Radical imagination in arts leadership

Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP) uses film to confront stereotypes and build community. The organization operates under a shared leadership model and is thinking about ways to work differently to deconstruct power and better serve the needs of their communities and employees. (Image courtesy of QWOCMAP)

The Hewlett Foundation Performing Arts Program believes in a San Francisco Bay Area where all people can engage in artistic experiences that foster self-expression and community participation. In pursuit of this goal, we partner with arts organizations at the cutting edge of both creative and organizational development. We support them in building the leadership backbone they need to thrive in a rapidly changing landscape.

As part of our ongoing commitment to the Bay Area Performing Arts, we wanted to hear from field experts in this leadership development work — with particular emphasis on their experiences finding and keeping talent in arts organizations. We turned to Kebo Drew and Madeleine Lim of Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP) and Mina Morita and Nailah Harper-Malveaux of Crowded Fire Theater to hear about the innovative approaches they’ve applied in their own institutions. Michael Courville, of Open Mind Consulting, facilitated the discussion.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. To listen to the conversation in its entirety, click here.

It’s been a beautiful and complex challenge to ensure that input is coming from the entire team. So not only is there agency in the decision-making process, but there’s also an awareness of the impact of those decisions.

Mina Morita, Crowded Fire Theater

Michael: Let’s start by asking you to reflect a little bit about the goals you have in mind when you bring new talent and new arts leaders into your organizations or into your communities. What has worked best for reaching those goals?

Kebo: I think there’s a piece around leadership needing to come from those most impacted, which is a social justice concept. It’s a feminist concept. It’s also a disability justice concept. QWOCMAP is very much about having queer and trans folks of color in leadership as a multiethnic, multiracial organization. It flows through all our different programs for building leadership and creativity. Both of those things are happening at the same time.

Something we’ve noticed lately, as things are moving more rightward, is the need to examine what leadership means, how we use power, and how we treat people when we see them in leadership. This also plays into developing leadership.

There is also a trauma stewardship piece; dealing with a community that has had a lot of trauma. During one of our filmmaking workshops focused on the Native community, we wanted to address what was happening while we were creating. The Native American Health Center brought in a healer. [In the past] Two-Spirit folks [had been prevented from] ceremony, “we were wronged.” That’s a conversation that’s been happening, to be able to create and develop leadership.

Mina: The last 2 1/2 years for Crowded Fire have been about creating and centering agency for new arts leaders. We are a BIPOC, nonbinary, trans, queer-led organization that made a deliberate decision, about three years ago, to shift our leadership model based on conversations with our artistic communities and partners. Too much has been resting on the shoulders of one or two people. What happens when that weight is shared among six people, and decision making and responsibility are also shared?

The theater field, specifically for us, is going through a lot of turmoil, both around people leaving and also a shift of understanding that past models are not working. I think we’re in that emergent place, embracing the beautiful experiments that we are framing inside of this organization — or organism, as I like to say. Because it really is about who’s in the room, what perspectives each of us bring, and how we are negotiating those perspectives as a group, where everyone’s voice is truly making an impact.

We’re also thinking about how to seed a way of working for the future of the field, what kinds of artistic programming we’re doing, and whose stories are centered. We’re thinking about everything from mental health and neurodivergence to how we’re engaging with the digital world, who is being left behind, and whose stories and perspectives are being told. We’re also considering how that work is made and at what pace, with consideration for who’s in the room.

We came to the shared leadership model because we saw some of the destructive ways that hierarchy was working within organizations that we’ve been a part of.

Nailah Harper-Malveaux, Crowded Fire Theater

Michael: You both lifted the importance of pacing. I also hear that leadership changes are grounded in inclusivity. How do you move people together with all the different experiences, identities, and locations that we hold?

Kebo: There’s a cultural piece…. It’s not just the solitary leadership model, which does not necessarily come from our cultures and traditions. What we’re talking about is also not just sustainability, slowness, or community, but different ways of thinking that are in contrast to the dominant models. We’re acknowledging that the way things are currently structured has been leading us to a particular place, and that’s not where we want to be.

Madeleine: I’ll add that in our leadership model, everyone is an artist. All our staff have gone through our filmmaker training program. They’ve all made films. So has the entire board. They’re all QTBIPOC [queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of color] folks who are disabled. Next year, we turn 25. Twenty-five years ago, I was not trying to create an organization. I saw a need, and that was how the organization grew. By necessity, I had to wear all of the hats until Kebo, our second staff member, came, in 2006. For me, removing as many hats as I can and seeing who might be willing to wear them has been a process. Shared leadership is a process.

