forget to do that. The most radical of us are still dreaming.

Marianne Combs: Beautiful. DeAnna, How about you?

DeAnna Cummings: I envision and dream of artists and culture barriers being heralded, recognized and amplified for the critical role they play in solving some of the biggest problems, the biggest challenges we face in this world, including climate change, including anti-Black systemic racism and injustice in this country, in this world, and recognizing that artists are not only problem-solvers, they are meaning makers, they are magic makers, they are illuminators, but all of those roles that artists play, play a critical role in healing and making us better and whole.

So recognizing artists as critical. At the table, having the conversations about stopping climate change, having artists at the table in critical conversations with the police about police brutality and anti-black racism that manifests as a murder of black men here in Minnesota, Critical, not an extra, not to call the artist to come paint the mural at the thing, though, please call them to do that too, but also invite the artist to be in the conversation thinking about what might be possible, because artists help us dream, artists open up the opportunity for us to dream not only about who we are and how we got to be where we are today, how we got here.

So our history, our present, here’s where we are today, but dreaming about what the future can be. And without artist, we get stuck in what has been, and if we haven’t seen anything other than the trauma, the brutality, the separation along all of the lines and ways in which we’re separated, it’s nearly impossible for us to dream about what else could be. An artist are absolutely critical to that. So in the world that I envision, that gets me excited, it’s the world that understands that, and then a funding community along with government, business, individual donors, individual people of means. Because philanthropy doesn’t have enough money to fix it all, not even close, understands the role of artists as critical and then supports and holds up artists in the same way, or in a better way, let’s say in a better way than we do other kinds of essential workers.

Marianne Combs: Well, here’s just a more wild dreaming. DeAnna, Tish, thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been a real pleasure.

Tish Jones: Likewise, thank you for having us.

[music]

DeAnna Cummings: It was a pleasure. Thank you, Marianne, I appreciate the time.

Marianne Combs: You’ve been listening to Filling the Well. Our guests for this episode were DeAnna Cummings, Arts and Culture Program Director at the McKnight Foundation, and Tish Jones, Founder and Executive Director of TruArtSpeaks. I’m your host, Marianne Combs.

Want to dig deeper into the ideas behind this episode? Visit the Arts Midwest, The Ideas Hub, a collection of free curated articles and tools to help creative leaders foster growth within their organizations and communities. Go to artsmidwest.org/ideas for more.

On the next episode of Filling the Well, we talk about how arts organizations can work to be more authentically welcoming to increasingly diverse communities.

Ananya Chatterjea: I know that nobody likes to be included because they are politically expedient, that I know how itchy that feels. I think being available to be amazed by others is actually what creates rich collaboration.

Marcus Young: We have to keep creating new forms, the old forms will not serve us, how can we continue transforming what part can be, so that we get away from these notions of what is proper audience behavior and proper artistic behavior, how can we open up the relationship to art?

Marianne Combs: That’s next on Filling the Well. I hope you’ll join us. This podcast was produced and edited by Emily Goldberg and mixed by Eric Romani with original music by Dameun Strange.

The Filling the Well series is made possible with financial support from the Barr Foundation based in Boston. The Barr Foundation’s mission is to invest in human, natural and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.

Episode 3: Building Belonging & Creating Welcoming Organizations

What does it mean to be a truly welcoming organization and how can arts leaders be more inclusive hosts who foster belonging? Dig into a discussion with two artists who regularly tackle these questions, Ananya Chatterjea and Marcus Young.

Listen Now

Side by side headshots of Ananya Chatterjea and Marcus Young
Photo by: Ananya Chatterjea, Marcus Young

Ananya Chatterjea/ অনন্যা চট্টোপাধ্যায়
Founder & Artistic Director, Ananya Dance Theater and the Shawngram Institute for Performance and Social Justice

Marcus Young 楊墨
Stage Director, Ananya Dance Theater &
Artist-in-Residence, Minnesota Department of Transportation

Ananya Chatterjea/ অনন্যা চট্টোপাধ্যায় ‘s work as choreographer, dancer, and thinker brings together Contemporary Dance, social justice choreography, and a commitment to healing justice. She is the creator of Ananya Dance Theater’s signature movement vocabulary, Yorchhā, and the primary architect of the company’s justice- and community-oriented choreographic methodology, Shawngrām. She is a 2011 Guggenheim Choreography Fellow, a 2012 and 2021 McKnight Choreography Fellow, a 2016 Joyce Award recipient, a 2018 UBW Choreographic Center Fellow, a 2019 Dance/USA Artist Fellow, and recipient of the 2021 A. P. Andersen Award. Her work has toured internationally to the Bethlehem International Performing Arts Festival, Palestinian Territories (2018), Crossing Boundaries Festival, Ethiopia (2015), Harare International Dance Festival, Zimbabwe (2013), New Waves Institute of Dance and Performance, Trinidad (2012), Aavejak Avaaz Festival, India (2018), and Ocean Dance Festival, Bangladesh (2019). Domestic tour venues include the Kelly Strayhorn Theater (Pittsburgh), John Michael Kohler Arts Center (Sheboygan), Dance Place (Washington), Maui Arts & Cultural Center (Maui), and Painted Bride Theater (Philadelphia), among others. In response to the Twin Cities Uprising (2020), she created the Kutumkāri (Relationship-making) Healing Movement series with a particular invitation to BIPOC women and femme healers. Ananya is Professor of Dance at the University of Minnesota where she teaches courses in Dance Studies and contemporary practice. Her second book, Heat and Alterity in Contemporary Dance: South-South Choreographies, re-framing understandings of Contemporary Dance from the perspective of dance-makers from global south locations, was published by Palgrave McMillan in November 2020.

Marcus Young 楊墨 makes art to expand the repertoire of human behavior and the expressivity of social forms, for the stage, museums, mindfulness practices, and the public realm. From 2006 to 2015, he served as City Artist in St. Paul, MN, where he transformed the city’s sidewalk repair program into a publishing entity for poetry, an ongoing project called Everyday Poems for City Sidewalk. Since 2008, he has been creating Don’t You Feel It Too?—a participatory public dance practice and liberation project. He is a recipient of awards from the McKnight, Bush, and Jerome Foundations. Marcus is currently Stage Director with Ananya Dance Theater and artist-in-residence at the Minnesota Department of Transportation. DYFIT.org

Building Belonging in Your Organization and Community

In this companion article to Filling the Well podcast episode “Building Belonging & Creating Welcoming Organizations,” deepen your understanding of belonging and discover how to make your space more welcoming with Welcoming America.

Marianne Combs: Welcome to Filling the Well, a podcast created to nourish, provoke and inspire artists and arts leaders, I’m Marianne Combs. More than ever, finding points of connection across differences is key to creating strong support of communities. Arts organizations can play a part in making sure everyone, especially those who’ve been traditionally left out, feel like they belong. On this episode of Filling the Well, we’re going to talk about what it means to be a truly welcoming organization and what steps arts non-profits can make to connect with their communities. My guests for this conversation are two Twin Cities artists whose work is grounded in community and belonging, Ananya Chatterjea is the Founder and Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theater and the Shawngram Institute for Performance and Social Justice. Ananya Dance Theater centers women and non-binary people of color. Its performances are not just artistically powerful, but often serve as healing community rituals, Ananya, welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ananya Chatterjea: Hello.

Marianne Combs: We’re also joined by long time Ananya dance collaborator and stage director, Marcus Young. Marcus is a behavioral and social practice artist who creates work for the stage, museums and the public realm. He served as artist in residence for organizations ranging from the City of St Paul, to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Marcus, thank you so much for being with us today.

Marcus Young: Hello and thank you.

Marianne Combs: Marcus, so much of your work is grounded in awareness, whether it was with the St Paul sidewalk poetry project you started years ago where people would suddenly be walking down the streets and come across a poem under their feet, or with your, don’t you feel it too, practice of dancing in public and something that often feels so intimate and awkward, but then doing it out in a public space where nobody else can hear the music but you. When you think about spaces that make you feel welcome, what comes to mind for you in terms of people who are doing this well, and what do you feel or notice when you’re in those spaces?

Marcus Young: Well, I think I first notice that so many spaces are unwelcoming.

Marianne Combs: And what is that experience like for you? What are you noticing when you walk in those spaces?

Marcus Young: Well, it can be so many things that goes to all the sort of foundational principles that has brought this world into the being as it is, whether it is related to identity, how we look at each other, how we treat each other, the time or lack of time that we take to be with each other. So welcoming and feeling belonging is actually a constant practice.

Ananya Chatterjea: I wanted to jump in because one of Marcus’ and my… One really crucial part of our long-term collaboration has been to help audiences, particularly our BIPOC audiences feel seen inside of the work. And it’s been my desire to invite audiences on stage, and we’ve… For a while, we’ve invited people in, and that crafting of that invitation, Marcus and I have really, really gotten deep into figuring out how can we invite people, how. How can they feel safe? What is needed for them to feel seen and safe and see their stories. So you know, when you said in the beginning that so many times belonging is about organizations, predominantly white institutions saying, Okay, how can we create access? I’m interested in how I can dance stories that actually get… Are reflected in the eye, so when I look out into the audiences and offer my dance, we have a mirroring, we have a moment of seeing, Yes, this is your story, and people are saying, This is my story, we’re dancing with each other. So that mutuality, that gaze, that gaze that we call also Darshan, when we see each other, can I see you, you see me. This is very vital for us. But having audiences also on stage at some moments, inviting them to gesture and inviting them into breath as well, has been so much part of Marcus’ and my deep collaboration.

Marianne Combs: What all of these examples got speak to is the need to do the work, that it is not just a matter of, Well if we check off this box and check off this box, then they’ll come. Ananya, when you work on a project, and when you work on a production that involves an issue that maybe affects a community, and you’re a group of people in the community in which you live, your company does a lot of research and invites people in for conversations to learn more and to share learning, and I think that time commitment, that directing of your energy to say, We’re gonna invest ourselves in this so we truly understand this and then share our learnings is something that many arts nonprofits feel like, I don’t have the resources to do that, or that’s such an extra leap for me. If you could speak to the importance of doing the work in terms of creating these relationships and making sure that you are reaching people authentically.

Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, thank you, Marianne, for that question. I feel that the biggest problem I have in the way the current cultural scenario is framed, is with the terms diversity and inclusion, because there is someone who can reach out to include. That’s just not interesting to me at all. I’m interested in how my dance can be in service of, and dancing with. So I think the leap that you are talking about is not in fact a leap at all, it is the only way to devise new work. Because what we do know is that some of the models of choreography are dance-making or meaning-making that have come to us are in fact not working in so many ways because they’re coming from a single point of view, and I find I’m so excited when I bring a particular story that I’m interested in, and.

Ananya Chatterjea:: Artists, other artists in the room will start saying, “Well, this is what I think about. I think about… “ And Marcus will come in and say, “You know, this image was really significant to me when I thought about this.” So the deep locality of each artist, the deep research into their own lives that each artist has taken, in fact is part of that mosaic. In devising the choreography, what I have to remember is in fact they will be contradictory. Some of the stories will contradict each other, and yet they will sit together. And that is the same of rhythm, right? If someone is doing a four-four rhythm and I’m coming in with a three, I’m going to have to listen carefully, so my threes sit in the middle of their fours. In the same time they’re co-existing, we can share space, we can share time, but come in with our differences. That’s a training. That’s a training of listening, and I think the practice of footwork has really taught me that.

Marianne Combs: Marcus?

Marcus Young: When you say, “The work,” Marianne, I immediately go to two places. I think of the work of yourself aligning your internal life so that as you live out your life, that you can inspire and make space for other people. And my second place I go to is this work of fiction that we need to keep creating that inspires us to make reality from fiction. Like if I see places like Ananya Dance Theatre and other organizations are proficient and adept at creating a fictional/real space, yeah, that we… A place that we yearn for and that they’re working to make the space reality. But I want to try to be a little bit more helpful than being at the internal level and at this grand fictional level. And that is a moment in the very beginnings of my collaboration with Ananya in the rehearsal room. As stage director and as I’m trying to understand how this company works, and something about the opening of the show wasn’t quite working for me. I was trying to figure out, “Well, what can I do?” ‘Cause it’s very quite a strange thing to have a both a choreographer and a stage director in the room. But maybe this is a good tip or hint or indication to an organization how it needs to be less linear, okay, already in that example.

Marcus Young: So here I am, I said, “Ananya, I’d like to make some suggestions but my suggestion might upend the opening of this whole scene that you’ve created.” And she just said, “No, go ahead, do… Do what you need to do. Let’s try.” Okay, so that was… That’s indication Number One, the invitation to come and do what you need to do to be yourself, even if we don’t know each other all that well. So I gave a few instructions and in the snap of a finger, the whole scene came to place. The soil, the rich environment, the lack of fear, the complete like, “We’re in it together to create something juicy and beautiful,” that was so palpable to me, it reflected back in that moment. I was like, “What just happened? How did the scene create itself?” It didn’t really create itself, but it was as if it created itself. So in an organization, how do you cultivate that invitation, that possibility, and then how do you activate and catalyze it so that these moments emerge.

Marianne Combs: That speaks so much to how if you have people who are invested and feel ownership of the work, that… It’s amazing what can happen. And because they all feel like… They know what they can bring and that they want to bring it, but… I mean, that just sounds like an ideal kind of working environment you’ve created.

Ananya Chatterjea: It was also possible because we knew we shared this value around justice-based performance. I have learned to say to myself, “Ananya, just don’t be precious about what you’ve created. Let it go.” Because Marcus is seeing it. Marcus is seeing it and he’s saying it’s not working. I’ll be like, “Oh my God, I love this moment!” And I have to let it go. I think in the push and pull between saying, “This is… But Marcus, this is my vision.” And Marcus is saying, “But it is not working.” In that listening to each other, we have created a process that actually moves towards that kind of space where different stories can enter. And this methodology of collaboration, which has emerged organically, it’s so important. It’s bigger than myself. So I think if we, organizationally, taking Marcus’ cue, “I will go to the point of organizationally,” what does it mean to have a bigger vision at work? It’s not about individual glory, “Oh my goodness, I made this… I made all these processes where people could come in,” but rather, what is the goal? The goal is justice. What do we need so that people can see the story better? What needs to happen?

Marianne Combs: I’m thinking about a performance… Is it a performance or is it a ritual? I don’t know what to call it. That you choreographed, led this past summer in the neighborhood where Ananya Dance Theatre is based, and just how powerful that performance and ritual was in terms of creating healing for a community and bringing people of different walks of life together. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what happened this past summer?

Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, it was a dream project for me, [chuckle] and it took everything to make it happen. When we moved into the Shawngram Institute, we were actually broken into several times. So I began to think of what would happen if we could together as a community, have a holding place, a container for the safety of all the young people who I would see constantly walking by.

Marianne Combs: And this is also a neighborhood that saw a lot of damage in arson in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, and the institute also suffered some damage. And I wondered, what if we could create a social justice corridor all along University Avenue where we could actually say to each other, “Hey, there is this person who needs some support in this way. I don’t have the resources but maybe you do. Can they find their way to you?” And this idea of a shared… A network that holds our communities.

Ananya Chatterjea: And then we found so many organizations along that whole line, and we created these leaves that were made from recycled cardboard, we got together, made all these leaves and flowers and created of… But the whole idea was to create a ceremonial procession of people moving together, energetically shifting the landscape. And I was so… I’m going to remain so thankful for that.

Marianne Combs: I actually got to participate in this. People from different areas began these processions throughout the neighborhood, and as they processed, they danced choreographed movement, they repeated certain phrases, envisioning a world of differences celebrating and coming together, sort of weaving together our future.

Ananya Chatterjea: Yes.

Marianne Combs: And then people would see this, going by them and they would join the procession as it walked by and said, Where are these people going? I wanna follow this. And so they start learning the movement and they start saying the chants, and then you stopped at these altars throughout these different locations on University Avenue. And then you all joined together at one location, the three different groups or… I don’t know if it was three or more, but to see this sort of ritual play out in the neighborhood itself, it felt very healing and powerful. And what is considered a very urban area to feel something that was so natural and organic, but also very artistic and beautiful in a very concrete space. And so I think about how you took your organization out into the community to make those connections. And oftentimes organizations are saying, You’re welcome to come here, come on in. You’re always welcome. Why don’t you come in? But what you did was you took yourself to the community in a way that was very palpable.

Ananya Chatterjea: What I loved about that was how different artists took initiative. Some people brought their own instruments while I created the choreography. Some of the procession was also… I invited improvisation on that theme. So there was this young artist, this young man, Dakota man, Cruze Novotny who wore his moccasins and brought stage from his place and danced with us in a very different way. He was part of our summer intensive, but what he brought was a different way of youth leadership, and I just… I was moved to tears because he was so beautiful.

