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.

Reckoning: The Initiation of Cultivating Safe Spaces in Theater Education

“You’re the best friend type.”

“Sing ‘Breath’ from In the Heights.”

“You’ll be in West Side Story 100 times.”

“Now, more than ever, is the perfect time to be a POC in the theater industry.” 

“You need to change your last name if you’re ever going to make it in this business.”

“Can you make this character more SPICY.” 

“You don’t have a dancer body.”

“You can’t play *insert character here* because you’re not white.”

“This is the most diverse Broadway has ever been. You have sO mAnY oPpOrTuNiTiEs.”

“You’re a bit of a problem child.”

“You’re a diva.”

“You’re difficult to work with.”

“I don’t think you’re understanding the weight of the word ‘barbarian’ when LADY THIANG is describing the King.  Take it from the top and replace ‘Barbarian’ with the N-word.”

*** Do not get me started on the fact that The King and I is:

  1. Problematic to begin with
  2.  I am not an Asian person
  3. Barbarian was used synonymously with the N-word

*** That’s for a whole other blog post, so I digress.

These were statements made to me by people who consider themselves theater educators.  This is the short list. Over the last six months I have had a lot of time to think, to sit with myself, to resurrect trauma. Trauma that I had become so good at compartmentalizing, when it regurgitated back into my memory, I recognized it as “well meant advice” and “truths from the experts.” But as I embraced the reckoning on my industry and this country, for that matter, I was able to regain some clarity.  These statements, these small quips of “advice” were acts of violence.  Full. Stop.

From the inception of the BFA/Institutional audition, we are made to pay them to see us. It is no wonder when we graduate from these programs, we do not know our worth or how to negotiate for a livable wage. For this queer, mixed-race, Latinx, Bronx native, it goes beyond the BFA industrial complex and dives deeper into the tokenism and isolation that comes from institutions wanting to diversify their programs while remaining ill-equipped, uneducated, and upholders of white supremacy.

At the beginning of 2020, I found myself burnt out and lost.  The reckoning only brought on more questions and a deep seeded feeling of purposelessness. How would we push forward? When the smoke and ash clear from burning “it” down, who would be left standing to rebuild.  Why rebuild at all? Why? Such a powerful little word.  I went back to Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk and his Golden Circle framework and asked myself this very question. Why am I here?  

I was 2 years old when I threw myself headfirst into a pool, sans floaties, with the inability to swim.  My mother, flailing with panic, enrolled me in swimming lessons the minute we returned from our trip.  This incident would prove to be the foundation of how I approached my everyday life, throwing myself headfirst into an experience, feeling the fear and doing it anyway

 I knew what I wanted to do: Be a storyteller. I knew how I wanted to tell stories: Collaboratively. But my why was fuzzy and needed grounding. I needed to rebuild from the inside out. At the beginning of my why discovery, I asked myself, “Who has made a positive impact on my growth as an artist? When did I feel  seen, heard, and held by my educators?”  Though the times were few and far between and the list was unsurprisingly short, they each shared a common denominator: Representation

 I grew up in a community that valued the arts, culture, and education and believed that each could not exist without the other.  We were a local Latin dance school in the Bronx, but our motto was always “More than dance.” From the time I was 5 years old, this community invested in my future, met me where I was, saw me as a full human being, and treated me with respect and dignity. I was recognized for the fullness of my potential and encouraged to seek out my dreams. At only 14 years of age, I began teaching in my community. I felt at home in this position of leadership and understood the immense responsibility of being in this posture. Yet, as I grew up, I lost that sense of abandon.  I stopped allowing myself to feel the fear and do it anyway.  Once I moved away from my safe haven and came face to face with the “experts,” I shied away from all positions of leadership. 

Over a decade later, I found myself wrecked with insecurities, broken from violent, oppressive teachings, and limited by the box I had been forced into.  The beginning of my career was daunting, and I felt the need to say yes to every job opportunity, return to unsafe workspaces, and comply with the standards that my industry was, surely, living up to.  But like most times of reckoning, there is a calm before the storm.

I sought out my people, my short list, the change makers in my industry and my life, and became much more selective with the work I would invest in.  Working with directors and educators like Marcos Santana , Jasmin Richardson , Gregory Omar Osborne , Jillian Carucci , Jen Waldman , Billy Bustamante  and Jenn Susi unlocked the door to my why, my purpose as a storyteller. Each of these remarkable human beings encouraged and inspired me to explore the expansive possibilities that this pause would allow. 

