I’ve been thinking a lot about invisibility and credit. The field I am in is extremely visible and credit for ideas in the arts and entertainment industry is highly valuable. One of the promises my field holds for good work is celebrity. It fuels the careers of the most visible people we see. Yet, often the everyday person never knows of the hard work that the producers, developers, and mentors put into making the visible, uh, visible. However, in the entertainment industry, those behind the scenes are credited and paid in proportion for their contributions even if their faces never reach magazine covers. But in some places on this spectrum of “arts and entertainment,” where partnerships don’t begin with transaction, but rather relationship, credit might never be recognized or given to those “behind the scenes.” When credit isn’t given, is that OK because the very nature of good leadership is to be invisible and behind the scenes? How do we change dynamics in the definition of leadership to avoid invisibility, to give credit where due, and to actually move everyone forward?
My corner of the spectrum of the arts and entertainment business is Native Theatre. Here, the artistic leaders behind the scenes are the ones who create the physical and ethereal space for initial inspiration, career opportunities, personal growth, training, and so much more like hours of one-on-one mentoring, visioning and dreaming, encouraging, listening, advocating, writing letters of recommendation, sending word of mouth, creating connections, sharing long cultivated personal networks, and so much more unnamed help both formal and informal.
For the last ten years of my 22 year long theatre career, I’ve been running a company I founded, New Native Theatre, whose mission is to make meaningful pathways for Native artists and community members, into careers in the performing arts. Like every single one of my mentors before me, I am an artist turned “helper,” a *word I like to use synonymously with “leader.”
I don’t think any helper began their work because they knew that one day their name would be lauded in the hall of fame of “helping,” should such a thing be created. (Sure the entire Western structure is geared toward admiring leaders and amplifying their achievements in places called museums) But I don’t think most who start non-profits think of fortune and glory and credit, they’re looking at helping to solve systemic problems. Unfortunately, in my observation of the Native Theatre field, which perhaps is a microcosm for many non-profit leadership issues, I’ve found that sometimes something peculiar happens. Sometimes, we conflate helping with obligation, which I find, can perpetuate a terrible phenomena of invisibility. And invisibility perpetuates the disparities that we’re hoping to change.
Who knew that sensitive artist types setting out to change society through Native theatre might conflate ideas of helping with the ideas of obligation? The biggest problems this presents are disappointment, burnout and invisibility.
From my cultural lived experience, for me a leader is defined as someone who shares with others the gifts and opportunities that they’ve been given. It’s about seeing the good of the community over the good of the individual. What gets reinforced over and over again is that a leader selflessly gives everything they are to a cause even if it’s at their own expense. But with the pixelated lessons and observations I’ve made while on fellowship with the Bush Foundation, I’m beginning to form a much clearer picture. This idea of selflessness is just erroneous. Every leader and potential leader needs to reframe any ideas that a leader gives their last drops of blood to those they serve to the point of hyperbolic anemia. Because it’s not healthy and being a martyr sure isn’t realistic, these days.
The problem with obligation to serve is always the false dichotomy it sets up which is the opposite of what makes good outcomes, reciprocity. I now define leadership as holding up a light, creating innovative ideas, and offering help in ways that are rewarding and reciprocal. These are actions that lead to healthy outcomes. When we advocate till it hurts, we really in the end, find we are not advocating for the very person who is the most important in this entire equation of successful leadership, ourselves.
And no, that’s not selfish. If we unpack the sense of obligation out of the baggage of leadership we can begin to plant the seeds for responsible growth into leadership and we begin to be better examples for those to come after us. As leaders who come from specific cultural backgrounds, chances are the systemic racisms and genocides our leaders in the past have had to directly endure and the soup of oppression we currently live in, it’s difficult to carve out what exactly is a healthy leadership style. We tend instead to rely on the archetypes that dominate our imagery. In Native history most famous leaders died for their causes and made major scarifies for their people’s well being. Yes, there still are elements of that today and many of us still live in unsafe locations and environments and are forced to grow up and raise families in them. But we need to ask ourselves where are the positive examples of leadership that highlight the new places where health and reciprocity are highlighted so we can notice the difference between leading through martyrdom and leading through reciprocity.
In the last two years I’ve had experiences that made me ask if I was putting myself in situations that highlighted the sacrifices I made to my own creative career to uplift the creativity of others. A couple of painful experiences where people I had mentored or uplifted, used my help and hard won resources yet did not acknowledge the major role I played in getting them to their success. In short I felt that hard reality of being invisibilized.
I can talk about unexpected behavior of collaborators, but instead I want to talk about how those who are in leadership positions that deal in the currency of creative collaboration and relationship must be highly aware of healthy boundaries, clear expectations and yes, contractual agreements when your leadership work consistently straddles the lines between creativity and thought leadership which is the legacy that build a leader’s life’s work. It’s these details rather than the details of obligation that can guide a leader into partnerships that are healthy and equitable.
After having the experience of my contributions be invisibilized, I began to imagine ways to remedy this in the future: ways, which, initially focused mostly on healthy boundaries. Then I realized that obligation isn’t just a one way street. We didn’t imagine and internalize problematic ideas of leadership obligation all by ourselves, it’s so culturally ingrained that we also expect those things from the people who we ourselves look to as leaders and we’re deeply disappointed when they don’t sacrifice for us. So it’s no wonder that we find ourselves in a painful Catch 22 as our constituents think that’s what we’re supposed to do for them. And we unconsciously live up to those expectations. Well, at least I did.
I invite new leaders to ask themselves in what ways you perpetuate unrealistic or unhealthy ideas of service in yourself and others? How can your actions and expectations of your mentors and leaders contribute to an unhealthy ecosystem that regularly erases their contributions in an environment that rewards and commoditizes all things new and young? How can you stand in a spotlight without throwing your helpers into the shadows? Though initial praise will come from the mainstream who only hear the new ways in which you are articulating the old problems that our mentors were tackling, it won’t be long until those new ways become ineffective and another fresh voice will be the only one who can be heard articulating the same issues you’ve spent your life’s work on. Invisibilizing makes it harder for the larger movement to advance. If our predecessors are not properly acknowledged, we ultimately find that our task is merely to reinvent the wheel they handed to us.
My suggestion is to always call attention to the historicity of how you’ve come to the newest ways of making headway into the work. Help to truly let the rising water raise all ships especially those whose contributions will be unseen if you don’t maintain that memory and link to the intelligence of the past for those new ears (who are often in the mainstream and hold the power to amplify). This is actually how we can advance the work, by being cognizant of our ecosystem, the whole. I believe a holistic frame of your field will be the things that makes the change you want to see.
A small way I have begun to do this myself is to publicly acknowledge people by saying the names of those who I could not have journeyed here without. This past summer when I was asked to speak at a conference as a recognized leader of Native theatre, I made a list of about 30 people who were my mentors, people whose actions directly led to my being able to call myself a leader. In the way that land acknowledgements are becoming common practice, acknowledgement of helpers, I hope, can be a way to center the community you’re working for while you carve out your own path from the help generously given to you.
*I learned to call leaders helpers from Wade Keezer.