Archives For values

I now have three tattoos.

I refer to my tattoo #1 as my “college-age cultural appropriation tattoo.”

Yes, I’m one of the hordes of Americans to get foreign-language characters permanently inked on their bodies. In my case, Chinese.

I am not Chinese nor is anyone in my immediately family. I didn’t study Chinese, and I don’t speak Chinese. I was not, nor am not emotionally or intellectually attached to Chinese culture. While I asked a Chinese professor at college to write out the phrase I wanted tattooed on me, I couldn’t properly say it and didn’t know why the professor chose the two hanzi he did. Essentially: my 21-year old self treated Chinese characters as exotic symbols there for the ripping off.

Also, the tattoo wasn’t particularly good. The tattoo guy, without asking, didn’t copy the Chinese professor’s writing but instead created a boxy, angular interpretation. (In all seriousness, “Aztec-style” is how he described it. smh)  The work was patchy and low quality.

Tattoo One

Close up of tattoo #1, photo taken in 2015, 17years after “the crime.”

 

Fairly soon after graduating college, I was first exposed to concepts of anti-racism/anti-oppression. I quickly understood the mistake I made, permanently, on my body.

It took fifteen years to journey from hang-up to hostility. Over that time, my “college-age cultural appropriation tattoo” came to represent everything I hated about who I was that I couldn’t change—my Whiteness, my American-ness, my cultural ignorance, my impulsiveness, my desire for recognition (that supposedly wasn’t being met), my imposter syndrome, my lack of feeling smart, competent. I longed to rip the tattoo from my body.

So I decided cover it up. The artist who did tattoo #2 couldn’t be located. I sought recommendations of tattoo artists, but no one suggested was available for a consult (if they even returned my message). When I planning to travel for work, I asked friends and colleagues for away-from-home suggestions; still nothing panned out. After two years, I gave up with tremendous sulking.

People make mistakes. Most mistakes are ephemeral or repairable; they’re forgivable. Over the course of my life I’ve made some bad calls and definitive fuck-ups. None of these instances caused loss of life, limb, job, property, savings, or anything of devastating permanence. Were feelings injured? Were time or resources wasted? Sure. For how long should I, should anyone, be branded as untrustworthy, incompetent, or unworthy of mercy or reprieve? For some people the answer is been: forever. For some people, there is no moving on, even when fault isn’t as clear as a permanent black drawing on your back. My reset button for everyone else has always been accessible. I wish the same could be said of a reset button for myself.

Since 1997, my need to pick up slack, to practice-for-perfect, to make it work, and, in the end, to carry on with my mistakes did me no favors. This attitude, this drive, was practically knitted into my first tattoo. Which of course is why, despite seeming ready to cover up my “college-age cultural appropriation tattoo,” I couldn’t get myself together to have it done. I blamed outside circumstances, but let’s be real—it was all me. I hadn’t forgiven myself for the original act.

Like all the things about myself that I can’t change but can control, I needed to genuinely contextualize my first tattoo experience for what it was. Tattoo #1 was part of me, but didn’t need to define me. The practice-for-perfect principle that dominated me didn’t need to; I could calm and manage it. That principle doesn’t allow me to practice-for-practice sake, fail forward, or, say, work to bring down White supremacy, Patriarchy, Cis-sexism, Able-ism, and oppression writ large in this country.

But I digress.

Twenty years after tattoo #1 was inked, I connected with the warm, talented Fernando (BlackMothCollective.com or #BlackMothCollective) and on November 15, 2017 got tattoo #3. I love it. It’s bigger and more intricate that #1 or #2 (which meant time and patience, honesty about discomfort levels, and exercising breath work). Tattoo #3 captures core aspects of my identity in the waning days of my forty-first year. It almost entirely covers up #1—only a microscopic line can be detected, if you know what to look for. Most important and symbolically for me, #3 begins, is rooted, where #1 lies but extends upward; toward what’s next, toward what’s possible, toward the future.

I am in a Yoga teacher-training program.

There. I’ve put it into the world.

A Yogi is BornThis is something I never considered except more than a fantasy on highly stressful days: “I could give up working in theatre, become a Yoga teacher, move to a remote small community within a few hours driving distance of San Francisco, open a small studio, and finally be at peace.” (LOL. How’s that for an escape daydream? At least I would be closer to my adorable niece.)

It took an inquiry from my home studio’s owner, numerous back-and-forth emails with her, casual conversation with studio staff and instructors, raising the idea with my spouse (and him even raising it with me), and my work schedule finally settling… it took all that for me to sign up for teacher training. Which means it took nearly six months for me to get comfortable with the idea that I would have to tell people I was in a Yoga teacher-training program.

I still might not be comfortable but the cat is pretty much out of the bag.