So here I am, 6 months into a global pandemic, our country faced with a reckoning that has presented me with a golden opportunity.  I am re-exploring and reexamining what it means to be an educator, using my brand-new toolbox to reimagine how we push our fellow storytellers and artistry forward. I am standing in my power and in my truth ready to ask the hard questions, ready to bridge the gap between student and teacher, ready to be the representation I once wished I had. There is so much to say.  Maybe the book will come one day, but one thing is for certain: I finally understood what it meant to be an artistic citizen.  I recognized my responsibility in my work and that it wasn’t a matter of either/or, but yes/and.

There’s no reason any artist should have to choose between their gifts.”  – Jillian Carucci

 I may not have years of teaching under my belt.  I, certainly, don’t have all the answers.  I am not even abandoning my life as a performer, but rather using those experiences to cultivate safe, equitable, brave, and thriving learning environments for those who will come after me.  I am diving headfirst into this posture and feeling the fear and doing it anyway.  Here comes the storm. 

In an Unpredictable World, Rigidity Holds Us Back

Miss Rona began shaking the world before we even knew what she was up to.

Scientists apparently knew about COVID-19 well before this pandemic hit, but the virus seemed to descend upon us with unprecedented suddenness. I didn’t understand the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic until my flight home from Chicago in the first week of March. I’d planned to go to a conference in San Antonio, but because of the outbreak there I redirected to visit some friends. As I boarded the plane back to Philly, I looked around and realized each passenger had an entire row to themselves on a Friday afternoon flight. 

At BAFF, I’d spend February updating the application to reflect lessons learned in previous years. We had just finished collecting this year’s applications and were working to assemble volunteer readers, who would also facilitate between BAFF and applicants during the second stage of the application process. 

By mid-March, though, we realized that the application process was not appropriate for the moment at hand. Art organizations of all sizes were suddenly forced to reevaluate finances and operations in unprecedented ways; small Black art organizations were among the most severely impacted. BAFF’s mission to support Black art workers is incompatible with a traditionally bureaucratic grant process during times of extreme change and strain on all Black art community members, and especially art administrators who invest in Black art. 

For this reason, the decision was made to pivot and create an emergency/relief grant in place of BAFF’s third cycle of grants. The new application aimed simply to get money into the hands of Black art administrators as efficiently and fairly as possible.. We prioritized previous finalists, who would have been awarded a grant in previous years if BAFF had the financial means. We also prioritized Black art organizations with less regional access to philanthropic resources, such as rural organizations. And all organizations received the requested amount, except in cases when other foundations were able to support, so that more organizations could receive emergency funding overall.

By remaining practical and flexible in the face of the pandemic, we were able to respond to the immediate needs of the Black art community in a completely new situation, helping Black art organizations sustain themselves and put their people first (starting with administrators and other key staff.) In this rapidly changing socio-economic climate, it’s become clear that no one can prepare for tomorrow. We must remain responsive to circumstances while also grounded in our values. In doing so, we are facilitating mutual cultural investment in the Black art world in order to ensure its sustainability.

 —Noor Ibn Najam, BAFF Spring 2020 Grant Cycle Coordinator

Readjusting the Center / Stabilizing the Base

I have been thinking about and writing about, and in my consultancy meetings with small arts organizations, wrestling with folks on Simon Sinek’s challenge to start with their WHY—the pivotal/central stories that mobilize people and resources to help organizations achieve their missions. At its core, this gesture is rooted in the organization’s ability to answer the “Need” question on a grant application, or when seated in front of a major donor. To be able to answer WHY an organization exists, and WHY it is in need of funding and support and WHY it does the programs it does the way it does, might offer up a clear pathway to stewarding the resources necessary to continue forth. That was in the last world. That was before COVID-19 completely upended our understanding of safety and security, before it distanced us from each other, and the art that keeps us. 


