Rest as Practice

Dear Friends,

Mid-summer brings with it, for many in the nonprofit space, a turning over to a new fiscal year, while simultaneously offering a mid-way point in the calendar year to reflect on the first of the journey and set intentions for the second half. That’s where I find you: in a period of reflection and intention.

For RO, we set out at the top of 2021 experimenting with what it would be like to run multiple Black Art Futures Fund cycles in a year to allow folks several entry points to funding, to work with our organizations over longer consulting engagements, and always to continue to refine and redefine our relationship to it all—what we call the Work, even as the world was continuing to do so.

In June, we had a 7-day company closure, and even I, for the first time, did not go into my office “just to get a little bit of work done” or answer the emails that would have just needed a quick reply. (I am guilty of still checking them, though!) Instead, I endeavored to spend a lot of the rest period outside, dreaming. A lot of time on horses. A lot of time at the river here in Columbia, riding my bike. Thinking about how I and RO can continue to seek wonder in this world, and community, and culture, knowing all of the endings we’ve endured? Given rest, I was able to settle into some of my feelings about the Work, and how I would be walking into the second half of the new year with my colleagues. Given rest, I could see what was no longer working in our RO Universe and set timelines to address those imbalances. Given rest, I understood what was urgent and necessary for us to attempt to take on and what was clearly becoming our “lane.” Now I can work to define that more, and with the clarity that seemed an impossibility in the midst of going from meetings to meetings to proposals to reports and so on.

When I ran half marathons and was in training for the NYC Marathon (that I completed in 2014), I hired a running coach to help me achieve my goals. Absolutely, running in its purest form is just, as they say, “one foot in front of the other,” but what makes endurance training work—that is, what allows your body to get stronger even as you put more miles on it—is actually the cross-training: the things you do when you are not doing the thing you set out to do. It’s weird. The idea that riding my bike would make me better at running was a wild thought. The idea that resting for a few days prior to the marathon would make me better able to run 26 miles just didn’t make sense at the time. Until it did. More (of the same thing) doesn’t always equal more.

I am thinking of the implicit invitation to rest when the pandemic first hit in March 2020. We had been going and going, and for those of us who could have, what would it mean to allow staff to slow down, to seek their version of safety in all of this, to reconnect to home and family in all of this uncertainty? Those folks who dug their heels in and continued to produce programming and planning at such a clip as they did before March 2020 are so exhausted, y’all. So when I ask my team: How do we move the company to a 4, or even a 3-day work week for the second half of the year and continue to offer our best work to folks? What will you do to cross-train, to show up more wholly with RO when you do? I am inviting us to dream of rest as practice, to make room for the cross-training, to invest in the best versions of ourselves.

In Black Love & Culture—

Welcome to the Culture Commons

Dear Friends,

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:

  1. 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);


  1. 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. 

Look for us here: 

Please stay tuned for exciting new projects and programs—at the culture commons. 

In Black Love & Culture—

P.S. Special shout out to my Communications team Emily & Yasmin for this important and necessary work! 

The Answer Could Be Anywhere

Dear Friends,

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.

1. Artists who start institutions can and should see the institution as an extension of their artistic practice.

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. 

2. If you can, find other ways to fill your cup.

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?

In Black love,  

What Would You Bring Back to the Before?

Dear Friends,

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 tomobilize? 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?

In Black love,  

Renewing Our Commitments to the Field

Dear Friends,

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”: 

  1. Move as many resources ($$) as you can—quickly.
  2. Allow groups a sense of security by urging them to use resources ($$) to secure the bottom of their pyramids first.
  3. Infuse the field with generous operating support and removing programmatic restrictions.
  4. Communicate quickly to relieve organizations’ anxiety about current and future funding, etc.
  5. 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?

In Black love,  

Moments of Light

Dear Friends,

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.

Let’s celebrate Black culture, always.

In Black love,  

Sharing the Full Story

Dear Friends,

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 Black love,

My Journey to Red Olive

I don’t recall a time in my life when I didn’t feel drawn to the arts. From the moment I was able, I used to write long winding stories about princesses and witches and draw pages and pages of nonsensical doodles. I was fortunate to be raised by parents who were always supportive of my childhood enthusiasm, even though they did try to steer me toward more financially sound pursuits. My father, a dark-skinned stern man from the west African coast, and my mother an effervescent high yellow black woman from the south endeavored to raise well-rounded children and build a comfortable middle-class life for them. In the 90’s when black success was modeled on sitcoms like Family Matters, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and Moesha success and stability meant big houses, busy children, and good schools. But where I grew up in suburban Wisconsin and Indiana that didn’t mean a diverse cast of characters, it meant being in close proximity to almost exclusive whiteness. So my entire childhood we lived in majority-white neighborhoods, my siblings and I went to majority-white schools, where we were taught by majority-white teachers a majority white curriculum.

