Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Field Leadership Fund - Will we do the good that we set out to do?

By: Rajeeyah Finnie-Myers, Field Leadership Fund Project Manager

As the deadline approaches for FieldLeadership Fund (FLF) applications, I'm hoping that we've done all the right things to reach the people who need this opportunity the most and that they feel compelled to actually apply. And even with months (really years for The Field Executive Director Jennifer Wright Cook) of visioning what the fellowship will be, carefully crafting language to describe it and nothing but good intentions, I am very aware of the fine line that exists between doing good and perpetuating the very issues we hope to address.

Who makes it as a leader in the arts sector? As a woman of color, the stakes feel particularly high for me both professionally and personally. Too often I’ve been disappointed to find that at the heart of the opportunity for advancement is the belief that the reason I haven’t advanced thus far is that I don’t have enough training or skills. The Field’s 2013 report to fail and fail big explains:

“success is often supported by privilege or thwarted by under-privilege”
“whether that privilege is economic, cultural identity, education, gender or class-based, the divide between who gets to be an artist, who can afford arts school or who can afford not to have health insurance is getting wider and wider. We are losing people. We are losing their artistic revelations.”

Here is what we hope:

§  Accepting where we are - In acknowledging the root causes of oppression and thinking about the ways in which we can work towards equity in the planning stages, we stand a better chance of doing good.  Jennifer and I have done our homework - looking at many resources around the issues of social justice and equity. We’ve had open and thoughtful conversations about our own experiences and have made it a point to call on others who could offer a different or broader perspective.

§  Broadening our perspective - By soliciting the support of people who have wider reaching and/or more diverse networks and tapping into their experience and expertise, we will reach individuals who might not otherwise know about this opportunity. The FLF Advisory Council is the main way we do this but we also reached out to organizations that have missions centered on issues like equity and access.

§  Using what we have - Having someone manage the fellowship who has been on the other end of a career development program at The Field adds a layer of understanding about what it’s like to apply and participate in such a program. I was involved in a program called Artist Manager Partnership (AMP) at The Field back in 2005. Although I had a master’s degree and a few years of work experience under my belt at the time, I was having a hard time securing a job in the arts.  I was in the midst of a career change, looking for opportunities in a new city and happened upon AMP just at the right time. The program was not perfect but it definitely played a major role in me getting my career in arts administration started.

§  Advocating for change - By calling attention to the issues and putting resources towards making change, we inspire, equip and enable arts organizations, artists and arts managers who feel stuck move forward in their work. The Field’s report to fail and fail big gets at the heart of this idea and stems from the voices of people who are living as arts professionals in New York City.

Here is the reality:

§  Much of our outreach has been done online and through social media, so there will still be a large group of artists and potential arts managers left out of the mix because of a lack of access and our limited network. Also people who are already a part of The Field’s existing network carry a certain advantage in that they are the first to learn about the opportunity and likely to feel more comfortable reaching out to us to get clarity about FLF to submit the strongest application possible.

§  The only option for applying is an online application, so if you don’t have online access you can’t apply. Even limited Internet access creates a challenge since completing the application takes time and space to comb through the guidelines, delve into the questions, edit and then review responses.

§  Our first round of decisions about applicants is based solely on a written application, so there is an imbedded advantage for those who write well or have honed their written application skills through the experience of applying for similar opportunities.

§  Just because someone needs this opportunity doesn’t mean that they will be a good fit for the program. Things like scheduling and location could lock people out. There are only 12 spaces to fill and hundreds of interested candidates, so even the most qualified applicants may not get to participate.

§  Although we have intentions of addressing an ongoing lack of diversity in leadership in the arts sector in New York City and beyond, our goals are ambitious and our way of "providing access” may not be seen as drastically different from the norm.

Here’s what we’ve done to address the issues:

§  We've challenged ourselves to think differently about outreach and the application process because most often the disconnect starts there.  There is a person (me) to contact and talk to about any questions or concerns during the open application period.  No inquiry goes unanswered and I am ready and willing to walk anyone through the details of the fellowship. I’ve had countless phone conversations when email responses weren’t enough in hopes that people feel confident that they can decide if this opportunity is for them.

§  We consciously included information about getting computer access in the FLF FAQs and even offer to provide a laptop and Internet access at our office to anyone who needs it to apply. 

§  We kept the application short and asked questions in a way that we felt would help us get to know the applicants rather than test their writing skills. The only supporting document we ask for is a resum√© to help us get a better sense of how a group might work together based on their professional background, skills, training and experience. We do not ask for artistic work samples or budgets.

§  We built in a 2nd phase in the application process for finalists so that we could get to know people beyond their written application before making a final decision. There will be a group interview so that we get a sense of group dynamics. FLF will be a collaborative learning experience and so much of the fellowship will be about the people in the room.

§  We will have an evaluation consultant get feedback from participants about the application process to learn how we might improve our approach. Tied to this plan, is the intention to share what we have learned with the larger arts community.

§  We are paying participants instead of asking them to pay us. Often the cost of professional development/support makes it difficult for many to pursue.  In the attempt to even the playing field FLF offers financial compensation for the time spent in the fellowship.

Going Forward
With terms like social justice, diversity and equity being thrown around a lot these days, FLF faces the threat of getting lost in a world of fancy words; intellectual conversations and superficial successes that make us feel good. The fellowship is an ambitious undertaking for The Field. It is a direct response to systemic issues like inequality, white male privilege and lack of access.  We see that there is a need to explore (1) why things are the way that they are and (2) how we can make a meaningful shift. Though we can't say for sure how this fellowship will impact systems; we are committed to the inquiry - the process - the journey. The rest is to be determined. We don’t know the path FLF participants will take after they complete the fellowship in 2017. Will they become leaders in their field in the way that they had hoped? Will they take this work and use it as momentum to propel the idea of equity in the arts sector in New York City further? Are we doing the good that we intend to do?

The deadline for FLF applications is September 14th. I will be blogging regularly throughout the run of the fellowship. Follow the conversation to see how the pilot year unfolds!

Jennifer Wright-Cook, Sonia Louise Davis and Rajeeyah Finnie-Myers


Randi said...

This thought process of wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing it. You all are doing really important work and we are grateful for all of it.

Randi said...

*is wonderful. :)

Jennifer Wright Cook said...

Thanks so much Randi! We appreciate your support.

Melissa Riker said...

Looking forward to seeing it unfold Rajeeyah, the continued push for brilliance at The Field is a shiny beacon.