I’ve had a flirtatious relationship with Yoga for two decades, but only for the physical benefits. It was a friends-with-benefits affair with Yoga in which I took from what I wanted, gave nothing in return, and didn’t consider for a second what I was ignoring about Yoga.

Yoga, I’m sorry I treated you this way.

Then, two friends, each with their own more intimate relationship to Yoga, encouraged me to turn to my mat during a period of professional upheaval and turmoil. Thank goodness they did. In hindsight, I internalized that “unrest” and, along with numerous emotional hits I took for the greater good, calcified it in most crevices of my body and being.

In summer 2015 I did as any internetworked individual does: I searched “yoga studios close to me” and scoured reviews. This landed me at Petworth’s Yoga Heights (YH). I dated around with Yoga at YH with “unlimited classes for three-weeks.” I dated with intention buying a “one-month unlimited class pass.” I committed more when I traveled to Omaha, NE and spent six glorious weeks with the instructors at One Tree Yoga. I recommitted at Cincinnati’s The Yoga Bar and Raleigh’s Blue Lotus studios, and then always rejoiced returning to my YH. I started introducing YH to friends; some of them introduced me to people who I practiced with multiple times a week. I settled into my mat and practice with effort and ease.

During my un-calcifying phase, Yoga revealed itself to be a home, to be community, to be family. But really, it was only because I revealed myself to Yoga. I realized I’d not considered Yoga in its entirety. I wanted less, I gave more.

Yoga: thank you for your patience with me.

I spend much of my time and energy shaping and holding space for others to be, discover, and do. Even if I’m also a participant, I’m focused on the shaping and holding for everyone else. I’m almost never in spaces where others are shaping and holding the space, or, rather, I don’t allow them to hold space for me.

Except when I attend Yoga class.

Or, at least, that’s what I’m doing now. I am giving myself to my teachers. I am allowing my instructors to hold the space so they can create an environment for me to be vulnerable. I am creating and holding space only for me. This feels selfish and self-centered. It is. I need it. I really need it. To continuing being the person I am in the world.

So yes: I am in a Yoga teacher-training program. But it’s for me and Yoga, cause there’s something there.

Thanks for sticking with me Yoga. I got your back.

Svādhyāya is a one of the five Niyamas (or personal, internal practices). “Sva means self and dhyāya means study or education,” explains B.K.S. Iyengar in Light on Yoga. “education is the drawing out of the best that is within a person. Svādhyāya, therefore, is the education of the self…. The person practicing svādhyāya reads his own book of life, at the same time that he writes and revises it. There is a change in his outlook on life.”

I’m working with the Arts Marketing Association UK’s Audience Diversity Academy (#ADA). One of my responsibilities as a mentor is blogging. Here’s a post I wrote for round 2. To access posts from all the fellows and mentors, click here.


When I started working closely with artists and audiences who were Deaf, I was confronted head-on with my identity as Hearing. I also was confronted with a world that is auditory-centered.  I then realised I carried a boat-load of prejudices, misunderstandings, or simply lies about people who audiologically speaking do not hear.

Like anyone who comes face-to-face with a privilege they have, but were previously unaware of possessing, I could:

A. Retreat back slowly into the comfort of not-knowing.

B. Stammer around awkwardly—knowing but doing nothing.

C. Move forward graciously knowing I needed to do some significant growing

I chose “C.”

Three years later, I stammer awkwardly with great frequency and on a few extreme occasions I’ve longed to retreat into my hearing privilege. And yet: choosing “C” early and often is what’s helped identify me as a hearing person who acts with good intentions and acknowledges impact.

So how does this story support the work of the ADA Fellows and anyone else interested diversifying their audiences?

What I heard from ADA 1.0 and 2.0 Fellows was worry, doubt, and outright fear that when they first interacted with members of their identified “diverse” audience group—whether youth, the elderly, a specific racial or ethnic group, or people with disabilities—they would Do Something Wrong.

Super valid. Doing Something Wrong can be a paralyzing feeling. It is the feeling of discomfort, sometimes to an extreme degree. It is a feeling that’s so powerful it prevents people from even truly attempting to diversify. Because “comfort” is the place where we know and recognize everything, and “discomfort” is the place where learning occurs. Discomfort is where we change and grow.

Anyone in a position of privilege is used to feeling comfortable. Like me, being Hearing in a world that’s auditory-centered. I am super-duper comfortable in this world because it is tailor made for people who have the sense of hearing.

Get me around a person who is Deaf, and I’m out of my element. They are not of my world. I don’t know what it’s like to be like that. What will they want? How can I possibly relate to them? And now, I’m not comfortable. And now, a host of unhelpful feelings and thoughts bubble up that compels me to choose “B” or “A” as a course of direction.