We have very actively been trying to figure out the next generation of leadership who will continue to shepherd QWOCMAP into the world, as I’m in the process of transitioning out. It’s been challenging, to be very honest. Diversity, equity, and inclusion has always been a part of our DNA, so that’s never been an issue. We look for folks who are culturally competent, who have so-called hard skills or soft skills, but also who are culturally competent in terms of working with our community, our QTBIPOC folks. If they don’t know anything about film, no problem. We can teach that. If they don’t know anything about managing a project, no problem. Certain things they need to come with and other things we can teach.

Folks who are joining our staff now want to work differently. They also have ideas about leadership that are informed by previous generations. There is an assumption sometimes where folks coming into the organization think, “Oh, I’m anti-establishment, so I’m going to question the authority or the leadership.” We have to say, “Yes, so are we. We’re also anti-establishment, but let’s look at who the establishment is and who the leadership is.”

As someone who has never been involved in spaces where I am part of the decision-making process, I constantly find myself on the margins without access to leadership, decision making, or agency. As a result of that, particularly as a filmmaker who is nonbinary and an immigrant, I developed a lot of critical analysis. I think that when we build our own spaces, we need to develop different skills. Yes, obviously, we bring that critical analysis, but we also need to develop skills of bridging, communicating, and building up as opposed to tearing down. Instead of calling someone out, call them in. How do we do that with love and care? I think that that’s the biggest challenge. All of us carry trauma, so how do we do that in a way that’s not activating each other’s trauma and not triggering each other as well?

For QWOCMAP, it’s not “I’m going to be a leader, and I’m going to do this.” It’s really about how we can all move forward together. We have to figure out how to work with each other and how to question some of those assumptions. Because those assumptions are part of the status quo, mainstream assumptions get trickled down and are very much a part of White supremacy, very much a part of all the bipartisan division everywhere around us.

Nailah: Madeleine, thank you so much for speaking to that because it’s something that, as a shared leadership team, we’re really grappling with and delving into in a really beautiful way. We came to the shared leadership model because we saw some of the destructive ways that hierarchy was working within organizations that we’ve been part of. We are having great conversations about how we’ve built up this muscle of deconstructing. That’s so much a part of the work: how to deconstruct these power structures, how to deconstruct White supremacy within our organizations.

At the same time, we must also build up muscles to radically imagine new ways and new structures because there can’t just be no structure at all. Within that model, it’s hard to find each person’s and the group’s center of power if there’s no guidance as to how we’re supposed to function together as a leadership team.

We’re having conversations that return to these assumptions. Is hierarchy inherently bad? When and why? What is the value of expertise? I personally fight a lot against, “Oh, well, someone is the expert, the one and only who knows this and knows that.” But how do we also carry expertise within our lived experiences, within our skills, within the leadership that we’ve done and that we bring?

The question of our individual ideas of leadership and how they’re formed is really important. Each person’s idea of leadership is informed by history, our identities, and everything that makes us human. And that’s okay. Part of what new generations of leaders are looking for in organizations is embracing difference — not only within identity but also within ideas around these big concepts that we’re working with, working styles, and neurodivergence. They are looking for organizations that can embrace and hold differences.

Our decision making is obviously very much informed by our values. Logistical decisions are political decisions.

Madeleine Lim, QWOCMAP

Michael: How do you make high-stakes decisions at your organizations, especially when those decisions will impact staff and the communities you care so deeply about?

Nailah: The first thing is that we, as a shared leadership team, make all high-stakes decisions together. That’s really important to us. Including other stakeholders, such as the board and resident artists, and having clarity around the decision-making model is also really important. Is it a proposal-based system? What are the different ways that we’re actually using the tools?

We sometimes make low-stakes decisions together, too, and it can be really useful to be in a room together, though it can be time-consuming. Taking the time to talk through questions, concerns, and ideas, to really have the back-and-forth that is necessary to make those decisions, and then to really have a strong decision-making model — this is something we’re still working on and there are so many different ways to go about it.

Really, the three pillars of Crowded Fire are the staff, the board, and our resident artists. Trying to make sure that all of these groups are really a part of these big decisions. We do this in a number of different ways, but one way is through our Performance and Hiring subcommittee, which is technically a subcommittee of the board, but it actually has all three types of folks working together in that small group. They were an integral part of implementing our 360 review process of our full leadership team, which we just did this year for the first time.