In the last few weeks, as the COVID-19 crisis intensified, I have witnessed folks begin to prepare either 1) how they should respond if they were in a position to offer support to the arts + culture field, or 2) how they should respond if they found themselves in a position requiring that support. And now we’re here. Week after week: new layoffs. Furloughs. Whole departments slashed. Employees given a week, a day, to understand that they would no longer receive a paycheck from their place of employment. Whole groups sacrificed for whatever attempt the organizations sought to “salvage”—for what? For whom? For a tomorrow none of us are sure of? 

If the raison d’etre of an organization starts with WHY, as Sinek argues, I want to argue here, in this new world, that maybe the how of it, starts with WHO. The people. Here’s my diagram. I argue we readjust the center. Especially now.

Keep People / Employees at the center. 

I’ve been thinking about this increasingly when, during a podcast interview about my Red Olive Creative Consulting / Black Art Futures Fund (BAFF) Multiverse (see what I did there?), I was asked who we serve and the interviewer quickly said you serve Black artists and arts organizations, right?. I thought about it for a second. That was true. But there was something more true: we also serve the volunteers who want to understand how philanthropy works, we serve the donors into the BAFF fund who, through some of our efforts get to stand closer to the multiple organizations we support by welcoming them into the wider community, and we serve the folks who make it all possible through direct client services to arts + culture organizations. People are at the center of it all. 

My team at Red Olive Creative Consulting is mighty fly, and creative and collaborative. If there was a different visual that depicted the ways in which my priorities are stacked, how I secure the base of a pyramid or hierarchy of organizational needs, it’d look something like this:

Last month, in a webinar on Philanthropy’s Response to COVID-19 hosted by Grantmakers in the Arts, I spoke about the different ways arts and culture organizations intervene in their communities, and why ensuring their survival is not only about capital “A” art. In the same week, a Foundation funder of a client, a Black arts organization, prefaced their potential canceling of years-long support with the argument that the foundation was in search of supporting “more pressing, critical needs” for the “more vulnerable” populations. Imagine that. 

This moment right here, arguing for the necessity of culture, is something I’ve tried to wrestle with before the crisis, and I think my own central mission continues to be getting to the heart culture’s case for support in order to make it undeniable:

Only through the philanthropic sector’s investing in people, that is, allowing for a true realization and thrivability of the engine of the nonprofit arts + culture sector, will art prevail. People first.

In the exchange though, I reminded the representative of the Foundation that not only did my client serve explicitly Black artists, who live precariously above the federal poverty lines, but that also because of years of field-wide Philanthropic underinvestment (or divestment, or NON-investment) and restrictions on 10-20% of grant funds for administrative operations means that they were already a body of Black people working in an unstable environment, made more unstable through institutional funding racism, and if you’ll allow my generalization—they were Black folk who through historical and empirical data continue to suffer from the deep and vast disparities in wealth between white and Black households. If my white colleagues in the field are despairing right now, where are Black folks? What is below despair?


And, finally, I argued

Black arts organizations, and especially community-based organizations, serve a critical need to the people they employ, if they are so lucky. 

(see: institutional funding racism and the razor-thin margins of general operating dollars). They can secure the bottom of Maslow’s cultural hierarchy of needs through the maintenance of a payroll. As a result of that one critical investment, organizations could help staff in the procurement of critical needs for each employee, and perhaps even a broader community: food, shelter, security…which then allows for the employees to show up more wholly in the workspace (even in the now virtual world, maybe especially now), be a contributor in the community of the organization, which then allows for room for THE WORK—however it is manifest in this COVID-19 -present and -post world. Even though I am speaking explicitly about small Black arts organizations, who need some spotlight, I am positive this can be applied to any organized body of employees. 


But for the cultural sector, here’s the truth. None of this is possible without continued philanthropic partnerships. 

None of this is possible without philanthropic partnerships, and when they revoke or change their commitments, as I am watching some do, it puts nonprofit employees at risk, and ultimately their ability to secure the future of the culture-makers who will, through art, help us make sense, thrive, and convene at this exact moment. 

By readjusting the centers and securing the bases of these organizations through fearless, brave, and deep philanthropic gifts, community-based Black arts organizations can be fully realized: as centers of resource sharing and safety—even virtually—as the vulnerable populations (artists, nonprofit employees, contract support services, all) look to the organizations to provide beauty, meaning, sanctuary, respite, reprieve. 


