EMERGENCE 2017: WHOLE PERSON, WHOLE IMPACT
SUNDAY, MAY 21, 10am – 5pm at JCCSF
Join your EAP network and community for our 7th annual convening. Emergence provides a collaborative platform for Bay Area arts and culture workers to connect, share ideas, and elevate their work and voices. This year, we will explore the impact of bringing our whole selves into our work and out into our community.
3200 California Street | San Francisco, CA 94118
Tickets and schedule coming soon!
THREE NOTES for your consideration:
- May 21st is Bay to Breakers, so keep that in mind when you’re planning travel through the city.
- We’re looking for volunteers! Wanna get free entry & help support this wonderful event? Volunteer here.
- Got an idea for a presentation, panel, or other? Submit your proposal here.
And, check out past years’ programming at http://www.emergingsf.org/emergence/
[ Call form for volunteers and program ideas: https://goo.gl/forms/L5a9SblwTo3Kd0if1 ]
On October 27, Rhizome launched a major new initiative, Net Art Anthology, with a presentation and panel discussion bringing together a group of artists who championed distinct and often conflicting approaches to net art practice in the mid to late 1990s. Our new New York correspondent, SF/NY-based artist Tim Roseborough, was there to take it all in. Here’s his rundown…
Net Art Anthology Launch
Thursday, October 27, 7 PM
at the New Museum, 235 Bowery in NYC
Luminaries like New Museum curator Lauren Cornell and Internet artist Rafael Rozendaal were in attendance for an event organized in conjunction with the launch of Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology, an online exhibition which, in the organization’s words, hopes to “retell the story of Net Art.” The Anthology commemorates the 20th anniversary of Rhizome as a proponent and archive of Internet-based art practices and is funded by the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation.
Michael Connor, Rhizome’s artistic director, introduced the Archive in which 100 Net-Based artworks will premiere, one a week, for two years. Mr. Connor’s introduction to the exhibition was accompanied by short talks by Aria Dean, assistant curator of Net Art and Dragan Espenschied, preservation director.
The panel consisted of artists who were involved in the early establishment of the field of Net Art in the 1990s: Olia Lialina (net artist and Geocities researcher/archivist), Martha Wilson (artist and founder of Franklin Furnace), Ricardo Dominguez (artist and founder of Electronic Disturbance Theater), and Mark Tribe (artist and founder of Rhizome).
Each artist discussed their early online work as artists, curators, and organizers. As well as some of the major issues faced and addressed by the organization and the world of Internet-based art, as a whole.
Mark Tribe remarked upon the fact that in the face of the Internet’s global reach, Rhizome’s New York-centricity was a problem. He noted that focusing on New York alone leads to, as he terms it, “navel gazing. In order to combat that myopia, Tribe described the site’s efforts to employ regional editors to chronicle the scenes in other cities. Martha Wilson noted that New York has always been a center for art and culture and that it was no surprise that Rhizome’s coverage and reach would reflect its status as such.
Ricardo Dominguez noted that Rhizome networks were broad, including cities like Vienna, Berlin, and Amsterdam, he noted the “teleportation” of the body that is facilitated by the broad reaching networks of the Internet.
The notion of the body and its mediation was a recurring theme at the panel. Martha Wilson discussed what she considered the myth of cyberspace as leaving the body behind. Regarding the ongoing conversation about the value of live performance art versus the importance of documentation of that performance, or the notion that “if it was not recorded, it didn’t happen.”
On Net Art’s relation to the avant-garde, Mark Tribe noted that like video art critiqued dominant forms like television, so Net Art can serve as a critique of the privatization of public space.
Olia Lialina noted that as a Russian artist, connecting with people abroad was an invaluable value offered to her as an Internet-based artist. She savored the fact that orders could be virtually crossed via the electronic superhighway.
Mark Tribe dismissed the notion that after After Modernism, art could explore no new avenues. The Internet opened new ways of making and thinking about art, according to the Rhizome founder.