Mina: It’s been a beautiful and complex challenge to ensure that input is coming from the entire team. So not only is there agency in the decision-making process, but there’s also an awareness of the impact of those decisions. That 360 model has been beautiful to build, and it will continue to evolve. We’re also exploring an iterative process around both decision making and assessment and review. That same process is happening around our strategic planning to ensure that all of our work around anti-racism is deeply embedded in a very intentional and clear way. Of course, this drives some of the decisions that are made in a larger holistic way.

Kebo: For us, decision making requires asking questions like, “Does this work for you?” or, “Is this working?” And then really listening. We deal with sometimes competing human needs, and we try to meet all of those different needs in various ways.

It’s a constant iterative process to pay attention and also look to the rest of the world to see what’s happening for folks to make a decision that makes sense for everyone. The other piece is also understanding that even when we make a decision, it’s not going to be perfect. Sometimes, it might have unintended consequences. Even decisions around basic things like what type of technology you’re using, we have to be conscious and aware of how that will affect people, their involvement, and their ability to participate. There’s that piece of listening, but also really understanding the decision’s impact, as well.

What we’re talking about is not just sustainability, slowness, or community but different ways of thinking about leadership that contrast with the dominant models. We’re acknowledging that the way things are currently structured has led us to a particular place, and that’s not where we want to be. Sometimes, what gets left out of these discussions is how White supremacy functions, but it definitely affects all of our organizations. These models might be newer, older, or a combination. I’m thinking about futurism; carrying the tradition into the future. It’s important to name that, because we’re not doing things just to be doing them. We’re reimagining what things can be, pulling from different traditions so that we can have the type of world that we want to have in the future.

Madeleine: Our decision making is obviously very much informed by our values. Logistical decisions are political decisions. Things like whether you decide to provide ASL interpreters or captions on films — these can very often come down to, “Oh, we don’t have the budget for X, Y, and Z because blah, blah, blah.” But if we center the value of belonging and including everyone in our community, if we have someone who is queer and trans, a person of color, who is deaf, why are we excluding them?

If we need to add different pieces of accessibility to our artistic programming so that they can be included, we’re going to do that. Not to say that the change takes place instantly. Sometimes, we might need a couple of years to raise the money so that we can then offer the thing, but as a film festival, we provide fully captioned films and open captions on our films. This is our 10th year now. We started that in 2014 when it was practically unheard of for film festivals to show films with open captions. The only films that deaf people could actually experience were foreign films in another language because then you would have English subtitles. We’re like, “Well, let’s just do it.” We did it in-house. We just threw it into software, transcribed it, captioned it, and just did it. Yes, it added a whole other layer of labor without additional funding to make that happen, but we thought it was important enough to do. Then we thought that if we were going to add open captions, then we need to provide ASL interpreters, too.

Just to say our journey is very much informed by inclusion; we deepen it, build on it, and add to it as we go. We have a very clear understanding that when it comes to presenting an event, all of our logistical decisions are very tied to our values.

It’s important for there to be an acknowledgment, investment, and a true action-oriented commitment to shifting White supremacy within our organizations and our field.

Mina Morita, Crowded Fire Theater

Michael: What do you think is required of arts organizations to be seen as desirable workplaces among new and existing art talent who bring an eclectic set of experiences and different identities into the workplace?

Mina: There is a high [orientation toward] advocacy for the people joining our teams. It’s important for there to be an acknowledgment, investment, and a true action-oriented commitment to shifting White supremacy within our organizations and our field. That requires nimbleness and adaptability, understanding where someone coming in can really change something and grow the organization. We’re growing something and building something together based on historic practices from our communities but also thinking about what might need to exist in this space.

In terms of art-making itself, I see a level of courage and bravery, as there has been this turn away from abundance towards scarcity. We actually remind ourselves that we are artists — because we all are artists on staff — and think about how we are artistically engaged in the creation of our administrations.

Nailah: Something I’ll add, which feels very personal to Mina and mine’s relationship, has been a sense of mutuality when it comes to mentorship. We’ve talked a lot about sustainable leadership transitions, and I think mentorship really feeds into that in a big way. A part of our shared leadership model is that Mina was there as I was also coming on. There was a period of overlap where I was learning so much. My friend Sabine Decatur, who also works in theater — I want to give them credit — talks about cross-generational mutual mentorship.

