At the outset of my Bush Fellowship journey, the sensation I experienced above all others was a profound feeling of impostor syndrome. Because so much of my work had focused on highlighting the exceptional work that my peers were doing in the rural arts field, I was acutely aware of how many other practitioners might have been more deserving of the accolades that I myself was receiving; that knowledge, coupled with a lifetime of small-town pressure to be humble, led me to feel, at those preliminary Fellows gatherings, that I was in the wrong place, and that someone else ought to have been there in my stead.
The months since, however, have helped me to chip away at that feeling, and to take a greater degree of ownership over my position as a leader in my field. A large part of that growth was as a result of learning and training I’d done in the context of the Fellowship. This included hands-on opportunities to learn more about anti-racism work, radical facilitation strategies, and methods of joining the fight for racial justice, healing and trust-building in rural communities, all of which benefited my work as a site-specific artist. At the same time, I was launching the nonprofit, The Department of Public Transformation, which I’d started shortly before the Fellowship began, and undergoing an overwhelming crash-course in nonprofit management, board dynamics, fundraising, and communication, while also launching a capital campaign for nearly a million dollars of support to renovate a vacant main street building into a multi-use, radically welcoming community gathering space.
Twelve months ago, it would have seemed impossible to me that I’d ever overcome the feelings of inadequacy that simmered under my outward activity, confidence and apparent achievement. It was a part of my core narrative, in a way, that I was an undeserving advocate for rural communities, and that I’d do my best in that role until someone better came along. The surprise outcome of my last year of leadership development has been that I’ve started to leave those feelings behind me. It’s not so much that I feel 100% confident in every move I make as a leader, but rather that I’m acknowledging – slowly and with trepidation! – that I am, in fact, a capable artist and organizer within my realm, and that my self-doubt has no purpose other than to hinder the contributions I would otherwise be making to the communities I serve, and the places I love.
Surely much of this growth owes to the fact that I’ve gained concrete skills in facilitation, nonprofit management, and political advocacy as a part of the fellowship, but this growth is also attributable to the exsternal circumstances that this indescribably complex year have contributed to my life and work, and to our world at large. With the arrival of COVID, and the necessity of fast action to help remediate the effects of the pandemic – which were disproportionately affecting rural healthcare systems and economies – made it impossible to waste time second-guessing myself as a leader. In the early stages of the quarantine, I jumped into action without hesitation, knowing that even if I felt underqualified to be in such wide-scale connection-making and advocacy work, it simply needed to be done. Those early weeks of spring yielded some of the partnerships and programming that I’ve been most proud of in the last year and, in fact, in my career: including soliciting a national open-source list of creative, compassionate and joyful ways to connect during social distancing, articulating our organization’s “guiding principles for the time” to help our organization center vulnerable community members with our operations and programs, and connecting with rural artists, cultural workers, partners and practitioners across the country to brainstorm creative solutions to the economic and social impacts of Covid-19.
That in and of itself would have been enough to mark 2020 as a watershed moment in history, but the murder of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police brought another level of urgency and immediacy to the organizing efforts in which I’d been involved. Much of the dominant national narrative about rural areas in recent years has centered on the prevalence of latent racism and white supremacist thinking (often linked to Trump’s election in 2016) in small towns, and I have felt called throughout my career to try to correct – or at least to complicate, and add more nuance to – this impression. As white Americans were (and are still) being driven, more so than at any other point in recent memory, into a genuine reckoning with race and privilege, it felt urgently necessary to ensure that rural spaces were a part of this dialogue – both by providing support for BIPOC residents of small towns, and by creating spaces for white residents to grapple with their own complicity, knowing or unknowing, with systems of oppression.
A year ago, I would have been utterly overwhelmed at the prospect of entering this dialogue in the towns where I work; I would have insisted that there must be someone better for the job. I still know that MANY practitioners out there are better qualified than I to facilitate these discussions, but I also felt an undeniable sense of personal growth in realizing, over the past couple of months, that I am in fact able to create space in these conversations, to speak with compassion and self-awareness, and to know how and when to step aside to support Black, Brown, and Indigenous leaders. Most recently, this has manifested in launching a Rural Arts Anti-Racism Meet-Up in partnership with Springboard for the Arts – a space where rural arts and cultural workers can grapple with how anti-racism work is conducted and supported in rural communities.
In the midst of the pandemic and uprisings, we have launched the first small town City Artist in Residence program with the City of Granite Falls. Launching this first-of-its-kind program during this time has added layers of deep consideration for how we see this program advancing equity and representational leadership in the civic realm. It also provided the opportunity to consider the ways in which our work is supporting local BIPOC artists working in and with community during the pandemic, which led to the launch of the Dakota Community Artist-in-Residence program - a pilot project in partnership with Racing Magpie and Dakota Wicohan supporting artist-led solutions that address the impact of COVID-19 on Pezihutazizi Oyate (Upper Sioux Community) and / or Cansa’yapi (Lower Sioux Indian Community).
During the past year, I have learned that I take comfort in action. But, my imposter syndrome often kept me from stepping up and taking action. Feeling the urgency of the times we are in, coupled with the skills, tools and resources provided by the Fellowship, has allowed me push through the fear that kept me from stepping fully into my leadership potential. This comes with great privilege and great responsibility. I take this role very seriously and I am honored to join the long line of Bush Fellows who are continuing to radically reimagine and build a more just and equitable future with their communities. Onward with courage and gratitude.