Certainly no group will emerge whole from this, or return to base operations prior to the global pandemic. But as I read the news and hear from my friends across the country about the ways in which their own security has shifted and how institutions and foundations with billion-dollar or million-dollar endowments continue to practice contrition at this moment instead of emergent, unprecedented generosity, I mourn. I get furious. I mourn some more. 


How do we come back to a place that, in moments of crisis, have shown through sweeping actions and statements like, “funding the critical needs” and “more vulnerable populations” that maybe they don’t believe in culture’s true power, its ability to be an acceptable vehicle of service to the people they say they are now pivoting towards? And we can’t have culture without the people lifting it up?


How do we reframe our thinking about the art + culture field in this crisis moment, and yes, support the artists, and beyond the artists, remember the people…who are so often still artists, and the administrators, and the contract educators, and the fundraisers, the part time visitor services, the receptionists, the building maintenance crews, the invisible third shifters…and include them in the “vulnerable populations” worthy of funding? In the space for which we will fight for funding, for their critical inclusion in the path towards whatever tomorrow holds? And then, when we get to tomorrow, continue those commitments? 

My refrain for these last few weeks when someone from the philanthropic sector has asked my advice on how to respond, and I say swiftly, and without hesitation: Cut the checks.

Culture can’t move without its people.

Culture cant move without its people. 

When Going Gets Tough: Managing Barriers to Local Arts Patronage

I’ve been thinking about DéLana’s most recent monthly letter, in which she describes using a local arts calendar to find distraction and comfort in the weeks following her father’s death.  

Last month, I missed an event I had been looking forward to, a local Black history and culture festival at which I had been planning to take some photos and pull some highlights for the Red Olive blog.

The morning of the festival, my mother had a seizure and in a blink the weekend became consumed by intervals of rush, worry, and wait: a trip in an ambulance, a series of tests, a period of observation, plastic chairs in ER hallways, running errands and making the bed for her return home.  With a new medicine for her daily routine, a check-up scheduled, and the reassurance that, no, this didn’t appear to be the worsening of any of her chronic conditions, we entered the next week frazzled but truly grateful for good news. 

For the next few weeks, I focused on work, family, and the occasional escape through television. I didn’t attend any readings, visit any exhibits, or see any shows. When stressed, I often find myself driven by the mantra “maybe when things calm down.” I find myself passing on activities that might help me decompress or re-center, telling myself there just isn’t time. Studies show that I am not alone: a lack of time is the number one reason reported for not visiting historical, cultural, and artistic spaces

Studies show that I am not alone: a lack of time is the number one reason reported

for not visiting historical, cultural, and artistic spaces

However, research also shows that skipping out on arts and culture events is detrimental to our physical and emotional health as individuals and communities. Visiting cultural spaces increases dopamine, improves our capacity for memory and empathy, and correlates with greater life satisfaction and lower rates of anxiety and depression. Public art spaces also have broader social impact benefits, ranging from interrupting the school to prison pipeline to building local economies. 

Inspired by DéLana’s letter and keeping these research-backed benefits in mind, I’m thinking this month about how to view my time-strapped schedule and sources of stress as a driver for my arts attendance, rather than solely a barrier. I’d like to invite you to do the same.

For me, this means asking myself questions including: In what ways can I honor my need for self-care with new habits that incorporate public arts patronage into relaxation or escape? How can arts spaces be incorporated, along with doctors’ offices, into managing my mother’s chronic illnesses? How can I increase my exposure to local arts events—what papers should I read, what accounts should I follow—so that cool events fall into my awareness with the ease that Netflix appears on my screen? 

The questions you ask yourself may be wildly different from mine. They may be questions that you, like me, don’t have immediate or static answers to. Continually returning to these questions, though, is a commitment to feel good about. Carving a little more space in our lives for local arts opportunities, including and especially in times of stress, means opening ourselves up to their many benefits in the moments we may need them most.

*This blog borrows its title from the 2015 NEA study from which some of its data is drawn. 

Source: National Endowment for the Arts

The Myth of the Artsy Side Of Town

My current home-place, Columbia, South Carolina, like many other cities, has a downtown where many of its arts institutions are concentrated. Off-hand, I can count five museums, a major university, four art studios, four theaters and three concert venues, all within a roughly 1-mile radius.