Marianne Combs: Marcus, I wonder… I think of you as being such an expert in ritual and space, and I wonder if you have thoughts on that experience this past summer of that event where people were coming together in the city. The power of an event like that to be transformative but also to be a way of connecting… How we connect with community by showing up in community, by holding space like something like this.

Marcus Young: Yeah, I think for me that what happened this past summer, and I really… I just got to be a participant and someone who could enjoy this. I go back to this idea of what was made was so beautiful that it can… It feels like it can only exist in fiction, but actually it’s right here in front of us, I’m going back to that sort of fiction and reality relationship. And so you get to live in this fiction. Ananya and others made this sort of river of care, this river… There is no river, this is a very concrete-based place, but the love and the movement, and the care made it feel like a rich nourishing river that connected various places and helped heal our relationship to those places.

Marcus Young: So part of that is making space where you can just hang out. And here I wanna tell another little story. I’m hanging out at Shawngram, and because you can just be yourself… There aren’t that many places where you can just be yourself. And because you can just be yourself, you can ask silly questions. And I’m sitting next to uncle Douglas Ewart, and I’m just about ready to start a two-year relationship with… Of all places, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, they’re exploring what it means to have an artist-in-residence within an organization. And let me tell you, I think every organization should have an artist-in-residence, even an arts organization needs to have an artist-in-residence. And so here I am about to start an artist-in-residence gig with MnDOT.

Marcus Young: This is a 5000-person agency, and I said to Douglas, I have no idea what I’m gonna be doing with MnDOT. What do you think I should do? And he said to me… Turned not missing a beat, he said, Turn the highways into rivers. That was his sort of drop of wisdom, and I have held that phrase, Turn the highways into rivers for the last two plus years at MnDOT. And I know he means that figuratively and literally, and spiritually, and emotionally. You receive a phrase like that in all its dimensions, you cannot go to the place of like, Well, we can’t engineering-wise, we can’t turn all the… No, no, that’s… Set it down, back away from your linear thinking, embrace the beauty of this fiction and figure out how the reality emerges from that. So for two years I’ve been there, and I’ll give you one small example. This is about space. So they have many, many uninspiring neglected beige rooms, conference rooms within this agency, and how we got here is another story, another podcast.

Marcus Young: But here we are. And so I asked, and I said, “You know, you have this unbeloved Conference Room 820 on the top floor of the Transportation Building, which is just two buildings down from the capital Capitol. No one loves this room, that’s what I keep hearing, but you use it, because you have to do the work. But you don’t understand that you’re missing out on how we can gather more beautifully. So could I commandeer this Conference Room 820 and change it into the Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room, okay? So play on words, not just a conference room, but a confluence room. And here they are in the midst of figuring out, “Well, what is land acknowledgement? What is Land Back?” As a whole, there are many people within MnDOT who understand land acknowledgment, and Land Back, but the culture doesn’t allow land acknowledgement and Land Back to surface. So I wanted to make a space, a placeholder, the purpose of which is to shift culture one degree only, ‘cause it’s just one conference room.

Marianne Combs: And how did you do that? Can you describe the room for me so that people can understand how it’s different?

Marcus Young: Yeah, first of all the room originally was literally beige, and the table and the chairs in the center of the room took up all the space. So that all you could do was sit around it and be at the edge of the room. And then the posters that used to be there were from the ’90s, I think, that said like words like, “Goals,” and then like a winding path, that kinda thing with some leaves. [chuckle] So what we started by doing was just imagining this space as a space of care and a space of nourishment. So we took out the big table, we took out all the bulky chairs. We brought in, yes, yoga mats and meditation cushions.

Marcus Young: There will be fruit and granola bars in the room for people to come in just for that purpose. We turned the water cooler just outside into a place where you can pick up a little blessing card, so you connect to the water. And you’re not just filling up your water bottle, you’re saying, “Hey, take a little prayer card that says, ‘Oh, I am grateful for this water that nourishes me, and I understand the connection that… In this water cooler to the greater water outside of this space.’” So all different strategies to awaken your senses and awaken who you are as a human being and see other human beings, not just workers. But then renaming the room the Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room and trying to create a space that does that title justice.

Marcus Young: Which in addition to all of the nourishing things, I was also exposing some of the past injustices. So on the walls are quotes from fellow MnDOT staff that said, “What we did was wrong,” whether that was Rondo or whether that was digging up graves of native burial grounds. So like reminders that what we do, we have to be very careful, we have to be very thoughtful about what we’re doing. And so we’re in the midst of finishing that now. This space allows you to feel like a whole person. People walk in, they’re like, “Oh, yes, the previous space, that beige space that denied my whole being was just treating me as a worker, but here I get to understand my identities and other people’s identities, so I can relax, I can breathe.”

Marcus Young: No time more important in our history… Recent history at least, is the importance of breath and breathing. “So here I can breathe, I can be myself, I can find inspiration within the art on the walls.” I gave a little presentation about this idea to senior leadership. And the Commissioner was there, and the Commissioner said, “We need more of this. Why only one room?” So you see, one room sparks the idea that all places… Yes, all places can be the Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room, but other things as well. So we need to transform all these places into places of new fiction, new ideas, the new world. And I think it’s possible, but I can only do one room at a time, so I hope others will join me.

[laughter]

Marianne Combs: That’s so beautiful. And the idea of you are turning this… I cringe a little when you say fiction, because I… It feels like it’s a reality…

Marcus Young: Right, it’s both.

Marianne Combs: That you are continuing to build, and it is so important what you’re doing in terms of transforming space so that people feel more human in those spaces. This is such a perfect example, both of these in terms of the… What happened this summer and then and in this transformation of space. I’m wondering what other advice you would have for people who are seeking to make authentic connections with their community but maybe they’re not as schooled in this as you are, they are in the beginning of this path. So where do you point them? What direction do you point them in? Ananya?

Ananya Chatterjea: I would point them deep into themselves. I understand as a parent what happens with… I understand Black Lives Matter from my… From the perspective of being a parent. If I could not tell my child to go outside and play for a second, the fear, I… My daughter is 25, and I’m… I have to make her text me when she reaches home every night. Because it’s too much for me, I worry about her. So I… What is that? What is… How does the mother of a Black child feel when this level of systemic oppression is constantly out there? So I feel, “That could be my child,” is the first thing we have to go to, or “That could be my brother, that could be my sister.” It’s… I think to understand each other in relationship, this word Marcus keeps bringing up, the relationality, whether we like it or not, to understand that, and to understand how sometimes systems are such that they perpetuate themselves, right? So that we are often involved in creating harm, even if it wasn’t an intentional act. That looking at oneself is actually the first way to begin connecting with each other. I can understand from this place. I’m so sorry.

Ananya Chatterjea: I think that’s a first step, actually. And I really have to say that I have learned learnt so much from my indigenous sisters, Sharon Day and Janice Badmoccasin, who have taught me constantly about relationship, being in relationship. Not just with those we consider human, but also with the world, with the environment, with four-leggeds, and everyone. I think that understanding that is constantly part of this view of understanding life in a different scale than life for the… Lived for the sake of purpose. And it helped me to connect to struggles that I see at home where, you know, in India sometimes, where people… You know, this fight over land. And people are suddenly saying, “Land is something that we purchase.” And no, Land is mother, actually. So this notion of relationality in our views is so crucial. It connects me to… It connects me both to what my mother taught me and to what I’m relearning here.

Marianne Combs: What I think your comment speaks to is primarily that you have built deep relationships with people who are different than you, and have learned from them, and have taken those learnings to your work. Even in that, I think some people have a fear around the idea of like finding some… Reaching out to someone who is different and being like, “I need to learn from you. I want to be in relationship with you. I want my arts group to do a better job of seeing you and welcoming you.” For some people that is still a very scary thing. So how do you go about… I mean, for you it’s second nature now, but how do you go about creating those relationships and those collaborations?

Ananya Chatterjea: You know, I know that nobody likes to be included because they are politically expedient. I know that, and I know how icky that feels. So it’s because I’m genuinely interested in what their stories or their craft, I’m moved by it, so I want to do that. I’m genuinely interested, and I think that is the best recipe. “Wow, so amazing what you did.” So I think if we can really… Maybe if we can move away from the capitalized notion of art and think about being… Actually letting the… I think about, you know…

[foreign language]

Ananya Chatterjea: Whether your heart opens in wonder, right? For the heart to open… So for your upper body to open, your rib cage has to remain closed, and your navel to spine has to remain connected. So when I can stay grounded, my heart can open, in other words. So I think that making space in my heart for difference and I’m being amazed by colleagues… You know when Marcus float through the museum, that early, early project many years ago?

Marianne Combs: At the Minneapolis Institute of Art? Yes.

Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, yes, yes. And sort of things like that, it’s just like, “Wow. How did they come up with that? That’s so fascinating.” I think being able… Being available to be amazed by others is actually what creates rich collaboration, because you realize, “Wow, the work can be bigger. Everything can be bigger.” And I love community. I have to say… I have to say that the idea of dancing alone is just boring. I wanna be with my people. I love it. I love people. I’m energized by people. So it just… It energizes me back in return.

Marcus Young: And I wanna point out something that Ananya just said which is the question of, you know, “What can people do if they feel like they don’t know where to start?” And Ananya just helped me and helped us reconnect to our bodies, first of all. Right? Your spine, your heart, your posture, your openness, your strength, your core. So as a species, we do a horrible job of understanding how the body plays a role in everything. We just think of this body as holding up the head, you know, the pedestal for the head. We’ve really gotta get away from that. And so what Ananya just led us doing to connect to our… The navel to spine, and, you know, our sit bones, I’m sitting at the moment. That is a very important part of doing the work.

Marcus Young: And I’ll just add because I frankly don’t have the same skills as Ananya does in terms of creating these relationships. I mean, that’s it’s quite… It’s something quite to marvel at. My own path of how to build relationships and how to build the potential for connection has been to focus on form. And in the form of what? The form of gathering, the form of how to be together whether that’s in a meeting or that’s in a room or that’s in a conversation; the social practice of being together, and what do we do together? Do we dance? Do we eat? Do we live in a museum together? We have to keep creating new forms. The old forms will not serve us, so what new forms of coexistence and co-learning are our art organizations and beyond art organizations, going to be making together? New forms so that we can do all the things that Ananya was just talking about.

Marianne Combs: We’ve talked a lot about welcoming artists into spaces. I wonder if we can talk about welcoming audiences into spaces and how you create a space where everyone feels welcome in the room.

Ananya Chatterjea: I’ve had great friends and… You know, the why… Why I would take some group fitness classes, and there were some of our friends who loved that. They would come and they would say, “I love the work. I don’t understand it. Can you have subtitles?” I was like, “No, no, can’t have subtitles!” But I think what that told me was there are ways of meaning-making that, you know, different ways of meaning-making. And somehow we have managed, through the a corporate notion of art, we’ve managed to push it as being this museumized notion of art, so that there are some people who will understand it and others who won’t.

Ananya Chatterjea: Somehow it’s been separated out, dance or performing arts or arts, as being part of an elite culture only, when we know that artistic practice actually sits in all across the boards. It’s for everyone. So how can we invite in people into our kind of meaning-making, which is not linear, which is more mosaic-based, which is more about interaction. How can we do that? This is why Marcus and I have… One of the questions in our collaboration was that. And I think much of the feedback Marcus gives is from that point of making palpable, without ever saying that we are going to change the modality of storytelling so it becomes one linear story. How can we hold this whole notion of juxtaposition, intersectional storytelling, keeping it abstract, keeping it metaphoric, because that is what we do in dance; how can we still invite in people?

Marcus Young: Okay, so Ananya… It’s a funny moment, right? Ananya says… Her friends, or her workout mates say, “Love the work, don’t get it.” Basically, that’s what they’re saying, “Love the work, don’t get it.” Okay, so, I mean, we need to open that up a little bit. Why don’t you get it? Okay. Yes, there is something that Ananya and I can work on to clarify, to make the work stronger, to excel even more. But recently, I had the opportunity to write something where I said, “Don’t watch the work with your eyes. Not just your eyes, can you watch the work? Can you open yourself up to the work? Can you receive the work with your whole body? Are you capable of doing that?” And I think there is something about how we understand art that makes it very limiting of what an audience is, what an artist is, and what is the transaction at an event between artist and audience. And there is something basically wrong. The paradigm is so limiting, such that when audiences come, they are only viewing the work with such a narrow bandwidth that they can… They will say, “Love it, but don’t get it.”

Marcus Young: So what’s our practice of helping the audience to open up and receive the work as a whole? And Marianne, as you were saying, even the moment of getting up and doing the gestures of preparing ourselves, that we are not these like, “Don’t move. Don’t make a sound. Stay in the dark. Watch the thing. Clap at the appropriate moments.” That’s denying so much of ourselves. How can we continue transforming what art can be, so that we get away from these notions of what is proper audience behavior and proper artistic behavior? How can we open up the relationship to art? And I make participatory art. So I’m really trying to figure out like, “Okay, we’re not doing that thing. We’re not doing that thing where you go to a museum, and you stare at the walls, and your back is to every other person in the gallery.” What kind of type of human behavior says that, “We’re gonna spend hours just keeping our backs to each other and not… “ You might be like with hundreds of other people in the museum, but you might not have a moment of connection with another human being. So we have to really rethink what art can be, if we want some of our ideas of diversity and inclusion to transform our world.

Marianne Combs: I would love to hear how you came up with the land acknowledgement that started your most recent show, and how that became a participatory event for the entire audience.

Ananya Chatterjea: The land acknowledgement is actually so… It’s something… It a such that you experience, the land acknowledgement that you experience, is actually a shortened version of what we do in our practice. So in traditional performance, in Indian traditional performance, you begin and end practice or performance with Pranam. Pranam is salutation, and it is really a salutation to the earth. The earth… We are doing footwork on the earth, so we need to ask the blessing of the earth before we do that. However, we are here on indigenous land. So we workshopped a lot with Janice Badmoccasin, and important Dakota leader, and Sharon Day, an important leader in the Anishinaabe communities, and I created our Pranam based on that.

Ananya Chatterjea: So the land acknowledgement is not a statement, or oh we acknowledge that we are on this land, but it is in our body. And I understand 100%, the weight of putting something in your body. Every day, I am going in, and I am holding up “Mnisóta Makhóčhe.” Every day, I am saying, “Zaagi” which is “Love.” I am saying, “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which is “We are all connected.” My breath, my body, my voice, are all connected in the articulation of that. I believe that has weight. I believe that shifts me. So we were talking about Hue inviting audiences in. Marcus actually brought in the breath element by saying, “Okay let’s, everyone, watch with your entire being,” and then Hue crafted it from that. Because it is part of the practice in the space.

Marianne Combs: And just as somebody who was is in the audience, and who has witnessed so many land acknowledgements of varying effectiveness, to actually be invited to stand, breathe, and say these words in an indigenous languages with you before a performance, felt so much more grounding and real, and stayed with me in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise. And I think, you are not Native American, Marcus is not Native American, but you have created this space where Native American people feel seen and recognized, and their culture is valued.

Ananya Chatterjea: So important. We are here on native land, and that is… That commitment is so important for us, that we are able to invite in, you know, Native communities, yes. I wanna add just one thing about the audience invitation. I also created this audience empowerment workshop that we would do before every performance, just to get people talking about what they see, and because I teach dance and dance history, I know that what we see is sometimes different than what we think we see. And sometimes, the interpretations would will be very different from what I thought I was choreographing. That’s good feedback for me, but I would also invite audiences to say, “Title this piece.” If you were to see this, see this excerpt, you see it once, now, give it a title that you would like, and now let’s see it from your lens, we’ll do it again for you. So just ways in which we remind people, our audiences, our beloved audiences, that they have the a the power of metaphoric, interpretive thinking. Imagination belongs to all of us and we cannot allow this notion of capitalism to cut it out of us. Yeah. Imagination is for all of us.

Marcus Young: I would say that woven throughout our conversation today, we haven’t articulated or we haven’t said it, but it’s ideas and practice of spirit. And why I wanted to say that word once before the end of our conversation is because of all things in my conversations with MnDOT, I heard very clearly someone say we bring technical solutions to crises of the spirit. Meaning, we need to watch ourselves. When are we not practiced enough in understanding each other as spiritual beings going through this human experience? And we cannot just offer technical solution after technical solution after technical solution, we are not logistical technical beings. So my last contribution to this conversation is that woven into all of what we’ve said is how to deepen our understanding of spirit as whole beings and to care for each other that way.

Marianne Combs: Beautiful. Thank you so much to both of you for being here today.

Ananya Chatterjea: Thank you, I love the invitation. Yeah.

Marianne Combs: Yay.

Marcus Young: Thank you. Thank you very much.