The Rhizome founder also explained that the sense of excitement he felt when starting Rhizome in the mid-nineties is hard to recall. He noted that there was a sense of stepping across a threshold and into new frontier — much like the television show, “Star Trek,” he joked, eliciting laughter from the lively and engaged audience.
Tim Roseborough, author of the artworldgeek.com blog.
Typically, most arts conferences that I attend do not include water-pouring ceremonies, pop-up coloring sessions, or group meditations. Yet not all conferences are created equal, and I recently participated in one that included all of those activities–and then some.
A few weeks ago, I flew from Portland to San Francisco to attend Emergence 2016, the annual convening of Emerging Arts Professionals San Francisco/Bay Area. Like many conferences, Emergence seeks to connect arts and culture workers to one another to share ideas and best practices for our field. Unlike many conferences, however, Emergence is grassroots, experimental, organized predominantly by people of color, and eager to tackle topics like revolution and justice, which were at the center of this year’s theme, “Crafting Equity, Shifting Power.”
As national demographics change and conversations on race, gender, class, ability, language, and more bubble to the surface of the arts sector, equity has become a hot topic for our field. As a person of color and member of Portland Emerging Arts Leaders’ Equity Committee, which seeks to spark dialogue and action surrounding cultural equity in Portland’s arts sector, I was eager to spend quality time at Emergence brainstorming ways to make our arts institutions less “male, pale, and Yale,” in the words of former Brooklyn Museum director Arnold Lehman.
Over the course of one day at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, coffee in hand and notebooks in tow, we asked difficult questions regarding power in the arts. Emergence focused on examining the practices, values, and assumptions that we tend to make within arts organizations. How did our current systems came to be? Who benefits? How can we create change? Breakout sessions like “Unpacking Privilege” and “Diversity is for White People: Arts Equity Conversations We Should Be Having” sparked provocative insights about ourselves and our institutions. Bay-area collectives such United Playaz and the Oakland Creative Neighborhoods Coalition shared on-the-ground creative tactics they are using to dismantle historical inequities. Plus, activities like personal creativity mapping and the Living Altar (“a drop-in space offering facilitated centering practices, one-on-one practitioner support, and healing circles”) challenged traditional models of learning and knowing, illuminating that there are ways of working that most “professional” spaces do not recognize or value.
At the end of the day, all 100+ conference attendees came together for one final large-group workshop, “Crafting Our Cultural Equity Frame,” facilitated by Dia Penning. It was this session that left me with the most revelatory takeaway from Emergence: that simple fact that many arts organizations operate–and indeed benefit—from a legacy of colonialism, Eurocentrism, and white supremacy.
We began the workshop by taking a deep dive into historical texts that justified European colonization of Africa, Asia, and the Americas beginning in the sixteenth century. Conquest, domination, and exploitation were primarily driven by desires to ensure European economic prosperity on a competitive global stage; to realize “the White Man’s Burden” and “civilize” non-white “savages”; and to investigate and exploit cultural “others.” Colonialism allowed European countries to completely reshape global economic relationships, ensure wealth systematically funneled to the colonizers, and ultimately gain world power.
Then, in a moment, that had the weight of a mic drop, Penning asked the toughest question of all: How are these colonialist values mirrored in the workings of your own arts organization?
After a few seconds of silence following this question of tremendous magnitude, we collected our thoughts and began discussing. Looking at the arts through a colonialist lens was a challenging but valuable frame to wield; while the interests of arts organizations seem far-removed from those of colonial empires, it is impossible to deny that colonialist thought has a legacy that still impacts us today. Looking at the origins of museums, their motivation to collect and possess objects to which they assigned value aligns with colonial strategies of resource hoarding and wealth-building. They readily built upon a curiosity that exoticized objects of non-white cultures, removed them from their cultural context, and served as “an edifice for the display and affirmation of bourgeois values” according to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.Current conflicts around diversity and the clear lack of leadership of color at museums across the country also speak to an type of institution that has historically been white-dominant.