I don’t know what it’s like to live in an auditory-centered world as a person who is Deaf, but you know who does? People who are Deaf! They’re experts. And they know what I don’t know already, even before I’ve realized it myself. Which means they’re aware of the high likelihood of me Doing Something Wrong. Which means I don’t need to worry about it happening, it’s going to happen. So what can we learn from those experiences that assist us in expanding our worldview and making our audience and organization a slightly more diverse and inclusive place.

In the United States and Britain, this feeling of comfort is true for a number of social identities (for instance people who are White, Male, cisgender, non-disabled, heterosexual, to name a few). That’s why it’s important to remember we all inhabit the same world. Instead of entering diversity and inclusion work with a worry about Doing Something Wrong, let’s enter with a interest in Doing Some Growing.

Woman Warrior Power

An interactive storytelling performance during a dog & pony dc devising weekend with hearing and Deaf artists. Photo by Ryan Maxwell.

By their actions, they did not dream the American Dream, they willed it into being by a definition of their own choosing. They did not ask to be accepted but declared themselves the Americans that perhaps few others recognized but that they had always been deep within their hearts. 

Minutes ago I finished the wonderful book The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. The book examines the migration of Black U.S. citizens from the South to northern and western cities between 1915 and 1970. It’s one of the most rich, involving, relevant, scholarly, and smooth-reading non-fiction books I’ve read, possibly ever.

This post opens with the closing sentences of the epilogue from Other Suns. Before I go further, I need to honor Wilkerson, this book, and the lives of close-to six million Black people it chronicles. Thank you.

As an author–an artist of written English–Wilkerson’s words stuck me deeply, like deeply, because of their immediate, contemporary relevance. With tremendous respect to her and those she was writing about, I’d like to rearrange them a little here:

“By their actions, they willed into being a definition of the American Dream of their own choosing. They declared themselves the Americans they had always been deep within their hearts.”

Ponder this for a moment? As if you were one of the “their” and “they” referred to.

So the quote from Other Suns reminded me of this declaration:

The world is full of intellectuals, but it is in need of reckless imagination.

It was made by Pastor Michael Walrond (“Pastor Mike”) of Harlem’s First Corinthian Baptist Church during a keynote he gave at a Theatre Communications Group convening in 2015.

It was part of larger speech about artists being “cultural architects” positioned to “help people learn to see the best in themselves and help them see the power in who they are.” Cultural architects can help “reimagine this world and trust me, I tell people all the time, the wounded soul of this world is groaning for more creative beings”

Ponder this for a moment? In light of my rearranging of Wilkerson’s words.

Increasingly over the last year and half, more United States residents are experiencing feelings of dissatisfaction, betrayal, rage, confusion, discomfort, and, most importantly, a need to do something. An internal need to act.

And there’s been platforms and opportunities like Shaun King’s Injustice Boycott, Van Jones’ Love Army, the Women’s March, and the amazing Safety Pin Box through which people can take actions of all sizes and durations.

On an individual level, people are also seeking out more meaningful conversations with others that bridge rather than cleave. Worldview-expanding dialogue is happening more at the water-cooler, in coffeeshops, in our homes, and, yes, even on Facebook than before. People are seeking to square the country they thought they were living in, with the one they appear to be (or, let’s face it, are) living in, with the citizen they want to be.

Who is supporting the shaping of a definition of the American Dream of the people’s choosing? Who brings people in communion so they can investigate this “thing” that is deep within their own hearts? Who has the tools to foster the shaping and transmitting of declarations of what it means to be American? In a world full of intellectuals, who is fueling and compelling us forward with reckless imagination?

Artists.

Art.

Art connects people. Art highlights the vibrancy of our cities. Artists can and should play an integral role within their home communities and the country at large. Artists have the power to convene. The power to imagine-with. The power to rally, support, and advance.

The American deep within my heart is one who believes that art saves lives. It believes we should call forth artists, evoke the service of art; maybe even demand it.

The American deep within my heart believes our country should support the arts and humanities. Because we need it more than ever.

IMG_4440.PNG


For talking points about how to talk about saving the NEA, go no further than “How to Talk about Saving the NEA” by the brilliant Margy Waller.

