First Days

“The world today doesn’t make sense, so why should I paint pictures that do?” – Pablo Picasso

I found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way–things I had no words for.” – Georgia O’Keeffe

Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.” – Twyla Tharp

I wonder if your Facebook feed resembled mine this morning: chock full of pics of little ones about to start their first day of kindergarten, fifth grade, high school, all posted by disconsolate parents, excited for their kids but terrified about how hard it can be to start something new.

I’ve certainly been there before. By the time I graduated high school, I’d been to eight different schools, in six different states, in two different countries. I was the “new kid” time and time again, sometimes transitioning into a new school mid-year. It’s difficult being the new kid regardless, but starting in the middle of the year is brutal. Social groups and daily rhythms are well-formed by then and it is tremendously difficult to find a way to break in, to find friends, to flow into the rhythms.

However, starting new schools time and again gave me some valuable skills: flexibility, the ability to make friends quickly, the intuition to know when to listen and observe and when to jump in and speak up. It also gave me some unfortunate traits: I find it difficult to maintain long-term friendships, since somewhere in the recesses of my brain, I don’t know if I’ll be here (wherever “here” is) for long; and I’ve exhausted my enthusiasm for jumping into large social situations where I don’t know anyone. My dirty little secret: I’m deeply uncomfortable at parties. It’s hard for me to go places where I don’t already know everyone. Though I’m fascinated by people, the vulnerability I feel and emotional cost it takes when I engage strangers is extremely tough for me.

Every time I walked through the doors of a new school, my stomach dropped. It didn’t matter if I was six or sixteen – it was always grueling. Kids are wonderful, kids are cruel, and I found all kinds everywhere I went. What saved me, every time, was, of course, the arts. The first thing I’d do in any new school was seek out the choir kids, the band musicians, the actors, the artists, the sometimes so-called freaks and geeks. I knew my people, and I chose them, and often, they chose me. Want to know how to make a gaggle of close friends within a week? Do a play. Want to know how to meet lots of new kids? Start a band. Want to find people who speak your language? Pick up your cello and go to orchestra practice. And – hey – want to surround yourself with wonderful, passionate, smart, creative people? Get a job at an arts non-profit. But I digress.

Today, I took my sweet little 4 ½ year-old boy Andrew to his first day of preschool. Because he’s been in daycare since he was four months old, this is actually his third “school” in as many years – but this is the first transition he’ll remember. Most of the kids in his new class have been together for years, as part of the school’s infant/toddler program, so it’s like Andrew is starting mid-year. My introspective, insatiably curious, highly athletic, highly anxious little man is right now doing his first major transition into a new space. The first of, possibly, many.IMG_6170

This is just a “visit” day. I stayed with him for about half an hour before leaving him there on his own for the morning. He’s painfully shy in new situations, and clung to me like a little monkey, unwilling and unable to jump in with the other kids. Slowly, slowly I peeled his fingers off my arms and showed him around. We picked out a huge book about the solar system and started talking about the planets. While we were talking, the classroom teacher pulled out some paper and markers, and Andrew started sketching Mars and the earth. Rambunctious four- and five-year olds, who had been playing noisily all around us, started to crowd around, to see what we were doing.

It was a brief, quiet moment, and it started a conversation about our solar system (one little girl declaring that Saturn was actually purple) that quickly moved on to other things. But that moment when Andrew was crafting the sketch was the first time the kids really “saw” Andrew, and a few minutes later, he stood up and left my lap of his own accord to go with the other kids to check out the wasp traps that were outside the window.

In an hour, I’ll go back to pick him up. We’ll do another half-day visit this week, and next week he’ll start the school full-time. Certainly this is a far gentler means of transitioning than when I was a kid. (In the manner of 70’s and 80’s parenting, I was dropped off at the street in front of school with a “good luck, see you after school”.) But it’s still hard, and the very least we can do as parents, caregivers, and educators is give kids every tool possible to find their way.

Many of my colleagues here at the Arts Council say that the arts, one way or another, saved their lives. I am no exception. That help, that guidance, that sense of belonging is never more important than in the grade school years, when it can be so tough to simply make it through the day. When I joined the Arts Council in 2009, our Arts Education program was our least-staffed and smallest program. It is now our largest budget item, with three staffers, impacting more than 12,000 kids each year. We focus on arts ed not just because of all the creative skills that the arts give to kids, or the connections it creates in families, or the alternate means of learning it provides; we focus on it because for so many of us, the arts were the difference between surviving, and thriving, or not.

My kid needs those tools. So does yours, or your grandkids, or your friends’ kids. And so do you. We all do. As we send our littles, or not-so-littles, off to a new year of school, it’s worth asking if we are doing all we can to equip them for the hugeness of the world. The Arts Council can help. If you want to get involved in our Arts Education programs, if you want to know how to encourage more arts at your local schools, drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you. And now, I’m off to pick up my kid, and find out how his first day was. He probably handled it better than I did!

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I think it was my mother who once told me that the thing you worry about most is the thing that likely will never happen. I live by this, in a way. When I start to spiral about an issue or a problem, I remember it, and it helps me wade out of the darkness.

In the same vein, it’s impossible to know the breadth of good that can come from your actions as well.

It’s been almost two months since we Ebbed and Flowed through Santa Cruz, with our kinetic art parade, River ArtWalk, and Celebration of our river, the Tannery Arts Center, and our whole community. I’ve not been able to write about it because ten days before the Celebration, I landed in the hospital with an extremely rare condition that terrified all of us. Six days later I was out, but utterly waylaid. I managed to show up at the Celebration and even to stand upright for almost an hour, and participated in the unveiling of our Ebb & Flow Sculpture and Gathering Spot, spearheaded by the magical Kathleen Crocetti.