Despite these stark realities, we are not forever stuck in them; at the end of the workshop, Penning asked us to consider how we might change these systems and paradigms. At their most equitable, museums can hold the stories and histories of all peoples, preserving them for the future, and I am happy that there are endless examples of organizations and individuals striving towards that vision. My own institution, the Portland Art Museum, has catalyzed discussions about race, history, and power by increasingly highlighting work from groups who have historically not been represented in the institution, especially Native communities. Blogs like the Incluseum are sharing methods and practices to create diverse pathways for individuals to access and participate in museum life. Groups such as Museum Hueare sparking more conversation than ever before about how to dismantle the walls that have historically left many outside of collecting institutions. Our organizations, assumptions, and values are in a time of transformation.
We ended the workshop with the aforementioned water-pouring ceremony, calling on our ancestors to guide us as we reflected on the day. As the attendees trickled out, my brain was spinning with more questions than answers. The arts sector is astoundingly complex in its systems, history, and worldview, but to look at our field, we can start by looking at our organizations. These are some of the questions that I left with, which I encourage you to ask them of yourself and your organization, too:
- Who makes decisions?
- Who decides value?
- Who has power and why?
- How might you and your organization perpetuate a legacy of colonialism?
- What are you and your organization willing to risk to be more equitable?
During my flight back to Portland, I surveyed my notes from the conference, knowing that these are questions that I will continue to explore at the Museum and through my work with the PEAL Equity Committee. Reshaping power and cultivating equity are not easy, and they take time. However, even if they seem like gargantuan tasks, we can begin with small steps. Perhaps suggest that your next staff meeting include a grounding meditation and see what happens from there.
Rekia Boyd. Sandra Bland. Trayvon Martin. At Emergence 2016 these were but a few of the names lifted up, floating atop a sea of “Ashe’s” in a collective pouring of libations. In the tradition of Black Liberation organizing, I draw upon the practices that have sourced the resilience of my ancestors for generations—altar building, collective chant or song, and pouring water as an offering and reminder of the ongoing life that connects us all. Emergence conference attendees gathered in a large circle, joining me in a calling in of those passed on, those lost to state violence, those whose lives have become the testimony for the work we call “cultural equity” to require at base, a radical shifting of power—and to shift power requires a radical participation from all of us. During the course of the day I hosted a ritual and reflection zone called The Living Altar. The intention was to provide a space where conference attendees could ground in the body and integrate the content they were ingesting in workshops throughout the day. Forming a sacred hoop of candles and cowrie shells, I arranged a colorful altar at the south gate of the medicine wheel adorned with offerings of food, healing herbs, fresh flowers, and items from my own Afro-Indigenous lineage. Attendees entered the circle and became participants in a reverential act of writing letters to the ancestors. They inscribed their messages on the apron hem of a Black Madonna, an in-progress painting of a deified Black Mammy anointed with a halo of sunflowers. Calling in the Egun (origin: Yoruba for ancestors), participants connected to their roots, writing messages that reflected a range of gratitude, grief, confusion, and empowerment. This space transformed attendees into participants. Such is the gift of anchoring in the ritual act of ancestral reverence. It requires us to first examine the soil we are standing on, the inheritance we have been given in this skin, and the privileges and internalized oppressions thus received before attempting to build alternatives.
Skilled organizing, and by extension compelling facilitation challenges us to stretch beyond our comfort zones, confronting our preconceptions of freedom, justice, and yes—equity. How do we create spaces that bring people into authentic connection with one another? How do we provide practical tools that strengthen capacity for these uncomfortable but necessary dialogues? And once we’ve gotten people in the room, how can we keep them invested, engaged enough—across varying life experiences and identities—to move to a place of action that extends beyond the conference, training, or workshop container? These conversations reveal the Anglo-European dominant culture embedded in our work and daily praxis. It is an active choice to moment by moment resist reinforcing these oppressive norms, and conversely embody an alternative.