Or, if you must go the TL;DR rout, here are bullet points of the article distilled by Jamie Bennett on Facebook:

  • We face challenges in part because there is a widely held view of the arts as something other people enjoy-especially rich, older, white people. And if that’s the case, it’s hard for people to see why the arts should benefit from public funding. So when our messengers are heads of major arts organizations housed in the intimidating temples of architecture in major cities, we trigger thinking of the arts as something for the elite. This isn’t true and it undermines our efforts to change the landscape of public understanding, build new supporters, and create political space for decision-makers.
  • When advocates talk about art as a transcendent experience, important to well-being, a universal human need, etc., they are reinforcing a focus on private, individual concerns, not public, communal concerns. While many people like these messages, the messages don’t help them think of art as a contributor to community quality of life.
  • A thriving arts sector creates ripple effects of benefits throughout our community, even for those who don’t attend.
  • People already believe these benefits exist – they don’t need studies or new data to get it. It’s just not the first thing they think about when they hear us talking about the arts. Our messages can build support by reminding people that they value the way the arts strengthen places and bring people together.
  • We can’t say the sky is falling-that undermines our efforts because most people won’t agree with us. We should advocate for good policy on immigration and health care, etc. because these changes could be incredibly devastating to the arts, artists and the communities where they live. *It’s not responsible to fight only for the NEA budget in the face of other damaging proposals.*

I’m working with the Arts Marketing Association UK’s Audience Diversity Academy (#ADA). One of my responsibilities as a mentor is blogging. Here’s the second of two posts I wrote for the pilot round (July 2016-January 2017). To access posts from all the fellows and mentors, click here.


Before I started writing this blog post, I did the following:

Read the newspaper
Check Facebook
Check Twitter
Think about the other blog post I had to write
Check personal email account
Text
Start writing the other blog post
Check Facebook
Text
Read a few online articles
Make a cup of tea
Text
Have a Skype date
Facebook
Text
Email
Think about this blog post
Make a snack and eat it
Start writing this blog post

To rush to my defense: it was a Saturday and I was sick, my spouse was out of town, the house was clean, I canceled my work engagement. I didn’t need to do anything. And yet: an invisible force compelled me to compose two blog posts.

heart lightThe invisible force resulted from the value of “productivity”—being active and yielding a result, outcome, or accomplishment. I value productivity and I will prioritize productive activities vs. non-productive ones (like streaming crap television), even when I’m under the weather. It makes me feel good. Obviously this doesn’t mean I work in a streamlined manner, because I also value creativity and the creative process. I understand it takes time to knit ideas together. In order to produce two blog posts, my mind needed to wander and web. So I negotiated the intersection of productivity and creativity throughout the day, working my way toward my end goal of two blog posts.

Likely at this point you are asking yourself “What does this have to do with working agilely and engaging new and diverse audiences?!?”

Answer: everything.

No one who works in the arts, heritage, and culture sectors is walking around declaring “inclusion?—who needs that!? not my value!” (Or not openly.) Arts, heritage, and culture organizations tend to be ardent supporters of diversity and inclusion. Practitioners and employees want everyone to be able to celebrate and exchange, learn and be transformed from their experiences artistic experiences. However: most don’t have “inclusion” as a core value of their organization, stated alongside, for example “artistic excellence.” This means: “inclusion” will never have an invisible force compelling practitioners and employees to negotiate it with other values. When “inclusion” is an implicit or implied value, one deeply-held-but-never-discussed, it’s a sure bet that it’s not understood or shared in common, and almost never actively worked toward.

While one can’t simply fire up all cylinders and race to a finish line of becoming an inclusive organization from top to bottom, you can begin to prioritize diversity and inclusion focused programs. And definitely get involved with initiatives like the AMA’s Audience Diversity Academy that provide guidance, resources, and structure.

Structure is key. The Academy was designed to focus on exploring “small bites”—questions of diversity, examining organizational culture, creating new metrics for success and different ways of measuring them, tackling a long term, strategic and systemic problem with short term tactical experiments. The Audience Diversity Academy worked on diversity (the representation of people from diverse backgrounds represented throughout) and not inclusion (a mindset and practice—like yoga—of active, intentional, and ongoing engagement of the diversity of an organization, its culture, its programming, in order to create equal access, well being, and a sense of belonging for all.)  Being involved in the Academy provided its Fellows a first step toward defining the value of inclusion with their organizations, but it is only because they prioritized working on diversity. It is a muscle that needs exercise. Overtime, as diversity increases as an internalize priority for everyone, inclusion becomes a necessity.  