But the physical and emotional cost of attending the event was massive. There were so many people, such bright sunlight, so much to see, so many well-wishers, and I felt myself turning inward to protect my soul and my stomach, where my illness was centered. Ten days prior, when I went into the hospital, my first CAT scan sent everyone into a tailspin as it indicated that I should, by all rights, be dying. I wasn’t – but we didn’t know that for a couple of days. What my husband went through, what my friends and family went through, in those first early hours, I can’t imagine. All of it barely filtered through to me, in my pain and delirium. Ten days later, the day of the Celebration, we knew I was out of the woods, but I wasn’t ready for human contact, let alone a wild, wonderful, and joyful party.

But I knew I needed to be there, and wanted to be there, and it was truly glorious to see hundreds if not thousands of people along the parade route, the dozens of kinetic sculptures, and most of all, the stunning Sculpture and Gathering Spot. We energized the whole community around our river, and we created a permanent, beautiful, artful space for everyone to enjoy here on the Tannery campus.

Two months later, after a long and quiet convalescence, I’m mostly healed. I still cannot eat normally, and my energy is low. There is still an angry red mark on my neck from a hurried port that was connected there while I was in the ER. And I still feel reflective and protective and inward-facing and I hope my friends will be patient with me while I continue to emerge.

But in the midst of this, the world has fallen apart. The tragedy here at the Tannery Arts Center is unspeakable, unbearable. All of us who live and work here, steps from where the unthinkable happened, are faced every day with how we put one foot in front of the other. So many of us in Santa Cruz, at the Tannery and far beyond, feel shattered, devastated, terrified, even, sometimes, hopeless. As a mom whose heart is entirely intertwined with those of my boys, I’ve considered running for the hills, and never letting them out of my sight again.

So many of us want to do something, to be of service to everyone who is in pain, to find some light in this utter black darkness. It’s clear, though, that our time for action will be later, that peace and love and grace and quiet may be the right course, for now. But it’s been so hard to be a person of action in the face of crisis and to sit back and be still.

Hard, that is, until I spent a great deal of time looking out the window the past few days. Every time I lift the blinds, I see people at our Gathering Spot. Small crowds, big crowds, mostly Tannery residents, community members, strangers, together, talking, sometimes smoking, sometimes pacing, sometimes staring, even if not seeing, the stunning mosaics that meander around the Spot. I see children playing on the sculptures, adults with their arms around each other as they sit at the tables. I see hearts beginning the slow process of mending, or at least, sharing the pain.

All of us who worked on Ebb & Flow gave that space to this community. It was a gift the Tannery needed, and we couldn’t have known how important it would be when we were dreaming up the project. It’s a tiny thing, in the grand scheme of life, but sometimes we all just need a safe, quiet, and beautiful space where we can sit and be together. If that’s all I can do for now – well, it’s enough.

I will continue to put one foot in front of the other. I will continue to believe that my boys will be happy and safe, and I will do my best to let them discover the world without me constantly breathing down their necks. And I will give this grieving community the same space I continue to need to find our way back to each other. If and when it’s time for action, time to possibly create something else that celebrates the sweet life we’ve lost, I’ll be there. For now, I’m here. I’m quiet, but I’m here.

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Stuff of Dreams

My four-year-old often wakes in the middle of the night, anxious for answers to important questions: “Mommy, are robots real?” “Mommy, are giants bigger than Daddy?” “Mommy – the barf that flew out of my mouth last night – can we pretend it was fire?”


Andrew, four, fire-breather and dreamer

Though I’m tired of stumbling between his bedroom and mine in the wee hours of the night, I understand that his brain is on overdrive, and I adore his insatiable curiosity. (And believe me, his questions continue throughout the day.) The blessing and curse of these nighttime wakings is that my brain starts to spin, too – and while my boy dreams about robots and giants and breathing fire, I think about spinning sculptures, water dances, and wonderful new friendships. I think about Ebb & Flow.

Just over a year ago, I brought together some of my favorite people in Santa Cruz to brainstorm an idea for a grant opportunity. The California Arts Council had just launched its Creative California Communities program and it seemed a perfect time to join sandboxes with people both in and out of the arts world – likely, and “unlikely” partners, as we like to call them. From that first meeting, the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project was born. (You can read the full origin story here.)

ebb&flow color 6-1

logo mark by Doug Ross

Fast forward fourteen months and our program has become a movement. Our partnership is now a radical collaboration in which we share leadership, responsibility, and successes. It’s put the Arts Council’s work in front of people who didn’t know much about us. Most importantly, it’s bringing the community together to think about our river and RiverWalk in new ways.

I’ve been speaking about this program both near and far, and while it’s fun to share the various bits and pieces of awesome that comprise Ebb & Flow, the important thing is to reflect what we did right, to acknowledge how much of that “right stuff” was accidental, and to make those good choices intentional, moving forward.

But let’s start with the awesome. Ebb & Flow starts on First Friday, June 5th. Indulge me in a little imaginative trip, if you will. Start your evening downtown where we’ve closed off Cooper Street. There you can join artists, friends, neighbors and strangers to build two kinetic, mobile, river-inspired sculptures. After that, follow the nearest kids to First Friday venues for a scavenger hunt of artistic river critters. Once the moon rises, take a nighttime River Walk to see aerial dancing off a downtown bridge, watch an inspiring short film about our river, and witness a lighting ceremony of a new temporary public art piece that celebrates the ancient peoples of Santa Cruz.


One of the “Guardians of the River” by Geoffrey Nelson

The next day, put your kids in a Radio Flyer wagon or grab your best friends and some pinwheels, and join the Ebb & Flow Kinetic Sculpture Parade down the Santa Cruz RiverWalk.

