Virtual Visionaries Week 7: Leading Beyond Crisis

About the Authors:

Omari Rush has engaged the arts as both a passion and profession, and in each mode, he continues to enjoy discovery and deepening impacts. As executive director of CultureSource in Detroit and as the governor-appointed chairman of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, he advances efforts to have creative and cultural expression thrive in diverse communities. Complementing that work, Omari is a board member of Arts Midwest in Minneapolis and both the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies and the Association of Performing Arts Professionals in Washington, D.C.

Laura Zabel is the Executive Director of Springboard for the Arts, an economic and community development agency run by and for artists. Springboard provides programs that help artists make a living and a life, and programs that help communities connect to the creative power of artists. Springboard is a nationally recognized leader in artist-led community development, creative placemaking and cross-sector collaboration. Springboard’s work has been featured by the New York Times, PBS, Wall Street Journal, Stanford Social Innovation Review and The Guardian and directly impacts over 25,000 artists each year in their home state of Minnesota. Through their free toolkits, training and resources Springboard’s programs have been replicated in over 80 communities across the U.S. and internationally. Zabel has been honored with numerous awards, including the YBCA 100, Gard Foundation Award of Excellence, Common Future Local Economy Fellowship and the Bush Foundation Leadership Fellowship. Zabel is on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers and serves as an advisor to Dakota Resources, The Laundromat Project, Local Initiatives Support Corporation and the University of Kansas Department of Theater and Dance.  

From Omari:

What is happening?

In an environment as volatile as ours right now, this reflection question has been an essential starting place for much of my strategic action in the past four months. As I have processed this question with peers, mentors, and partners, our responses have been cartographic, illuminating in real time a landscape that is requiring new levels of adaptation to navigate.

COVID-19 has been a society-quaking event: the structural integrity of institutions has been compromised, lives and livelihoods have been lost, and tools for resuscitation and repair are limited. As an arts service organization, CultureSource is committed—especially amid this tragedy and destruction—to doing our work to advance creative and cultural expression. And as the organization’s executive director, I think of myself less as leading through crisis and more learning through crisis, constantly asking questions—including, What is happening?—and supporting our team in generating multiple answers and multiple actions.

Despite the exhausting process of living in and working through the current environment, my inspiration is surging. I see incredible opportunity for progress in relatively short amounts of time given spiking tolerance for change, sharing, experimentation, unity, and investment. As time is compressed in this crisis, we skip over some of the careful and risk-averse courting and jump right into the messy work. It is both an energizing and unnerving period. 

Below are three of the ideas I’m using this time to process and act on:

Expanding the inclusivity of arts and culture

Our field has been full of traditional or expert-created borders, antithetical to the creative spirt of our work, and the quakes of COVID have been revelatory in showing who is in and out, who has access and who doesn’t. The hard lines must be erased.

Being and artist should not be a luxury

Click to view article in Detroit Is It

One of many effects of social stratification and widening income inequality is that it is exceedingly difficult to dedicate one’s life to artistic pursuits. A personally memorable scene with Lauryn Hill from Sister Act Two highlights the either-or decisions facing families with budding creatives. Being creative in our society should be an aspiration, not a risk.

Digital organizational and audience development

Using digital platforms for the creation and distribution of art has been thrust into mainstream artistic practices of organizations and artists working to survive the COVID crisis without access to physical venues for audience connection. There now exists a need to offer support to adapt to new paradigms of art presentation and simultaneously support audiences in their awareness and engagement of those digital resources.

While COVID-19 pervades most decision making now, the economic recession, systemic and pandemic racism, and census 2020 undercounts all hang in the air and sit on our shoulders as worrisome forces that call on me—and I hope you—to continue asking, What is happening?, and then getting to the  good, hard work of responding. No answers, just learning and doing.

