Thursday, June 4, 2009

Kahlil Almustafa: Money Grows in Communication

I have to get real about money. In my heart, I believe future generations will look back at this moment in human history with confusion. How did otherwise intelligent beings allow small pieces of colored paper to determine who eats, when, and how much? Still, I cannot escape the fact that legal tender controls the lives of us global citizens.

Why am I ranting about money? Recently, I was contracted to be a Poet Mentor. This means some organization hired me to come in and be excited when young people perform poetry. The proposed rate was thirty to fifty percent less than what I know I should be paid. We scheduled a meeting to discuss the details.

In my preparation for this meeting I told myself I should ask for more money but I did not know how. Unable to face the real conversation, I made an agreement with myself to “at least ask for a travel stipend,” which was really just a way to avoid the real conversation and still walk away like I did something.

Truth is, I needed the money, and whether or not they increased my hourly rate, I could not afford to pass up this contract. I fooled myself into thinking that not mentioning money was the responsible thing to do for me and my family. After all, I did not want to run the risk of losing the contract.

The meeting was a whirl of dates, logistics, and small talk. My fee was not brought to the table as if it had already been settled or as if there was some Don't ask, Don't tell policy, as long as I did not tell them how much my time was really worth, they would refrain from reading me the social proclamation which reads “artists are relatively unimportant and should be grateful for whatever crumbs may happen to fall off the table.”

I managed to squeak out some scattered words about money for transportation. A ravel stipend was granted to me with a casualness which prompts me to believe there was room in the budget to bring me at least slightly closer to what my work is worth.

The problem is not simply the money. In total, the amount I would have received extra would not have amounted to much in scale of my yearly income. The problem is how this lack of honest communication undermines financial integrity for all parties involved:
  • One, this could distort my relationship to the project. Although I consider myself a professional, each time I think about the project I run the risk of thinking “oh, I am being ripped off, so .... [fill in the blank] “i can be late,” “i can give partial effort,” etc. etc.
  • Two, I told a bold face lie to this organization. In the future they may create a budget for a similar project thinking they can receive a certain level of expertise for an unrealistic rate of pay.
  • Three, by accepting this rate of pay without an honest conversation about the market rate for this service, I undermine the integrity of all the other artists in my field who may potentially work with this organization or any of its members in any future scenario.
  • The fourth impact was tricky and it was the last that I discovered. Since the discussion about my pay was left unspoken I did not even dare mention some of the other products and services I had available. Who knows where this conversation could have lead, but by not even having it, I cut off all possibilities completely.

I signed the contract without a word. This unspoken money conversation lingered in my brain for weeks. I did not want to tell my wife, who has grown tired of me settling for less. I reserved myself to wait until the next contract to get it right. This all changed when I went to the New Economy Smack Down, event organized by The Field and hosted at Galapagos. [Check out an audio file from this event at You can hear me testify 2:27:30 toward the end of the program.]

The New Economy Smack Down event made me feel like I was part of a movement of artists, and I was responsible to this movement for following through with this single individual action. One of the simple ideas which came out of this event is to remember that people whose job it is to give money to artists, are just people. The person I was working with already expressed excitement about the work I was doing. I decided to have an honest conversation about money.

The next day I was determined to make the call. First, I needed a script:

Honest Money Conversation Script

  1. Small Talk
  2. Open – “I want to have an honest conversation about my pay rate.”
  3. Acknowledgments/Disclaimers (“I know I already signed the contract and I do not necessarily expect anything to change," “I really appreciate this opportunity”)
  4. State Position - "This hourly rate is not accurate for what I am doing. I should actually be paid thirty to fifty percent more."
  5. Silence OR “What do you think about that?”

The response I received was amazing. Not only did the person tell me how much they appreciated the honesty, I learned a great deal about the context of the project. They were already paying me almost twice as much as they usually paid resident artists and had to defend my pay rate to their higher-ups. This contract represented a shift in their organization and the project I was working on valued art in a way which challenged their own executives. She said she would definitely speak to her supervisor about my rate and respond immediately.

She did get back to me immediately, letting me know she regrets not being able to increase my rate, but that they greatly valued my work. After our conversation, I felt like I was also representing the vision of the individuals within the organization and knew that the level of professionalism I provided would be the proof they needed for their supervisors.

Even though I was receiving the same pay rate, this honest conversation transformed my relationship to the project. I left feeling allied with individuals in the organization, with the potential of future work with them. I was able to provide highly professional service, not letting my inability to have an adult conversation about money, impact my work with the kids.


The Field said...

Kahlil! your honesty, thought process and action inspire me. Thank you for sharing this all.

Melissa said...

Congratulations Kahlil - the conversation that brings our art/self Worth into Money is too awful - and you broke it down beautifully.
I may have to print this entry out when next I negotiate a contract - it will inspire me to take an active role in standing up for myself, the worth of my work and actually creating a foundation for negotiation.

The best part is that they didn't tell you what you were afraid to hear....May that embolden you in the future and support all of us - despite what we are told repeatedly, there are many people who do value artists and our work.

Caroline Woolard said...

You are sincere and bold. Thank you for relaying your story with transparency and moving from talk to action. This inspires me to demand financial respect as well.

Aaron Landsman said...

Kahlil, as a member of that Smackdown panel, I am so vitally proud of you for handling the conversation the way you did, for each step you made along the way. You spoke up for yourself, you acknowledged the possible awkwardness, and you stuck to the contract you signed. You set the bar higher for us all. Thanks!