To truly progress along the trajectory of diversity to cultural competence to liberatory practice, requires a complete transformation in how we do this work. It’s simply not possible to squeeze a new model inside of an old construct, and yet this is often what we do for lack of familiarity with a less-colonized alternative. We insert LGBTQQIA2-S people-of-color into spaces that are still dominated by a prevailing white heteronormative framework, and wonder why these spaces have not shifted overnight to reflect the equitable, social justice experience we imagined they would bring. We offer an arts-based workshop and a “healing” space in an already packed conference agenda and check off the box for including something “holistic” and accessible. If it is truly our goal to employ liberatory practice, and not just an infusion of diversity into spaces maintaining the status quo, we need to completely reimagine what these spaces could become.
Currently, I am codifying an Afro-Indigenous framework for activism and community organizing through a multidisciplinary platform called, #DignityInProcess (learn more at www.ChE-Art.Life ). This response to the Black Lives Matter movement merges art activism, ancestral healing, and intersectional identity exploration within the Queer and Trans,* Afro-Indigenous Diaspora. Bringing together dance, ritual, storytelling, and pop-up installation, #DignityInProcess creates immersive experiences into a decolonized archetype. As #DignityInProcess has already offered workshops, performances, and art actions gathering the stories of Black, Creole, Native American multi-generational voices across the West, East, and Gulf South Coast, some foundational guideposts of an Afro-Indigenous framework for organizing emerge:
- Non-Vertical Hierarchical Structures: Maintaining the Circle (i.e. Community, Family, The Village) as the central model for all organizing, honoring that every position in the circle has something valuable to offer, and the wisdom of the collective is greater than that of the isolated individual.
- Ritual and Ancestral Healing as the framing for conversations about race and gender justice. Beginning with the lineages we carry into the room, we create space to honor the gifts and challenges we’ve inherited from our ancestors. Allowing these practices to increase resilience, presence, and capacity for deepened, sustained engagement.
- Embodiment: Understanding that experiences of both freedom and oppression live in the body. Thus all work regarding healing the impacts of racism and gender oppression require participation of the body. This presumes experiencing the body in a nondual way, where soma and consciousness are not separate.
- Intersectionality: Understanding the hierarchical nature of power and how belonging to multiple discriminated forms of identity can mean one’s wholeness is compartmentalized, invisibilizing one’s full experience. Instead we hold race and gender identity as interconnected, non-binary elements that are always in relationship with one another.
These are just some of the learnings that have emerged as #DignityInProcess unfolds, continuing to evolve and take shape. The practices I bring into #DignityInProcess have been passed down to me from the African American, Creole, Congolese, West African, Nigerian, Native American elders I have had the honor of sharing family and community with. It is this collective wisdom sharing that continues to strengthen my leadership as a Queer Mixed/ Indigenous/ Black multidisciplinary artist-activist and consultant working at the intersections of race and gender justice. I encourage us to consider centralizing these decolonized alternatives in the spaces we create to uphold cultural equity. To invite in the leadership of these powerful communities is to reimagine how together we can achieve collective liberation.
Artist’s Note: The Black Mammy Madonna is part of a #DignityInProcess: Black Madonna Series in honor of the #SayHerName campaign. This series celebrates the Black Feminine* as God in her many forms of African American, Afro-Indigenous, Creole, Afro-Latinx, Mixed Race, LGBTQQIA2-S identity. ChE’s intention for these Sacred mixed media paintings is that they eventually find a home on the altars of seven individuals sharing roots with the African Diaspora. If you would like to inquire about commissioning a Black Madonna, please contact ChE directly at email@example.com.
About the Author:
ChE (pronoun- they/ them/ their) is a Queer Afro-Indigenous artivist working at the intersections of youth leadership development, consulting in liberatory praxis, and socially engaged artmaking. As a director/ choreographer, ChE’s work is robust with gospel soul sounds and movement of the African Diaspora that leave feet stomping and hands clapping. Currently ChE is developing a framework for Afro-Indigenous activism piloted through #DignityInProcess, a multi-disciplinary platform responding to the Black Lives Matter movement through ancestral healing, art as direct action, and sustainable leadership models within the Diaspora. To follow the process visit www.ChE-Art.Life.