[music]

Marianne Combs: You’ve been listening to Filling the Well. Our guests for this episode were Ananya Chatterjea, founder and artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre, and behavioral artist, Marcus Young. I’m your host, Marianne Combs.

Marianne Combs: Want to dig deeper into the ideas behind this episode? Visit the Arts Midwest Ideas Hub. It’s a collection of free curated articles and tools to help creative leaders foster growth within their organizations and communities. Go to artsmidewest.org/ideas for more.

Marianne Combs: On the next episode of Filling the Well, we’ll look at how small arts organizations in rural areas are making themselves indispensable by filling in gaps in community resources, and we’ll discuss best practices for authentic collaboration.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: I saw from sitting on all these different committees, the millions of dollars and support that are given to artists in the state of Minnesota, but how few are given to artists of color, different rural communities, and part of that is just really of understanding access, how you change those structures.

Ashley Hanson: When you get to brainstorm and daydream with other folks who also have values that are aligned with yours and hopes for your community that are similar, it’s going to be better, it’s going to be better, and it takes time.

Marianne Combs: That’s on the next episode of Filling the Well, I hope you’ll join us.

Marianne Combs: This podcast was produced and edited by Emily Goldberg, and mixed by Eric Romani, with original music by Dameun Strange.

Marianne Combs: The Filling the Well series is made possible with financial support from the Barr Foundation. Based in Boston, the Barr Foundation’s mission is to invest in human, natural, and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.

Transcript: Episode 3

Building Belonging & Creating Welcoming Organizations

Marianne Combs: Welcome to Filling the Well, a podcast created to nourish, provoke and inspire artists and arts leaders, I’m Marianne Combs. More than ever, finding points of connection across differences is key to creating strong support of communities. Arts organizations can play a part in making sure everyone, especially those who’ve been traditionally left out, feel like they belong. On this episode of Filling the Well, we’re going to talk about what it means to be a truly welcoming organization and what steps arts non-profits can make to connect with their communities. My guests for this conversation are two Twin Cities artists whose work is grounded in community and belonging, Ananya Chatterjea is the Founder and Artistic Director of Ananya Dance Theater and the Shawngram Institute for Performance and Social Justice. Ananya Dance Theater centers women and non-binary people of color. Its performances are not just artistically powerful, but often serve as healing community rituals, Ananya, welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ananya Chatterjea: Hello.

Marianne Combs: We’re also joined by long time Ananya dance collaborator and stage director, Marcus Young. Marcus is a behavioral and social practice artist who creates work for the stage, museums and the public realm. He served as artist in residence for organizations ranging from the City of St Paul, to the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Marcus, thank you so much for being with us today.

Marcus Young: Hello and thank you.

Marianne Combs: Marcus, so much of your work is grounded in awareness, whether it was with the St Paul sidewalk poetry project you started years ago where people would suddenly be walking down the streets and come across a poem under their feet, or with your, don’t you feel it too, practice of dancing in public and something that often feels so intimate and awkward, but then doing it out in a public space where nobody else can hear the music but you. When you think about spaces that make you feel welcome, what comes to mind for you in terms of people who are doing this well, and what do you feel or notice when you’re in those spaces?

Marcus Young: Well, I think I first notice that so many spaces are unwelcoming.

Marianne Combs: And what is that experience like for you? What are you noticing when you walk in those spaces?

Marcus Young: Well, it can be so many things that goes to all the sort of foundational principles that has brought this world into the being as it is, whether it is related to identity, how we look at each other, how we treat each other, the time or lack of time that we take to be with each other. So welcoming and feeling belonging is actually a constant practice.

Ananya Chatterjea: I wanted to jump in because one of Marcus’ and my… One really crucial part of our long-term collaboration has been to help audiences, particularly our BIPOC audiences feel seen inside of the work. And it’s been my desire to invite audiences on stage, and we’ve… For a while, we’ve invited people in, and that crafting of that invitation, Marcus and I have really, really gotten deep into figuring out how can we invite people, how. How can they feel safe? What is needed for them to feel seen and safe and see their stories. So you know, when you said in the beginning that so many times belonging is about organizations, predominantly white institutions saying, Okay, how can we create access? I’m interested in how I can dance stories that actually get… Are reflected in the eye, so when I look out into the audiences and offer my dance, we have a mirroring, we have a moment of seeing, Yes, this is your story, and people are saying, This is my story, we’re dancing with each other. So that mutuality, that gaze, that gaze that we call also Darshan, when we see each other, can I see you, you see me. This is very vital for us. But having audiences also on stage at some moments, inviting them to gesture and inviting them into breath as well, has been so much part of Marcus’ and my deep collaboration.

Marianne Combs: What all of these examples got speak to is the need to do the work, that it is not just a matter of, Well if we check off this box and check off this box, then they’ll come. Ananya, when you work on a project, and when you work on a production that involves an issue that maybe affects a community, and you’re a group of people in the community in which you live, your company does a lot of research and invites people in for conversations to learn more and to share learning, and I think that time commitment, that directing of your energy to say, We’re gonna invest ourselves in this so we truly understand this and then share our learnings is something that many arts nonprofits feel like, I don’t have the resources to do that, or that’s such an extra leap for me. If you could speak to the importance of doing the work in terms of creating these relationships and making sure that you are reaching people authentically.

Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, thank you, Marianne, for that question. I feel that the biggest problem I have in the way the current cultural scenario is framed, is with the terms diversity and inclusion, because there is someone who can reach out to include. That’s just not interesting to me at all. I’m interested in how my dance can be in service of, and dancing with. So I think the leap that you are talking about is not in fact a leap at all, it is the only way to devise new work. Because what we do know is that some of the models of choreography are dance-making or meaning-making that have come to us are in fact not working in so many ways because they’re coming from a single point of view, and I find I’m so excited when I bring a particular story that I’m interested in, and.

Ananya Chatterjea:: Artists, other artists in the room will start saying, “Well, this is what I think about. I think about… “ And Marcus will come in and say, “You know, this image was really significant to me when I thought about this.” So the deep locality of each artist, the deep research into their own lives that each artist has taken, in fact is part of that mosaic. In devising the choreography, what I have to remember is in fact they will be contradictory. Some of the stories will contradict each other, and yet they will sit together. And that is the same of rhythm, right? If someone is doing a four-four rhythm and I’m coming in with a three, I’m going to have to listen carefully, so my threes sit in the middle of their fours. In the same time they’re co-existing, we can share space, we can share time, but come in with our differences. That’s a training. That’s a training of listening, and I think the practice of footwork has really taught me that.

Marianne Combs: Marcus?

Marcus Young: When you say, “The work,” Marianne, I immediately go to two places. I think of the work of yourself aligning your internal life so that as you live out your life, that you can inspire and make space for other people. And my second place I go to is this work of fiction that we need to keep creating that inspires us to make reality from fiction. Like if I see places like Ananya Dance Theatre and other organizations are proficient and adept at creating a fictional/real space, yeah, that we… A place that we yearn for and that they’re working to make the space reality. But I want to try to be a little bit more helpful than being at the internal level and at this grand fictional level. And that is a moment in the very beginnings of my collaboration with Ananya in the rehearsal room. As stage director and as I’m trying to understand how this company works, and something about the opening of the show wasn’t quite working for me. I was trying to figure out, “Well, what can I do?” ‘Cause it’s very quite a strange thing to have a both a choreographer and a stage director in the room. But maybe this is a good tip or hint or indication to an organization how it needs to be less linear, okay, already in that example.

Marcus Young: So here I am, I said, “Ananya, I’d like to make some suggestions but my suggestion might upend the opening of this whole scene that you’ve created.” And she just said, “No, go ahead, do… Do what you need to do. Let’s try.” Okay, so that was… That’s indication Number One, the invitation to come and do what you need to do to be yourself, even if we don’t know each other all that well. So I gave a few instructions and in the snap of a finger, the whole scene came to place. The soil, the rich environment, the lack of fear, the complete like, “We’re in it together to create something juicy and beautiful,” that was so palpable to me, it reflected back in that moment. I was like, “What just happened? How did the scene create itself?” It didn’t really create itself, but it was as if it created itself. So in an organization, how do you cultivate that invitation, that possibility, and then how do you activate and catalyze it so that these moments emerge.

Marianne Combs: That speaks so much to how if you have people who are invested and feel ownership of the work, that… It’s amazing what can happen. And because they all feel like… They know what they can bring and that they want to bring it, but… I mean, that just sounds like an ideal kind of working environment you’ve created.

Ananya Chatterjea: It was also possible because we knew we shared this value around justice-based performance. I have learned to say to myself, “Ananya, just don’t be precious about what you’ve created. Let it go.” Because Marcus is seeing it. Marcus is seeing it and he’s saying it’s not working. I’ll be like, “Oh my God, I love this moment!” And I have to let it go. I think in the push and pull between saying, “This is… But Marcus, this is my vision.” And Marcus is saying, “But it is not working.” In that listening to each other, we have created a process that actually moves towards that kind of space where different stories can enter. And this methodology of collaboration, which has emerged organically, it’s so important. It’s bigger than myself. So I think if we, organizationally, taking Marcus’ cue, “I will go to the point of organizationally,” what does it mean to have a bigger vision at work? It’s not about individual glory, “Oh my goodness, I made this… I made all these processes where people could come in,” but rather, what is the goal? The goal is justice. What do we need so that people can see the story better? What needs to happen?

Marianne Combs: I’m thinking about a performance… Is it a performance or is it a ritual? I don’t know what to call it. That you choreographed, led this past summer in the neighborhood where Ananya Dance Theatre is based, and just how powerful that performance and ritual was in terms of creating healing for a community and bringing people of different walks of life together. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about what happened this past summer?

Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, it was a dream project for me, [chuckle] and it took everything to make it happen. When we moved into the Shawngram Institute, we were actually broken into several times. So I began to think of what would happen if we could together as a community, have a holding place, a container for the safety of all the young people who I would see constantly walking by.

Marianne Combs: And this is also a neighborhood that saw a lot of damage in arson in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, and the institute also suffered some damage. And I wondered, what if we could create a social justice corridor all along University Avenue where we could actually say to each other, “Hey, there is this person who needs some support in this way. I don’t have the resources but maybe you do. Can they find their way to you?” And this idea of a shared… A network that holds our communities.

Ananya Chatterjea: And then we found so many organizations along that whole line, and we created these leaves that were made from recycled cardboard, we got together, made all these leaves and flowers and created of… But the whole idea was to create a ceremonial procession of people moving together, energetically shifting the landscape. And I was so… I’m going to remain so thankful for that.

Marianne Combs: I actually got to participate in this. People from different areas began these processions throughout the neighborhood, and as they processed, they danced choreographed movement, they repeated certain phrases, envisioning a world of differences celebrating and coming together, sort of weaving together our future.

Ananya Chatterjea: Yes.

Marianne Combs: And then people would see this, going by them and they would join the procession as it walked by and said, Where are these people going? I wanna follow this. And so they start learning the movement and they start saying the chants, and then you stopped at these altars throughout these different locations on University Avenue. And then you all joined together at one location, the three different groups or… I don’t know if it was three or more, but to see this sort of ritual play out in the neighborhood itself, it felt very healing and powerful. And what is considered a very urban area to feel something that was so natural and organic, but also very artistic and beautiful in a very concrete space. And so I think about how you took your organization out into the community to make those connections. And oftentimes organizations are saying, You’re welcome to come here, come on in. You’re always welcome. Why don’t you come in? But what you did was you took yourself to the community in a way that was very palpable.

Ananya Chatterjea: What I loved about that was how different artists took initiative. Some people brought their own instruments while I created the choreography. Some of the procession was also… I invited improvisation on that theme. So there was this young artist, this young man, Dakota man, Cruze Novotny who wore his moccasins and brought stage from his place and danced with us in a very different way. He was part of our summer intensive, but what he brought was a different way of youth leadership, and I just… I was moved to tears because he was so beautiful.

Marianne Combs: Marcus, I wonder… I think of you as being such an expert in ritual and space, and I wonder if you have thoughts on that experience this past summer of that event where people were coming together in the city. The power of an event like that to be transformative but also to be a way of connecting… How we connect with community by showing up in community, by holding space like something like this.

Marcus Young: Yeah, I think for me that what happened this past summer, and I really… I just got to be a participant and someone who could enjoy this. I go back to this idea of what was made was so beautiful that it can… It feels like it can only exist in fiction, but actually it’s right here in front of us, I’m going back to that sort of fiction and reality relationship. And so you get to live in this fiction. Ananya and others made this sort of river of care, this river… There is no river, this is a very concrete-based place, but the love and the movement, and the care made it feel like a rich nourishing river that connected various places and helped heal our relationship to those places.

Marcus Young: So part of that is making space where you can just hang out. And here I wanna tell another little story. I’m hanging out at Shawngram, and because you can just be yourself… There aren’t that many places where you can just be yourself. And because you can just be yourself, you can ask silly questions. And I’m sitting next to uncle Douglas Ewart, and I’m just about ready to start a two-year relationship with… Of all places, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, they’re exploring what it means to have an artist-in-residence within an organization. And let me tell you, I think every organization should have an artist-in-residence, even an arts organization needs to have an artist-in-residence. And so here I am about to start an artist-in-residence gig with MnDOT.

Marcus Young: This is a 5000-person agency, and I said to Douglas, I have no idea what I’m gonna be doing with MnDOT. What do you think I should do? And he said to me… Turned not missing a beat, he said, Turn the highways into rivers. That was his sort of drop of wisdom, and I have held that phrase, Turn the highways into rivers for the last two plus years at MnDOT. And I know he means that figuratively and literally, and spiritually, and emotionally. You receive a phrase like that in all its dimensions, you cannot go to the place of like, Well, we can’t engineering-wise, we can’t turn all the… No, no, that’s… Set it down, back away from your linear thinking, embrace the beauty of this fiction and figure out how the reality emerges from that. So for two years I’ve been there, and I’ll give you one small example. This is about space. So they have many, many uninspiring neglected beige rooms, conference rooms within this agency, and how we got here is another story, another podcast.

Marcus Young: But here we are. And so I asked, and I said, “You know, you have this unbeloved Conference Room 820 on the top floor of the Transportation Building, which is just two buildings down from the capital Capitol. No one loves this room, that’s what I keep hearing, but you use it, because you have to do the work. But you don’t understand that you’re missing out on how we can gather more beautifully. So could I commandeer this Conference Room 820 and change it into the Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room, okay? So play on words, not just a conference room, but a confluence room. And here they are in the midst of figuring out, “Well, what is land acknowledgement? What is Land Back?” As a whole, there are many people within MnDOT who understand land acknowledgment, and Land Back, but the culture doesn’t allow land acknowledgement and Land Back to surface. So I wanted to make a space, a placeholder, the purpose of which is to shift culture one degree only, ‘cause it’s just one conference room.

Marianne Combs: And how did you do that? Can you describe the room for me so that people can understand how it’s different?

Marcus Young: Yeah, first of all the room originally was literally beige, and the table and the chairs in the center of the room took up all the space. So that all you could do was sit around it and be at the edge of the room. And then the posters that used to be there were from the ’90s, I think, that said like words like, “Goals,” and then like a winding path, that kinda thing with some leaves. [chuckle] So what we started by doing was just imagining this space as a space of care and a space of nourishment. So we took out the big table, we took out all the bulky chairs. We brought in, yes, yoga mats and meditation cushions.

Marcus Young: There will be fruit and granola bars in the room for people to come in just for that purpose. We turned the water cooler just outside into a place where you can pick up a little blessing card, so you connect to the water. And you’re not just filling up your water bottle, you’re saying, “Hey, take a little prayer card that says, ‘Oh, I am grateful for this water that nourishes me, and I understand the connection that… In this water cooler to the greater water outside of this space.’” So all different strategies to awaken your senses and awaken who you are as a human being and see other human beings, not just workers. But then renaming the room the Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room and trying to create a space that does that title justice.

Marcus Young: Which in addition to all of the nourishing things, I was also exposing some of the past injustices. So on the walls are quotes from fellow MnDOT staff that said, “What we did was wrong,” whether that was Rondo or whether that was digging up graves of native burial grounds. So like reminders that what we do, we have to be very careful, we have to be very thoughtful about what we’re doing. And so we’re in the midst of finishing that now. This space allows you to feel like a whole person. People walk in, they’re like, “Oh, yes, the previous space, that beige space that denied my whole being was just treating me as a worker, but here I get to understand my identities and other people’s identities, so I can relax, I can breathe.”

Marcus Young: No time more important in our history… Recent history at least, is the importance of breath and breathing. “So here I can breathe, I can be myself, I can find inspiration within the art on the walls.” I gave a little presentation about this idea to senior leadership. And the Commissioner was there, and the Commissioner said, “We need more of this. Why only one room?” So you see, one room sparks the idea that all places… Yes, all places can be the Land Acknowledgement Confluence Room, but other things as well. So we need to transform all these places into places of new fiction, new ideas, the new world. And I think it’s possible, but I can only do one room at a time, so I hope others will join me.

