Category Archives: Management

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.

Labor and delivery

I currently have 50% more blood in my body than I did seven months ago. My heart is working almost twice as hard as it was pre-baby, pumping more blood at a faster rate. Even my lungs – which are highly compressed by my baby and its cocoon – are taking in 30% more oxygen than before. It’s no wonder that I get dizzy so easily, that walking a few blocks is challenging, and that at any given moment, I could put my head down and drop into deep sleep.

It’s hard, though, to remember exactly why I feel so strange. Because it’s not just that I’m cooking up a baby; it’s that the infrastructure of my body is fundamentally changed by his presence, which creates ripple effects throughout all of my systems.

Tonight, along with our consultant and planning team, I will be presenting our new, final (hopefully) strategic plan. This plan has been gestating just a little longer than a baby – ten months – and may also create fundamental changes in the Cultural Council. For my body, the changes are temporary. My baby-making organs will shrink down to their original size; my ligaments will eventually stop being wacky-elastic; my beach ball of a belly will deflate and (ye gods willing) return to some semblance of what it once was. Of course, my external life will be forever altered, with two little boys defining my life, love, and priorities from now on. But I will largely return to who I once was, if not emotionally, at least physically.

The strategic plan will have a different effect on the Cultural Council, if we do this right. As I’ve mentioned, some of it reflects who we have already become, some of it is aspirational, and some of it downright scary, with goals that will really stretch us. But my hope is that it forever moves the organization toward its best self. We plan to implement the plan’s recommendations in a smart and thoughtful way, put our resources behind it, and make intentional shifts that do not leave room to settle back into our current, more comfortable grooves. I suppose this is the challenge for any organization or program that alters its strategy – to make sure that the change is positive and lasting.

We’ve already had some significant changes in the past three years, and even more in the past several months. Some incredible talent and wonderful people have recently left the Cultural Council and transitioned on to the next great things in their lives. We will miss them and the wealth of knowledge and institutional memory that they brought to the organization. But I feel incredibly fortunate because our current staff team is just extraordinary. Whenever I walk into our front doors, in order to get to my office, I have to walk by every single staff member’s office, as we are almost all in a row with mine at the end. And as I walk, the closer I get to my office, the more jazzed and inspired I get. Each person I pass is so damn smart and funny and fantastic and talented – and they enjoy each other, and enjoy their work.

I count myself incredibly fortunate to be among such people every day. And I will call on them – and, of course, our equally fantastic board of directors – to contribute to making the necessary shifts that will allow us to be who we need to be in this community. Our collective “baby” – this plan that has taken us ten months to create, that made us (or at least, some of us) think differently and lose sleep and disagree and debate our values and ultimately brought us to consensus – will not dramatically change the world, necessarily. But it will give us permission to explore, create, and hopefully do great things within its boundaries and framework.

If all goes well tonight, and the plan is approved, tomorrow will be more than just a new day – it will be the beginning of the next 33 years of the Cultural Council’s life. It will take us some time to get the plan ready for publication, as well as to finalize the “Vision Video” that will be a new way to experience and understand the plan. But, soon enough, we’ll get it launched. And that’s not all. In the next several months, we’ll fully redesign our identity (including our logo, marketing materials, and how people visually experience the Cultural Council), redesign our website, and move to the Tannery Arts Center campus.

Fundamental changes, indeed. I hope my body eventually returns to something resembling its former self; I hope the Cultural Council transforms, in the best possible ways, for good.

being the change

“Don’t agonize – organize.” – Christine Pelosi, quoting her mother Nancy

I turned 40 years old this past June. My life has changed dramatically over the past four years – I now have a brilliant husband, a wonderful son, another son on the way, a job I adore, and a home in one of the most magnificent places in the world to work and raise a family. Though I’m basically always exhausted, due to the motherhood + full-time work equation, I still am keenly aware that my life is amazing. But sometimes I wonder about my personal impact on the planet. Am I making the kind of difference I believe I was born to make? When I leave the planet, will I have left it different and better? I know that just being a great mom can change the world, and if I can do that, terrific – but I also wonder about my personal and professional impact and who I want to be beyond the circle of my little family.

Well, last week I got a pretty big kick in the rear. I attended the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Leadership Forum, aptly entitled “Making SHIFT Happen”. I was a little wary of cheesy empowerment stories and bad music (and yes, I heard Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like A Woman” a few too many times) but overall, it was incredible. It began with an interactive lecture by Melanie Stern, who took all 200 of us through the “True Colors” personality profile to determine our dominant personality type. Having been through Meyers-Briggs and a half a dozen other kinds of platforms of this ilk, my result was not surprising (I’m a blue, it turns out, and an ENFP, thank you very much), but what did surprise me is where my colors are “dim” – i.e., orange. Orange is the color of big risk-takers and extroverts and energy and living life to the fullest. I think this color has dimmed for me since becoming a parent, but I do hope to “brighten” that color a bit in my professional life. And according to Melanie, such things are possible!