Defining, exercising, and building your values—not easy! Makes me think of the Important/Urgent Matrix: you draw an X-Y axis where Y = Important and X = Urgent, resulting in four quadrants: Important and Urgent; Un-important and Urgent; Important and not-Urgent Un-important and not-Urgent.
urgent-important-matrix (1)Handy in many ways, but I’m gonna put a different spin on it here. If we don’t have a value, with its corresponding invisible force, telling us a body of work should be done… that body of work defaults to the bottom of the “Un-important and not-Urgent” quadrant. What would it take to move it and keep in the “Important and Urgent” quadrant? Can you image how united that artful community would be? Anything might be possible.

watchman-train

Looking back, it was hardly coincidental that I picked up Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman shortly after DJT was elected to office. It was clearly the catalyst for my first steps of in-the-home activism.

atticus-finch

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in the 1962 film of To Kill a Mockingbird

Watchman takes place in the 1950s, 20 years after To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout—now called Jean Louise—returns to her hometown of Maycomb, GA from New York City where she’s been living and working. She discovers [SPOILER ALERT] that her father, Atticus Finch, is not the morally upstanding, liberal-leaning, “everyone is equal” touting man she thought he was. Instead we learn that Atticus is in fact a more complex person, a more realistic character; we learn Atticus is a White man in a position of power attempting to maintain the status quo of White Supremacy in Maycomb.

(Slight divergence: Jean Louise’s recognition of Atticus’ true and full self instantly reminded me of my various “awakening” moments to systemic racism and other forms of oppression over the course of my life this far.)

It’s revealed in Watchman that Jean Louise escaped to New York City. She fled the tight confines of Maycomb and the South: those confines that she could see or feel directly. Despite being reared in the Deep South, Jean Louise was raised “color blind” (and thought her father was as well). She was “woke” to gender, race, and class prejudice and would bluntly call it out, but she was “blind” to structural oppression and participated in upholding it—as most citizens did and do on a daily basis. Other than railing against Maycomb citizens (royally pissing them off) and family members (hurting their feelings) Jean Louise takes little action to effect change. She kicks up dirt and runs away, again and again.

Finally, at the end of the novel her Uncle Jack asks

“Jean Louise, have you ever thought about coming home?….You may not know it, but there’s room for you down here.”…. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you.”

She started the car and backed down the driveway. She said, “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more…”

“I don’t mean fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends.”

“Uncle Jack, I can’t live in a place that I don’t agree with and that doesn’t agree with me.”

It’s the next part that got me:

“…the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right—”

“I mean it takes a certain maturity to live in the South these days. You don’t have it yet, but you have a shadow of the beginnings of it. You haven’t the humbleness of mind—”

“I thought fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom.”

“It’s the same thing. Humility.”

I came to understand that the rail-and-run technique was personally and professionally ineffectual about a year and a half ago. I paid a price for it, and have worked against feelings of self-righteous motivated activist since. But what I hadn’t done was gone home and sought to engage my family members. I had not yet tried to humbly interact with their true and full selves around the topic of race and our Whiteness.

Luckily, I these conversations were happening with my husband. So I asked if he would be open to gifting ) Robin DiAngelo’s book What does it mean to be White? to the four households in our immediate family (my parents; my sister and her partner; my mother-in-law; my brother- and sister-in-law). He agreed.

When holiday time came, each book was accompanied by a letter (the text of which I included at the bottom of this post). We asked that family members “exchange with us the gift of conversation around [the book’s] contents in the coming months.”

I can report that the books were received well and some family members have started reading them. I’ve already had more nuanced conversations with my parents—one of which hasn’t started the book—about race and Whiteness in 2017 than I have in my life. My husband reported having at least one reflective conversation with his mother, who I believe hadn’t started the book at that time but has as of today.

There are many action steps I’m being encouraged to follow and public places I can convene in to demonstrate my dissent with the current administration, its actions thus far, and what I/we assume will be its actions moving forward. I propose, like Uncle Jack, considering dialogue in the home as well. The Powers That Be run strong, deep, and silent. Examining them openly as a family might be one of the cornerstones of change for the future.


Dear ____name____:

This holiday season, we want to share with you the gift of the book What does it mean to be White? and ask that you exchange with us the gift of conversation around its contents in the coming months.

Our lives are gifted with abundance. We have loving parents, siblings, siblings-in-law, a beautiful niece, and cuddly pets. All of us have places to live. We are all employed and/or have the means to eat, be clean and clothed, transport ourselves places, and maintain our health. We have strong support networks.

It is because our lives are gifted with abundance, with privilege, that we don’t want to take this for granted. We want to actively be responsible citizens at the national level, local level, and family level.

We’re all White and we live in an increasingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural country. This past year, we’ve clearly seen how deeply racism still runs in this country. And this past year has forced us to confront the reality that we (personally) aren’t addressing racism, our White identity, and Whiteness in all the ways we could be.

We want to talk with you about these highly important topics. We see this book as a way to begin to have the conversation. And maybe, this way, we can work toward effecting positive change in our country (and the world) by starting in our homes.

We love you all very much.

Show of hands: who would be significantly unsettled, if not be completely terrified, by the idea of handing over your organizational social account to stranger for a day? Login, password, the whole kit and caboodle?

