Category Archives: Advocacy

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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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.

 

 

 

 

Accommodations

“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.

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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.


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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Practice

“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.

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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.

 

 

Sideways

“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.

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“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?

Nothing.

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?

 

 

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.

Fired Up

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.” – Aristotle

I’m writing from the heart of Washington, D.C., just six blocks from the White House and a few light years away from Santa Cruz. I’m here for the Executive Training Program through Spitfire Strategies. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation funded my trip here, and my gratitude to them is matched only by my enthusiasm for the work. One of the best things about this training is that it’s cross-sector – there are nonprofit executives here working in river conservation, education, health, leadership, philanthropy, farming, wildlife – and only one other arts organization. It’s fantastic to learn from not just the think tank that is Spitfire, but also from the brilliance of the collective group.

This is also my first extended trip away from my little boys. While I could barely breathe from missing them as I fell into bed last night, I also experienced 9 1/2 hours of uninterrupted sleep for the first time in almost four years. If it’s possible to be both drunk and hung over from sleep, that’s how I felt this morning when I woke. But I digress.

A few preliminary observations about my time here:

1. I’m the only one in D.C. with hair down to my butt, a powder blue puffy winter coat, and a bag full of knitting. But, I’m a nerd anywhere I go, so this isn’t such a big deal.

2. It’s 30 degrees out but there are lots of men walking around in sport coats and ties but no jacket.

3. Women here wear pantyhose. Or is it just called hose? And where does one buy such a thing? This is the strangest thing I’ve seen yet.

4. It’s incredible to be in a city with such (comparatively) old and beautiful architecture, and where so much is happening, all the time.

While I delight in being a tourist, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to learn how to build the overall communications capacity of the Arts Council – to create our communications strategy, to help us tell great stories, and to do a better job of connecting with the people we serve, and the people who support us.

This was our first of three days, and it was intense. I imagine that the work we are doing would benefit any organization, or for that matter, any business, large or small.

We started by tackling our “brand strategy”, and “brand promise”. And yes, when I hear those phrases, my eyes roll back in my head at what sounds like really dull jargon. But what we are talking about when we use those terms is juicy stuff: the personality, the core beliefs, the very DNA of our organizations. We also discussed, at length, what we don’t do, what we are not. My list for that was pretty long, and included the following nuggets:

– We don’t make art. (We make art happen.)

– We don’t have a strict top-down management structure.

– We aren’t quiet.

– We are not too busy to listen.

– We do not operate solely in the arts world.

It’s eye-opening to clarify what you aren’t, so you can better articulate who you are.

We also did an exercise called “Best in the World”, where I was to distill what the Arts Council is truly gifted at as an organization. The Council runs great programs. But here is the thing that I believe is beginning to set us apart:

“The Arts Council champions the arts as a means to address and even help solve broad community issues and challenges.”

This is a newer focus for us, and other organizations (namely the MAH) are also doing great work in this arena, but it’s a movement that I think is critical to our long-term success, and the success of our community. I’ll be writing about this a great deal more in the near future.

One of the most illuminating elements of the day was a self-assessment we each conducted on our organization’s communications capacity. We rated our organizations on how far along we were in sixteen different areas. And… the Arts Council isn’t at the bottom of the barrel, but we are also far from the cream of the crop.

When you are deeply passionate about your work, it’s hard to point a magnifying glass at it and be objective about your strengths and flaws. But it’s also a relief to acknowledge, in black and white, where you fall short, so you can name the problem and consider how to address it.

Want to take a crack at it? Consider your organizational or business communications strategy. How would you rate yourself on:

– clear communication objectives

– a written communications plan

– someone in charge of implementing it

– talking with your board, staff, and volunteers every week about it

– a rockstar elevator speech

– tailored messages

– everyone from interns to executives being trained spokespeople

– a crisis plan

– refreshing your messages based on current realities

– an excellent system for measuring progress

– ultimately, a strong, recognizable brand

That’s only about half the list. And it’s all  important.

Equally important is getting out of my comfort zone and into a room of thoughtful people and skilled consultants who are giving me the tools to transform how the Arts Council communicates – and therefore transform how successful we can be. I’m very much looking forward to day 2. And, perhaps, 10 more hours of sleep, starting now.

Time to Turn the Tide

“Art is a nation’s most precious heritage. For it is in our works of art that we reveal to ourselves and to others the inner vision which guides us as a nation. And where there is no vision, the people perish.–Lyndon Johnson, on signing into existence the National Endowment on the Arts

For ten years, the California Arts Council was 50th out of 50 states in per-capita arts funding. What does that mean? It means that, for every resident, California invested less money in the arts than any other state. Less than, say, Mississippi. Or Wyoming. Or Rhode Island. You get the picture. In the last couple of years, we’ve crept ahead of Kansas and Georgia, making us 48th out of 50. We won this “race to the bottom” in 2003 when the California Arts Council’s budget was gutted by 94%.