From Laura:

The last three months have been the most intense and complicated of my entire professional life. We have found ourselves living through and responding to multiple connected and compounding crises. A global health crises in the form of a pandemic; a national economic crisis that exposes systemic gaps and threatens the livelihoods of culture workers; a national call to reckon with our racist systems and the reality that our country is built on stolen land by stolen people; and the local murder of a Black man by police in Minneapolis and the anger and grief and destruction that resulted. 

Springboard for the Arts is a 25 year old nonprofit organization that builds systems of support and value for artists and creative workers. Our work is rooted in the idea of creative people power. We know creativity and culture will be necessary ingredients for a just and equitable recovery. In the last three months we have raised and distributed over a million dollars to over 2,000 artists in Minnesota in emergency relief funds; we’ve shared a toolkit and helped emergency relief funds get started across the country; we’ve hosted community painting days for Black artists in our neighborhood to tell their own stories of anger, hope and grief; and every day we’re helping people navigate unemployment, legal, healthcare and other resources. 

What I’ve learned from these and other emergencies is that the only way through crisis is to be as useful as possible. Focusing on how to make our work relevant to this moment is both what is necessary to fulfill our mission and the only path towards sustainability. Like everything hard, there will also be opportunities in this challenge. I’m learning more each day about what it means to meet this moment with our work, so I’m sure this list will grow and change, but today, here are a few of things that we’ve learned about how to make work to address multiple crises at once:

Know your principles and priorities ahead of time. An organizations’ values and principles should be a guiding force in the best of times. In a crisis, they are essential. All of what we’ve been able to build in the last 3 months rests on the deep and shared understanding of our guiding principles. In the early days of the crises these principles acted like a kind of muscle memory, helping us jump into action, adapt to new ways of working and communicate clearly even before any of us understood exactly the challenges we were facing. 

Use your existing structures where possible to do new things. We already have systems and structures – both administrative and programmatic—imagining how you can repurpose these systems around new challenges saves time and helps you lean in to the places where you are best suited to make change. Like the many stories of costume shops making masks and other PPE, Springboard was able to quickly repurpose and expand our existing emergency relief fund program to scale to meet a new emergency. 

Communicate often – internally and externally. Even as much as we had existing principles and structures to work from, we found we needed to check in a lot to keep things moving and changing at a pace that could meet the moment. Especially right now, when in person communication isn’t possible, our scheduled and impromptu zoom sessions help us talk through challenges, incorporate feedback and share the heaviness of holding people’s trauma. We’ve also found that external storytelling is vital – helping to make sure that people understand the impact of a crisis on your community is crucial to attracting support and finding the right partners.

Laura Zabel on a rooftop patio at the Springboard for the Art’s new St. Paul headquarters. Click to view their article from StarTribune.

Build and change while you go. (don’t do a survey.) Please don’t do a survey. You can gather information and provide services at the same time. Think about how to build simple data collection into programs. The persistent culture that tells us we need to know everything before we start doing something (or that if we just had the right data we’d be credible) is irrelevant in a crisis (and probably all the time.) We’ve focused on building the systems we need in real time, while people are using them, which ensures that what we’re building is useful and relevant.

Support the people doing the work. Taking care of the artists who make up the staff at Springboard is always fundamental and it’s extra important right now. The work we are doing is practical – about healthcare, emergency support, unemployment, business planning, but it is also very personal and the staff has to be able to manage and hold people’s fear, uncertainty, anger, and grief for their livelihoods, for their communities, for their work. We can’t do that unless we take care of ourselves. 

We’re still learning and changing every day. We know creativity and culture will be necessary ingredients for a just and equitable recovery. It is clear that our systems don’t need to be fixed, they need to be wholly reimagined and to do that we will need the world building, collaboration, cultural relevance and meaning making that artists can provide.

Want to hear more?

Join Omari & Laura this Wednesday, July 15th at 3:00PM EDT via Zoom. This conversational session will delve into their posts in greater depth, providing a chance for participants to ask questions and engage with these authors in real time.

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