[laughter]

Marianne Combs: That’s so beautiful. And the idea of you are turning this… I cringe a little when you say fiction, because I… It feels like it’s a reality…

Marcus Young: Right, it’s both.

Marianne Combs: That you are continuing to build, and it is so important what you’re doing in terms of transforming space so that people feel more human in those spaces. This is such a perfect example, both of these in terms of the… What happened this summer and then and in this transformation of space. I’m wondering what other advice you would have for people who are seeking to make authentic connections with their community but maybe they’re not as schooled in this as you are, they are in the beginning of this path. So where do you point them? What direction do you point them in? Ananya?

Ananya Chatterjea: I would point them deep into themselves. I understand as a parent what happens with… I understand Black Lives Matter from my… From the perspective of being a parent. If I could not tell my child to go outside and play for a second, the fear, I… My daughter is 25, and I’m… I have to make her text me when she reaches home every night. Because it’s too much for me, I worry about her. So I… What is that? What is… How does the mother of a Black child feel when this level of systemic oppression is constantly out there? So I feel, “That could be my child,” is the first thing we have to go to, or “That could be my brother, that could be my sister.” It’s… I think to understand each other in relationship, this word Marcus keeps bringing up, the relationality, whether we like it or not, to understand that, and to understand how sometimes systems are such that they perpetuate themselves, right? So that we are often involved in creating harm, even if it wasn’t an intentional act. That looking at oneself is actually the first way to begin connecting with each other. I can understand from this place. I’m so sorry.

Ananya Chatterjea: I think that’s a first step, actually. And I really have to say that I have learned learnt so much from my indigenous sisters, Sharon Day and Janice Badmoccasin, who have taught me constantly about relationship, being in relationship. Not just with those we consider human, but also with the world, with the environment, with four-leggeds, and everyone. I think that understanding that is constantly part of this view of understanding life in a different scale than life for the… Lived for the sake of purpose. And it helped me to connect to struggles that I see at home where, you know, in India sometimes, where people… You know, this fight over land. And people are suddenly saying, “Land is something that we purchase.” And no, Land is mother, actually. So this notion of relationality in our views is so crucial. It connects me to… It connects me both to what my mother taught me and to what I’m relearning here.

Marianne Combs: What I think your comment speaks to is primarily that you have built deep relationships with people who are different than you, and have learned from them, and have taken those learnings to your work. Even in that, I think some people have a fear around the idea of like finding some… Reaching out to someone who is different and being like, “I need to learn from you. I want to be in relationship with you. I want my arts group to do a better job of seeing you and welcoming you.” For some people that is still a very scary thing. So how do you go about… I mean, for you it’s second nature now, but how do you go about creating those relationships and those collaborations?

Ananya Chatterjea: You know, I know that nobody likes to be included because they are politically expedient. I know that, and I know how icky that feels. So it’s because I’m genuinely interested in what their stories or their craft, I’m moved by it, so I want to do that. I’m genuinely interested, and I think that is the best recipe. “Wow, so amazing what you did.” So I think if we can really… Maybe if we can move away from the capitalized notion of art and think about being… Actually letting the… I think about, you know…

[foreign language]

Ananya Chatterjea: Whether your heart opens in wonder, right? For the heart to open… So for your upper body to open, your rib cage has to remain closed, and your navel to spine has to remain connected. So when I can stay grounded, my heart can open, in other words. So I think that making space in my heart for difference and I’m being amazed by colleagues… You know when Marcus float through the museum, that early, early project many years ago?

Marianne Combs: At the Minneapolis Institute of Art? Yes.

Ananya Chatterjea: Yes, yes, yes. And sort of things like that, it’s just like, “Wow. How did they come up with that? That’s so fascinating.” I think being able… Being available to be amazed by others is actually what creates rich collaboration, because you realize, “Wow, the work can be bigger. Everything can be bigger.” And I love community. I have to say… I have to say that the idea of dancing alone is just boring. I wanna be with my people. I love it. I love people. I’m energized by people. So it just… It energizes me back in return.

Marcus Young: And I wanna point out something that Ananya just said which is the question of, you know, “What can people do if they feel like they don’t know where to start?” And Ananya just helped me and helped us reconnect to our bodies, first of all. Right? Your spine, your heart, your posture, your openness, your strength, your core. So as a species, we do a horrible job of understanding how the body plays a role in everything. We just think of this body as holding up the head, you know, the pedestal for the head. We’ve really gotta get away from that. And so what Ananya just led us doing to connect to our… The navel to spine, and, you know, our sit bones, I’m sitting at the moment. That is a very important part of doing the work.

Marcus Young: And I’ll just add because I frankly don’t have the same skills as Ananya does in terms of creating these relationships. I mean, that’s it’s quite… It’s something quite to marvel at. My own path of how to build relationships and how to build the potential for connection has been to focus on form. And in the form of what? The form of gathering, the form of how to be together whether that’s in a meeting or that’s in a room or that’s in a conversation; the social practice of being together, and what do we do together? Do we dance? Do we eat? Do we live in a museum together? We have to keep creating new forms. The old forms will not serve us, so what new forms of coexistence and co-learning are our art organizations and beyond art organizations, going to be making together? New forms so that we can do all the things that Ananya was just talking about.

Marianne Combs: We’ve talked a lot about welcoming artists into spaces. I wonder if we can talk about welcoming audiences into spaces and how you create a space where everyone feels welcome in the room.

Ananya Chatterjea: I’ve had great friends and… You know, the why… Why I would take some group fitness classes, and there were some of our friends who loved that. They would come and they would say, “I love the work. I don’t understand it. Can you have subtitles?” I was like, “No, no, can’t have subtitles!” But I think what that told me was there are ways of meaning-making that, you know, different ways of meaning-making. And somehow we have managed, through the a corporate notion of art, we’ve managed to push it as being this museumized notion of art, so that there are some people who will understand it and others who won’t.

Ananya Chatterjea: Somehow it’s been separated out, dance or performing arts or arts, as being part of an elite culture only, when we know that artistic practice actually sits in all across the boards. It’s for everyone. So how can we invite in people into our kind of meaning-making, which is not linear, which is more mosaic-based, which is more about interaction. How can we do that? This is why Marcus and I have… One of the questions in our collaboration was that. And I think much of the feedback Marcus gives is from that point of making palpable, without ever saying that we are going to change the modality of storytelling so it becomes one linear story. How can we hold this whole notion of juxtaposition, intersectional storytelling, keeping it abstract, keeping it metaphoric, because that is what we do in dance; how can we still invite in people?

Marcus Young: Okay, so Ananya… It’s a funny moment, right? Ananya says… Her friends, or her workout mates say, “Love the work, don’t get it.” Basically, that’s what they’re saying, “Love the work, don’t get it.” Okay, so, I mean, we need to open that up a little bit. Why don’t you get it? Okay. Yes, there is something that Ananya and I can work on to clarify, to make the work stronger, to excel even more. But recently, I had the opportunity to write something where I said, “Don’t watch the work with your eyes. Not just your eyes, can you watch the work? Can you open yourself up to the work? Can you receive the work with your whole body? Are you capable of doing that?” And I think there is something about how we understand art that makes it very limiting of what an audience is, what an artist is, and what is the transaction at an event between artist and audience. And there is something basically wrong. The paradigm is so limiting, such that when audiences come, they are only viewing the work with such a narrow bandwidth that they can… They will say, “Love it, but don’t get it.”

Marcus Young: So what’s our practice of helping the audience to open up and receive the work as a whole? And Marianne, as you were saying, even the moment of getting up and doing the gestures of preparing ourselves, that we are not these like, “Don’t move. Don’t make a sound. Stay in the dark. Watch the thing. Clap at the appropriate moments.” That’s denying so much of ourselves. How can we continue transforming what art can be, so that we get away from these notions of what is proper audience behavior and proper artistic behavior? How can we open up the relationship to art? And I make participatory art. So I’m really trying to figure out like, “Okay, we’re not doing that thing. We’re not doing that thing where you go to a museum, and you stare at the walls, and your back is to every other person in the gallery.” What kind of type of human behavior says that, “We’re gonna spend hours just keeping our backs to each other and not… “ You might be like with hundreds of other people in the museum, but you might not have a moment of connection with another human being. So we have to really rethink what art can be, if we want some of our ideas of diversity and inclusion to transform our world.

Marianne Combs: I would love to hear how you came up with the land acknowledgement that started your most recent show, and how that became a participatory event for the entire audience.

Ananya Chatterjea: The land acknowledgement is actually so… It’s something… It a such that you experience, the land acknowledgement that you experience, is actually a shortened version of what we do in our practice. So in traditional performance, in Indian traditional performance, you begin and end practice or performance with Pranam. Pranam is salutation, and it is really a salutation to the earth. The earth… We are doing footwork on the earth, so we need to ask the blessing of the earth before we do that. However, we are here on indigenous land. So we workshopped a lot with Janice Badmoccasin, and important Dakota leader, and Sharon Day, an important leader in the Anishinaabe communities, and I created our Pranam based on that.

Ananya Chatterjea: So the land acknowledgement is not a statement, or oh we acknowledge that we are on this land, but it is in our body. And I understand 100%, the weight of putting something in your body. Every day, I am going in, and I am holding up “Mnisóta Makhóčhe.” Every day, I am saying, “Zaagi” which is “Love.” I am saying, “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which is “We are all connected.” My breath, my body, my voice, are all connected in the articulation of that. I believe that has weight. I believe that shifts me. So we were talking about Hue inviting audiences in. Marcus actually brought in the breath element by saying, “Okay let’s, everyone, watch with your entire being,” and then Hue crafted it from that. Because it is part of the practice in the space.

Marianne Combs: And just as somebody who was is in the audience, and who has witnessed so many land acknowledgements of varying effectiveness, to actually be invited to stand, breathe, and say these words in an indigenous languages with you before a performance, felt so much more grounding and real, and stayed with me in a way that it wouldn’t have otherwise. And I think, you are not Native American, Marcus is not Native American, but you have created this space where Native American people feel seen and recognized, and their culture is valued.

Ananya Chatterjea: So important. We are here on native land, and that is… That commitment is so important for us, that we are able to invite in, you know, Native communities, yes. I wanna add just one thing about the audience invitation. I also created this audience empowerment workshop that we would do before every performance, just to get people talking about what they see, and because I teach dance and dance history, I know that what we see is sometimes different than what we think we see. And sometimes, the interpretations would will be very different from what I thought I was choreographing. That’s good feedback for me, but I would also invite audiences to say, “Title this piece.” If you were to see this, see this excerpt, you see it once, now, give it a title that you would like, and now let’s see it from your lens, we’ll do it again for you. So just ways in which we remind people, our audiences, our beloved audiences, that they have the a the power of metaphoric, interpretive thinking. Imagination belongs to all of us and we cannot allow this notion of capitalism to cut it out of us. Yeah. Imagination is for all of us.

Marcus Young: I would say that woven throughout our conversation today, we haven’t articulated or we haven’t said it, but it’s ideas and practice of spirit. And why I wanted to say that word once before the end of our conversation is because of all things in my conversations with MnDOT, I heard very clearly someone say we bring technical solutions to crises of the spirit. Meaning, we need to watch ourselves. When are we not practiced enough in understanding each other as spiritual beings going through this human experience? And we cannot just offer technical solution after technical solution after technical solution, we are not logistical technical beings. So my last contribution to this conversation is that woven into all of what we’ve said is how to deepen our understanding of spirit as whole beings and to care for each other that way.

Marianne Combs: Beautiful. Thank you so much to both of you for being here today.

Ananya Chatterjea: Thank you, I love the invitation. Yeah.

Marianne Combs: Yay.

Marcus Young: Thank you. Thank you very much.

[music]

Marianne Combs: You’ve been listening to Filling the Well. Our guests for this episode were Ananya Chatterjea, founder and artistic director of Ananya Dance Theatre, and behavioral artist, Marcus Young. I’m your host, Marianne Combs.

Marianne Combs: Want to dig deeper into the ideas behind this episode? Visit the Arts Midwest Ideas Hub. It’s a collection of free curated articles and tools to help creative leaders foster growth within their organizations and communities. Go to artsmidewest.org/ideas for more.

Marianne Combs: On the next episode of Filling the Well, we’ll look at how small arts organizations in rural areas are making themselves indispensable by filling in gaps in community resources, and we’ll discuss best practices for authentic collaboration.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: I saw from sitting on all these different committees, the millions of dollars and support that are given to artists in the state of Minnesota, but how few are given to artists of color, different rural communities, and part of that is just really of understanding access, how you change those structures.

Ashley Hanson: When you get to brainstorm and daydream with other folks who also have values that are aligned with yours and hopes for your community that are similar, it’s going to be better, it’s going to be better, and it takes time.

Marianne Combs: That’s on the next episode of Filling the Well, I hope you’ll join us.

Marianne Combs: This podcast was produced and edited by Emily Goldberg, and mixed by Eric Romani, with original music by Dameun Strange.

Marianne Combs: The Filling the Well series is made possible with financial support from the Barr Foundation. Based in Boston, the Barr Foundation’s mission is to invest in human, natural, and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.

Episode 4: Advocating for the Arts

At a time when there’s so much need, how can we best advocate for the arts and make changes that last? For two leading advocates, Emily Ruddock and Michelle Ramos, the answer is to start by showing up for others first.

Listen Now

Side by side headshots of Emily Ruddock and Michelle Ramos
Photo by: Emily Ruddock, Michelle Ramos

Dr. Michelle Ramos
Executive Director, Alternate ROOTS

Emily Ruddock
Executive Director, MASSCreative

Dr. Michelle Ramos, Executive Director brings a diversity of experience to her role as Executive Director of Alternate ROOTS, and founder of Ramos Coaching. Her most recent experience includes working in criminal justice reform at the Vera Institute of Justice, philanthropic work as Program Officer for Women’s Foundation of California, and service organization leadership on the boards of Dance/USA and Performing Arts Alliance. A licensed attorney with a PhD in Psychology, she has significant organizing experience and has committed her career to serve communities and individuals adversely impacted by issues of race, gender, disability, class, socioeconomics, inequitable laws and systemic oppression. She has consulted for over 20 years nationally. She is the proud mother of Broadway choreographer, Ellenore Scott, and since retiring from her own dance career, Ramos has continued to teach ballet locally, performs with Ritmeaux Krewe, (New Orleans first Latinx Mardi Gras Krewe) is a competitive triathlete and Ironman finisher, and enjoys her Southern New Orleans lifestyle.

Emily Ruddock is the Executive Director of MASSCreative, a state-wide arts and cultural advocacy organization in Massachusetts. Throughout her career Ruddock has worked to unite artists and communities for meaningful connection, understanding, and change. Ruddock serves on the Board of Directors for the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network. In her personal time, Ruddock is a potter who loves making original ceramic art and functional ware for her home, her family and her friends. She holds a Masters in Public Administration from the Maxwell School at Syracuse University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Critical Social Thought from Mount Holyoke College.

Transcript: Episode 5

Advocating for the Arts

Marianne Combs: Welcome to Filling The Well, a podcast created to nourish, provoke and inspire artists and arts leaders. I’m Marianne Combs. Arts and cultural organizations have to regularly make the case for funding, whether it’s to individual donors, private foundations, or legislators. The distribution of arts funding in the US is similar to the distribution of private wealth. That is a very small percentage of cultural institutions receive the vast majority of available funds. A 2017 study found that just 2% of arts organizations receive 58% of all contributed income. That same study found that smaller arts organizations were being left with an ever-smaller portion of funds. Healthy consistent funding is key to sustainability, so how can arts organizations work together to advocate for better support across the sector? And how can arts organizations of all sizes make themselves indispensable to their communities? Joining me for this conversation are two long-time advocates for the arts. Michelle Ramos is the executive director of Alternate Roots, a coalition of cultural workers based in the southern United States. She joins us from New Orleans. Michelle, welcome.

Michelle Ramos: Thank you, good to be here.

Marianne Combs: Emily Ruddock is the executive director of MASSCreative, which advocates for support for the creative community in Massachusetts. She joins us from Boston. Emily, welcome.

Emily Ruddock: Thanks so much. Good to be here as well.

Marianne Combs: First to you, Michelle Ramos. Has the pandemic helped make the case for supporting the arts?