Mentorship often can be seen as a one-way street — a passing down of knowledge — which it can be. But the mentorship program at Crowded Fire, while it started off in a very organic way, really is a two-way street of wisdom passing back and forth between generations of folks. There’s a level of mutuality.

I really loved what you said, Mina, about a level of courage and bravery within the art-making and within the organization to respond to what’s happening in the world. Like a lot of theaters, we’ve seen so much silence around Palestine and around the genocide that’s happening there. I think it’s really important to folks who are coming up to see that we can actually put our values on the line and put whatever money on the line to make a stand for what we believe in as an organization.

Madeleine: I’ll add that in this day and age, especially here in the Bay Area, arts organizations really need to provide a real living wage; especially because we hire queer and trans folks of color.

Arts organizations of the past were often all-volunteer efforts. Someone went to their day job and then ran the art theater or film in their spare time. In my first three years, the only grant we received was a $15,000 grant to pay for organizational needs, plus my salary. I was paid once a year after all the other expenses were paid.

No one will work at an arts organization in that situation any longer. We have worked very hard to keep everyone’s salary comparable to other salaries here in the Bay Area. I don’t just mean at other arts or film organizations, but even comparable with salaries at larger nonprofits.

We value our labor, so we want to pay people for their work. We believe everyone deserves good pay without having to aggressively negotiate for themselves. We try to establish pay equity across the board, not based on someone’s ability to negotiate.

The pay piece is key for us, and so are all the things that we would expect at a workplace, like healthcare. For the longest time, arts organizations may or may not have provided benefits because we did not have the resources. At one point, we wrote a grant proposal to cover salary benefits and retirement, and we got the lowest score we ever got from a grant allocations panel. We usually score in the top five, and we were at the bottom because it was not as sexy of an ask. Support our youth filmmaking program. Yes, absolutely. But to support retirement and benefits? No. It’s like, “Okay, so the program work is valued, but the people doing the program work aren’t?”’ A big piece is how to take care of our people who are doing all of this hard work in arts organizations.

What happens when people can’t be paid is [that] we get pushed out. We leave the field, and we can’t do our art. Then you only end up with certain people who already have access to resources, making the art reflecting themselves.

Kebo Drew, QWOCMAP

Michael: Absolutely. I think this requires action from institutional funders and donors alike. It’s not just about funding a single theatrical performance or film; it’s about supporting all the people involved in these endeavors, and there’s a cost to that.

Kebo: There’s even another piece: Film is very, very expensive. What happens when people can’t be paid is [that] we get pushed out. We leave the field, and we can’t do our art. Then you only end up with certain people who already have access to resources, making the art reflecting themselves. You’re just going to end up with the same type of storytelling, or you’re going to pick someone not of that community to tell the story about that community. It’s not just the economics of funding artists but what that means for arts in general.

Madeleine: In terms of making sure that the staff is well paid, with healthcare benefits, we are not a large organization at all. It took us 20 years to grow our organizational budget to half a million dollars, not for the lack of trying, but because our name is Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project. Funders take one look at our name, and you can tell whether they value our community or not, or whether they think we are a niche within a niche within a niche. It has taken us an enormous amount of time to grow our organizational budget and the staff that can be supported by that amount. We turn 25 next year, and we’re still under a million.

Last year, we had a staff of six, full-time-ish, a little under, and this year, it’s four full-time people. We are not a large organization at all, nor do we have a lot of staff. But still I think that [salary and benefits] is what is important to us in terms of valuing our people and paying our people. I’m really talking about organizations that are run by and serve our queer, trans people of color that are small organizations but still making that our priority.

Michael: I am hearing that taking care of staff and purposefully attracting new talent means more than just taking time. It’s about actively listening, learning, and connecting in support of your overarching goal of promoting inclusivity, anti-racism, and new models of leadership in your organizations.

Kebo: There’s a proverb that goes, “If you want to go fast, you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go together.” That’s the piece that we’re talking about.

What we’re doing is creating a mycelial network. In a forest, the forest decides where the resources need to go. It’s not just someone saying, “Oh, I think we need to give water to these trees.” It’s everything working together to figure out how we’re resourcing [the collective]. We’re not just individual organizations, but part of a larger ecosystem. We need to challenge ourselves, not just to think internally but also about how we are working together.

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