The first art museum I remember going to was on an elementary class trip to the Milwaukee Art Museum. For years after you couldn’t tell me that it wasn’t the most beautiful place in the world. Its stately white architectural wings fixed to the exterior gave it the look of a spaceship and inside, the massive white and concrete atrium looked like a cathedral from an alien planet. I remember being awed, it was so quiet, this cavernous white building. With 341,000 sq ft and 25,000 works of art, each gallery, each corner offered another image or object that I had never seen before, things I had never even conceived. The sculptures, the paintings, the architecture, I was enamored. I was at home. We can’t have been there for longer than a few hours but to me, it felt like a lifetime. I only recall seeing one image of a black woman throughout the entire museum that day. Toward the end in one of the last galleries we toured, there was a medium-sized photograph of a seated golden brown woman reclining slightly with her legs propped up on a table in front of her. Her face was turned confidently toward the camera and she was topless; her modest breasts and brown nipples on full display. I remember being embarrassed that the only image of a black woman I saw that day was one who was naked.

The Milwaukee Art Museum was the first museum I fell for. A white building, full of white art. But the first piece of art I fell in love with would come much later. I saw Pablo Picasso’s Guernica when I was a senior in high school. The brutal painting was featured in a documentary about Spanish art and even though it was projected on a bumpy white wall it still tore right through me. Simply put, I was awestruck by how much there was to digest in the massive work, the pain of the artist, the horrors of war, the beauty of the mural, the anguish of its inhabitants. And it was in that moment I decided on a career in the arts. Like most decisions made by 17-year-olds, I did what felt right without much consideration for how it would actually happen. But in 2007 I enrolled in a mid-sized, mid-ranked, university in the midwest. There, in cornfields of Indiana, I majored in public history and double minored in art history and Spanish. 

Through no intentional effort of my own, my art education was centered on the deeply held western belief that only white men create masterpieces. It was acknowledged that other people make other art, and those subjects were offered as electives, but what was core curriculum was white-centered. The intent is hard to gauge, I can’t with any certainty say that my college was deliberately whitewashing art history.  But what I can say is that I took from my classes an understanding that white men were the only ones capable of making the kind of beauty that transcends generations. As I studied I continued to obsess over the likes of Picasso and Sargent, and Bellows, white men who painted white subjects. And I paid no mind to artists who looked like me. And thus I was drawn to white institutions because I perceived them to have the credentials that other institutions did not. Subconsciously, (and I would be lying if I didn’t say consciously in some cases) I understood that proximity to whiteness inherently meant value. 

After I graduated I spent the next decade attempting to fit in at white institutions. And at every turn, I struggled. I was often the only black person on staff or the only person of color in leadership. Microaggressions are always a possibility in all white spaces. Careless white people are around every corner waiting to victimize you simply because you’re black and happen to be in their presence. So I developed a habit of keeping to myself and constantly working to prove my worth. But no amount of tongue biting or labor made me feel like I was truly a part of a team. Overworked and isolated, I often felt like Sisyphus. Constantly laboring uphill only to be knocked down again and again. And for a while, I took these stumblings as evidence that I did not belong in the art world. The fact that I was surrounded by white people who were struggling far less only contributed to that belief. 

It all culminated in July 2020 when in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and historic protest against racism and police brutality I was let go from a predominantly white organization and my job was given to a white woman. Two months later I was working at Red Olive Creative Consulting. There I was hired by a black woman to join a team of women of color, who are committed to fostering a world with sustainable cultural and artistic institutions. With Black Art Futures Fund as the philanthropic arm dedicated to shaping the future of Black art, for the first time in my life I was a part of a company whose mission I identified with. It happened so suddenly that I didn’t immediately realize it was where I needed to be. It wasn’t until I was sitting in a BAFF grantee call with 10 or so black founders of nonprofits that I realized I wasn’t the only black person on the call. For the first time in a professional setting, I didn’t feel out of place.

White supremacy is a spell. Bewitching and potent it has been refined to be almost undetectable. But what if we committed to fighting it? What if organizations and academics dedicated the time and attention that is given to white artists to artists of color? How much trauma would be avoided? How many more artists would create? What if in that museum that day in second grade I had seen another image of a black woman? Or if I had seen 20 other varying images of black women? What if all of them together enfolded me into their ranks and let me know that I too belonged in this space dedicated to beauty? Years later I now see how powerful that topless woman was. How she boldly existed in an all-white space, defiant and demanding to be seen in full, in all her glory. I just wish a black woman had been there to explain that to me.

Locating the Source of Our Pain

Dear Friends,

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.

In Black love,

Celebrating Funding Small Black Arts Organizations This Fall

Dear Friends,

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.

In Black Love,

DéLana R.A. Dameron