Michelle Ramos: That’s a really loaded and fantastic question. [chuckle] I think that the pandemic has definitely reflected the power of the arts, in a very positive way. I do believe that there was a lot of advocacy that was initiated and amplified through the pandemic for the arts. If you just take a look at what happened through all of 2020 and well into 2021, so many people got through the pandemic because of the arts. Folks were sitting at home watching Broadway on their laptops and enjoying movies on Netflix and listening to music, watching some of their favorite musicians streaming from various locations. So I think that the value of the arts, which those of us that are in it have always known was there, just really became amplified in the pandemic. Because I challenge anyone who went through that pandemic to imagine it without any of the arts or entertainment that engaged them throughout. And I think that folks started to realize the value and the importance through that experience. Good, bad, or ugly. [chuckle]

Marianne Combs: What about you, Emily, how do you feel that the pandemic has affected the way we think of the arts in terms of its value to us?

Emily Ruddock: I think that, to echo what Michelle said, I think that there’s a really strong message of, we would not have made it through the pandemic without the connective power of the arts to combat the isolation many of us felt, to get us through rougher moments. And I also think that there’s been, in Massachusetts for example, a number of instances where artists and creative and cultural organizations have really, in some ways, pivoted their delivery of arts to meet the moment. So a great example is in Springfield, Massachusetts, the Community Music School of Springfield and the Springfield Cultural Partnership started the Trust Transfer Project, where they commissioned Black and Latinx artists to create pieces of work across mediums, to amplify public health messaging and to encourage frankly honest conversations about vaccines. And so I think that’s one of a couple of examples that I can think of, about it’s not just that we’re like, “Oh, it’s great to have it on Netflix,” but we’re also seeing real impact in our communities around specific need.

Marianne Combs: Emily, there have been numerous studies as to the economic value of the arts, and it feels like every couple of years when there’s a legislative session people bring out this study of like, “Look, it’s not just about the ticket sales, it’s like people hire babysitters and then they’re paying for parking and then they’re going out for a restaurant, it’s really great for the economy.” Is that the best argument or the most effective argument to make for the arts?

Emily Ruddock: I think it’s part of it, and I think it depends on who you’re talking to, to be honest. I think that in my work, elected decision-makers wanna talk about the numbers. They are making, every day, difficult decisions about how to allocate dollars, and they’re trying to think about how to stretch those dollars as much as possible, and so that economic piece certainly matters. But I think when we’re in the field, or when we’re with people who care about the arts or looking to increase engagement and advocacy with people who care about the arts, that’s not the thing that’s gonna get people out of their seats and writing to their legislators or picking up the phone and talking to their staff, it is that heart and that connection piece. I would also say that it’s frustratingly funny to me that no matter how many economic studies we put in front of lawmakers, their initial response is, “That can’t possibly be true.” And so we will continue to show them that data, but it often helps when we put an actual personal touch on that. And I think one of the pieces here too, is that it’s not just the amount of dollars that the sector generates, it’s the people who work in the sector that are constituents who make up their communities and neighborhoods, that really, in many cases, found themselves summarily out of work very quickly, that became the best ambassadors and storytellers to advocate.

Marianne Combs: Michelle, you have talked about this I think pretty eloquently, the notion that we tend to think of artists as separate from the community, not as of the community. And in the south certainly you’ve had several experiences, in New Orleans with hurricanes, where the artists were not just the arts, but they’re your constituents that you’re trying to serve as well. How does that play out when you’re trying to argue for support for the arts?

Michelle Ramos: Yeah, absolutely, thank you for that question. Yeah, I think that there is sort of this ridiculousness in the bifurcated idea of who the artist is, right? Like, artists live in this world and do this work and yet somehow we lose their humanity and all of that. Since I have been in the south for the past seven years, I’ve not witnessed more of a clear connection that has always been present but I think is just palpable because of everything that we are going through right now as a country, everything we are going through with our humanitarian crises, and in our collective consciousness around all the isms that we’re dealing with right now. And so I feel strongly that any time that I’m advocating for an artist, it’s almost like I have to remind people, like, these are human beings with families and lives and bills to pay and child care that they need taken care of.

Like, they are human beings who are in your community living and working amongst you, and there is no reason why they don’t deserve the support and the attention, and the funding frankly, that all these other sectors are receiving. And it’s just always been such a strange thing to me, I’m like, “I don’t quite understand,” but it’s like I think one of the challenges is we so often, especially in this country, frame arts as the higher arts. And so because of that framing, I think that buys into this idea that somehow artists are on this pedestal and they are all wealthy and they’re all living well and they’re all living in the [0:08:16.2] ____, right? [chuckle] Which is absolutely ridiculous. Like, some of the best arts in the country are coming from my region, are coming from the south. During the pandemic, it was those musicians that literally a block away from me came out every Monday and Thursday and played on the corner, with the neighbors pulling their patio chairs up, to get through just the insane time that we were in, right? But they live there, on my corner, they are people. And so I think that message is super, super important, and I think it’s one that is lost so oftentimes because of how we… Not even ourselves, but often our society defines what an artist is, what they look like and how they show up in space.

Marianne Combs: And, Michelle, you work with numerous artists and cultural organizations based in the southern United States, which I understand on a whole receive a paltry amount of arts funding compared to the rest of the nation.

Michelle Ramos: That is absolutely accurate. I think that that reflects the disparity, because not only is that disparity related to geographic, but because of how geographic demographics break down, it also means less is coming to predominantly black and brown organizations as well.

Marianne Combs: What have you been able to achieve by uniting forces with Alternate Roots, by bringing all these organizations and artists together?

Michelle Ramos: Well, I mean, just the network of Roots in and of itself is a powerhouse, right? Our ability to be able to network across all of our states, across all of our cities, across all of our arts disciplines, it’s just a tapestry of beautiful artistry advocacy. But then you pair that with the other advocacy, which by the way has been happening here in the south for a long time, I feel like folks are talking about arts partnering with social justice initiatives and programs in health care and I’m like, “Y’all, that’s been going on [chuckle] a real long time, this is nothing new.” But I think that because of how embedded artists are in community here, in the south, I think there is sort of just this organic way in which, when the crisis happened, those relationships were just immediate, right? Like, trust is built at the speed of relationship. And so for us to partner with our sister organizations, it was a no-brainer. We were like, “Yeah, absolutely, of course.” We know none of that money, none of that crisis money, is coming our way, so we need to figure out how to fend for ourselves and come together to figure out how we get some funding to our folks who were so so in need.

Marianne Combs: Emily, how do you effectively communicate the importance of the arts to communities and legislators? How do you take the work of Alternate Roots and these other arts organizations and say, “Hey, we need more funding?”

Emily Ruddock: Right, that’s a great question. And just to note, so our sphere of work at MASSCreative is largely focused on Massachusetts, but we do certainly unite on federal advocacy conversations and certainly look to Alternate Roots and Michelle as partners and leaders in that work. We are also doing a deep dive into this conversation about the equitable distribution and allocation of funding of public funds, right? And we’re also seeing some inconsistencies in Massachusetts. And I think one of the things that we are always talking about is this notion that the person next to you is probably an artist, is a real thing. And early on in the pandemic there was an article that was written by an arts journalist, and the question he posed was, “Why aren’t artists and the arts better at advocating for themselves?” And I obviously took some umbridge to that.

My response was, “Oh, we are. We are advocating all the time, but the way that our work shows up in the space, in the civic and public playing field, makes it really hard to tease it out as this isolated thing,” So when we walk through our built environment, there are the fingerprints of artists and creatives and designers all over the place. When we think about our main streets or our downtowns, they are animated by the work of artists and by creatives, and frankly by cultures, and celebration of culture. But it’s easy to take that for granted. And so that’s one of the things that we often talk about is, our work is about coming together and reminding elected officials not to take that work for granted. And that’s one of the things that we’ve talked about when we’ve talked about that economic argument, or we’ve talked about the connection argument, is that these are things that don’t just happen by accident, they take public investment, and right now we’re in trouble. And so if you want to see the things that you expect to see in your district, in your neighborhood, in your city, in your town, you need to invest in them now.

Not later when they have started to decay or fall apart. I often talk about the arts and cultural ecology of Massachusetts, and this idea that in any ecology, if a piece of it starts to be damaged, the whole ecology suffers. And that’s true when we’re talking about the equitable distribution of public funds for the arts, and why it’s important that we have organizations across budget size, we have artists that are creating across disciplines and across mediums and practice. Just one of those is not enough to realize the benefits that we all want to have from a vibrant creative community.

Marianne Combs: I’m hearing some conflicting things. One is that when artists and arts organizations make themselves essential, they’re often weaving themselves into things like health care, quality of life, and public spaces, things like that, but also that that in turn works against them in standing out and being like, “No, no, no, fund the arts.” Because in that case, it might be better to say, “Look who I am, standing out alone here, we are artists, we do this work,” to distinguish themselves from everything else that’s going on, otherwise they get sort of lost in the shuffle. I mean, it feels like it’s a pro and a con to ally yourself with other community sectors. On the one hand, you’re helping, you’re making yourself essential in these ways, and the other hand, you might not stand out for your singular work as much. Does that make sense?

Emily Ruddock: A little bit. I think I would actually draw from Michelle’s example of, at the start of the pandemic, and how there were relationships that were built over time that allowed for a more intersectional advocacy effort. And I think that’s probably the place where we all need to kind of arrive at, is this, “Yes, I’m not gonna stop making art and culture my number one advocacy conversation,” but I as an advocacy leader in Massachusetts have a responsibility to show up for other issues and sectors that affect the community that I’m serving. So transportation is an arts issue, housing is an arts issue, right? And I think the more that we show up for those pieces that matter to our communities, the more our community does show up for us. And I think we kind of… That’s a way to combat this sort of othering that happens for creative workers and artists.

Marianne Combs: Yeah, no, you were talking earlier about the high art, and I think we think of the high arts, we think of ballet and opera and classical music and some of the major theatre companies around the United States. We don’t necessarily think of them in association with housing issues or with transportation issues. So talk a little bit more about how arts institutions can make themselves essential to the community in these other sectors and in these other ways.

Michelle Ramos: I’m happy to jump in on that.

Marianne Combs: Great.

Michelle Ramos: I do think that, even before the pandemic, I would offer that a lot of the higher arts institutions, and I’m just using that word ‘cause it’s used not ‘cause I believe in it or support it, but it just is an easier way to kind of bifurcate. I think we were already seeing the higher arts having to do some self-exploration and take a deep, deep look internally. Because as our world is shifting, as our country is shifting, their traditional way of doing their art form, that is for those ones you’ve named very Eurocentric, starting to become obsolete to audiences. They were already struggling with how are we keeping audiences engaged, how are we sifting our decision-making around our curation of our artistry so it speaks to a community that no longer looks like a community we used to serve.

So I think that conversation was already starting to happen and people were struggling with that in these higher arts sector fields, and then pandemic hits. And so what usually happens with crisis is, of course, there’s a ton of advocacy, and as usual all that money goes to that particular sector, and then the rest of the sectors just kinda like fighting for scraps to get what’s left over. But what I think has kind of unintentionally but very organically manifested, is that realization that, “Oh, wait, there’s all these other organizations, like Alternate Roots, like organizations from the south and in the Midwest who have been doing work in community and know how to engage authentically with community, and we don’t know how to do that. [chuckle] So we need to figure out and try to learn from them how we start to look a little bit more like them and a little bit less like who we used to be, because that is no longer serving us.” And it will serve for a particular period of time, but with the shifts that are happening demographically, it’s an obsoleting proposition, it’s just not going to work on a long-term basis. So I almost feel like the conversation started before it even started… Was forced to start with the pandemic.

Marianne Combs: It sounds like both of you are saying that there needs to be a more equitable distribution of funds across the arts. How might that happen? And I’m trying to imagine the people sitting in their large cultural institutions being told, “You guys are getting too much, we need to spread this out amongst the others more fairly.” And how does that work? How do you bring on the major arts institutions and cultural institutions as your allies in this fight for a more equitable distribution of funding?

Emily Ruddock: Yeah, this is Emily. I think actually, Marianne, what I’d like to do is push back on that question a little bit, right?

Marianne Combs: Sure.

Emily Ruddock: Because that’s coming from a place of like, in some ways, scarcity, right? Like, there’s only ever gonna be a zero-sum game, and if I don’t get out there and get mine, then who else is gonna get it for me, and that model, I think along with what Michelle was saying, has really been challenged and is really being challenged within the field of arts advocates that I engage with, there is not this sort of like, yeah, we’ll just try to raise the increase of the dollars and then we don’t care how they get distributed, it’s we wanna look for increased funding and we wanna be participating in how we design those public grant programs that are gonna reach the field, and when I say we, I mean arts advocates, I don’t mean MASSCreative. MASSCreative is not a grant fund… We are not a funder.

And so I think this piece about like, yes, this is change and change is always scary. And I’m mis-quoting about 1000 people in this moment, equity and a realignment can often feel like a loss, sharing power can often feel like a loss, but I think that there are a lot of examples about how that actually isn’t the truth, and how if we actually sort of work towards a more equitable distribution of dollars, that there’s actually we’re able to make the case better for increasing dollars for the arts and cultural sector, right? Like, I have been in rooms with elected officials that have said, “Those guys are fine. They’ve got major donors. They’re gonna be taken care of.” That’s not true. Number one, I’m holding up my finger. And two, that’s not a story that a well-established predominantly white cultural institution can frankly combat, so if we’re actually talking about investing in a variety of artists and practice, that tells a very different story to those lawmakers about who’s benefiting and what it means to their district or their state or their community.

Marianne Combs: Michelle, do you wanna add to that? This notion of abundance versus scarcity, that if we all join together, there’s more money to be had rather than just fighting over the scraps left over from the larger institutions?

Michelle Ramos: Sure. Just pointing out the fact that the world of philanthropy alone, which is the largest funder of the arts, presumably, is always giving less than 6% of their annual… Just that alone, if they would liberate the endowments to move the dial to even like 15%, it would be a game changer right now, don’t even go down the rabbit hole of how that gets dispersed, who gets that? That’s a whole… [chuckle] That’s a whole another podcast. But just that, just that little piece would make such a huge difference and that’s money that exists, that’s not having to create anything, that’s not having to raise anything, that’s just money that exists, and we need to be asking philanthropy why do you all keep sitting on it, it is not serving, your role is to serve community, your role is to serve artists and whoever else you have identified as who you want to offer to help support public good, so stop sitting on the endowments and liberate those and get them, get it out to the people and hey, here’s a revolutionary idea, how about when you do that, we start backwards by looking at funding all those organizations and all those individuals and all those artists who you have significantly and purposefully underfunded or disinvested from over the course of your grant-making history.

And let’s start there, let’s start with them, and let’s get them the money that they should have had all along, and still continue to fund the predominantly white institutions and all those organizations as well, but let’s prioritize the folks we’ve disinvested from during the course of our giving, I think that’s a really reasonable place to start, and I would be really curious to hear all the whys for why that couldn’t happen. So yeah, I just think that that, that piece of it is just so… It’s just such an easy thing. And I say that as someone who has worked as on a board of a foundation, it’s not brain science, it’s not brain surgery, it really isn’t, it’s just a matter of choice and decision-making power and who has it, and once again, that’s a whole another podcast about who gets to decide moving off of that 6%, and when you look at who those individuals are, it makes sense why that money doesn’t shift.

Emily Ruddock: Michelle, can I ask you, so in that 6%, is that private philanthropy or does that include public funding as well?

Michelle Ramos: That is a private philanthropy number. Yeah.

Emily Ruddock: Okay. So that’s really interesting too. One of the things at MASSCreative that we, we’re really sort of locked in on this piece about public support for the arts, although there’s always that question about how do we advocate to private philanthropy and to private donors as well. But the thing… One of the arguments that we often make, and I guess, Michelle, I’m asking if you agree with this or how you see it sort of fitting, particularly in a region that is under-funded with public dollars, is that when you take the philanthropic, if you take the donor and the donor’s intent away from the investment piece and you put it through a grant program that is designed intentionally to address need through a state agency or through the NEA, where there’s a grant panel of experts and leaders that you actually can remove that piece where cultural organizations are programming to satisfy larger donors versus satisfying community that may or may not be able to give, but certainly are deserving and should be the priority focus of the arts organization.

Michelle Ramos: Sure, absolutely, and I think to respond to that, I will say that I think even with private and state agency NEA, when we’re talking that level of funding, it’s still problematic, because we’ve still got the hoops, we still got the barriers, we’ve still got the… I mean, just the CARES Act with the NEA was so problematic and just completely discounted so many arts organizations and artists across the country, it’s the reason organizations like Alternate Roots exist. We are, for all intents and purposes, the partner to larger philanthropy who help us get money out to people on the ground because they trust us to know where the money goes, but the first response when the pandemic started was, “Oh, we need to get money out. We need to coalesce and get all this money together, and then we need to send it out through the usual channels,” and we were down here going, “Oh no, that… We’re not gonna see any of that money,” And the reason, and I raise that because the reason is because we know, we know the game, we know that application is gonna be defining art excellence, well, what is art excellence if you’re a community organizer who defines himself as an artist, but doesn’t fit a category of artist.

