I won’t bury the lede. We are now Red Olive Culture Commons.
Being an artist whose main medium is words, it’s been a source of conflict for me for some time to know that a universe as dynamic, movable, and encompassing as Red Olive’s also called itself a “consulting firm” (emphasis mine), which meant that folks either:
Had an incorrect idea of our specific and collaborative interventions, and only through the lens of consultant: an often fully external third party who swoops in, waves a magic wand or creates a pretty PDF, and leaves the org in a trail of dust (often, interestingly, it is this moment when RO team has stepped in with organizations);
Never considered the full scope of what we’re up to at Red Olive: podcasts, research & organizational community listening, field-learning, residency way-making, convening. All of this and more is connected to the project formerly called Red Olive Creative Consulting.
So, to tell the best story of who we are and our Due North (moving people and resources towards the preservation of culture and communities) required me to consider a first impediment: our name.
Definitely, a rose by any other name will still smell as sweet. We still aspire to be the central space—the Commons—that you’ll turn to for the work of advancing culture.
And that you’ll come back, and back, and stay a while, pushing ideas forward and transforming with us the creative cultural communities we need.
This season I’ve been working with several artist-run collectives in one-on-one sessions—from South Carolina-based Black cultural organizations to Boston-run Black arts collectives, from For Freedoms to the 2020 winners of the Whiting Foundation Literary Magazine Prize, and, of course, Black Art Futures Fund grantees. Almost 20 groups! It’s certainly a challenge and a privilege to see the ways in which artists, culture makers, and storytellers also use the vehicle of the institution to bring a community together, inspiring me to endure the zoom room marathons.
This year, Red Olive articulated, in writing, our Core Values, one of which is: Use Global Views to Problem Solving—The Answer Could Be Anywhere. In no way is my work prescriptive, simply because art forms and regions and context and people change things, but there have been two big conversations I’ve had with folks and subsequently meditating on these last few months, and they are resonating with me louder than ever.
The ways in which I run Red Olive—the services we offer, our focuses and projects— bloomed once I realized they were as urgent and necessary as the poems and stories I write, the quilts I stitch, the music I play. The urgency around THE WORK of Red Olive shifts when I hold it as an art project that also generates resources for my team, moves people and resources for the organizations with which we partner, and encourages community collaboration.
The trapping of calling Red Olive and its projects my artistic practice is to potentially conflate the wells with which I may turn for community, meaning making, etc. I am able to let Red Olive be so much more to the world when I begin to invest in other interests and passions.
Recently, I’ve taken up horseback riding—a childhood dream so financially out of my reach until now. I have a Black woman training me and each session I have to work to overcome my fears, to find a new language in my body to collaborate with another living thing with its own mind. Three mornings a week, as I approach the stable, I ask: What does it mean to have the horse work with you instead of for you? What does it mean to “say” the same gesture over and over with reins until I know what it is I need, and so too does Blue, the horse I ride. I then come to the Red Olive work table ready to listen and speak differently than I had before even this stretch.
Tell me! Where do you go to fill your cup? What global views (or new experiences) do you adapt to get at what you’re trying to say? How is it giving you new language for THE WORK?
I don’t know if it’s my just own Instagram algorithm, but I’ve seen what feels like an increase in articles acknowledging our continued collective burnout, our anxiety around an implied return to normal and what that might entail, and now conversations about what to take with us into the next normal and what to leave behind.
Of course I am thinking about Octavia Butler’s Kindred as I am writing this note to you; Black artistry continues to write the framework for our understanding. A story about time travel and love and learning from the past also provides us with a framework to understand that if we are going to go back in time, or to the before, then we should pack a bag of tools for the journey.
What from today would you bring back to the before times if you could?
If we follow the rules of time travel, then absolutely the question is also about changing the course of the future. I think, in answering that question for myself, I would take back to the before the sense of collective journeying through system-wide failures that, for a moment, seemed to allow many folks to understand the precarity under which legacy Black cultural organizations have operated for decades. Never did I imagine the conversation to shift so drastically in the direction of the oppressed, not even for a moment.