Most of us who work in the arts here are well aware of this groan-inducing, eye-rolling fact, and even if you didn’t know it, you’ve felt the effects. If you live in a small, rural area, it’s likely that your local Arts Council is run by volunteers or woefully underpaid staff, which means they have limited capacity to serve their greater communities. (Actually, this is true in some large metropolitan areas as well.) No matter where you live, your schools likely have fewer arts programs than during the California Arts Council’s (comparative) heyday.

When the CAC budget was slashed, it left the field with a greatly diminished state arts agency, which had at one time provided significant operational and programmatic support. Local arts agencies were forced to be scrappy, do more with much, much less – or, in some unfortunate cases, fold.

But let’s go on an even more macro level, and look at the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA’s funding peaked in 1992 with a budget of $176 million. The “culture wars” (i.e. the controversy over Robert Mapplethorpe and others) resulted in massive cutbacks in 1996 when the NEA budget was itself gutted to $99 million. Since then, the budget has been taking two steps forward, two steps back. In 2013, the NEA was allocated $138 million. To put that into perspective, consider the following graph:

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The graph is a bit old (and hard to read), but the information, sadly, isn’t. (You can see it better here.) Yep, out of the thirteen major countries studied, the US was 13th. We won the race to the bottom again!

Why does this matter, in my wee town of Santa Cruz? Because leadership matters, and like it or not, top-down leadership often has the most significant impact. We grassroots folks can show how we are inspiring children, building bridges, creating jobs, beautifying the world, and changing lives, but if the top leaders and legislators in this country don’t recognize the value of what we do, we’re blowing dandelions in a wind tunnel.

The California Arts Council, Californians for the Arts, and local arts agencies from across this state are working to steer our Golden State ship in a new direction.

I spent Wednesday in Sacramento with these good people where we attended a legislative hearing held by the Joint Committee on the Arts. One of the purposes of this hearing was to introduce and discuss the 2013 Otis Report on the Creative Economy in California. (And for those of you not wanting to wade through 261 pages, here’s a PDF with the salient points.)

The short version is this: the creative industries in California account for 7.8% of the state’s GDP. They generated $273.5 billion in total output, and employed 1.4 million workers who paid nearly $13 billion in taxes that went into the state general fund and to local governments. Yep, we are talking billions.

And yet, our state’s investment in the arts totals about three cents per resident.

California is one of the most creative places in the world. This state is responsible for nurturing wildly innovative businesses and projects that have transformed the world. To not increase our investment in our creativity would be jeopardizing the competitiveness of our country as a whole. The Otis Report puts it this way:

“Since the US economy increasingly depends on the production of intangible goods, it is necessary to recognize that the production of ideas is an important form of investment.”

(Emphasis mine.) And how do we produce new ideas? We give children and adults the opportunity to express themselves, to learn how to think critically, to fail safely and try again, how to work in teams, how to innovate, how to invite inspiration. We do these things through the arts.

Consider this: creators and community members in California are already doing great things with very little support. Imagine a world where we invested in the creativity of our great thinkers, starting from the time they were children. Imagine what we could do, what problems we could solve, what connections we could create. Actually, I can’t imagine. Because the sky would be the limit.

So what are we doing about this? Here’s the big news: two legislators are proposing an increase to the California Arts Council’s budget. This increase is modest when compared to the billions pumped back into the economy by the arts sector. The current proposal would take the Arts Council’s budget from $5 million to $25 million annually. $25 million is equal to the agency’s 1983 budget, adjusted for inflation.

Senator Ted Lieu will shortly introduce this legislation. And Assemblymember Ian Calderon has already introduced a bill that would also increase the CAC’s budget. “We must fund arts programs that reflect the contributions they make to the people of California”, he said.

Sometimes Sacramento seems really far away from everywhere else. It’s easy to think that lawmakers and legislation have little to do with our everyday lives. But I promise you: these funds will make a difference to your children, and your community. With this support, organizations like mine will hire artists to come to your kid’s school. We will produce stronger programming for you to enjoy with your friends and family. We will help artists and designers innovate as they create the next big idea and perhaps one day employ you or your kids.

Art matters. Investing in the arts matters.

So what can you do? Call your State Senator and Assemblymember and ask them to support this legislation. Don’t know who your electeds are? Find out here. Encourage your local elected leaders to contact them as well. Buy an Arts License Plate. They are beautiful and will directly support creative programming. Check the Keep Arts in Schools Fund when you file your taxes, and make a contribution that way. Donate to your local arts council. Ask for arts in your kid’s school. Take your kids to the museum, or the theater, or the library.  Support the arts in whatever way inspires you.