We know that that application is gonna be required written documentation, which is going to advantage people with a higher education, so we know our artists aren’t gonna be competitive in that, and so I say that because the NEA and the state arts agencies and so many, that is the lens and the filter through which they define which art is worthy and which art isn’t, and so while I hear you and I affirm that I think it’s a circuitous way to get that money out of that larger philanthropy into that lower lens, I still think we have the same problems there, because the field is built in a white supremacist framework, and so until that lens, until that filter gets shifted in the state and the local agencies, it’s just gonna be the same, it’s gonna be the same outcome.

Emily Ruddock: Thank you, Michelle. I think that in some ways, to me, that’s the next phase of arts and cultural advocacy, is this real point to be made about how the field is advocating to its state arts agencies to say it’s not simply enough that we raise those dollar amounts, but we examine how those dollars are being distributed and break the systemic under-investment in frankly, black and brown and communities of color. I would also put on that lens, in Massachusetts, there’s a real issue with rural communities as well, and so there are these pieces that are deserving of advocacy that I feel like oftentimes to go to the scarcity piece, we’re like, “Oh, we don’t have time to do that, we just have to ask our lawmakers to raise our annual budget,” as opposed to saying like, “We need to raise that annual budget, and we need to advocate to the NEA to say that when you put out that American rescue plan act funding, we deserve a different system to distribute that money than you did with CARES.”

Marianne Combs: Emily, we’re talking about advocacy, and it seems like there are so many arts organizations, the smaller arts organizations that are out there that are struggling just to raise the money for their own continued existence and to go through the grant-making process only like as soon as they get the grant they have to start applying for the next grant. How do you convince arts organizations with limited resources and time, that advocacy for the greater sector is worthy of their limited time and energy?

Emily Ruddock: Yeah, that is exactly the question and I think it goes back to this question of equity and value, what’s the value for us to engage in this work if we’re not gonna see the benefit. And so one of the pieces I think that MASSCreative really leaned into at the start of the pandemic is saying, “Every time we get an opportunity to meet with a member of the governor’s administration or to sit down with a legislator, we’re gonna bring three to four or five people who tell a variety of stories about the sector, because we wanna make sure that our work is that connective point, and we are also providing opportunity for visibility for more arts leaders and more arts and cultural organizations and artists.” And I think that piece of saying, “It’s not just about write your legislator and don’t worry about it,” but it’s like, no, I need your… We need to work together and we’re gonna work to make sure that your experience, your needs, your community is like, I would say, emergency issues are being considered or being amplified just as loudly as a cultural organization that is well-resourced and has an entire government affairs team.

Our work is to make sure that the entire sector’s voice is amplified, and in some cases, that means raising the volume on parts of it to be that equalizer. And so to answer your question, I think that that’s one of the ways that we demonstrate why it’s important to engage, is like you’re not carrying water for someone else’s issues, another… Someone else’s problems, you’re carrying water for your own problems, and we’re here to carry that water with you.

Marianne Combs: Michelle.

Michelle Ramos: Yeah, I think Emily summed it up perfectly. I think that it’s hard if you’re in a smaller organization, in a smaller city and you’re just barely getting by and you’re like… These folks don’t even have anybody to help write grant agreements, let alone take time out of their week to even respond to an email that’s asking them to send a message to a legislator or to come to DC for arts week, and that’s not even… That’s not a thing, right?

[laughter]

That’s not a thing. That said though, I do think… I think this is where… This is the piece where I think a lot of these larger, predominantly white institutions who are looking to be a part of the change have the opportunity to do that. What does it look like if I’m an on the ground, community-based dance organization, who doesn’t have time to do that in Texas, but the Texas opera has a government affairs person who can be in touch with these organizations and have an understanding of what their needs are, what the issues that they’re looking to do and then help use their labor and their time and their resources to support those artists who are in their inner circle in their cities, in their communities.

That person’s hired, that person’s salary, what does it look like to dispatch that personnel to also support these smaller organizations or help with advocacy things that are important to folks on the ground that are in their community. I think one of the challenges is that we are always so focused on federal arts advocacy, which is important, and nothing happens without that, but then oftentimes that trickle down effect, we’ve got these great state arts coalitions who are out there ready to be activated, ready to do this work, but it’s the how, it’s the resources, and so I feel like that’s one of the ways that these predominantly white institutions could lend their time, money, and resources in support of the other organizations that have been disinvested in.

Marianne Combs: You both seem to think that there is an appetite for that, that there are these major institutions that are looking at this and saying, “Oh, how can I help? I’m gonna dive right in there because I’ve got this abundance mindset and I know there’s plenty for everybody.” Am I crazy to be a little skeptical?

Emily Ruddock: Yeah. [chuckle] I think it goes back to Michelle’s point. Even before the pandemic, again, to use that phrase, as high art-based organizations, we’re realizing that they had to rethink their engagement with community, and we’re thinking about like, “Oh, this isn’t… We wanna diversify our audience… “ How many diversify our audience seminars have we been offered to take. And the quickest way to diversify your audience is to demonstrate relevance, and part of that, one of the things that we ran during the 2020 election was called Create the Vote 2020, and it was about offering and saying to arts and cultural organizations, “You don’t have to engage with a single elected official during this election season or somebody running for office.” What we want you to do is we want you to make sure that you are sharing with your audiences, with your neighborhoods information on how to participate in the census, and ways, the numerous ways that you can mail in your ballot this year, or vote this year.

Emily Ruddock: And it was about… It wasn’t about promoting the arts policy agenda during that election, it was about demonstrating that the arts and cultural sector was committed to civic engagement and voter education and census turnout. And I think those moments where you can say, “We are relevant. We are paying attention to what you care about community,” shifts that piece, so I think there’s… Yes, I don’t think it’s necessarily from a place of altruism, I think it’s from a place of being aware of what people are asking for from their cultural organization.

Marianne Combs: Healthy self-interest.

Emily Ruddock: Yeah. Yeah.

Marianne Combs: Yeah. Michelle, when you look forward and try to envision the future of arts advocacy, what would more inclusive arts advocacy look like?

Michelle Ramos: Well, it wouldn’t look like art advocacy, that’s been going on for years and years and years, I can tell you that. [chuckle] I do think that we are at a place, again, to Emily’s point, where the old ways of working, being doing, showing up a space, it’s just not… It’s, we can’t… It can’t be like that anymore, it has to be horizontal, it has to be at the ground level, it has to be from the ground up. It can’t be from the top down, it can’t be one singular voice representing the entire arts community on Capitol Hill that is just not working or serving us.

We have to be able to be more inclusive, we have to recognize all the tiers and layers that are involved in advocacy from the federal level, all the way down to my neighborhood community co-op, there’s all that levels. There’s all that complexity that the great thing is, is that we have artists in all levels of all of that all across this country. It’s just we haven’t been paying attention to like three-quarters of that tier, the focus has been on this top tier here, so I think that looking forward, and honestly, this is already starting to happen, there are already coalitions, multiple coalitions of people convening, coming together, trying to figure this out, trying to understand how do we take it out of a top-down singular voice to a network streamline, transparent process that allows everybody’s voice at the table that is advocating for all levels, and that is finally giving room and space for voices who have never been able to be at that advocacy table, and how do we do that? How do we make that space? And how do we lift up and amplify those voices.

So I’m a glass is half full girl, and I just really, truly believe that if we just stick in and we do this work and we get folks engaged and we try to break down all those barriers and walls, that both have been set up societally for us, that make those distinctions, but also just help our sector to understand that we’re all in this together, that is the path forward, and we have to be committed to that at all levels.

Marianne Combs: Emily, what are the biggest obstacles to building public will for the arts?

Emily Ruddock: I think there’s a lot of preconceived notions about who is and who is not included in that space. I will never forget when I… A member of Congress said he grew up with his face pressed against the glass of one of our leading museums. He didn’t think the space was for him because he came up from a working class family. There is this long history of the arts colluding with exclusion and propping up a singular cultural experience. And the damage that that has done is that many people say, “That’s not me. I don’t want to engage in that. I am not an artist, I do not care about the arts.” And so I think that we have a lot of work to do to shift that perception. And so I think that shifting the conversation to say, “We all enjoy art and culture, whether you call it arts and culture or not.” There’s no one definition of an artist, there’s no one definition of cultural organizational space.

One of my favorite groups in Boston is The Record Co, and what they envision is they wanna create a basketball court for recording artists. They wanna make recording music as easy to do as walk into your local park with a basketball and shooting hoops. And I think that kind of shift of mindset to be like, “Look, this is… “ It doesn’t matter if you’re the virtuosic performer but if you enjoy doing it… You should be able to shoot hoops because you like it, not because you’re gonna be the next Michael Jordan, and the same thing goes with playing music or any of those pieces.

Marianne Combs: In contrast to the biggest obstacles, Michelle, where have you seen the greatest progress in arts advocacy?

Michelle Ramos: think the thing that resonates as it always has, is stories. I think it’s people telling their stories, I think it’s people connecting with a story that someone is telling them. It’s the reason that folks are taken up to Capital Hill and ask to speak one-on one with legislators to try to resonate with them about something that hits at the heart. And I know it sounds so cliche, but storytelling is such an important tool, and I think we have under-utilized it in the arts. And I don’t know if that comes from the arts ideal world of trying to be a perfectionist, or trying to be perfect, or trying to be excellent in all these things. So we don’t wanna show our flaws, we don’t wanna show our humanity, and so I feel like that piece of it is to me, the most important part of the solution for moving forward.

We have to be able to, Emily’s point, help people to see artists as human beings, as part of the cultural and community fabric and recognize like, yeah, the guy next door that takes out his saxophone and annoys the heck out of us playing at 10 o’clock at night is an artist, and he doesn’t need all the bells and whistles and the affirmations and the awards and all the things, that guy is an artist. And he may not even see himself as an artist but when he does, he is also going to be part of that equation of helping us to figure all of this out, but we have to recognize artists in all of their beings, and not just what we’ve traditionally historically have defined artists to be.

Marianne Combs: Emily, anything you wanna add to that?

Emily Ruddock: Yeah, I am obsessed with looking at other sectors and other movements. That’s the thing I just want us to take a page from, and this goes back to Michelle’s point about not having a singular voice. If we look to the environmental movement into a climate justice framework, if we look at housing and housing advocacy, there’s not one organization in every state that’s charged to do that. There’s not one organization for the nation that’s charged to do that. There are many people at the table who are representing unique and specific things as well as joining together towards a larger whole. And that’s what I’m really focused on here in Massachusetts, is the piece about how does MASSCreative hold space for more advocacy, arts and cultural advocacy to occur that is in coalition and partnership with us, but also has its own agenda?

That’s okay. It’s okay if we disagree sometimes or focus… I think this piece about focusing on a specific part of the work and building coalition around a specific part of the work, because when there’s more diversity in our advocacy efforts, we’ll see wins like I think other sectors have seen. I think that that’s one of the things that I’m really, as I look ahead, continuing to really try to prioritize is this, no one person has the answer and there is no one silver bullet policy, argument or policy, the public policy that we should all be getting on board with, there’s a lot out there. So how do we find focus but how do we also advance a number of things at the same time.

Marianne Combs: I wanna leave this conversation with an action item for the people who are listening right now, for the arts administrators, artists, culture makers who are thinking about activism and advocating for the arts in their own town or in their own state level. What one thing would you recommend that they do, if they’re looking either for a place to start or just what do you think is most key in terms of their practice, in terms of advocating for the arts?

Emily Ruddock: I have a laundry list, Marianne. Can I have more than one? Is that okay? [chuckle]

Marianne Combs: Of course you can.

Emily Ruddock: So I think the first thing I would say is, look up who your elected officials are and know who your school committee members are, your select person or your city counselors, your state reps, and then your members of congress. Today’s school committee member… Literally in Massachusetts, the Senate President of our legislature started out on the school committee. So today’s school committee member or library trustee is probably tomorrow’s… Is gonna hold more power and hold more elected office tomorrow. And so looking up who those people are, getting familiar with them. I follow most of them on social media just to get a sense of what they’re talking about, what they care about, is the first step.

The second step is every single elected official in Massachusetts, and I think a good deal across the country offer opportunities for coffee hours or office hours or Zoom hours. And you would be surprised the number of times arts and cultural representation happens in those sort of pre-planned coffee hours. It’s very, very low. Barely anyone is talking about it. We need to show up more. It’s probably a 30-minute commitment of just going in and saying, “My name is Emily, I’m the assistant production manager at the local theater down the street, and I just want you to know who I am. I want you know I vote in your district, and I care about the arts, and I’m an arts worker.” So those are a couple. Know who they are, follow them on social media, find out where they are and begin a relationship.

Marianne Combs: Michelle.

Michelle Ramos: Be aware too of what’s happening at the federal level. And don’t be intimidated, and I say this all the time as someone who is based in the south, who represents artists who live in… And I don’t mean to get all political but let’s be real, who live in red states, who a lot of legislatures and folks are not supporters of the arts. A lot of times I think people give up. I think they say, “Oh well, I don’t know, I’m just… My congressman doesn’t care about the arts. What’s the point of me going?” No, you have to believe in your story and you have to believe in your art form to be able to just go anyway, because you just never know when your story resonates with somebody and changes their mind. If you don’t have the capacity, which so many arts organizations and artists don’t have, to be able to take the time to go to that council meeting, to go to that coffee hour. Being engaged with the federal level can be as easy as subscribing to Performing Arts Alliance and these other advocacy organizations who will send out an alert and say, “Hey, this thing is happening in your state today, click this button and hit send, and it will send a letter to your Congress person.” So that it’s low threshold capacity but still allows you to have a voice at the table.

Emily Ruddock: The other thing I would say is, there’s a state arts advocacy organization in almost every state. There are organizations like Alternate Roots in many states and many regions. And that’s another piece of this, is do that Google search and find us in your neighborhood, because that’s a way that you are going to better understand how you can be in service towards a more equitable creative sector.

Michelle Ramos: Absolutely. That kinda goes back to that piece that I was talking about earlier. And again, this is happening, this is happening right now as we speak, and I am a part of, through a number of coalitions of conversations that are bubbling up as a result of everything that we’ve seen over the course of the past year and a half, and really working to create this network of organizations across the country at all entry levels who want to and are so hungry to not only lead this work, move this work forward, but also challenge the traditional way that advocacy has always been done in this country, which has predominantly served institutions that don’t look like them.

And so I think that my message is, is for funders, for people who are interested in finding out about how we do more advocacy and do it well, and for people who are hungry to know how can we do this in a different way moving forward, because frankly, we simply just have to, to support the field and to grow and strengthen the field. Then find out, find these coalitions, fund them, support them, give them resources, give them spaces to meet in, and let’s get these networks growing and moving forward, so that the artists are their own voice at the table and this work is happening from the ground up, which is the way it should have always been from the beginning.

Marianne Combs: Was that just like the best ending of this conversation? Oh my gosh. That was beautiful. Michelle, Emily, thank you so much for this conversation. I’ve learned a ton and I just thank you so much for your work in the field.

Emily Ruddock: Thank you.

Michelle Ramos: Thank you so much, it was a pleasure to be here.

Marianne Combs: You’ve been listening to Filling the Well. Our guests for this episode were Michelle Ramos, Executive Director of Alternate Roots, and Emily Ruddock, Executive Director of MASSCreative. I’m your host, Marianne Combs. Want to dig deeper into the ideas behind this episode? Visit the arts Midwest ideas hub, a collection of free curated articles and tools to help creative leaders foster growth within their organizations and communities. Go to artsmidwest.org/ideas for more. This podcast was produced and edited by Emily Goldberg and mixed by Eric Romani with original music by Dameun Strange. The Filling the Well series is made possible with financial support from the Bar Foundation based in Boston. The Bar Foundation’s mission is to invest in human, natural and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.

Episode 5: Resource Sharing & Authentic Community Collaborations

Have a challenge that needs a creative solution? Rural arts practitioners Anne O’Keefe-Jackson and Ashley Hanson have a simple idea: ask your neighbor! Learn about their collaborations and ideas to improve quality of life through resource-sharing. Spoiler, you can do it too! 

Listen Now

Side by side headshots of Anne O’Keefe-Jackson and Ashley Hanson
Photo by: Anne O’Keefe-Jackson, Ashley Hanson

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson
Executive Director, Mni Sota Arts

Ashley Hanson
Founder & Executive Director, Department of Public Transformation

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson is the executive director of Mni Sota Arts, a mobile resource center that provides traditional materials to indigenous artists in rural areas. She’s an enrolled member of the Lower Sioux Indian Community and lives on her reservation in Morton, MN with her husband, three children, and three dogs. Anne recently graduated from the Southwest Initiative Foundation’s Initiators Fellowship which provides support to promising early-stage social entrepreneur-leaders in southwest Minnesota. She received her undergraduate degree in marketing and American Indian studies from Augsburg College and her masters’ in business and leadership from Augsburg University. Anne currently serves on the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council Board and is an artist and advocate of the arts.