Another thing I would take back into the before times would be the spotlight on the impossibilities of the caregiver (however it might be defined) and the ever-increasing demands from work culture. My father is no longer with us to benefit from this change, but I think often of the ways his workplace—of which he gave 30 years, more than half his life—did not move to accommodate a 24-7 caregiving necessity for my mother after she had two strokes. Instead, in the before, his workplace actively worked to push him to early retirement. Last week, a RO team member had several family emergencies all at once and needed to be the caregiver for those sick and shut in. She tried to promise that in between grocery runs, and prescription-filling, and all that, that she would be able to work on RO things. I assured her she should take the time that she needed, and reminded her of one of our core values: You can’t do it alone; practice in community. Because we have multiple team members per collaboration, we can lean in when someone needs to lean out, and the work can continue. Maybe that’s my version of work collective care?
I’d take all of the statements and gestures of solidarity into the before, too. And ask How does this play out over the long haul? How can you craft language that truly fits into the fabric of an organization, of the work, that doesn’t rely on Black or Trans or Asian death, its subsequent spectacle to—mobilize? To many folks who penned those statements and are living new truths: How are you reconciling the hurt you might have inflicted upon others in the before, and making space for their feelings of betrayal now?
Inherent in the exercise, too, is a packing of the bag for relics, artifacts, and tools for a future. From the before, I continue to bring the prevalent insistence on Black life that Black folks have carried for generations—this idea that Black folks have lived and loved and created art, insisted on our inclusion in the archive for whatever future day. And maybe, I might bring nothing else.
May it all be resurrected anew for a new day.
What are you packing? For what future? For what past?
This month we will mark a year since our lives changed.
I find myself doubling down on things I held near and true in the “before.” That art, and the preservation of it, can help us translate the unspeakable, and can help build the archive for the future. We’ll know where we have been and how and who because of art.
Last March, Grantmakers in the Arts convened a panel of folks to speak to ways philanthropy could and should respond to what was then “only” the COVID-19 crisis. We were given just 1 slide and 6 minutes—a hard task before us. I used art to convey what I wanted to exist in my slides. By drawing them, I felt I was adding both visual differentiation to what was growing to be a 90-minute session with a lot of text and an image that would hopefully stick with folks long after the presentation.
I hope we continue to press philanthropy towards some of these ideas in the next few months / years—especially as we understand that the pandemic is enduring and the effects of white supremacy are constant. To summarize what I’m pushing for philanthropy to continue to do in this “new year”:
Move as many resources ($$) as you can—quickly.
Allow groups a sense of security by urging them to use resources ($$) to secure the bottom of their pyramids first.
Infuse the field with generous operating support and removing programmatic restrictions.
Communicate quickly to relieve organizations’ anxiety about current and future funding, etc.
Accept that we are the first responders for arts and culture.
Right now is the time to renew our commitments, as best we can, to the field. Right now is the time to continue to dig deep to ensure culture is here for the future.
At Red Olive, we are thinking of ways to continue to carry forth these ideas into a 4-cycle BAFF granting period, and more to come. With our clients, pushing them to think about COVID as a long-term impact on programs and fundraising—how do we continue to intervene and present and preserve the arts, with its community of supporters, in light of that?
But also: Seeking moments of rest. Accepting that we are the emergency response team for the field means that our ability to “turn off” feels something like a let down, a betrayal. For 2021, we are looking at quarterly rest periods starting with a resurgence of “Spring Break.” This month, from March 15-17th, our offices will be closed—maybe our eyes too!
How are y’all resting and renewing after a year of extraordinary ways of existing, working, loving, living?
As if it is no surprise, of course I’m one of those folks who insists that every month in America is Black History Month—that any day ending in Y is an occasion to celebrate the contributions of Black folk, and that my particular lean is the cultural and artistic contributions of Black folk.
