What a wild time to be a leader; to be an artist; to be a community and cultural worker. As a theater artist, my community and social practice has always been about bringing people together in a shared space - building trust by staring into each other’s eyes, vulnerability by dancing together, understanding by being playful with one another, unlocking bits of magic by supporting creative expression. The past year, of course, has made these acts of connection and joy creation extremely challenging. Rather than focusing on the inadequacies that the transition to the digital realm amplified for a physical touch person, or the insecurities that isolation spurred for an extrovert, glaring side effects of the pandemic, I would like to focus on how this experience has helped me grow as a leader.
Despite being in the middle of a global pandemic, our organization has grown from a volunteer-run organization with a $60K budget to an organization with five team members and a $300K budget in one year. We have undergone a major capital campaign and historic building renovation, launched the first Small Town City Artist program in the country. With this growth, I have had the opportunity to learn how to successfully fundraise from both foundations and individuals, with the support and training of a capital campaign / fundraising consultant. I have learned new systems of financial and nonprofit management, with the support of Propel Nonprofits. And, I have learned how to be a better manager and leader for the people that I have the privilege of working with, with the support of my coach.
In the wake of a radical reckoning of racial injustice in our country, our organization has launched a host of national rural arts field-building digital events - including Rural Arts Anti-Racism Meet Ups and Learning Exchanges for Rural Cultural Workers to share stories of and support for anti-racism and equity work in rural communities. The community of Granite Falls, where I am based, is on illegally occupied Dakota homeland, and is now a border community of the Upper Sioux Community. This spring, we partnered with Dakota Wicohan and Racing Magpie to design and launch the Dakota Community Artist-in-Residence programFor the past six months, I have participated in the Minnesota Artists Coalition: Radical Equity in Philanthropy Working Group - an unprecedented effort bringing together artists and funders from across the state to advocate for racial and geographic equity in philanthropy. This coalition has been a powerful exchange between rural and urban artists, and an opportunity to build bridges between geographic, artistic, and cultural communities.
Through these experiences of the past year, what I have learned about my leadership is that leaning into the fundamentals of my artistic practice as the core values of leading, is the most beneficial way that I can show up to the work: collaboration, compassion, creativity, and play. And, while these three values have been challenged over the past year, I, like many other leaders, have been doing everything I can to adapt to meet the needs of my community: both my geographic community and community of practice.
Collaboration: The pandemic has provided the opportunity for me to slow down and be more intentional in my collaborations and partnerships. I have been able to deepen my relationships with individuals and organizations, which has resulted in the design and development of much stronger projects with greater outreach. With the transition to the digital realm, I have been able to collaborate with more rural artists from across the country and experiment with ways to bring more programming and offering from other places to my local community.
Compassion: We have all experienced a deep grief and loss over the past year. This past year has shown me how to be a more compassionate leader - not just with the people and places that I work with, but with myself. Giving myself more grace for moments when I don’t live up to my own or others’ expectations and permission to rest and recover, when I need it.
Creativity: While much of this year has felt stifling in terms of artistic creativity, we have witnessed an outpouring of creative solutions to address challenges facing each of our communities. My organization piloted a program that supports artists working in and with their own communities in an “at-home” residency model focusing on supporting rural artists in their creative solutions. This allows rural artists to cultivate their social / civic practice and leadership skills, while also providing resources to the artists who know the community’s needs best.
Play: The first six months of the pandemic, leading with play felt very challenging. Everything felt too heavy, too serious, too dire… However, over the past few months, I have started to tap back into my playful spirit in how I approach the work and it has been incredible to feel positive and hopeful again. It has rejuvenated me and I have felt the effects rubbing off on other folks that I work with. While it may seem frivolous, providing permission to be playful is one of the primary ways that we show our vulnerability and build trust with the communities we work with. And, although we cannot stand in a circle and play theater games like we used to, finding small ways to be playful in the work has been extremely beneficial for the long-term sustainability and self-care necessary in doing community work. Especially over the past year.
Self-care has been a primary focus of my fellowship. While some months have been better than others, what I have recently discovered is that if I lead with my core values: collaboration, compassion, creativity and play, then I am also prioritizing self-care. I feel happier and lighter in the work - I am not doing the work alone - and I am giving myself the permission to rest and be joyful, which we all could use a little more of in these trying and transformative times.