The results are in!
We would like to thank the 88 network members who took the survey and gave us feedback for our upcoming Emergence 2016 convening! See the Summary below. We are currently taking your input and working to deliver the most desirable event. Similarly, if you would like to be involved in the organizing and planning process, there are plenty of ways to plug in. Please email katherin(at)emergingsf.(dot)
As Dancers’ Group’s mentioned in their insightful Living Transition Plan, organizational transitions can be emotional. They can produce feelings of confusion, anxiety, excitement, hope, frustration, relief, or resentment. At the same time, a leadership change offers a fantastic opportunity for an organization’s constituents to recognize and honor its essential values and culture. It can also provide an important stretch of time for staffers to grow comfortable with the idea of change and prepare to enter the next era from a place of strength.
Over the past four years, I have had the opportunity to serve as interim director of three different arts nonprofits, and have come to deeply value the work in the same way I do international travel. I get to move to a new “country” and immerse myself in its customs and culture, learn the local language, and reflect on its inner workings. In exchange, my outsider perspective naturally generates questions and observations about the organization that can lead stakeholders to self-reflect and better define their own goals and intentions.
As Interim Director, I might introduce some unfamiliar ideas or approaches, but unless the organization is going through major turmoil, my job isn’t to provide long-term vision or institute big changes. Instead, I am there to encourage and support those who are living through—and most affected by—the transition. While staff at all levels can and should be leaders in succession planning, they also need support. Especially at smaller organizations with 15 or fewer employees, the loss of a leader can create significant extra work and stress for those who remain. But it also provides a chance for staffers at all levels to challenge or even reinvent themselves, to test out a new ideas, and to step into greater roles of responsibility. To become, in a word, more “leaderful” (a term introduced in the Living Transition Plan that has quickly entered my daily lexicon!). An Interim Director can help by listening hard, asking the right questions, and simply getting out of the way.
Right now I am wrapping up a six-month tenure at Southern Exposure, a local nonprofit that supports emerging visual artists. I just held my last one-on-one meeting with each of the four staff members, all of whom are highly accomplished, passionate workers. I asked them to revisit the list of 2016 goals they developed last fall, and reflect on the past six months by considering the following questions:
- Do you have any new insights or takeaways about your:
- Job responsibilities and overall role?
- Recent accomplishments?
- Potential (recognized or unrecognized)?
- Professional development or work style needs?
- Professional aspirations?
- Are there any new dynamics or realities that have developed during this transition that you hope continue into the future? Or any that you hope don’t continue?
- What kind of impression do you hope to make on the new ED? What actions or efforts on your part could help her form that desired impression?
I didn’t require them to write anything or formally answer each question (they have enough work on their plates already!). We just used the questions as a starting point, and I let them lead the way. The result was a series of rich conversations that left them feeling confident, empowered, and eager to welcome their new leader. They had a safe space to openly voice their hopes and dreams, I shared my observations about their strengths and challenges, and together we made a roadmap for the future. In addition, their honest feedback will inform my opening conversations with the new ED, as I can more easily share information and expectations that the staff might be shy to disclose to a new manager right off the bat. I can set the new leader up for success and provide the kind of valuable context that will enable everyone start off on solid ground.
I should note that while my outsider status has often been helpful in quickly cultivating trust and openness, an Interim promoted from within an organization can absolutely play the same crucial role in supporting staff and empowering them during the transition process. It just takes genuine listening, championing what is working well, and communicating with honesty and clarity.
Leadership transitions do not need to feel like lost time where employees are in limbo, full of anxiety and uncertainty. With the right kind support, staffers can use transition time productively to recognize and examine their own perspectives, and prepare to enter the organization’s next chapter from a place of strength and self-awareness.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Leigh Lehman has worked in the nonprofit arts sector for over 15 years. Since serving as Executive Director of 826 Valencia for five years, she has spent the last four years assisting various Bay Area nonprofits such as Headlands Center for the Arts and the David Brower Center through times of transition or leadership change. Currently, she is wrapping up an Interim Directorship at Southern Exposure. She also serves as Managing Director of the dance program Rhythm & Motion.