But the real juice for me was in the keynote speech by Christine Pelosi. Certainly, this is a woman who was born into a situation that was primed to cultivate greatness, but even with this background, what she’s been able to achieve in her 40+ years is humbling and inspiring. She’s only a few years older than me, and yet her national accomplishments and critically important posts are too long to list here. Even more than that – she’s just a regular ‘ol awesome human being. She met her husband only a few years ago, had her now three-year-old daughter shortly afterward, and hasn’t skipped a beat in her professional life even through those big transitions. I wonder if I could say the same. I wish I could take her out for coffee, just to find out how she balances it all, with a perspective more in line with mine than, say, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s.

Christine spoke without notes for over an hour. Obviously she’d given this speech before but it was punctuated with comments highly relevant to the theme of our gathering. She took the time to tell us that she was a huge San Francisco Giants fan and welcomed updates to the game currently being played throughout her speech. She was unapologetic about her accomplishments, and those of her family, while still being so human and accessible. And she implored – nay, commanded us – to take action of our own.

She talked about being “change agents”, though she never used that phrase. She said that we can’t always wait until we are elected, or until those who are elected are sympathetic to our cause, or until there is already a movement afoot, or even until there is a critical mass willing to tackle a problem before we take action. She said that sometimes we just need to get everything rolling ourselves and be the catalyst to make all of the above happen. And she talked a lot about the empowerment of women.

There are still far more men than women in power, across political and professional spheres. There is still not equal pay for equal work. There are still men taking credit for ideas generated by women. And there are still men and women – everywhere – who sit back and allow this to happen. One of her analogies was that of a staircase: in many situations, where men have one flight of stairs to climb, women will have two, and lesbians or transgender people might have four, five, or six flights to climb for the same job. She asked, “Have you ever been in a meeting where ‘Jane’ proposes an idea, and then five minutes later, ‘Jim’ proposes the same idea, and then everyone in the meeting erupts about what a fantastic idea it is?” This sounds so 1950’s, but it happens all the time. Christine said that this is when we MUST speak up, and say, “Jim, that is a great idea, and Jane, thank you for bringing it up!” We must all be change agents for equality, and that means, probably more than anything, that if we as women find ourselves in positions of power we must do our part to give credit where credit is due, publicly and privately. And TAKE credit, when it is due to us, whether it is men or women who try to steal it. And we must continually find ways to reach down the ladder to make sure that the climb up is equally easy or arduous for everyone.

Although there are spheres where inequality bares its fangs more frequently than others, this is still a huge problem. And there are painfully obvious examples of this. If men were the ones who had to give birth, do you think there would be any question or controversy about insurance companies covering the cost of birth control? If men were the ones who needed to breastfeed and who were typically the primary caregivers during the first few months of life, do you think America would still trail all other developed nations in federal maternity leave policies?

I know I’m treading into dicey territory here, but I bring this up to demonstrate how we can all be change agents. As a new mom, and a mom-to-be again, the maternity policy issue is one that has me enraged. The US federal maternity policy states, in a nutshell, that you can’t legally be fired from your job as long as you return within four month after giving birth. Period. No maternity or paternity paid leave, no caregiver assistance – you are “allowed” to take off work, but beyond that, you are on your own to pay and care for a wailing blob of life that will suck you and your bank account dry. (It’s worth it, but still.) And the rules are different for companies with fewer than 50 employees – which is a heck of a lot of companies, by the way. Compare us to countries around the world and it is just embarrassing. Heck, *Slovakia* pays 70% salary to new mothers for THREE YEARS! Zimbabwe, and many other African nations, pays their mothers 100% of their salaries for three months. Guess who else funds three months of fully-paid maternity leave? Afghanistan.

The United States? Zip. Zero. Now – a few states – California included – have created leave policies that partially fund salaries, with a cap. Here, we get 12 weeks of “disability” payments at roughly 55% of salary. Which is a great help. But most companies – and almost all smaller companies – have no supplemental assistance and follow the federal guidelines.

When I got pregnant, I looked at the Cultural Council’s personnel handbook, and the state and federal policies, and realized that I would not be able to afford to take more than a few weeks off to be with my new baby. This was unacceptable to me, both for personal reasons, and for the kind of organization I want to run. I worked with my then-board president, the executive committee, and a human resources consultant to see what would be possible. In the end, they were fantastic and supportive and we created a new maternity/paternity policy that provides one week of full pay and an additional four weeks of pay at 45%, to make up the difference of the disability payments – AND allowed that the employee would continue to be on the insurance plan for up to four months.

Hey, it’s not Afghanistan, but it’s a huge step in the right direction. And now, when similar organizations are thinking of reworking their own policies, and they call me to find out what we offer, I promote the Cultural Council as a model and an advocate for supporting employees as they enter into the wildest transition of their lives. And this doesn’t just help the employees: it helps the organization by creating an environment where people feel supported and cared for – which is critical for employee happiness and retention.

Christine’s speech reminded me that in this one area, I’ve been a change agent. And she’s inspired (nay, commanded) me to find other areas where I can and will make a difference. Sometimes I think that attacking the federal maternity/paternity policies might be the next big thing in my life – when my kids are older and it’s time for me to bring on fresh, new talent to lead the Cultural Council. That day is far off, but it’s good to be thinking about what I can do then – and what I can do tomorrow.

So, I ask (command?) you: What do you think needs to be fixed, in your organization, globally, or somewhere in between? And what are you going to do about it?