Since I moved to Columbia as a graduate student, my work and school life has been centered downtown, in the thick of Columbia’s largest arts spaces. As we look to move closer to where my boyfriend works, in northeast Columbia, I’m spending more and more time outside the city’s center—“center,” in this case, being an institutional ideology, not a geographic reality.  Downtown rests at the edge of the city, upwards of a half-hour drive from the opposite side of town, and more than an hour, if accessible at all, by bus.

Having grown up in north Austin, a city famous for music venues and festivals held in or south of downtown, I have a sense of what centralized arts districts can mean to residents of a sprawling and segregated city. The financial and temporal strain of crossing town, finding parking, paying covers, entrance fees, or memberships: all of these barriers meant I had less access to the music and arts scene that people readily laud when they find out where I’m from.

I’ve said before that I didn’t grow up on the “artsy” side of town. I would never say that now (praise growth!) because I did grow up surrounded by musicians, visual artists, dancers, writers, and other creatives. With less financial backing, less access to large, dedicated arts spaces, less media attention, and fewer archival tools, our arts scene looked different than the Austin that outsiders know best. Still, it was always present. We gathered for talent shows, church services, and house parties. We painted murals and filled notebooks. We made and celebrated art.

Last week, I happened upon Alexandra’s Café & Art, a newly opened coffee shop and art gallery about a 20-minute drive from downtown. A Columbia resident of 24 years, the artist and owner Alexandra Parks opened shop because she wanted to bring people together to enjoy art. Lined with local artists’ work—paintings, fiber arts, and jewelry—the coffee shop turns into a classroom every other Wednesday night with workshops in various artistic media.

I was happy to see this shop not because it brought art across town, but because it could become a nurturing space for the artistic work already happening there.

This is much more complicated than it sounds: investments in coffee shops and arts spaces can have a direct relationship with gentrification. This has been the case, historically, in both Columbia and Austin, where Black communities have been pushed out of neighborhoods proximal to downtown. I’m here for navigating that complexity though, envisioning and making demands of arts spaces such that they are situated in and serve historically-excluded communities without displacing them. Such that they offer opportunities to support and broadcast, not supplant or belittle, the artistic expression that predates institutionalized support or attention. 

While some neighborhoods receive more public acknowledgement and investment in their artistic identity and output, no neighborhood is devoid of artists, art-lovers, and art. It’s time we do the work to responsibly invest in decentralized arts opportunities. All communities––including the Black, POC, working class, and immigrant communities often priced out––deserve localized arts spaces in which their creatives can thrive.

Curating and Preserving Black History in Local Communities

We were thrilled when BAFF grantee and Red Olive client i, too arts collective received a grant from The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African-American Cultural Heritage Action Fund earlier this month. Red Olive is a named consultant for this project, and we look forward to digging in and doing the work to save our Black places.

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What Freedom Looks Like: Black Artists Provide Needed Alternatives

As stars and stripes line the aisles of big box stores and buzz words like “freedom” and “independence” pepper mainstream media, we’re called to re-up on a narrative that equates early American government with ideals it stole and withheld from most of the era’s inhabitants. In the face of this dissonance, we’re spending time this month seeking out contemporary black artists that encourage us to think differently about freedom(s), its origin and location, its limitations and possibilities. By no means an exhaustive or representative list, here are three recent works by black creatives that currently have us (re)thinking…

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Three Consulting Commandments

July 14, 2018

As a consultant, defining for myself my personal and business philosophies has been liberating. I get to choose what I stand for / against. I get to define for my business where our boundaries and ethics are drawn in the sand. I want to share my business philosophies; It’s almost like the 10 Commandments:

  1. First, do no harm [to the organization].
  2. Leave the organization better than you found it.
  3. Offer counsel every step of the way, even if they are not yet (or will not be) a client.

Okay, so maybe 3 Commandments. Let me explain:

First, do no harm [to the organization].

I know what it’s like to be at the organization when you look to the bank account and see a 0 or even a negative number, and a payroll is looming. I’ve been at the leadership table when this has happened at both small  “white” institutions and small “POC” institutions (I will continue to use these terms without quotations). The cash flow problem is not necessarily a raced issue, but what happens, and after, necessarily is. From my experience, for the white institution, there is usually someone or someones (plural) who can write a check to provide a cushion to the zero-balance bank account. That person could be on the board, but just hasn’t been engaged enough to know this was coming. That person could be on the staff (true story). That person could be in the orbit of the organization that the leadership can call on to write the check. SURELY getting to that point suggests a different kind of mismanagement (of time, fundraising activities, fundraising priorities, expense priorities, etc), but, it’s resolved rather quickly and payrolls happen! For the POC institution, very rarely do they have someone in their orbit that can mobilize a hefty amount of funds in a short amount of time. So payrolls get missed.