Olive Grove has worked with over a hundred organizations on succession and transition planning over the past ten years and no two processes are the same. Some involve a sudden departure followed by a panicked hunt for an exact replica of the departing leader – or a unicorn of a person who has a rainbow of superior talents. Others involve a founder handing over their life’s work to a carefully vetted leader with nervous excitement and hope. And still others involve years of cultivating a staff member to learn the organization inside and out for a seamless transition. In any scenario, the process of transition and succession must be tailored to the unique needs of the board and staff, while representing the values of the organization.
The Living Transition Plan, drafted by Dancers’ Group and CompassPoint, provides a strong starting point for staff to take on the process of replacing a valued colleague. It outlines the key activities involved in any succession planning process, including:
- Defining your values: In order to find the right person for a role, the organization must first have a clear understanding of itself. Values should represent the historical and present patterns and actions of the organization. Here are two exercises to help you understanding your organizational values: Values Exercise and Historical Mapping Exercise.
- Gathering information: Information gathering helps an organization to understand its goals, priorities, opportunities and risks perceived by those within and outside of your organization. This information will directly inform the qualifications and immediate goals of the new hire.
- Mapping knowledge sharing: Some information lives only in the minds of the outgoing employee and organizations don’t always have a clear system for transferring that information. See our Knowledge Sharing Tool for a resource.
- Developing a Succession Planning document: Once you have defined your values, gathered information from internal and external resources, and captured the knowledge within the organization, the next step is to create a document for the transition of key roles in case of a sudden departure. As outlined in The Living Transition Plan, questions should explore: qualities of a leader; desired shifts in an organization’s culture / structure; financial impact of a transition; knowledge transfer; process for selection of a new employee; communication around the departure; training / onboarding; celebration of the outgoing employee; and other elements of the organization that will be affected by the transition.
- Executive Search considerations: Of course, a leader departing will have much greater implications for an organization than other staff members. Thought must go into the decision-making process for selecting the leader, communications to stakeholders, funders and partners, the role of the outgoing leader in the future, and how to involve staff in the process.
We have found that the last point – how to involve staff in the process – is crucial in ensuring a successful transition. This can take many forms but essentially staff involvement falls along a spectrum. We have provided a few examples to highlight the various possible forms of staff involvement in an Executive Search process. This spectrum can help you identify the best approach for involving your staff and board members based on your unique situation – especially for high impact searches, such as Executive Directors and CEOs. For case studies highlighting the spectrum click here.
The Board-Only Approach: The Board does not involve staff in the process and makes a unilateral decision on the new hire.
- This approach is best used when the hire is a staff member, rather than a leader, and the team was previously ineffective.
- For an executive transition, this approach is best used when an organization is in extreme situations of transition or turmoil and requires decisive leadership.
- Be cautious of this approach. Even in some instances of extreme turmoil, staff still has valuable input to contribute to the qualities of a new leader.
- Make sure the Board truly holds all of the valuable information before moving forward with this approach.
Staff member on Search Committee: A staff member is selected by the Board or elected by staff to join the Search Committee as a representative.
- This approach is best used when an organization has a cohesive staff that can elect a representative and establish a system for providing input throughout the process.
- This can be an effective approach if the board is a high-level advisory board and the staff member can bring complimentary insight on programs and operations.
- This approach ensures some staff involvement but requires that staff is bought-in to this process and trust their representative.
Staff Advisory Committee alongside a Search Committee: Staff form a committee of multiple representatives, or for a smaller staff, all staff members are involved throughout the entirety of the process.
- This approach is best used when staff can provide insight into the culture, history and future direction of the organization in a way the Board cannot.