Ashley Hanson is a social practice theater artist, community organizer, and advocate for arts in rural areas. She is the Founder and Executive Director of the Department of Public Transformation, an artist-led organization that collaborates with local artists and civic leaders in rural areas to develop creative strategies for community connection and civic participation. She is also the Founder and Director of PlaceBase Productions, a theater company that creates original, site-specific musicals exploring complex realities of small-town life. She was named an Obama Foundation Fellow and Bush Foundation Fellow for her work with rural communities. She is a firm believer in the power of people, places, play, and exclamation points!

Transcript: Episode 4

Resource Sharing & Authentic Community Collaborations

Marianne Combs: Welcome to Filling the Well, a podcast created to nourish, provoke and inspired artists and arts leaders. I’m Marianne Combs. For arts organizations to not just survive but thrive, collaboration is key, particularly in areas that receive less financial support, the ability to pool resources can compound the impact of arts organizations and cultural programs. In this episode, we’re going to look at how small arts organizations in rural areas are making themselves indispensable by filling in gaps and community resources, and we’ll discuss best practices for authentic collaboration. Our guest today are two collaborators based in west central Minnesota. Ash Hanson is the founder of the theater company, PlaceBase Productions, and the executive director of the Department of Public transformation in Granite Falls. The Department of Public transformation uses arts and culture to enliven rural communities. Anne O’Keefe Jackson is the executive director of Mini Sota Arts, a mobile resource center that provides traditional materials to indigenous artists in rural areas. She’s an enrolled member of the Lower Sioux Indian community and lives on a reservation in Morton. Anne and Ash have been working together over the past year sharing resources and cultural expertise. Welcome to both of you, and thanks so much for joining me.

Ash Hanson: Thanks for having us.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Oh, thank you

Marianne Combs: First to you Ash, what exactly does the Department of Public transformation do?

Ash Hanson: So we are an organization that uplifts and celebrates rural arts and cultural workers, really around the country, we’re based in Granite Falls, and we have a number of projects that amplify rural communities through arts and cultural work in and with Granite Falls community in the 18 county Southwestern Minnesota region, but we also do a lot of connecting, networking, resource sharing with rural arts and cultural workers across the country, so we see rural artists and cultural workers, culture bears as essential in the future of rural communities, and so we do what we can to help connect and support and lift up the work that’s happening, and to also pilot, try and launch new programs that give opportunities for rural artists to intersect with the public realm, the civic realm, social life, connecting and providing more cohesion in rural communities, especially in this time of isolation and polarity that we find ourselves in.

Marianne Combs: And, specifically, I wanna talk about the Department of Public transformations YES! House. Can you talk a little bit about what YES! House does, and what it is.

Ash Hanson: Yeah, YES! House is an economic development concept, so we are… It’s an artist-led design build process. We held a year-long community engagement process, inviting residents from the region in to explore what the space could be through artist-led activities, and worked with a couple of incredible architects, Miranda Moen and James Aronson, who are really the people-centered architects to then take those ideas and turn them into design community, share back. And then we’re now in the community build process, which will include a series of Build workshops over the course of the next year, and getting folks in the door to help actually put the nails in the walls of this space that we are building together, and it’s a multi-use space, though there’s residents for visiting artists and the City artists and residents, we’ve got a performance venue, recording studio, yoga studio, gallery space, co-working space, and artist workshop. So these are some of the ideas that came out of the community design process and trying to put them all into one building.

Marianne Combs: Anne tell us about your traditional arts bus that you are working on and how it’s connecting communities.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Well, being in such a rural area when we wanted to focus on traditional art forms and helping artists with what they need for supplies, it’s just really difficult to find some of the materials that you might need, brain tan hides or porcupine quills readily available. And even to find those on internet would be somewhat… You’re putting faith in something that is very… A traditional piece of art to come in the mail or materials to come in the mail that you’re kinda like trying to find resources. And so we really wanted to provide connections for people to be able to create art and really support artists so that they continue their work. Also providing space for them or resources for them of different funding opportunities for financial support as artist, different opportunities such as the stuff that we’ve done with Ashley and different fellowships that they could be involved in to help support them as an artist, where they’re doing their work.

Marianne Combs: It sounds like you’ve had great success in getting native made cultural work, whether it’s literature or handcrafts into the hands of people who want to be buying from the indigenous community.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: I think it’s important that really what we wanted to represent was just all native art, so that you know these are authentically made and that you’ll have a little bit of a history on who made this. A lot of times whenever I’m given… Nice enough to given a gift, but I like to know who created it, who’s the artist behind it, where they’re from, where they live, so you have a little bit more of a connection to that piece of work. So yeah, we’ve been very lucky for the few events that we did do, really having a lot of connection with people with the native books of native authors, contemporary as well as historical information, but really of putting… Really a connection with native people and being able to see that in contemporary space as well as traditional art forms.

Marianne Combs: And you’re also taking it to the level of food and community as it relates to providing food to community. Can you talk a little bit about what your plans are in that area?

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Well, our many so to arts is a non-profit, and so part of trying to figure out how can we fund a lot of the work that we wanna do, not only just through finding grants and funds, but also to have an LLC that we created Wana Wota for a food, little food truck. So most of the gathering spaces that we have where we would sell our art and connect with artists and community, it’s really based also on sharing a meal together, sharing food and that connection that we make as well. So, we also started LLC for Wana Wota, and so we’ve done a few events with food, and we really wanna just create that space where a community gather where you can eat together at the same time, possibly hopefully have a portable art show, gallery space that would move with the art bus, so that you can bring gallery and connection of artist to different venues all over the place, so it doesn’t have to be an actual physical building per se.

Marianne Combs: What I think is so interesting about both of your projects is that it’s founded entirely on collaboration, neither one of your programs would exist without this notion of collaboration, you’re providing resources and serving as artistic catalysts in the region where you live. And I think we often think of rural areas as being at a disadvantage when it comes to support for the arts, but when it comes to collaboration, I’m wondering, are there advantages to working in rural as opposed to urban areas? Ash, what are your thoughts.

Ash Hanson: Yes, I think that this idea of the practice of neighboring and what neighboring looks like in rural communities really enhances how we collaborate, we know each other in wearing our multiple hats, and so it’s like, yes, your friends, yes, you’re the mayor. Yes, you’re also the editor. Yes, you’re also… There is just… You show up in a lot of rooms wearing a lot of different hats, and those folks who are really active and really involved on a regional level are often in the same spaces together, and you get to know each other in this relational way, so you have your working relationship, but you also hang out at bonfires together, and I think that that’s kind of part of… Not that that doesn’t happen in the city, but I feel like that kind of tightly woven community effort in rural communities is it makes its way into professional and artistic collaborations as well.

Ash Hanson: And then this point that you mentioned, Marianne, of like… And we need each other, and we need each other because the resources are less available in some instances, and that we have a lot of geographic spread that we have to reach out to and meet, so there’s that to contend with as well, and so we’re always trying to kind of connect with people across the region to expand our programming as well.

Marianne Combs: Anne when you think about collaboration, what are some of the advantages or strengths that rural communities bring to collaboration?

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Well, I think it’s really helpful, even if you’re living 45 minutes away, we know a lot of the same people, and it’s much easier to get involved and to actually connect with other people. It’s beyond just the work you do, it’s personally connecting with people, and so they say, look at what someone’s doing and their effort, and pretty soon they start connecting and talking to other people, so pretty soon, the whole town knows what you’re doing, what you’re trying to do, and so it’s so much easier to support people when you get to know them on that personal connection and is able to get support and backing for your efforts as well is because people wanna support growth and see that personal connection in each other, so I think that’s why it’s so important with a collaboration and so much to me, it seems easier as a rural opportunity much more than in the city.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: I think for me, even though I grew up in Minneapolis even I feel much more at a loss on how to connect and how to get involved, but at home in Lower Sioux or even in this rural in the 18 counties, I see the work they’re doing at opera houses, I see the work that Ashley is doing. I see… They’re so much easier to get involved and support each other, and it feels much more on a personal level. Even as artists, I know in my community, I know families that are artists, so I know the parents, I know their kids that are starting to do art work, so you just have a different level of connectivity with each other, that helps.

Marianne Combs: Now, the two of you are also collaborating, you mentioned. Talk a little bit about the collaboration. What are you doing together?

Ash Hanson: I can start and then Anne I’d love to pass it over to you. So there are three projects that we’ve been collaborating on since 2020, since spring of 2020, and I’ve been a fan girl of Anne’s for a number of years [chuckle] orbiting around, and there was… Right when the pandemic started this organization that Anne and I both worked with called Racing Magpie, that’s based in Rapid City, launched a virtual artist residence program right away, rapidly responding to the impacts of COVID and Peter Strong and Mary Bordeaux who run that organization… Again, this kind of rural network of collaborators, like yes, we have our local collaborators, but then this national network of like hi we’re out here doing this work, and there’s this really strong base and so yeah, I reached out to Peter and Mary and said, we’d love to do something similar in Southwestern Minnesota. We wanna do something to support and connect artists in this time, and Mary and Peter were like, yeah, well, as a white-led organization, if you wanna work with indigenous artists, you better be ready for a long-term partnership in a deep and meaningful way, and you need partners who are native-led organizations, and I was like, this is an awesome opportunity for me to reach out to some people that I really would have wanted to work with, including Anne and Eileen.

Ash Hanson: And sister who runs the… Is the Executive Director of the Dakota Wicohan. So two organizations that again I’ve have been following and loving from a distance, so we together Minnesota arts, Dakota Wicohan and Racing Magpie Department of Public transformation collaborated on the Dakota Community Artist in Residence program that was in the summer of 2020, and we selected three artists and supported their efforts in addressing the impacts of the pandemic on their communities, both the upper and lower Sioux community, it was a really successful beautiful program, and so we wanted to expand it, and so then we thought, what would it look like to include too, all BIPOC artists so if you are black artists and artists of color, in addition to indigenous and native artists in our region to really lift up BIPOC rural artists.

Ash Hanson: So, we began the process of designing the expansion of what that would look like, that’s been this year, and we just launched that call in November of 2021, and selected our artists at the end of this year here. And then the third piece is we run another little collective called the Women’s Empowerment creative action network, and it’s an event series and Anne partnered with us on our most recent event, which highlighted Oogie Push it’s called The Adventures of a traveling Meskwaki, and Minnesota Arts was our event partner and Anne moderated the Q&A another opportunity for us to deepen the relationships and understanding and connection of native culture in our region, and connect it to kind of more broadly the Midwest native indigenous folks in the Midwest at large, we had… That we have some really fun things that we’ve been dreaming about in the works for the future too, but those are the three that we most recently partnered on.

Marianne Combs: That’s great. Anne what do you get out of this partnership?

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Well, it’s definitely a mutual admiration with Ashley because I’ve watched the work that she’s done, and she’s done her homework as well, I love that Mary and Peter gave you that little heads up on what’s gonna have to happen, because Ashley has paid attention to that on really connecting with relationships and creating that… And definitely that ongoing process of not just like, hey, let’s do one project together, but what are we gonna do for the future, and how are we gonna work together. And so it’s been a wonderful experience because Ashley brings a lot of different resources, like I’m just starting out and growing, and so I don’t have any physical space, one of the things that we’ve talked about hopefully in the future is a shared gallery space, and then also featuring an artist or storyteller to come into the areas, so how can we feature that, so she’s been very generous with her support and help and the different connections that we’ve made, so I think it’s essential, especially for myself as starting out as a non-profit, I need to have a little more connections to resources at this time, so it’s been invaluable to me, and not only that, but also helping watch both her organization and Racing Magpie experience with having artists in residency, having that much more AV and technical experience [chuckle] than myself on how do you do these virtual sessions, what’s the best way and different methods, so it’s been a great learning experience for me.

Marianne Combs: And Ash, What are you getting out of this collaboration?

Ash Hanson: Really? Wise friendships? [laughter] Keep us held accountable. And again, enrich and deepen the programs that we’re offering, and this is generational healing work and decolonizing efforts, and knowing that you have collaborators that are working together and learning, I’m learning so much, learning so so much and just always humbled and honored to be in space with Anne and Aileen, and Peter and Mary, and my own efforts of decolonizing my mind and myself at our organization at large, in addition to that it’s these friendships that are developing and beginning to dream together of what does our region really need and how can we support each other.

Ash Hanson: I think that one of the things that we started offering right away was fiscal sponsorship for rural arts organizations, because it is really hard to launch a non-profit and not everybody needs it for every project. So that was one of the other ways, Anne and I worked together early on it’s just that kind of the bridge while you’re waiting for your paperwork, but you wanna apply for some grants, like how can we help each other out with that and those resources, and then the same thing it’s like, maybe not everybody needs this particular program to be run in there with their organization, but if you partner on it and you can deepen it and broaden it, expand it with partners that seems to work well in rural spaces because of just the population size, however many people are gonna be involved, and then how spread out everybody is, you wanna be able to connect with more people, and so I think it’s that networking piece, it’s the relational piece, and then the opportunity for the wisdom shared is most appreciated, most appreciative of that.

Marianne Combs: There are often subtle and not so subtle power dynamics in collaborative projects, and one institution might have the money and structural capacity while the other institution provides the cultural expertise and authenticity. What do you recommend people do and not do when it comes to approaching other arts organizations to collaborate, what are some of the best and worst practices in entering into this kind of a relationship?

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Well, I think for myself has been continued growth with a relationship with Ashley and Mary and Peter, really developing that friendship and relationship and trust, that’s usually sometimes been the piece for me for collaboration where I’ve kind of step kind aback is because I’m not sure others approach on cultural sensitivity on connectedness of really being authentic with their artists and what the motive is to have them there, and it’s to educate and it’s really to enlighten people, and that to me is what I’m looking for, and so I think that’s just really the growth and I see that as also the… What would be the pitfall? If you just show up and they wanna put your name on a grant application, but really you’re not doing any work together and you’re not really working together, and there’s really no shared benefit from both organizations, then I would definitely stay away from that, but I’ve really appreciated the growth and the friendship at the same time.

Marianne Combs: Ash, how about you? I know you’ve had experience with working as a rural arts organization, with partnering with urban, larger metro-based arts organizations. Does that have its own power dynamics?

Ash Hanson: Yeah, absolutely, and I think… Just ditto and echo everything that Anne said, I think… A couple of little tangibles. Yes, have relationships throughout, so it’s not that you’re just tapping when you’re doing a grant application, as you mentioned. But then also in the design of it, in the writing of the application, in the early, early stages, in the thinking about it, like I am considering maybe applying for something like this, talking to your friends and partners before it’s due tomorrow. [laughter] Which is… Sometimes that happens. And then in the design of it and the language of it and in the feel and how we invite people in, that’s… We had multiple design meetings for both IGNITE rural and Dakota community artists and residents before we even got the logo together, just to kind of… What is the feel of this and how are we… What do we want this program to really do and be? So I think that early connection is key and ongoing connection is key, the in-between projects, the before projects. And I think with urban institutions, our experience has not been necessarily that way either. It’ll be… We’ll get a phone call or email from somebody who says, “Hey, we got an arts tour grant, can we bring our show to your community? Is it… What’s it called Rock Falls?” And you’re like, “Okay.” [laughter]

Marianne Combs: That must be frustrating.

Ash Hanson: Yeah, you’re like, “Well, I really think this is a great opportunity, but there’s like, it would have been really nice if maybe you would have called us first or something before you wrote us into the grant or came and visited.” One of the things that really gets me is visiting, I love to visit, I love to spend time with folks. I know it’s harder right now to be in person with each other, but when I do get a request from a larger urban institution to collaborate or partner on something, my first request is that they come for a visit. I’m like, “That sounds great. Why don’t you come out, see us, meet us in our space.” And most of the time, then the emails go silent. It’s like, “That’s a long drive.” Or it’s rare to get that reciprocal exchange, but often we are expected to come to the cities for lots of things. And yes, it’s a five-hour round trip drive for me as well as you, and you have more resources than me. [laughter] Where’s the sharing here? So I think it’s really important for urban organizations who are thinking about touring, partnering with rural organizations becoming state-wide or offering state-wide programming, or strengthening your state-wide programming.

Ash Hanson: I think a lot of folks stay state-wide, but are really metro-centric. Do some road trips, just come visit when you don’t have a project on, just do that research, do that homework and come have a cup of coffee with us and see what’s going on, so that later, you can have a more authentic connection with folks in… Outside of the metro area.