So you can imagine how important literally every penny is for the organizations I want to work with. I know this coming into the engagement, and I am small enough as a business to provide Development Director level support, strategy, and plans for a fraction of the costs.

Twice now in my tenure as a full-time consultant, I have listened to the woes of my client re: payroll and cash flow. Twice, I have offered that perhaps we should re-scope my agreement, put it on pause, or terminate it all together.

Yes, ultimately this means something to my bottom line. I’m not going to lie. Yes, I could hold the client to the original contract and be a stickler (more on this!) about it. But that would be first, doing harm. So I lean almost always on a lesson from my Swahili teacher in college: “If you try to win now, you’ll lose later.” So I take the “loss” and every time that income has been replaced.

Leave the organization better than you found it.

I know one and two look like the same thing, and maybe they are, but I want to separate them.  Let me tell you a story (it is a continuation from number 1): once, I joined an organization who had already contracted (before hiring me) a consultant who professed to be a one-stop-shop (also: lesson! specialize!) for fundraising, especially fundraising events. I fully believe that organizations under $1M should not have anything that is called a “Gala” but I roll with clients, too. Meet them where they are, and such.

Anyways, this consultant charged an astronomical amount JUST FOR THE PLANNING of the event, which meant that we (the client) would pay for subcontractors, vendors, etc etc. This is not unusual. What is unusual is the amount the consultant charged, and the amount the organization agreed to pay, and then hired someone who effectively made the consultant superfluous, and then refused to back out of the consultant contract.

Sensing that I knew how to run events, and because I slashed and burned some of the expensive suggestions for the event to bring the costs down, the consultant effectively turned into a really expensive administrative assistant: performing data entry, scheduling calls. All of the things that they had promised to the organization they would deliver had not been delivered and in my estimation would not be (lesson: don’t promise what is impossible to deliver, even if you think you need to say it to win the client! It’s not worth it. Don’t try to win now!).

After the event, the consultant apologized, as he should, for not delivering on what he promised, and when I suggested that he forego the final installment because continuing to move forward with him even when he knew it was doing harm to the organization put us further into the hole, and he could have stepped away, suggested a change of course, or something. He agreed, apologized. He then insisted we still pay the last payment, and then suggested he would do a future event for free. You can BET I’m not calling nor referring him again!

Another short story: I’ve had the pleasure of being the consultant behind a bigger consulting firm at a few organizations. This firm does a better job of making the client feel good about the investment, and finishes the contract with everyone in smiles and ready to go! Then the organizations summarily slides the strategic plans, the spreadsheets, the meeting agendas, the analysis etc into the file cabinet and reverts back to the organization they were before. You might say: Oh! But they didn’t leave it worse than they found it. But they did! The organization could have used those thousands of dollars to invest in staff. Instead of paper plans, the consultant could have helped the organization move to actionable steps and goals. For example instead of saying “recruit 5 board members by Q3” on a list of goals the organization now supposedly had the “skills” to complete, the consultant could have walked them through it, and helped secure 1-2 board members, and left “recruit 3 more board members”.

Stacks of paper that will be filed away and forgotten or told to the next consultant “we did that already” is not leaving the organization better than you found it.

Offer counsel every step of the way, even if they are not yet (or will not be) a client.

Even as I was transitioning out of the contract with the organizations from #1, I still offered suggestions and counsel as if I were still a contracted consultant. It’s true, working with cultural organizations is truly my heart-work, and I guess you could say I happen to get paid part of the time for it :). It feeds into my #2, leaving the organization better than I found it. And, I just find that if folks listen to the one or two little nuggets, they’ll feel good about me, and maybe we’ll one day work together. Even if not, I’m still trying to make sure they win. We desperately need culture to win more these days, you know?


The View from 40,000 ft.