Fish Bike Lee

Fish Bike by Lee Myers

Not only will you see some of the wackiest kinetic art Santa Cruz artists have to offer – you’ll also witness the unveiling of ten new temporary artworks along the RiverWalk. These stunning pieces range from huge sculptural fishing rods dangling from a bridge to black metal “ghost” silhouettes of riverboats and bears that once roamed the river to massive sculptures of coho salmon and steelhead trout.

Upstream by Kirby Scudder

Upstream by Kirby Scudder

End your kinetic parade journey at the Tannery Arts Center for the Ebb & Flow River Arts Celebration. See the unveiling of Kathleen Crocetti’s and Anna Oneglia’s stunning new Ebb & Flow community-built sculpture.

Kathleen Crocetti - Ebb & Flow Table

Kathleen Crocetti – Ebb & Flow Table

Dance to Marty O’Reily, members of SambaDá, Flor de Cana, and so much more. See inspired dance by Tannery World Dance & Cultural Center Youth Company, Te Hua Nui, and even BANDALOOP dancing off the Tannery buildings. Join the kids in getting river critters painted on your face; print your own Ebb & Flow poster with Doug Ross; take a short tour of the river behind the Tannery and learn about the birds and fish that call it home; get water wise by interacting with the Coastal Watershed Council and Save Our Shores; and leave motivated, inspired, and delighted with your new friends and new knowledge about what the San Lorenzo River means to Santa Cruz County.

At least, that’s how I plan on spending the day. With just over four weeks to go, it’s no wonder that my head is spinning at 2 AM, wondering how we can make this event not just a wonderful couple of days, but a lasting movement that transforms how our community loves and cares for our river.

There’s a lot of art in this project. And a lot of joy. And through joyous art-making and art appreciating, we are realizing the goals of Ebb & Flow:

  • elevate community water literacy
  • inspire economic activity
  • activate underutilized community spaces
  • strengthen cross-sector relationships
  • build stewardship of the San Lorenzo River
  • make awesome art!

That last goal is actually the means for getting everything else done.

So what did we do right? And what can we do better next time? Stay tuned, and I’ll blog about it soon. For now, make sure you don’t miss the awesome. Book your calendar for June 5th & 6th to witness the beauty, spectacle, and wonder of Ebb & Flow.

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Lean In, Recline – next we’ll be encouraged to levitate

“We need more portrayals of women as competent professionals and happy mothers – or even happy professionals and competent mothers.” – Sheryl Sandberg

“Ladies, if we want to rule the world — or even just gain an equitable share of leadership positions — we need to stop leaning in. It’s killing us.” – Rosa Brooks

Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In was published well over a year ago – and yet, there are still conversations reverberating around cyberspace among both rabid fans and angry detractors. I jumped in the fray myself when I shared a Washington Post article on Facebook called “Recline, don’t ‘Lean In’ (Why I hate Sheryl Sandberg)”. I was particularly struck by this article because it was written by Rosa Brooks, the former U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy and who also served as a State Department senior adviser. This is a woman whose workplace pressures dramatically exceed my own and it was, frankly, such a relief to read Brooks’ exhortations to “fight for our right to lean back and put our feet up.”

In the nonprofit sector, there is a tired old axiom that we are in this only for the greater good, that our passions are enough to fuel our work, that the rewards for driving positive change are all we need.

Not true.

Yes, many of us feel inspired by our work, and passionate about our causes. But the fuel we need is the stuff that goes in our gas tank that gets us from home to work every day, and the rewards we need are the kind that put food on the table and diapers on the toddler. And though we are willing to do this work for paychecks much smaller than our corporate counterparts, it feels wholly unfair to expect and ask us to take on more, build our networks further, and be even more productive as we struggle to simply get through the day. It reminds me of what my mother always said when I was an impatient child, begging for more, more, more: “I’m dancing as fast as I can.”

However, Sandberg, in Lean In, has two important points that resonate with me: first, she asks women to not disqualify ourselves for leadership positions because we aren’t sure we can do them, or because we believe our experience might be perceived as inadequate. Second, she asks us not to refuse leadership positions because we want a family.

I have a dirty little secret: before I accepted my current job, I asked the recruiting consultant to find out if maternity coverage was included in the health care package. I wasn’t sure if this was an appropriate question, but I wasn’t afraid to ask it. My then-job did not cover maternity, and it was truly a deal-breaker. I wasn’t about to have yet another barrier in my way to starting a family.

But many women likely do not feel they can ask questions like that, because they are frightened of scaring off possible employers, and exposing themselves to scrutiny about their priorities. But shouldn’t this kind of information be readily available, without the question even being asked?

On a separate note, what do we do about that fact that so many women, according to Sandberg, undervalue themselves and question their abilities? Certainly many women I know feel like the only way to prove their worth is to work themselves to utter exhaustion. I remember that one of the only days I ever knocked off early at my former job was when I managed to raise $50K in an hour during a lunchtime presentation. That was big potatoes for me at that time, and I allowed myself to leave at 3 PM to celebrate. I’m embarrassed to say that I prided myself on the ridiculous hours I worked, typed away at to-do lists when on phone calls, and went back to work after dinner far more often than I really needed to.

Brooks, in her Washington Post article, has answers for both the undervaluing, and the family issues. She says that we need to “fight the culture of workplace ubiquity” – i.e. the expectation that we are at our computers 24/7 and working all hours of the day and night – and to work on the gender imbalance that still dominates the home life, in that women still do the disproportionate share of housework and parenting.

Good suggestions, certainly. But there is also a great deal of snark and hateful language in Brooks’ article, and Sandberg seems a convenient punching bag for the frustrations of the pressures put on all of us. Why does even this conversation have to be so combative?