Marianne Combs: Yeah, I’m hearing from both of you, trust and time, that these are two key factors in collaboration, is that taking the time. And also this sense that it’s not a one-off that you don’t come to us thinking you’re just gonna do this one project, but this is… If you’re gonna invest in us, let’s make this a relationship where we continue to invest in each other over a long period of time. Does that sound right?

Ash Hanson: Yeah.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Definitely, I think so, yeah. I’ve been lucky to get to know Ashley a little bit more than she knows about probably. But I’ve really seen authentically how she does her approach to different partnerships that she’s trying to create. But I think that’s terribly important, is the time and the relationship, the energy.

Marianne Combs: What advice do you give people who are seeking to connect, but maybe are scared to do it the wrong way? That in terms of going down the path of collaboration and partnership, who are maybe used to spending the majority of time just struggling to keep themselves alive as opposed to partnering with somebody else and investing time in another organization.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: I think for myself, it helps me to be a little bit more accountable for my portion of the relationship. If I’m by myself, usually I’m like, “Uh, I wonder if I should apply for this funding. I wonder if I should do this.” But I love that working both with Ashley and Mary and Peter, that I’ve been able to bounce ideas off of them, when we’re trying to think of, “Would this work?” Or even if there’s something coming up from a film maker that I wanted to talk to Ashley about, I think that would be amazing for that community. So it just allows you to really, I think, expand your ideas of your possibilities, and then especially if someone has great shared space that you can use or help collaborate with, ‘cause if not, you’re really limited on what you could do for shows, how many people you could have attend.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: And I think that would feel like a barrier, if you didn’t have an actual physical space, you just wouldn’t apply to do these different things where I know if I can work with Ashley, or if I ever get out to Rapid, and Mary and Peter have a beautiful new space, there’s opportunity there. And so I think that’s just part of that growth process. Even if you’re not ready right now, eventually, I hope my organization will be ready to do something and be totally reciprocal as well, and having space in Morton down at Lower Sioux here too, for them to come in this space as well. So that it’s not just for myself, but it’s really a collaboration of how we’re gonna work together in the future, and I think that’s really important. And I haven’t found that with a lot of organizations, so I don’t think this is something that’s easily replicated as well, but just really putting the time into relationships and getting to know people really well, having an understanding of how they approach this work and have an appreciation for that.

Marianne Combs: Ash about you?

Ash Hanson: Yeah, that’s what I appreciate so much about working with Anne is… Too is this deepening of the efforts that you might start to cook up, and then when you get to brainstorm and daydream with other folks who also have values that are aligned with yours, and hopes for your community that are similar, that it’s going to be better, it’s going to be better. And it takes time. And I think one of the things that, like you mentioned that might keep people from collaborating on that level is where does the time come from, if you’re super strafed, scrappy young start-up non-profit. But if you do invest in that way, then you do have more hands on deck, more minds in the… The cooks in the kitchen, making the recipe better. And then your program project, your space, whatever it is, is going to end up being much richer and much more meaningful and actually do what it’s set out to do.

Ash Hanson: And I think the wisdom that Anne brings into the room when we are doing a design process together, it’s invaluable, and it’s this… You learn a lot more than you would doing it on your own as a collaborator as well. So I think you’re investing more long-term in a lot of ways, in other people, but also in yourself. One thing I wanted to say about that time piece too, is just that thinking about how our systems and our structures keep us from that. Our kind of white supremacist, perfectionist and philanthropic structures keep us from having the time and space needed to really make deep and meaningful connections and…

Marianne Combs: Say more about that. That’s… I find that fascinating.

[laughter]

Ash Hanson: Well, I… There’s never… I don’t know of any. Rarely is there ever a grant that will just give you time and space to make connections with people to become friends. So earlier when we said it would be great to know people before you apply for a grant with their organization. Yes, making friends with folks is very vital and your time is very limited. So if there were more opportunities in philanthropy to either loosen up what operating looks like, so operating support could be like 10% of your time is just in partnership and relationship building, but it’s paid for, so you can build it into your work week, that you can higher your… You can tell your staff, yes, that coffee you’re having with that person is paid time. Yes, that… The kind of grey hours between work and social where you’re having a beer with the chamber of commerce director, and it’s not work, but it is, but you’re, “Do I… Am I getting paid for this? But you’re my friend, but also that messy stuff.” Just know it is, it’s all part of the work and life and art and it’s connected.

Ash Hanson: But if there were more resources to really invest in that kind of relationship building upfront, then you would have less of this, “Oh my god, the grant’s due tomorrow, do you wanna partner on this thing?” And people going, “No, I don’t even know. You never reached out to me before.” So I think that it needs to come from the ground up, but it can also be supported from the structures of financial resources that we have in philanthropy and public funding.

Marianne Combs: What are the biggest stumbling blocks to productive collaboration, aside from the fact that time is a limited resource, and you’re not getting funding to build relationships specifically? Are there other major stumbling blocks you’ve encountered in terms of making collaborations work?

Ash Hanson: I think the communication and clarity, clarity of roles, yes, but also just like what the intention of the collaboration is. It’s like, “Oh, this is what I… Actually just for this part, this part of this thing.” We’re being very clear of what’s expected, seeing a lot of our time is really limited. So sometimes you can have a collaboration that’s really deep and really entrenched, we’re in it together from the whole project, and then it’s like, “You know what, I really need you at these four meetings. And I… “ But that really works best when you already have a relationship, so that it’s… The accountability piece is there, that it’s not tokenizing someone and that’s not extractive, that it’s like, “I’m respecting your time, and I know that this is where we can offer, whatever a partner statement. Or we can know that your time is valuable, so we wanna make sure that it’s in these areas where you have the most interest.” And I think then that kind of communication outward too, externally of being clear with the rest of your community or your stakeholders what this collaboration is and why is another, I think stumbling block too, of just clarity around the intentions of the collaboration internally and externally.

Marianne Combs: What have been some of the biggest rewards that have come to you from collaboration? When you look back at the collaborations you’ve had, or maybe surprise benefits that you didn’t expect, but arose because of a successful collaboration?

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: I think for myself, it would just be that, it’s just a continued process. I’m even kind of surprised, how long have I really known Ashley? I watched her from afar, ‘cause I… A big dream of mine was always to have a building and a space, and I see Ashley and what she’s doing in her community and even the ability to really do a lot of outreach. Some people say they do outreach and community involvement, but that’s sometimes a questionnaire or something. But this is actual physical being in the space, asking, getting feedback, making changes and being open to a different outcome. So I guess I think it’s just that it’s surprising me how it still continues to evolve. Ashley had offered when I was first starting out to actually sit down physically with me and help me write out my non-profit paperwork, which no one’s ever done except Ashley. [chuckle]

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: So, but here I’m willing to make that commitment into you, and then it just continued to evolve from there. And so I’m always just surprised that as we continue to move, how it continues to grow and change. I continue to get resources from Ashley and from other… From Mary and Peter like, “Here, here are some different funding resources. I think this would be a great opportunity for you. What are your thoughts about this?” So it’s just like it continues to evolve, you trust those relationships that you have, and so you know that they’re a good resource for you. Their connections that they have to other people, would probably be really helpful and beneficial for you as an organization. So just trusting that whole process has been really surprising to me, and it’s continued to evolve, so it’s not so narrow, it’s really about the relationships.

Marianne Combs: How about you Ash?

Ash Hanson: I’ve… Yeah, I wanna again ditto everything that Anne said, and then thinking about the next level of relationships too. It’s like the relationships with your collaborators, but then also the networks that your collaborators and friends bring to the table. One of the biggest challenges, I think for lots arts organizations, but I think in rural areas is, “How do you get the word out? How do people find out about what you’re doing?” And yes, you need like seven different forms of communication and seven different taps on people’s shoulders. And so having a couple of other folks in your network that are like, “Hey, here’s the thing that my friends are doing.” Or, “Here’s something that seems interesting.” Is key to the success of… You’re reaching the people that you wanna connect with and broadening and expanding your relationships. And you have your tight-nit collaborators, but then seeing the ripple effects in the circles… Within the circles is strengthening that base and helping to invite more people into those kinds of longer-term collaborations. So I think that that’s something that has been a beautiful, maybe unintended benefit, is just, making friends of friends or connecting with new artists to invite into working with our organization or in our different events or programs, is that our collaborators also have their collaborators and we can kind of continue to expand it together.

Ash Hanson: It makes me wonder if arts organizations are better at collaboration or not. As a question. Because I… What you just said Anne about being willing to enter a process and not knowing… Having… Being open to change, I think it’s like theater artists, like generative theater artists, that’s kind of the name of the game. You invite people in, and you work shop it together and you don’t really know what the outcome is gonna be, so maybe that’s a good… That’s a good collaborative skill. But I just… I’m just… That makes me curious, are arts organizations more set up for success for collaborations or less? Who knows? I guess we’ll find out. [laughter]

Marianne Combs: Looking forward, you mentioned earlier funding of course, and funding is always a big one. But what would be helpful or key to improving your ability to collaborate with others? What would make collaboration easier? Or should it be easier, isn’t the work part of what makes it so important?

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Well, I think it depends, I guess, on what the work is. To me, it’s the artists that we work with, and the communities that we work with, it’s extremely meaningful to me. And so for that… For me, that’s worth the effort, that’s worth the time, that’s worth everything, that’s worth not getting paid, that’s worth… It’s just, that’s worth it. To invest in people and to invest in place and want to make a difference and a change, so that’s worth it. So I can’t imagine it being too easy and I probably wouldn’t do it. I was like, “Oh, this is so easy and it’s so easy to come by, not a big deal.” But to me, I love going to small communities, see what they offer, see how they connect with their community. It’s a different level sometimes. I relate it maybe somewhat to coffee shops, where you have these gathering spaces too, where people connect and people… It really has a sense of community, and how they reach out to people, or how they collaborate, or how they… What they offer, I just think is extremely interesting to me.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: And so to me that’s worth the effort, it’s worth the time, it’s worth the collaboration, it’s worth the growth. Because I’m hoping it will be long-term, it won’t be short and easy and quick, and I don’t think it’d be as impactful than if it’s not or not as meaningful to me anyways.

Ash Hanson: That’s such a good point, yeah. I think that intentional informal spaces, like if you think about conferences or things like that, that used to be a thing, [laughter] and I… But I don’t know if it’s this opportunity just to get to know each other’s work on a state-wide level. The rural to rural exchanges, I think are really important. And then I think, again, thinking about if urban organizations are interested in collaborating with rural, or even supporting rural collaborations. Even stepping out of the way and providing resources for rural to rural exchanges, if those resources are more available in urban areas. So yeah, that intentional informal space for relationship building and space, and again, yeah, time and resources, whether it’s funding for that intentional informal relationship building space would be really vital.

Marianne Combs: I guess, and this is just off the top of my head, but I’m just thinking about issues of state-wide infrastructure. Are there things that are being neglected that if they weren’t being neglected, would support you in doing your work better?

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Well, I think this comes up a lot of times for grant funding. I know Ashley and I have had this conversation with artists that apply for grants. And even being on committees and everything else, I understand the logistics of these hard border lines of fundable and non-fundable. Literally, you can move across the street and not be fundable from somebody else. Where there’s all these structure lines that happen, even we see that as, for Dakota community, for exiled Dakota people who live outside of the state of Minnesota boundaries. Of how that… Really, I’ve been where people have gotten to talk to the State Arts Board about understanding the relationship, why you would bring artists in from Landry, South Dakota. Why would you… It’s like not understanding the historical nature of the relationship and all the political and colonization that’s happened to the state of how we look at these structures. And so I really… I… It’s hard to be hard and fast with these rules when you’re on grant committees.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Of like, what’s fundable, what’s not fundable. Where you live, where you’re not included in that area? Instead of really the contribution that different artists can bring or the collaboration efforts that can happen that are outside of these boundary lines that are created. I think that would be… I think that taking away some of that would be… Just open up more possibilities.

Marianne Combs: Do you think that there are misconceptions that people have about quality of life and the arts in rural areas?

Ash Hanson: I think there’s… The dominant narrative is that rural areas are… Have less, are declining, are dying, are shrinking. And yes, that permeates the psyche of rural places into this scarcity mentality, but as we said earlier, there is so much abundance and so much richness in relationships and the ways in which we can collaborate and share and resources, and we do know what each other are up to for better and for worst sometimes. [laughter] But that there is abundance, and I think that a lot of the work that I think Anne and I both do and why I love working with Anne has to be… Has to do with celebrating that abundance, celebrating our cultures, celebrating rural-ness and the space outside of the metro area, yes. But uplifting artists whose resources… Who might not have as direct access to resources that are financial and urban-centric, but have a ton of resources when it comes to connecting to their community, their cultural heritage, knowing what their neighbors need and want, that those… That richness is there.

Ash Hanson: And if we can be a catalyst for providing additional support to live that up, that’s what we really wanna be able to do and help other folks from urban areas or other areas, not see rural communities as lacking, but that they are very rich and wealthy in what they have to offer in the arts community.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Well, I think that’s important because, I think that’s why some of the work that I started to do is that I saw from sitting on all these different committees, the millions of dollars in support that are given to artists in the state of Minnesota. But how few are given to artists of color, different rural communities, and part of it is just really of understanding access. How you change those structures. I know even for the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council that I sit on, we changed the structure of the application process, we changed the structure of the accountability for how you reach out and have diversity in your board and also in who you service community, and really challenge those ideas. So it’s not just the same people applying, getting the same money every single year, but how do we expand that process. And I think even the grant application or the call to artists that we put out for, BIPOC artists, is specifically calling that out into these rural areas so it makes people think, “What does that mean, and how does that apply, and who are those people?”

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: I’ve seen even through this last call to artist for BIPOC artists, people who were first time applicants that I know are artists that have never applied for funding before. Who have never applied, and have the… Just the faith in themself as artists to be able to feel that they can do this and they can have access to some of these resources. So I think that’s just extremely important to also feel like you’re diversifying that access and how people apply. Even on the last application, you could submit a video, if that’s more… If that works better for you, instead of these structures of, definitely have to be typed, it has to be this way, it has to be formatted this way. And wonder why at the same time organizations are not reaching out and having any new different type of diverse applicants as we’re doing things a lot of the same exact ways we’ve always done them. And so I think that’s just so important to look at how do we change those narratives and to be more inclusive, but also to grow as rural organizations.

Marianne Combs: Beautiful.

Marianne Combs: Anne, Ash, thank you, this has been a fabulous conversation. Really appreciate you spending the time with us today.

Ash Hanson: Thank you Mary and thank you Anne.

Anne O’Keefe-Jackson: Thank you guys so much.

Marianne Combs: You’ve been listening to Filling the Well. Our guests for this episode were Ash Hanson, Executive Director of the Department of Public Transformation, and Anne O’Keefe-Jackson, Executive Director of Mini Sota Arts. I’m your host, Marianne Combs. Want to dig deeper into the ideas behind this episode? Visit the Arts Midwest ideas hub, a collection of free curated articles and tools to help creative leaders foster growth within their organizations and communities. Go to artsmidwest.org/ideas for more.

Marianne Combs: This podcast was produced and edited by Emily Goldberg and mixed by Eric Romani with original music by Dameun Strange. The Filling the Well series is made possible with financial support from the Bar Foundation based in Boston. The Bar Foundation’s mission is to invest in human, natural and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.

Filling the Well Production Team

Marianne Combs – Host

Marianne Combs is an independent journalist. For 20 years she covered Minnesota arts and culture for MPR News as a reporter, producer and host. She was named 2020 Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. She lives in St. Paul.

Emily Goldberg – Producer

Emily Goldberg has directed films and videos that highlight our shared humanity for over 35 years. Currently, she produces videos and podcasts for a wide variety of clients. She also guides others toward media-making enlightenment at VIDGURU (vidguru.co). Goldberg is a 2007 McKnight Artist Fellow whose Emmy award-winning work has been broadcast on PBS, TLC, and RAI (Italy), and screened in numerous film festivals around the world, from the International Documentary Festival in Amsterdam to the Museum of Modern Art.

Dameun Strange – Original Music

Dameun Strange is a sound artist, multi-instrumentalist, and award winning composer whose conceptual works are focused on stories of the African diaspora, often exploring afro surrealist and afrofuturist themes. Dameun is compelled to express through sound and poetry, the beauty and resilience of the Black experience, digging into a pantheon of ancestors to tell stories of triumph, while connecting the past, present, and future.

Eric Romani – Master Mixer

Season 1 of Filling the Well was made possible with financial support from the Barr Foundation. Based in Boston, the Barr Foundation’s mission is to invest in human, natural, and creative potential, serving as thoughtful stewards and catalysts.

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