Whenever I travel internationally, I never really utilize the back seat entertainment. If I’m not sleeping (I prefer overnight flights to Europe, and day flights back), or drinking free wine, or reading or journaling, or even–while all of those activities are happening, the back seat “entertainment” is 95% of the time logged into the flight map, specifically the birds eye view that looks down on the top of the plane as it follows the line from NYC to Frankfurt, Nicaragua, Amsterdam, Cuba, Paris, London, Zurich. 

On the way to London, my husband and I had the inside row seats (ugh) and just never really got comfortable. It was late, the plane was delayed. My adrenaline was raging because I had boarded the plane, set up to take a selfie, only to realize I left my glasses in the terminal. Luckily I had great flight attendants, and switched quickly enough into my southern girl and helpless voice that someone escorted me in order to retrieve them! (Thanks British Airways!!) so anyways, the weather sucked. Even just going down the runway was an ordeal. When the wheels left the earth we started very quickly into violent turbulence. 

It stayed that way out of Far Rockaway, over Long Island and the Long Island Sound, up the New England corridor until we reached Nova Scotia and, because I had this “view” this big picture view, I knew that we would be entering over water, which has been in my experience so far north where the turbulence levels out. 

Maybe there was weather between us and London. The flight view doesn’t show weather (it should!!) only the stats: how high in elevation, ground speed, current location time, place of departure time, destination time, temperature outside the window. You could change the view but the one where I could see the line connecting clearly the dot from New York JFK to London Heathrow Was my preferred view. Though our ground speed was almost 700mph, I felt, somehow, grounded.

After dinner, cabin lights out, Husband and I decide to try to figure out what we want to see in London since we couldn’t sleep. I look up for my 40,000 ft view, and note We were approaching Greenland. 

Then I focus in on the task. Holding the drinks while C lifts my tray to reach my bag for our LONELY PLANET LONDON tour book. C is rooting around underneath the chair when

The plane makes an unexpected and steep drop. 

The flight attendants were going through with the garbage and seemed, like us, completely caught by surprise. 

Including my own, there were several gasps. 

I was holding the drinks so they traveled with me, with the plane, when it dipped like so, but the ones on the trays, the drinks and food and things on the trays while people were locked into their individualized screens for entertainment went into the air and crashed back down. Our inside aisle seat mate spilled red wine all over herself. 

I looked at the elevation a few minutes later and we maintained 40,000 ft. Which is to say, the pilot was locked in and was not trying to go higher or lower for smoother sailing. I didn’t have *that view* that he had so I had to trust staying his course was the right way to go. 

You can imagine I didn’t sleep the rest of the flight, and I didn’t change my screen from the flight view the whole way there, so I can tell you that from Greenland on we had turbulence. And I don’t normally, but I clapped and released my held breath when we landed the next, London morning. 

What does this have to do with anything besides being a story about turbulence?

I am nearing three months freelance/consultant/business owner. In another life, I’d be preparing to asses if I’m off of probation. In this life, I counted going into the next six months with 6 clients. 

In a session today with a client, I mentioned that I’m able to help in a way that is unique: because my focus is art & culture organizations of color, and have been in this flight pattern (see where I’m going) for years, and because I am not locked into one organization, but, as I said, consulting with six of them right now, I have the advantage of a 40,000 ft view of the fundraising and development landscape. I have a line from “here” (last few years of fundraising for orgs of color) to “there” (the future of orgs of color) and can see clearer the bigger picture because I’m not sitting tunneled vision, not aware that I’m part of a machine moving, literally, 700mph and could at any point, unexpectedly, bottom out from me.

When I said that, our conversation opened up. My client realized she was trying to put me in a place she knew and was comfortable, and I was trying to explain that the funding world is turbulent, and we need to chart a clearer, better path. 

One of my mottos recently is “Let the experts expert.” 

I love that because it releases me from having to believe I have to do everything. As I’m stuck, head down In the weeds and looking at my personal finances being crazy, I say my motto and put out a call for a CPA. I trust that they will know the best path to my desired destination. 

As you think about where you want to take your organization in terms of fundraising and development, I encourage you to have a thought partner that is looking at the whole picture: months, years, in advance; diversification of revenue; strategy; developing a culture of philanthropy among your staff and board, and the list goes on. 

We don’t have to do it ourselves. We can’t do it ourselves. Me: I’m looking for the person who’s got a 40,000 ft view.