Sandberg wants us women to step into more leadership positions, to stop undervaluing ourselves, and to embrace the fact that we can have a family and a meaningful career. She’s also a gagillionaire whose perspective can be a little hard to swallow. Brooks wants us to fight for gender equality, and to make time and space in our lives to allow for more breathing, resting, and reclining.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say, well, yes. To all of this. They do not have to be mutually exclusive.

It’s the how. And the how rests with those of us who are in a position to actually do something about this. I have some positional power where I can create an environment that supports leadership, families, and self-care. And I can advocate that others in my field do the same.

Our workload isn’t going to go away. The number of people who need our services in the nonprofit sector is not likely to shrink dramatically anytime soon. And our paychecks are not going to double, either. So what can we do, to ease the burden, to relieve some pressure, and to invite staff members – particularly women – to achieve these ideals?

I have some ideas, many of which I’ve written about before: flexible hours, the expressing of gratitude, rewarding great work (with cash, not just words, if you can!), investing in the personal and professional growth of staff members, encouraging (and insisting, if need be) staff members to take paid days off if they’ve been at full burn.

But I think it’s also important to be honest and vulnerable about our own struggles. I suppose that’s why, even with the snark, I appreciated Brooks’ article. Even though she is certainly a woman of much greater means and responsibility than me, she still seems grounded in the same challenges I face every day. And to have someone like her cry “UNCLE!” and say she can’t take it any more makes me feel relieved about hollering about it, too.

I’m bleeding money every month to cover the cost of daycare for two small children. I’ll miss seeing my family this holiday season because we cannot begin to afford the trip to New York. My three-month emergency savings that I built up as a single person has all but evaporated since my second child came along. I feel intense pressure around money on top of feeling like there aren’t enough hours in the day for me to truly show up for my work and my family.

Comparatively, I’m incredibly fortunate. I make a decent salary, I’ve got a very flexible and supportive workplace, I’ve got a truly wonderful and brilliant husband, and I love my job and my colleagues. And yet, sometimes I feel I’ll collapse under the weight of the pressure not only to do more, but to also do better.

I have to wonder where this pressure comes from – this sick feeling that I’m always falling short. Do men experience this? Do dads spend many hours a day feeling torn in half between work and kids? Do they constantly battle feelings of inadequacy? Maybe, but in my experience, not nearly as much as women do.

I cannot begin to imagine what these work and family pressures must feel like for people in more difficult circumstances – whose salaries are terribly low, who are single parenting, who hate their jobs, who aren’t supported in their workplaces. I think it’s all well and good to invite each other to recline OR lean in but the invitation isn’t enough. Those of us with the capacity to create change in our organizations need to build in systems and cultures that allow people to work the way they want and need to while still ensuring productivity and encouraging passion. And we need to figure out why it’s so difficult for many women to enjoy an ongoing feeling of accomplishment and peace. As a very smart friend said to me recently, “Nobody needs to hold us back or do violence to us if we’ve internalized it.”

I’m on a path to try to figure this out, and to do something about it. If you have any brilliant ideas, I’m listening.






“A happy family is but an earlier heaven.” – George Bernard Shaw

Two Fridays ago, I spent the morning with prison inmates, and the afternoon at a community celebration for breastfeeding.

One of the things I love about my job is that every day is different. There’s never a day when I’m working on the same thing for hours on end, and never a week that looks anything like the weeks preceding it. But that Friday was particularly charged, and frankly, challenging, as I spent the morning reeling with awe and gratitude, and the afternoon feeling both honored and frustrated.

My day began at the Rountree Medium Facility Jail in Watsonville. I was there because the Arts Council gave a grant to the incredible William James Association. The Association, through their Prison Arts Project, hired artist Arturo Thomae to work with the inmates to create a beautiful mural in the jail’s cafeteria. Ten of the inmates who worked on the mural spoke about the experience, and to a man, each expressed immense gratitude. “It took going to jail for me to pick up a paintbrush for the first time,” one of them told me. “It’s not going to be the last.” Another spoke about what it meant to have the opportunity to be transported, at least figuratively, from the jail, during the hours he got to paint. “It’s the only time I’ve not had to look at these four walls, and gotten to think about something other than what it’s like to be here.”

I admit that I went to this event with some apprehension, about what it would like to be there, and what it might be like to talk to incarcerated men. And I left humbled and floored and utterly grateful for the life I have – one of such privilege, which largely protected me from forces that could have landed me or my loved ones in a similar situation. These men may have done things that led to their incarceration. But they also chose to participate in a project to create beauty that they hope will last for decades. And they also – like everyone – need a creative outlet, maybe even one to inspire them toward building a different kind of life.

After leaving the jail, I rushed to pick up my boys and drove them to downtown Watsonville where the local chapter of Women, Infants & Children and many other partner organizations had organized the annual Breastfeeding Awareness March & Celebration. I was there to accept an award that is near and dear to my heart: the Family Friendly Workplace Award, with Breastfeeding Emphasis.


This award, spearheaded by United Way Santa Cruz County, recognizes businesses that support their employees in their roles as parents. Sally Green, the Arts Council’s Development & Communications Director, and mother of one-year-old Sadie, nominated us.


I’m thrilled we received this recognition, not because what we are doing is extraordinary, but because I hope the very existence of this award helps to move the needle to encourage workplaces to take better care of their employees.

I’ve heard so many horror stories – and been in the thick of them myself – about how workplaces seem to have been intentionally set up for people to fail, and I promise you that there are fewer people more vulnerable than new parents. I don’t think what we do at the Arts Council is revolutionary. At least, it shouldn’t be. But we do everything in our power to set everyone (parents, grandparents, younger employees, more seasoned staffers) up to be as successful as possible.