The first day of February I was in a familiar, yet now foreign space: a movie theater. Being married to a Black independent film curator will present you with many opportunities to sit in front of a screen. His Luminal Theater was selected to program satellite screenings for Sundance Film Festival, and we had the opportunity to do it in my hometown in the shadow of my grandparent’s old neighborhood—my own first Black cultural space.
Here in Columbia, SC there’s a small theater just behind a nearly-empty shopping mall where I bought my first jean jacket from GAP, having paid cash I earned waiting tables at Applebee’s. Luminal Theater was able to partner with the existing theater to present socially-distant, in-person viewing experiences for Sundance, and for free. How many folks outside of Park City, Utah can say they saw Sundance for free in their backyard?
The last film was the documentary AILEY, about famed dancer and choreographer and founder of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. I am such a fan of the company and was treated to a large screen viewing of archival footage of Mr. Ailey himself—heard his voice, heard from people who, too, loved and were moved by him. The contemporary spotlight was on one of my favorite choreographers, Rennie Harris, whose piece Lazarus was a moving visual depiction of Black life and celebration. It’s not an exaggeration to say I was mush watching it, the convergence of of it all—Black culture in my neighborhood, Mr. Ailey and his historic contributions to dance and ways of seeing the Black body. The whole of it.
What struck me was the story of sad and great and Black love that Mr. Ailey had given us over his whole life and beyond—at such an expense to himself. What a testament to what it means to be Black in America: no matter what, until his very end, Mr. Ailey never thought he could measure up to this American project that made him, and yet (maybe a recurring theme this month and all months?) he still gave us—undeserving—beauty, and ways of seeing ourselves in song and dance. The moments of light: wading in the water, the Black body, flying.
At least the turn of a new year gives us a chance to re-imagine the stories we want to tell about ourselves and our work, the journeys we want to take into our futures.
One of the stories I am choosing to lean into for 2021 and beyond is to remind myself that the work I do shines when I let my artist self be more visible.
Work, and the idea/drudgery of it asks that we hide portions of ourselves that didn’t directly relate to a job description. My colleagues at Red Olive might get caught up in things quote-unquote not related to work and drop it. I would urge them to go back to the story they were telling, remind them that I believe it’s all related, and to relish in the places the mind wanted us to go for that moment.
Even as a consultant-collaborator, I am trying to embrace what it means to show up, wholly, for an engagement. In a non-work conversation with the team at For Freedoms, I had mentioned my own material creative practices in poetry, music, and quilting, and I could see they saw me differently. There had opened up new possibilities. Later, for a funder’s meeting, the team asked me to open the space with poetry.
At first I balked. It wasn’t the work of fundraising! We only had 30 minutes with Ford Foundation, I reminded them. They insisted we make space for art, and even my art, and so I read a poem to clear the way for the conversation that was to follow.
In introductions, the team had named me the resident poet not our fundraising consultant. And I realized that small gesture helped send a message more than a statement. The funders could see and experience For Freedoms as a team of artists. It happened similar to this at a Black Art Futures Fund learning call this month: I was leading the conversation about year-round fundraising and storytelling, and as an aside I mentioned my collection of poetry—I was continuing to consider the art I make as an afterthought—and a request was made that I share some poetry before we closed the session.
So I offer this new year opening newsletter with a few questions: Where are you not telling the whole story of the life you live in order to do the work you do? How can showing more of yourself give way to new visions?
In this newsletter you will find our 2020 Impact report for the whole of the Red Olive Creative Consulting Universe (a more full story), an expansion of Olive’s Classroom to include a course by our colleague Sharbreon Plummer, and an announcement of Black Art Futures Fund Cycle 5.
Let’s lean into the whole of it, together. We’ll get there.
In another life, I was a board chair of an arts nonprofit in Brooklyn. On my way to meet the ED for our monthly meetings, I’d meditate on what discoveries I wanted to share, what new thinking for our work together.