I’m not saying this is you, current hand raiser, but I was reminded that this is still viewed as a highly risky digital-based audience engagement strategy. Why? Because in the end we in the arts are more concerned about maintaining control than we are about engagement.

13698055_10209328921352477_3418008333301346286_oLast week I had the pleasure of running a session (twice) at the Arts Marketing Association U.K. conference I cheekily call “Eff-Up the Pop-Up” (first iteration developed at NAMP). It’s targeted toward arts managers interested in interacting more meaningfully with current audiences and/or audiences “inclined toward coming through the door.”

The session was developed on these assumptions:

  • We get stuck in habits of practice.
  • We don’t approach our work creatively, like artists.
  • We interact with audience as a monolithic whole, not as collection of individuals with different behavior patterns.
  • We adopt audience engagement programs and practices, and deploy them regularly, without analyzing whether they’re right for the artist, artwork(s), types of engagers in our audience, or the impact we want to have.
  • We want to be in control more than we want to engage.

I shared with attendees that our jobs are to consider how we can develop a sweep of activities that would more intimately entangle the art, audience, and artist (which includes the producing or curating organization). Every artwork presents us with a new opportunity; we need to consider how to develop a number of new entry points for different types of engagers to entangle themselves. We can do this by “effing-up” strategies used before, but keeping in mind who we want to engage and the impact we are interested having this time around. But what we can’t do is control the outcome, we can simply create the platform (or platforms).

I gave an example before we moved into the practical “effing-up” section of the workshop. And this is where unconscious prioritizing of “maintaining control” surfaced.

CA4MsXsU8AAYJRa.jpg

My words illustrated by Carolyn Sewell

My example: I gave a 30-min talk for CreativeMornings/DC in February 2015 around the theme “Climate.” My thesis: changing the climate in the room, in a theatre. During my talk I was allowed (after much conversation with the organizers) to engage the attendees in a basic participatory experience. It involved Rock-Paper-Scissors and Thumb Wars, and the Prologue to Romeo & Juliet. (My colleague Wyckham Avery and I have since gone on to refine and use this in multiple workshops–it’s so much fun!) But if we look at this from a work of art framework, this was participation embedded within the performance itself (my talk). Not an activity designed to more intimately entangle the audience with me, CreativeMornings/DC, and theatre.

So I created an engagement program that was an “eff-up” of Twitter take-overs. It was an expression of my interests in integrating audience into performance,  creating performance on social, and changing the climate. I handed over dog & pony dc‘s Twitter account to the 150-ish people and told them it was their’s for the next 24-hours. From my speech notes:

We are inviting you to the task to interrupt a ritual, take a picture, and post it. Invest in make believe, take a picture, and post it. Challenge our followers to do something that involves one of these tasks. The agency is yours. Do with it what you will. We trust you.

Like any live performance, the great CreativeMornings/DC Twitter experiment was ephemeral. You can’t document continual changes to profile and cover pictures and organization description, but this Storify captures some of what occurred.

That was the example I gave at my AMA conference session about how to “eff-up” an audience engagement strategy (Twitter Takeover) that’s also a commonly deployed marketing strategy. (See here. And here.  Two random Google search results.)

Questions from my AMA session attendees arose immediately: How could I do this? Did anything go wrong? What if something bad happens?  Me: Like what? Them: Like someone says something inappropriate? Me: Like someone posts a video [raises middle fingers and fake says string of expletives]?

This is what stops us, right? Fear of something going terribly wrong. And, to a small extent, rightfully so. There’s this story which I read a few weeks before giving my CreativeMornings/DC talk in 2015 full of people posting “innocent” but IMHO foolish statements and pictures on social, and then be severely and continually punished. Or consider the confused reaction on social of Beyoncé fans after Lemonade was released. Poor Rachel Ray was never “Becky with the good hair” but she definitely got a lot of shade thrown her way. However: these are examples of the Twitteratti or fans gone wildly  negative, not examples of arts organizations intentionally and creatively using social to involve digital engagers.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not advocating for anyone to do what dog & pony dc and I did. It was right for me/us on that day.

But engagement is a two-way street. If you aren’t trusting your audience, they aren’t going to trust you. If you aren’t providing agency to most or all of them, seeking to actively engage them how they prefer, then only the few who are already engaging will continue to do so. The rest will never move from their current relationship level with you.

You, like some of the AMA conference attendees, might look at my CreativeMornings/DC Twitter experiment example and say “I could never do that.” Well 1) maybe that’s not the strategy for you; 2) maybe you could in a different format. But don’t make it an end stop, make it a point of departure. An inspiration.

Seth Godin recently wrote about the difference between objections vs. excuses. He suggests that people make objections because there’s something in the way of them saying “yes” and if they can get around it, then s/he can progress. “An objection is an invitation, a request for help in solving a problem. Excuses, on the other hand, are merely fear out loud.”