This is what Sally wrote in her nomination:

“Arts Council Santa Cruz County is a family friendly/family supportive workplace in so many ways – from flexible schedules, Family Leave and accommodation for breastfeeding/pumping to a spirit of welcome for children at events for both staff and the community. Executive Director Michelle Williams worked with the board to create a Family Leave policy that supports mothers and fathers, whether birth or adoptive parents. Staff with grandchildren is also afforded the flexibility to spend time with them to support their children, extending the family friendly and supportive atmosphere to the community. We are invited to bring our selves fully to our work, including our roles as parents and grandparents. “

I’m so delighted that Sally feels so supported. But I am deeply frustrated that what we do is not the norm.

If you are in a position of leadership at your organization, and you think that you could improve conditions for parents, grandparents, and caregivers, but for any reason you are hesitant to do so, I invite you to get in touch with me. If you fear that schedule flexibility will create laziness or a lack of engagement, I’ll quickly dispel that myth. If you think you can’t afford a leave policy, I’ll work with you to figure it out, and show you how employee retention is a LOT less expensive than recruitment. Are you an employee and want to create a campaign for a more family-friendly workplace? I’m your gal. I’ll help you all I can.

Think about this: what’s the quickest way to get a stranger to warm up to you? Ask them about their kids or their grandkids. What’s the quickest way to alienate a stranger (or even an old friend)? Insult their kids or grandkids. It’s the same deal in a workplace. The fastest way to make an employee feel welcomed or valued is to show them that you welcome and value their whole person – including the munchkins they may have at home.

I’m here at the Arts Council for the long haul. Why? Because I love my job, I admire and adore my colleagues, I have a super smart and engaged board of directors – but mostly, more than anything – they all let me be a mom.


What can you do to make your workplace one that, even more, values the whole person? Join us in this movement. Let me know how I can help.





“We learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same.” – Martha Graham

In one day, I talked to 250 people, discovered the breadth of my personal biases, witnessed great work by dozens of researchers, administrators, and artists from around the world, and ate five mangoes. Where does such a thing happen? Museum Camp, at the Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz.

Before, during, and after, I’ve been hard-pressed to describe what Museum Camp is. Part conference, part social experiment, part sleep-away camp, part Burning Man for research geeks, this 3 ½ day event brought together 100 people from around the world to “measure the immeasurable” – namely, “social impact assessment” – measuring the effects of a program in a community. We worked in small teams to choose research locations and then developed hypotheses that we then set out to prove, or disprove, in less than 48 hours. We had great coaches, a number of evaluation tools, and total freedom to create methods to engage or observe people and programs in action.

My team – the First Friday Brigade – was tasked with measuring the effects of First Friday on downtown Santa Cruz. We hypothesized that First Friday fuels a positive perception of downtown. We sort of proved our hypothesis was true – but more than that, I think we proved that the way things are measured have far too much influence on the results. That may seem obvious, but I think that realization was far more intense than anything else I learned over those several days.

We asked people to – in a word – describe First Friday. And this word cloud summarizes their responses. The words were about 98% positive – but this was likely dictated by two things. First, we had a huge hand-lettered colorful sign to draw people over, and we were dressed in capes and sparkles. I’m confident that people who responded to our survey self-selected based on our positive and colorful presentation. I think only people who love downtown and First Friday wanted to talk to us.

Second, I was a “barker” for the project, meaning I hollered and cajoled and bounced around trying to get folks to participate. And about fifteen minutes in, I realized that I was only targeting people whom I thought – for whatever reason, based on their appearance – would be willing to participate. As soon as I realized this, I gave myself a metaphorical slap in the face and worked on inviting every last person to participate. I got a lot more negative responses, but from there on out at least I felt I was doing my best to get a more random sampling.

This got me thinking about social bridging versus social bonding in my own life. Bridging and bonding are two things integral to the philosophy behind the Museum’s events. Bonding is what happens when preexisting social groups are brought together; bridging happens between groups and individuals who might not usually interact.

When I was “barking” to folks who looked like they might be happy to talk with me, I was attempting to “bond”. When I sought out folks who didn’t look like they might, say, belong to one of my mommy groups, I was seeking to “bridge”. That simple shift in behavior is so critical to building a stronger community, and yet it can be really difficult to tackle.

In the last few months, bridging has been at the top of my mind. It’s so easy for me to connect with people whose worlds I’m familiar with. Give me an audience of arts administrators and I’m perfectly comfortable speaking in our shared language. Stand me next in line at the grocery store with a woman with young children and I’ll likely have a new friend and a playdate scheduled for the next week. But change that dynamic in the least – if the kids are teenagers or the audience is, for example, construction workers (and yes, this happens in my line of work) and my latent introversion rears its ugly head and I have a terrible time finding a clear line to connect.

So, I’ve started a practice of bridging. I often talk to my husband about the practice of our daily lives – are we in a practice of grace and patience with our kids? Am I in a practice of integrity or just trying to squeak by? – and I find that I can only bridge when I am being keenly intentional about it, and practicing it regularly.

Our research project at Museum Camp was a great practice space. First of all, there were a hundred brilliant campers milling about the museum. Though we all were there for a common purpose, there was enough diversity in passions and backgrounds in that room to allow for intense bridging. And testing my own ability to bridge, over and over, in public (and in a cape) was a terrific and somewhat terrifying practice, too.

I’m grateful to have put myself in that uncomfortable space. I’m grateful that I was matched with some whip-smart people who allowed me to admit my biases and who were committed to our flawed but fun project.


More than anything, I’m grateful that for 3 ½ days I was forced to hit a “reset” button in my life. I always want conferences to jar me a bit, to mix up my schedule dramatically, and to make me think differently, but they rarely deliver. Museum Camp delivered, with great conversation, truly interesting people, compelling research projects, fantastic coaches, and a very large box of mangoes to fuel our creative fires. I can’t wait to see what they cook up for next year’s Camp.