If Music Be the Food of Love…

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” – Calvin Coolidge

“The golden age is before us, not behind us.” – William Shakespeare

The first time I sang onstage, I was in 6th grade, and I warbled my way through the second verse of “Winter Wonderland” in my school’s holiday concert. The first time I had a lead acting role was when I was fourteen, in my high school’s production of Godspell.

Since then, I’ve been on a hundred stages, sung in countless recording studios, performed in one-room school houses in the Ozarks and even, once, danced on a Broadway stage. Working in the arts has been one of the great gifts of my life. But working as a performing artist was also one of the most challenging of all my pursuits. (Though parenting takes that particular cake.)

The hundreds of hours of practicing my craft, of battling crippling stage fright, of the constant search for the next job, of dealing with elation one day and rejection the next – all of this gave me skills that have proved invaluable: grit and determination.

I hung up my acting hat over a decade ago, for two reasons: one, I wasn’t that great an actor and I knew it. Two, I always knew that there was something else that was truly my calling. Luckily enough, I discovered what I am meant to do, and get to answer that call every day at the Arts Council. My hard-fought grit and determination have never left me, and now I get to use them to build community through the arts.

Any artist will attest: working in the arts requires a profound sense of self, shutting out the naysayers, constantly proving your worth and relevancy, and baring your soul.

The passionate folks who are spearheading Shakespeare Play On are doing just that – with an astounding amount of grit and determination – and the world is responding.

For those of you who don’t already know the saga, in short, the University of California Santa Cruz’s Dean of the Arts pulled the plug on Shakespeare Santa Cruz (SSC) one week prior to the closing of their regular season last summer. I wrote about this back when it first happened, and won’t get into the “why” and “how” at this point. But I will say that after 32 years of being one of the most excellent Shakespeare companies in the country, and a beloved institution of theatergoers in Santa Cruz County and far beyond, the outcry was immense.

The Arts Council was, cumulatively, one of Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s largest funders. And many of us at the Council, as lovers of great theater, were also raving fans. When talk began – almost immediately – about saving SSC, we wanted to be involved. Several SSC board members stepped up and created Shakespeare Play On (SPO) with the intention of reforming the organization as an independent entity, with the same artistic integrity (and artistic staff) as SSC.

Their idea is to front-fund a 2014 season by raising $885,000 by February 1st. The 2014 season proceeds would then seed the 2015 season. (Most theaters, out of necessity, operate in the opposite direction: they expend their resources to put on a season, and then pay their debts with ticket sales and sponsorships after the season is over.) This is a very simple but smart idea. In December of last year, the Arts Council signed on as Shakespeare Play On’s fiscal sponsor. Since then, we’ve been strategizing with their board members, helping to promote their vision, and receiving donations on behalf of the newly-formed organization, and holding those funds in trust as SPO works on getting their own non-profit status.

I’ve worked in the arts and in disaster relief, and rarely have I witnessed the kind of determination exhibited by the Shakespeare Play On leadership. They’ve been unwavering in their vision, clear about their scope, and unapologetic about what they need to make this thing fly. They’ve also developed one of the most impressive Advisory Boards I’ve ever seen. It’s been thrilling to be a part of it. As of today, they’ve raised over $682,000, and done so, as they say on their website, “with only Facebook, Twitter, and word of mouth, and without access to Shakespeare Santa Cruz’s 32 years of donor, subscriber, or patron information.”

This is an extraordinary accomplishment. They still need to raise $203,000 in a very short time frame, but I’m confident that they will make it happen. And when they do, it will be a testament to the power of the arts, the passion that people feel for great theater, and the generosity of this incredible community.

Grit, and determination. With these, we can move mountains – and keep great art alive in Santa Cruz County.

The Art of the Alliance

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller

Arts councils are a singular and often misunderstood breed. I often get asked what they are, what they do, and why they are important. Over the past two years I’ve twice traveled to San Diego to participate in a movement to create one in that county, and the role of an arts council is one I’m asked about frequently both when I present in public, and when I talk about my job one-on-one. I always speak passionately about arts education, advocacy, programs, and grants, but the one thing that truly inspires audiences whenever I discuss the unique role an arts council can play is when I talk about the Cultural Council Associates.

The CC Associates is a group convened by the Cultural Council that consists of 50+ arts-related organizations from throughout Santa Cruz County. We gather every other month to share stories, network, and learn from one another. We start the meetings with “One Big Thing”: each organization representative shares the biggest thing coming down the pike. Sometimes it’s an event; sometimes it’s a major grant; sometimes it’s a need; and sometimes it’s a call to action. But it’s always inspiring.