Because I moved back to my hometown in South Carolina a year ago this month and my work continues to be remote (like so many of us), I no longer have long, quiet stretches of a commute to think, to watch the sidewalk pass me by, to dream. This is a small reminder for all of us to try to build that back in, even if our commutes are from the living room to wherever our computers find us.
Anyways, for two consecutive meetings I limped my way to the restaurant where we’d meet. By the third meeting, I almost skipped in and sat down and exclaimed that we had been seeing a particular problem the wrong way.
“It was like the pain in my hip,” I explained. “I had been massaging and massaging my hip to no avail. Finally, I moved away from where I felt the pain was, and moved more towards my back, and the tension was released.”
This body work—that pain can be referred to or shows up at a place different from its source, has been a great business and consulting epiphany. Last year, when I added team members and couldn’t for the life of me figure out why things still felt off kilter, I realized I kept splitting the atom into smaller and smaller pieces. I thought I needed more folks to do fewer things, but it turned out to be the opposite: I needed to invest more in fewer members and renegotiate how we worked together. The pain wasn’t in capacity = more people. It was capacity = the right people, working deeply.
That meant I had to give up some power, another pain point. As I urged my clients to “let the experts expert.” We’re still finding our groove, but I have to tell you, the pain of figuring out the alchemy of a distributed consulting team has certainly subsided.
Of course there is so much pain that is so acutely located these days. Some of it no amount of massaging may loosen its grip on our psyche. I’ve been grieving my father’s death since 2018, and when I joined the fellowship of folks who had lost someone, had already known the immense sadness you carry with you daily, I was given a glimpse of hope by a friend. She said, grief/grieving is a verb, a continuum. It changes, but it’s always there. We may never shake loose what we have carried the last nine months together, but like my epiphany in the restaurant — that a pain I thought would never leave me, had healed by focusing my attention to other parts of my body — I am hopeful for a deep and restorative healing for us, that it may come soon.
Finally, this last monthly message in 2020 is to say we have a new team member this month, Damaris Dias, a woman I worked with at Brooklyn Community Foundation, who has come to the Red Olive Universe. You can read about her below, but I am so excited to continue to build with y’all well into the future.
Please let us know how we can dream with you in 2021.
The past few months I have been reminded of the ways in which folks on the ground have the power to claim the future they need, and the ways in which working against the grain will get you still on the other side of something if you keep at it.
In the Radical Fundraising Discussion Club last month, we talked about the Flywheel Effect, how a singular continual push in the same direction with the same intention will eventually give way to inertia, and suddenly—Georgia can be a Blue state. Or how ,when we lead all of our storytelling with WHY we do, instead of WHAT we do, millions will be inspired to take action.
Because of increasing national and even international collective belief in the power of small and community-based Black arts organizations, Black Art Futures Fund was able to support 11 more organizations across the country this fall with gifts ranging from $2,000 — $7,500, directed by the boards of BAFF. Please check our social media for updates on who funded what. It’s an exciting list.
Y’all, we are turning the corner on an unprecedented year. So many, too many, losses. A friend was here and we were talking about Kwame Brathwaite’s Black is Beautiful exhibition here at the local museum, and now they are gone. I wish that there were fully-hopeful words I could share with you that I too believed, but more days I am at a loss of even that.
We can still create community though, and that keeps me. Red Olive sponsored two Drive-in movie experiences in my hometown of Columbia, SC, and explicitly worked with The Luminal Theater to ensure that it was for a part of town that has seen significant divestment and is 20 minutes away from any named “Cultural District’. The Luminal Theater showed The Wiz and The Last Dragon and each film was preceded by a short film by a local Black filmmaker and Q&A with Luminal programmers.