“I was taught that the human brain was the crowning glory of evolution so far, but I think it’s a very poor scheme for survival.” – Kurt Vonnegut

 “The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops until you stand up to speak in public.” – George Jessel

Most people want to belong to a peer group of like-minded others more than they want to accept facts.

Actually, it goes deeper than that. People need to feel a sense of belonging to such an extent that they will disbelieve irrefutable facts if those facts will separate them from their peer group. Fascinating, no? For instance, let’s say you are a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association (NRA) and you want to convince a group of Democrats that, say, requiring permits does not reduce violent crime. The worst thing you can do is tell this group of Democrats that 86.4% of Democrats believe that police permits should be required for gun ownership, even if your next statistic is one that indisputably demonstrates that permits do more harm than good in our legal system. (Obviously, I’m completely making that up.)

The Democrats – even after hearing your fantastic statistic – will only believe more strongly that the permits should be required, because unconsciously, their highest need is a sense of belonging to their peer group. By citing what that group believes, even though you follow it up with a statistic that refutes that belief, you’ve reaffirmed what they already believed rather than shifted their thinking. Changing their belief would mean separating themselves from like-minded people, and that is against our basic human hard-wiring.

So what do we do with this information?

I’ve just finished the second week of the Spitfire Strategies training and my head is spinning, even faster than it was last time. We learned about the “facts vs. peer group” phenomenon at the last session, but we’ve built upon it the last few days, and this idea – of cognitive dissonance – is making me rethink the fundamentals of our communications.

One afternoon during the training, we were treated to a precious hour with Shankar Vedantam, NPR’s science correspondent, who talked about unconscious biases and what really drives decision-making. The thrust of his talk was that in this country – unlike many others, particularly in Europe – we Americans are almost entirely motivated by independent motives rather than interdependent motives. Meaning, if we think something will better our own lives, we will be more motivated than if we think it will benefit the greater community more. For example, I will, with this logic, care more about the drinking water where my kid goes to school than I will about the health of the water in the greater Monterey Bay.

There are examples around this in both the left and right. “Gun rights” activists are more successful than gun control advocates because they make their case around personal liberty and safety and the right for individuals to bear arms. But pro-choice advocates are currently more successful than anti-choice advocates because the issue is such a personal, singular one about each woman having control over her own body.

Now while this priortization of individual good over collective good might be both disturbing and debatable, it is prevalent. And yet, the majority of our messaging at the Arts Council is centered around collective good. By our very nature, we connect people, we create gathering places, we inspire common dialogue, we strengthen schools, we reduce crime, we spark economic activity. These are the stories we tell. Less often do we talk about what it means to be personally engaged in the making of or enjoying the arts.

And yet, when we immerse ourselves in the arts, we are most fully present. When we are captivated by live theater, when we are dancing in a club or in our living room, when we are spending a solid hour mixing blue and white paint to perfectly capture the shade of a midday sky (and yes, I did that, once), both our hearts and our minds are completely engaged. And that is what it means to be truly present. It’s difficult to achieve that state outside of the arts, and yet we spend very little time making the case that the arts can actually make you feel better, make you happier. I can’t imagine a more personal, self-serving (in a positive way) motive.

But back to the facts.  And back to the fact that facts don’t matter. Perception is reality, and more than anything, people need to feel like they belong. So what do we do with this information?

The best part of this training has been learning all of the science around how our brains work, and what really drives our decision-making. And what we learned is that most people will simply never change their minds. And the more we throw facts at them to try to get them to change their minds, the more they will believe what they believed in the first place. There are people who will never think the arts are important. There are people who will continue to think being gay is a choice, or a sin. There are people who will deny climate change to their grave.


“Follow the leaders”, or “Politicians Discussing Global Warming” – Isaac Cordal, Berlin, Germany, April 2011

So, what does all the science say to do with these folks?


There’s nothing to be done. Lock a progressive in a room with ten channels turned on Fox News and 24 hours later they’ll only be more of a lefty. The same would happen to a die-hard conservative locked up with MSNBC – they will emerge even more convinced of their original beliefs. What we need to do, instead of trying to change the minds of the masses, is energize our base. Fire up our most evangelistic supporters. Get them to influence that wee 15% or so of undecided folks in our community. Don’t soften our messages in hopes of gently winning the opposition. It won’t work, and it will cause defection in our ranks. Instead, message with hope, with passion, and with conviction, believing that we are on the winning team (even if it doesn’t feel like it) and if the opposition hates our message it means we hit the mark.

What if our opposition is loud, and maybe even wrong in their (to borrow from Steven Colbert) truthiness? That will only serve to energize our base, and throwing facts or statistics back at them is a waste of breath.

I find all of this a great relief. Yes, there are times when we need to change the minds of people who hold great influence over policy or funding or PR that dramatically affect our work. To these folks we cannot turn a deaf ear. But if we can energize our base, spark a movement, turn some of the undecideds into our evangelists, and put great social pressure on those decision makers, we will have created a peer group that the person of influence will, hopefully, want to join.

Sometimes the way in is sideways.

I’ve got much more to digest, but as I barrel through the sky at 35,000 feet, finally returning home to my sweet little boys, I’m thinking about how all of this applies to us in Santa Cruz. My friends and colleagues are all engaged in hard work to make Santa Cruz the most terrific and enlightened place on earth to live, work, and play. How can we use this information to better make our case, and change our world?



“Ideas, like large rivers, never have just one source.” – Willy Ley

Last Sunday, my three-year-old Andrew wanted to go on a bike ride. So my husband put Andrew’s bike in the back of the car, strapped in Andrew and his little brother Alex, and drove to the Tannery Arts Center campus, where I work, and where there is plenty of paved, safe open space.