We then discuss any major issues in our field (opportunities, news about public funding, advocacy efforts), and end with a short “skill share” where one of the Associates steps up to share a technical tool or technique that they’ve found useful. The “skill share” is a powerful element of the meeting, as they are usually something that can immediately be put to use, as needed, by organizations both large and small.

Our biggest Associates meeting challenge is also one of its greatest assets. Many of these folks have been working together in this community for years, and they have much to chat about – so getting the meetings started always takes a few minutes and some enthusiastic gavel-pounding.

Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it? Well, it is. It is a very special group and was the tipping point for me when I was considering whether I would move to Santa Cruz to join this arts community. And I’m also learning just how rare this kind of group is. Almost everywhere I go, when I talk with other arts leaders, I hear about the competition amongst arts organizations that ranges from friendly rivalry to outright enmity. At my previous job, I worked incredibly hard to create a similar alliance, and found the task to be next to impossible. Personalities clashed, old grudges interfered, and some organizations declared outright that they weren’t interested in working with one another.

Granted, that community doesn’t have the same kind of public funding and comparatively robust support that the Santa Cruz arts sector is so fortunate to enjoy. It’s terribly hard for a nonprofit arts organization to thrive in an environment of incredibly scarce resources, and when you are worried every single day about keeping the doors open, it can be hard to also open your heart and mind to others in a similar circumstance. Because this isn’t about organizations, really: it’s about the people who work in them, and whether or not they have the interest, ability, and capacity to come together.

Thomas Cott once again read my mind on this and posted a number of articles about alliances, including this one about a movement in Palm Coast, Florida. The challenges are familiar: “Efforts to bring people together can also earn the ire of those they’re supposed to be helping…No one wants to be told by another arts organization what to do… People fear for their own turf.”

I have the great fortune to have simply waltzed into a situation that was the stuff of my dreams: a strong arts community that values cooperation, collaboration, and communication. We aren’t perfect, but we have a terrific model. I believe that just about any community can make this happen. But there is groundwork that needs to be laid and thoughtful steps to take, which might look something like this:

  1. Determine a neutral body – or one that is as neutral as possible – to coordinate the effort. Arts councils are often perfectly poised to make it happen. Although the arts council might receive funding from the same sources as other alliance members, the mission of a council is so specific and discrete that it may have a better shot at bringing folks together.
  2. Don’t try to create an arts alliance in a vacuum. Potential alliance members should consider partnerships and volunteer opportunities outside of the arts sector that could positively benefit the alliance. This could mean getting involved with the local Convention & Visitor’s Council, Chambers of Commerce, service clubs, etc. This will take time, but only by getting involved will you be able to give the alliance legs – and you will also be able to actively advocate for and demonstrate the impact of the arts.
  3. Get your local governments on board. Having representatives from city/county arts programs (if they exist) are key to legitimizing the efforts of an alliance – and can be a fast-track way to assist in advocacy when issues arise. Regularly show up to speak about the alliance and its benefits and collective impact during public comment at city council/county supervisor meetings.
  4. Be sure to reach out to organizations and groups large and small to be a part of the alliance. If only big dogs are invited, it may appear elitist, and you run the risk of missing out on the innovations of the smaller or emerging groups out there. Plus, the opportunities for collaborations will be greatly diminished, and the experience won’t be nearly as rich.
  5. Start by having a “there there” – some grand reason to get together, be it an event, an opportunity, a speaker, something to get folks in the door the first time. And then ask those folks what would make them keep coming.
  6. Meet somewhere that is big enough to accommodate everyone, ideally in a creative venue.
  7. Bring snacks. And coffee.
  8. Have a Chair and a Vice Chair who together coordinate and run the meetings. Have these offices rotate annually, so lots of folks get the opportunity to provide leadership.
  9. Choose something that all of the alliance members can get involved in. The Cultural Council Associates have the Gail Rich Awards, in partnership with the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
  10. Create (and then disband, as needed) committees if specific tasks or projects come up. The Associates has an ongoing Professional Development Committee, as well as a Gail Rich Committee that meets only when it’s time to plan the event.
  11. Keep meetings short and entertaining. Find a way (such as the “One Big Thing”) to always get everyone’s voice in the room. Don’t meet too often. (The Associates meet every other month.)
  12. Stay in touch via social media. The Associates has a Facebook page where folks post cool stuff pretty regularly.
  13. Did I mention to bring snacks?
  14. Have the long view. If it’s slow to start, keep trucking. Thirty years from now you may have a robust and exciting group of people that love to see each other every other month. And that’s a fantastic gift you can give your successors.

I’ll continue to champion arts councils wherever I go. But I’ll also sing the praises of the Cultural Council Associates, because I strongly believe they are a major part of what makes this community so fantastic. We at the Council may hold the knitting needles that bring the yarns together, but it’s the Associates that make the gorgeous, colorful, and vibrant blanket that covers this community in creativity.