When we started setting up for the Drive In, well before the listed “doors open” time of 6:30pm, cars were already peppering the parking lot, some of them coming from as much as 2 hours away, and some “just up the street”. Many with their kids and their snacks, angling to be front and center, unfolding their lawn chairs and blankets to spread out in the back of their pick-up trucks. And, they were almost all Black faces in their cars in the crowd.
This is a long way to introduce a Red Olive initiative—Nurturing Neighborhoods—but I am excited to share more and infuse the South and South East with more residential cultural Black experiences, for the people who may need it most. A deep, communal work.
I’ve been thinking deeply about the work of Black Art Futures Fund, and all of the ways the project moves through the world, all of the ways in which we are seen or unseen, what assumptions come with those perceptions, and so forth…and the influences to the wider field—mostly unattributed, but we know the conditions under which we dreamt up such a thing as BAFF.
In 2015, I was a Development Director at Weeksville Heritage Center, and trying desperately to continue down the roads of my predecessors there, as well as attempt to chart new pathways—thinking about how to move people and resources to a Black space with so much culture and history in New York City. I considered it at the time to have been my dream place to work. I had arrived. I had energy and vision.
Meeting after meeting though, with major funders, were often met with a type of exasperation. That’s the only way I can describe the vibes. Many of my colleagues at small Black arts spaces know what I’m talking about. Questions about why was the institution still small; still struggling with fundraising and the identified financial difficulties. It was only the second year of operation since the organization had taken up residency in a newly-constructed 19,000 square foot facility, and even though it was a city-owned building with its famed nominal rent, the reality was that it still cost us approximately $10,000 a month then to keep its awarded LEED Gold Certified lights on, much less sufficiently staff it (where are the panels and the stories about life post-building-campaign? I have a few gigs worth of stories).
I know now the impossibility of the task before me then: right-size an institution who had to triple its budget just to pay a utility bill in an environment and a time that did not normalize the idea of institutional racism, did not have wide public language and dialogues around funding inequality with money moving as a result; an institution who had been told again and again despite its legacy as a neighborhood museum—community members donated items in the 70’s and 80’s on a hope and vision that one day they’d have a place that truly was a reflection of their contribution to society—Weeksville was told by funders who had resources to change its life and the people who worked there that it was “too small” then for some of the requests me and the Executive Director at the time were making. Just to thrive. Just to be able to do the thing that Joan Maynard set out to build back in the 70’s. It was not lost on me, and I continue to remind folks that Studio Museum of Harlem was founded the same year. What divergent paths. What drastically different futures.
When the bank balance ran out again (within its walls, we had to normalize this occurrence and understand the forces beyond us), and with no entity to save us, no emergency fund, no rallying cry, no initiative—our hours and our salaries were reduced. Some of us were laid off. Others of us were furloughed to approximately 20% of our salary. All of us mourned—it had felt that just as we were getting our collective groove, the rug was pulled from under our feet.
I did not at all want to go to the institution I landed at afterwards, but because we understand now the generational wealth disparities and health disparities, I will tell you all that I had a mother who was only then a few months post-stroke, who had suffered right-side paralysis and aphasia, and my father had turned to be her full-time caregiver. In turn, I had to travel home to South Carolina monthly and send money home monthly because generations of folks depended on my singular salary. The same old story of Black America. Anyways. I left Weeksville. I had to. Whatever happened after at that white cube art space where I landed is a story for another day. But when I was pushed out 10 months later, Black Art Futures Fund was started, with friends who I had invited to award, to celebrate, to invest, to create a whole ecology around the small Black art spaces that move with our collective futures in mind, in spite of access to funding.
We have been able to do it, and continue to do it, I think, because BAFF is not an official organized entity, though of course to do radical work there is an underpinning of organized efforts. We are not a nonprofit organization, not a foundation. I used to call us a foundation-in-training, but that’s not our ministry, not right now. Some days, I call it, an amoeba. Not quite giving circle, maybe close to mutual aid, but more. Unbossed & Ungoverned. We shift and shape to the needs of the time and field, and in 2017, we needed more people to raise their hands and say they believed small and community-based Black arts organizations deserved to be with us in the future and that individuals like you and me working collectively could make it happen. See below for just a portion of the folks who’ve joined us in the efforts!