Alex and Andrew, “working” at my desk last Sunday

I hopped on my cruiser to meet them there. I live about a block and a half from a trestle bridge that connects this side of Santa Cruz to the Boardwalk, and at the bottom of the bridge is the starting point for the River Walk, a long path that meanders next to the San Lorenzo River. The river runs through downtown and past the Tannery Arts Center, which is where the River Walk ends. The small miracle of this means that when I ride to work, I only have to be on surface streets for a block and a half. The rest of my ride I’m flying by the flora and fauna that call the river home – flowers and countless species of birds and tiny skittering animals – and eleven minutes later I’m at the front door of my office.

The sad part? I was largely alone on that ride. It was a perfect, sunny, 70-degree Santa Cruz early spring day, and almost nobody was out enjoying the river. No paddlers, no picnickers, no pedestrians. No families out for a stroll or packs of cyclists in their spandexed glory.

The San Lorenzo River is the historic and environmental heart of this city. These days, the community is both literally and figuratively cut off from it. A series of levees built in the 1950’s blocks the river from view; and as criminal activity increased next to it, the community avoided it, and many have forgotten about it altogether. But it wasn’t always so. A century ago, it was the celebrated lifeblood of the community, and even supported the most anticipated annual event in Santa Cruz: the San Lorenzo Venetian Water Festival. Four days of celebration included fireworks displays, dancing on a temporary floral pavilion, night parades, and lavishly decorated boats and barges. Thousands of lights were strung from shore to shore.

Venetian Water Festival Float

A float at the River Festival, some time around the turn of the century


viewing stands along the San Lorenzo River

Now, the river doesn’t meet federal water quality objectives; it has a high concentration of criminal activity adjacent to it, and local policies prohibit access, so there is no swimming, paddling, or any other recreation in the water. Some community members don’t even realize we have a river running through our city, and many that do generally avoid it, as it’s not seen as a safe place.

The river should be our pride and joy. It should be a place where we come to celebrate and recreate. It should be an engine of economic activity and should be recognized as our main source of drinking water, wildlife habitat, and flood protection. It should inspire, delight, and restore us as we wander down its path.

There have been many stalled and unsuccessful attempts over the years to remedy this problem. Now, though, something is afoot that has the potential to, if you will, turn the tide. Greg Pepping of the Coastal Watershed Council has created the San Lorenzo River Alliance. The Alliance is a coalition focused on revitalizing the health of the San Lorenzo River and transforming it into a safe and welcoming community destination. Greg is working on pulling together partners from a wide swath of interests to collectively work on this vision. It will take years, but I believe he will be successful.

And the arts are going to help him get there.

The Arts Council, in partnership with the Coastal Watershed Council, the City of Santa Cruz Water Department, the City of Santa Cruz Arts Commission, the Tannery Arts Center, the Tannery World Dance and Cultural Center, and numerous incredible local artists including Kathleen Crocetti, applied for a significant grant from the California Arts Council. This grant, through the Creative California Communities program, would invigorate both the river and the Tannery campus, and bring together some seriously awesome folks, many of whom have never worked together before. Here’s the “project thumbnail” from the grant:

Unlikely partners will unite to transform the community’s relationship with the San Lorenzo River and the Tannery Arts Center through the Ebb & Flow River Arts Project, a yearlong collaborative arts and educational initiative culminating in a Kinetic Sculpture Parade & River Festival. The Project will spark a movement that builds constituencies for the Tannery campus and the river, elevates water literacy, inspires hubs of economic activity, and strengthens cross-sector relationships. 

Sounds fantastic, right? We will create a large sculptural fountain which includes a water catchement system with a spill-way to the Tannery Garden. The large, round planters around campus will be decorated with water-inspired mosaics. We’ll do a series of educational workshops co-led by artists and water experts. We’ll create temporary public art at five River Walk access points to call attention to those locations and educate community members about the river.  And it will all culminate next June in a Kinetic Sculpture Parade & Festival, featuring work by Tannery and community artists, who will create sculptures that will parade down the river – or the River Walk, if the flow isn’t high enough – ending at the Tannery where we’ll celebrate with dance, music, artmaking, and food.

We’ll engage the environmental population in the arts, and arts audiences in a celebration of the river. We’ll use the energy and momentum created by the festival to advocate for friendlier policies for the use of the river (with habitat and conservation always at front of mind, of course). We’ll bring thousands of people to the Tannery campus. And we’ll help realize the potential of the river and the campus as major hubs of toursim and economic activity.

What if we don’t get the grant? I’ll be disappointed, but I won’t regret all of the time and energy I put into bringing these people together. Just the process of brainstorming the idea, and crafting the proposal led me to meet some fantastic folks, and to begin to deepen relationships with some I already knew. I’m happy to now be serving on the San Lorenzo River Alliance’s River Oversight Committee, and my own “water literacy” has been dramatically raised since I started working on this proposal.

And I’ve fallen in love with our river. I ride my bike on the River Walk whenever I get the chance, and I look forward to the day when my Sunday afternoon ride is idyllic in a different way : maybe not as quiet and peaceful as last Sunday, but wonderful in its own way with the sounds of kids laughing, paddlers splashing, cyclists spinning, birders spotting, and community members of all kinds finding a place to relax, reconnect, and restore.


If you live in Santa Cruz county, and if you are interested in sharing your vision for the river and shaping the work of the San Lorenzo River Alliance, please complete this survey. Your input is extremely valuable to the Alliance!