To Godin’s differentiation I respond: right on! If we are committed to engagement, committed to breaking out of our habits of practice, we have to break our habits of maintaining total control. So object, and then seek a creative solution with others that provides agency to your audience. This is what’s going to move us all forward toward more intimate entanglements between art, artist, and audience.

The Wealth of Ensemble

July 18, 2015 — 1 Comment

Adam Smith.
This is where my brain always starts.

Money PieAdam Smith, The Wealth of Nations. One of the seminal philosophical underpinnings of this country. There’s a singular “pie” of resources. It’s finite. We can all only have a single slice of the pie. Only if we work to grow the size of the pie can we get a bigger slice, or if I give some of my slice to you, or if I take yours, etc. In Wealth of Nations Smith is discussing economics, labor, and government…capitalism. So money, yes, but essentially power.

So when considering the struggles around power sharing in an ensemble-based arts organization, my brain always starts with Adam Smith: power tends to be viewed as a pie, we either all have equal slices or … wait a second!!!–your slice is bigger than mine and THAT SUCKS END OF STORY. ARRRGGGHHH!!!!

Which, of course, underscores 1) why the Wealth of Nations comparison is not the best analogy; and 2) why the equality mindset is such an unproductive approach to power sharing.

Power sharing is not about equality¹. We are not all equal. If we were, we would not see how differently White  and Black suspects are treated when in police custody. If we were, we would not need the Supreme Court to grant Same-Sex marriage rights.

We are not all equal in an arts organization. If we were, my resume and your resume would look exaPiectly the same.

But someone having more power does not mean someone else has her power taken away. Power is not shared like pie. It’s not a zero-sum game.

Power sharing is not about placing everyone on the exact same level. It is about acknowledging the experience and expertise each individual has, including oneself, and bringing the fullness of that “power” to the group. Sharing that power.

“Equal” means “same size slice.” But “equal” is not “fair.” It falsely promises ownership, isn’t  just or appropriate, and neither propels us forward nor makes us “better.”

Power sharing is as much about taking agency as much as it is making space for agency to be taken. Invitations made, invitations accepted—both ways. Responsibility is viewed for the collective more than for oneself. This doesn’t erase personal identity, it expands it and allows it to be expanded and affected. In this sense, one is never “solely responsible.”

But it must be shared. When space isn’t made for others, it’s the responsibility of the group to course correct. When agency isn’t taken, it is the responsibility of the group to course correct. Both situations are just as problematic, as they will result in reverting to a size-of-pie mindset and ensuing conflicts.

Does this rid us of job descriptions, to-do lists, systems of accountability, and the like? No, of course not, and please come out of the weeds.  🙂

Instead, let’s look at some of a memo Tony Hsieh, CEO for Zappos, wrote to the company in March 2015 regarding their transition to a holacracy management structure:

The right question is not: how can everyone have equal power? It is rather: how can everyone be powerful? ….

Here we stumble upon a beautiful paradox: people can hold different levels of power, and yet everyone can be powerful. If I’m a machine operator―if my background, education, interests, and talents predispose me for such work―my scope of concern will be more limited than yours, if your roles involve coordinating the design of a whole new factory. And yet, if within what matters to me, I can take all necessary actions using the advice process, I have all the power I need.

This paradox cannot be understood with the unspoken metaphor we hold today of organizations as machines. In a machine, a small turn of the big cog at the top can send lots of little cogs spinning. The reverse isn’t true―the little cog at the bottom can try as hard as it pleases, but it has little power to move the bigger cog. The metaphor of nature as a complex, self-organizing system can much better accommodate this paradox. In an ecosystem, interconnected organisms thrive without one holding power over another. A fern or a mushroom can express its full selfhood without ever reaching out as far into the sky as the tree next to which it grows. Through a complex collaboration involving exchanges of nutrients, moisture, and shade, the mushroom, fern, and tree don’t compete but cooperate to grow into the biggest and healthiest version of themselves.

the point is not to make everyone equal; it is to allow all employees to grow into the strongest, healthiest version of themselves. Gone is the dominator hierarchy (the structure where bosses hold power over their subordinates). And precisely for that reason, lots of natural, evolving, overlapping hierarchies can emerge―hierarchies of development, skill, talent, expertise, and recognition…

(emphasis above is mine)

Power sharing in this manner is not what we’re accustomed to in organizations or in American culture at large. Patriarchal hierarchy is deeply ingrained. Working against it leaves us feeling, at first, unbalanced, then uncomfortable, and possibly distressed. It is work that you have to commit to; that you have to believe in.

The “pay-off” I might refer to as the “wealth of ensemble,” and I believe it is worth it in the end.