Through the process, intricate networks of support wrapped around these groups, and, at the risk of sounding sappy, friendship and love fueled and continue to fuel us. What is ungoverned, that is formed without ceremony or law presiding over, is exactly the connective tissue that allows us to operates in the ways each moment we face—even 2020—asks us to, and to believe in the possibilities of the Blackest artistic future possible, with small arts organizations having more of what they need at the center of it all.
The same weekend we lost Chadwick Boseman, many of the folks in my life—mostly writerly—also mourned Randall Kenan. It isn’t lost on me that both are Black men, exceptional storytellers, from the South, and only a generation apart. Randall specifically died at nearly the same age as my father (that is, below 60) who, on September 14, will have been gone from me for 2 years.
One of the narratives that has emerged from Chadwick Boseman’s life was how he had worked so hard, had given us so much even as his body was failing him. I can’t look at any movie of his now and not see behind him the specter of death, how he tried so hard to give us beauty—light like a candle—until the wick went out. I can’t imagine for Randall there weren’t moments in August when he wasn’t preparing his lectures for his upcoming semester at UNC. I can’t help but remember our days when I was 20 and searching for words to write about my own Black Southern family, and he had set aside time outside of his course load to urge me to push my pen…what reading lists were being conjured for his students? What audiences were waiting to gather around his new book If I Had Two Wings (y’all I’m reading it now, and I’m convinced he knew the time was nigh)?
My father, Thomas W. Dameron, Jr. (a story teller in his own right), believed so fervently in the ways in which his life would continue beyond what seemed a minor inconvenience and had requested only 5 days leave for an outpatient shoulder surgery. For his hospital stay he packed his work computer, and for months after I fielded calls of work left undone.
That same month Daddy left I begged my colleagues and clients to let me work. I wasn’t dying, per se (though I am Black in America), but something ingrained in me would not let me be idle. I continued to volunteer, continued my board chair service in some fashion, in between cropping photos for my father’s obituary I was tasked with designing and his eulogy I was to give. I joke about it now, but, I say I lost 3 months of my life—it was such a blur—blinded by grief and pushed by the inertia of work.
I feel it now, 2 years later. What it meant to work through it all. We will see it, later, what it means that we pushed ourselves, made justifications for avoiding a type of necessary rest and reflection (those of us who could) for all of the moments and losses piling up over the last few months.
When I told my father I wanted to be a writer, he urged me to choose a way to make money that had no room for subjectivity. He trained me to be an engineer, and more and more I find days I am so thankful for that training, to have equal commands of both sides of my brain. One of our last convos was his own acceptance of how maybe, times had changed. I was almost a year into running Red Olive full time (“quitting my real job”) and Daddy said something to the effect of being glad he was wrong, and that I had found a way to use my words, my brain to take care of myself. It was like a relief had settled over him, and I swear it was the beginning of our goodbye.
Also not lost on me is my immense privilege in this moment. That Daddy, like my sister, would have been an essential worker all these months, and that despite how he could have jeopardized his own health and my mother’s immunocompromised health to continue the cycle of barely having enough to pay bills to get by to work, etc. etc. etc.—I am a lucky one, with my degrees, with my intellectual work, my artistic work; someone who gets to decide this month to honor my Daddy by taking time to rest, and by doing so, will seek to honor the lost loves, artists, and storytellers of my life so that I can continue to do the necessary work for as long as this world will have me—certainly, I hope, longer than white supremacy has planned.
So, a story to say I’m taking a break for the remainder of the month, but the work continues. Please reach out to my rockstar team this month if you need us (firstname.lastname@example.org). Otherwise, let’s as many of us try to make it to wherever the other side of this is, whole and together.