Ebb and Flow

Involve Me and I Learn

“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.” – Socrates

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I’m told that babies and young children often have major developmental leaps after traveling. There is something about being in a new environment that inspires the brain to do something differently, or that triggers a new understanding. My three-year-old Andrew took his first two steps in the airport on Kauai, at the tail end of a two-week vacation in Hawaii. My one-year-old first figured out that softly cooing “mama, mama, mama” (as opposed to just nondescript moaning) was a very effective way of getting my attention in the middle of the night when we were staying in a hotel in Tahoe. These may have been coincidences. But I know that the only way I can inspire change in my tired, comparatively old brain is by getting out of Dodge and going somewhere that is completely “other”, and taking real time to think differently.

Day 3 of Spitfire was the perfect cap to this experience. Andy Goodman came back and showed us that if we could change the story, we could change the world. Meaning, if we can effectively communicate the problems we are tackling and the solutions our organizations provide, we can build the resources we need to better our communities. And in the afternoon, Lizz Winstead (co-creator of the Daily Show, comedian, and activist) talked to us about how humor is a fantastic tool for activism. She’s hilarious, and, more important, she’s fearless. And thoughtful.  And that is a powerful combination.

I learned a lot over these three days. I had a bunch of “aha” moments, and many more moments of great satisfaction as common sense, best practices, and my own passion for my work at the Arts Council all came together to illuminate great possibilities for my organization. And I realize that if we don’t integrate some of this learning, we’ll – in some ways – just spin our wheels and never fully realize the Arts Council’s full potential, and fall short of the additional tremendous impact we could have in this community.

But if I hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have known what we were missing. It’s true that integrating what I learned into the Council’s work will take time and energy. But what would be worse: business as usual, or a little more work on our plates that will inspire the next era of Arts Council awesomeness?

The point is this: we all need opportunities to think differently. We all – as individuals and organizations – need great trainings, taught by wildly skilled instructors and attended by passionate, smart executors, so we can learn to, say, move in a different way (like a toddler’s first steps) or communicate in a different way (like a baby figuring out a deeply instinctive motivator for his mama).

In the nonprofit sector, when money gets tight, we generally cite “marketing” as the first thing to get slashed from a budget, and we bemoan the loss. I’m willing to bet, however, that professional development gets cut long before marketing.

My advice: DON’T DO IT. Don’t cut it. Fund it. Over-fund it. Got a professional development budget? Double it. Talk about it at every staff meeting. Champion it to your board. If you are a funder, be very, very smart like the Hewlett Foundation and the Packard Foundation (oh, and wait, also like Arts Council Santa Cruz County) and invest in it for your grantees. If you are a staff member, and you find a training opportunity, and your organization can afford it, and the people who are running it look smart and savvy? Don’t make excuses that you don’t have time. (Don’t even let your sweet little new baby hold you back from going – trust me on this, you’ll love the sleep.) Just do it.

Spitfire 2

Some of the faces, and smiles, of folks working to better themselves so they can better the world

We’re all too busy, we’re all overcommitted, and I’m realizing that even as I tell that story about my own work life, I also find my “busyness” really boring. Enough already. Let’s all make a commitment to expand our minds, our social networks, our skills, and our lives by investing in the professional development of ourselves and our colleagues.

Still Burning

When I was in college, one of our particularly brilliant directors – Doug Austin, if he’s still working out there – talked to us about successful performers and how we were to learn from them. In one particular lecture, he said something like, “If there is someone you admire, if they are particularly talented and do great work, find out how often they rehearse. Find out what they do to prepare for performances. Find out what their rituals are, what’s important for them. Hell, find out where they get their donuts.” The idea being, if I know where, say, Dame Judy Dench gets her donuts, and if I stalk her and figure out her favorite kind and try her donut-eating method that avoids getting jelly on my shirt, some of Ms. Dench’s awesomeness might rub off on me, along with the powdered sugar.

I desperately hope that I come home with a head-to-toe fine dusting of metaphorical powdered sugar, considering the smarts I’ve witnessed in the past two days.

First of all, Kristen Grimm, President of Spitfire Strategies. If there is any way that I could ever be as singularly good at any one thing as she is at communications, my life will have had meaning. And Andy Goodman from The Goodman Center? Come on. His presentation on bad presentations was the best presentation I’ve ever seen.

Today we fleshed out the communications planning tool that we started yesterday. This tool – called a Smart Chart – is a thoughtful way to develop a communications program around a particular issue or goal. It’s all about identifying the values of our audiences, overcoming barriers, illuminating the solutions that our organizations provide, and confirming how the world will be better as the result of our work.

Of the many powerful takeaways from today, there is one at the top of my mind: in communications, perception is more important than fact. Heck, that’s probably true in most situations if you need to move the needle on an issue. If the people you are trying to reach have an emotional connection to what you are describing, you have to meet them where they are, and respond with emotion. You can’t respond to emotions with facts.

Kristen gave a great example: her husband was 45 minutes late for dinner. She freaked out when he finally arrived, and started yelling, “You don’t love me!” He started explaining that his meeting ran late, that he couldn’t get a cab, and she was getting more and more worked up because the details didn’t matter. It wasn’t until he stopped and said, “Honey, I’m so sorry. I love you. This will never happen again,” that she calmed down. The facts were irrelevant. The emotion was all that mattered. (If my husband is reading this, he’s probably both rolling his eyes and nodding his head.)

We also learned how both humor and emotion, and very well-done visuals, can be tremendously effective. Here are two excellent examples:

This one was, I admit, so targeted to someone like me:

Follow the Frog.

And this one shattered me:

Imagine a World Without Hate

Both incredibly effective narratives, for very different reasons.

My mind is about to melt out of my ears, and I have only one more night to get an irresponsibly wonderful amount of sleep, so I cannot share more at the moment. I will, however, write more about what I’ve learned as I work to integrate it into the Arts Council. Getting whacked over the head with a bunch of awesomeness can be overwhelming; bringing it home and making it work for the Council will be a whole separate kettle of kittens. But if we can make that happen, I believe the difference will be profound.