 

¹Treading carefully. I don’t want anyone to mistake me: I know there is tremendous inequity and injustice that must be addressed directly and transparently within professional and personal spheres.

Previously on A Big Eyed Fish, in defining audience engagement I noted that it was “artcentric” and differed from community engagement and audience development.

In order to better show the relationship between a work of art, audience and community engagement, and audience development, I whipped up this infographic using my low-tech graphic design skills in PowerPoint:

Slide1Totally clears it all up, right?

Ok. Unlike a really excellent infographic, mine needs a little additional explanation.

Starting with the work of art:

  • The artwork drives our audience engagement programming choices. There’s a strong one-way relationship there and lots of overlap.
  • IMHO: audience engagement programming creation works best if we involve many different micro-communities or stakeholders  in the process. As a result of the art making or audience engagement program creation, we may form relationships with individuals outside our current artist/staff/board/audience/volunteer sphere. As soon as these new-to-us individuals or organizations become key participants in programming, this transitions into “community engagement.”* There is a strong two-way relationship between strategic community engagement and audience engagement, with some overlap.
  • The strong two-way relationship between audience and community engagement can result in a strong, positive audience growth for that specific artwork/art event or audience engagement program. It’s possible that as a result, this could result in future audience and community engagement programming.

While my infographic pales in comparison in terms of creativity and exploration of content, I believe it serves as a helpful reminder.  Each “programming area” has a distinct objective and, while related, they do not seek to achieve the same ends. Actors cannot play two objectives. Neither can engagement programmers. Don’t ignore what else is happening, but play out your part to its fullest.

 

*Note: as soon as one embarks on “community engagement” a different set of rules of engagement (pun intended) apply. More at another time but worth saying that you cannot “drag and drop” people. 

New blogger request for forgiveness, the original post needed more before I moved on. All updates, made 1/24/15 appear in this fetching orange.

A Google search of audience engagement yields a bevy of infographics:
Audience Engagement Confusion

And many definitions… (underlining all mine)

From Doug Borwick’s blog Engagement Matters:

“Audience Engagement is a marketing strategy designed for deepening relationships with current stakeholders and expanding reach over time. Also internally focused (artcentric), it may result in new modes/venues of presentation and means of illuminating/explaining the arts to the public. Typically, ‘outreach’ is an example of audience engagement.”

From Trevor O’Donnell’s blog Marketing the Arts to Death(link updated)

“Development professionals are unusually adept at initiating, nurturing and sustaining relationships with community members so the fit is ideal: engagement is merely an extension of the work that development departments already do.”

From WolfBrown’s Report Making Sense of Audience Engagement:

“Audience engagement is defined as a guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant. Others refer to this vein of work as ‘enrichment programming’ or ‘adult education.’

Is it a “marketing strategy” as Mr. Borwick suggested? What does that mean for measuring success–ultimately only in numbers of people and dollars through the door?

Is it more relationship cultivation akin to development as Mr. O’Donnell suggested? If we embraced this, might it dramatically alter arts funding practices?

Is it essentially an organizing principle + strategic thinking framework as WolfBrown suggested? Why look outside of arts organizations’ artistic programming to do that; why not radiate from the artistic experience outward? Engagement as artistic imperative?

#thisdefiningaudienceengagementshitcanbesuperconfusing

SO WHY DON’T YOU TAKE MY WORD FOR IT!?!

Slide3

You caught me: I launched another definition into the blogosphere. But the intention of doing so, as an artist-administrator obsessed with integrating artistic and organizational advancement work, is to simplify and personalize, and stop the “whose responsibility should it be” back-and-forth that many definitions of audience engagement result in.

Points of clarification:

  • “Artcentric”: extending Mr. Borwick’s definition, audience engagement is driven by our role as artists in our community; therefore, our sweep of activities is going to be driven by our work (a.k.a. the art).
  • Mission Oriented (or even driven!): audience engagement should be an extension of your raison d’etre. Work within the enabling constraints of why the organization exists and what it seeks to accomplish.
  • Organization Curated: at the most basic level, someone inside the organization originated the audience engagement program idea or is saying “yes” or “no”; organizations can provide tremendous leeway and agency to collaborators and partners but audience engagement is selected and “held” by the organization.
  • Different from Community Engagement and Audience Development: these all have different outcomes. (More on IMHO the difference in a future post).

In addition to knowing why your particular organization (based on its mission) is embarking on this “audience engagement” thing, a baseline of shared values must exist and woven into the fabric of every activity.

Slide4

And that seems as good a place as any to stop, and step away from the keyboard. 

Do you have a preferred definition of audience engagement, whether it’s your’s or someone else’s?

We at A Big Eyed Fish would love to hear it!