- This is also a helpful approach during periods of organizational transition and growth, when a new staff member or leader will likely create major shifts to the organization’s strategy and direction.
- This can be an elected or appointed Committee of staff who have regular input and updates on the process and a high level of decision-making in the selection of the candidate.
- For a smaller staff, this can include a process for gathering input from all staff through meetings, surveys, or other methods.
Staff can always provide valuable input in a couple of ways, regardless of the organization’s dynamics:
- Developing position description: Whether input is gathered collectively or individually, staff brings an important perspective to the qualities needed in the new hire. Ensure the focus is not wordsmithing but rather making sure critical points are covered.
- Meeting with candidates: Whether it is a direct superior or the new organizational leader, provide those working with the new hire the chance to meet that person during the later stages of vetting.
It is important to recognize that the Board holds fiduciary responsibility and accountability to ensure strong leadership within the organization. While staff input is valuable and sometimes crucial to the success of the new hire, the Board always has the final decision-making power on the process and selection.
Ultimately, involving staff is a critical step in ensuring the success of the new hire after the search and onboarding processes are over. The level of input can vary and it is up to the Board and senior staff to determine how much input is required for an efficient yet supportive process.
For additional information on Olive Grove and resources for transition / succession planning, please see below.
How do you let go of something that you have created? For instance, that incredibly crafted scene in a story, that you love but know may not completely fit anymore; or that dynamic painting series that you treasure but you know is not your future?
In June 2000, my close friend and I concocted a youth arts center that would bring a multi-disciplinary and community engagement approach to arts education. We envisioned a place that valued teenagers and put them in charge as they worked in the arts. Thirteen years later I was able to sneak away, leaving Out of Site in the hands of its community – its staff, faculty, students and alumni – along with a new executive director.
Small to mid-size nonprofits (under about $750,000 in annual budget) particularly struggle to create a lasting institution, one that is bigger than its founder, where the organization and its members successfully hold the values, vision and mission. As a founding executive director, I rode all the ups and downs for 13 years – the joys and the challenges: from the hiring of our first staff person, to the first employee firing, to the flush financial years and the lean years with the fears of not making payroll, to the awards and accolades, to the frustrating partnerships, and to all the complexities and emotions of working in a community that values collaboration and reflection.
The founder carries plenty. How could I let go and walk away? How could I leave the organization in a healthy position and myself feeling proud, calm and grateful?
I had attended multiple succession planning workshops, but frankly there was always the assumption of a bigger institution, a stronger board, a more robust organizational structure. I’d leave these meetings overwhelmed. How could Out of Site accomplish this transition without crumbling? In the difficult moments of our history, I felt that Out of Site was merely a house of cards – beautiful but fragile, and only I could keep it together. Was there a solid structure outside of me that could hold Out of Site together?
To figure this out, I needed to personally let go. I needed to value all those ups and downs and that knowledge I had gained. And, then I had to separate. I needed to allow others to step in. For me this took the support of an executive coach as well as a clarity about my own next steps.
Also, when I decided that it was time to leave, Out of Site was in a good spot: we had just finished a strategic plan developed by board, staff, faculty and youth. We had some steady, multi-year funding. Coincidentally, we were beginning a process to change our name.
After first telling my Board Chair, I shared the news with staff and then youth. All of this was very emotional. People were mad, surprised, scared, overwhelmed and intrigued. It was the youth who were most positive and excited – they saw me jumping off into new adventures. The adults were supportive but also understandably concerned about how the transition would affect them. There were a lot of emotions to process!
The Board needed to figure out the timeline and the transition method. After hours and hours of discussion, they made the decision to hire a Transition Consultant while also giving substantial raises to the top staff, in recognition that this would be a full year. This was all a financial stretch. But the Consultant spoke of using this process as a capacity-building time. She saw transition as a time where staff and board could step up and redefine their roles and responsibilities. Everyone found this exciting.
I was peripheral to this process. It was shocking and a bit sad for me at first, but then a relief to see the strength of the underlying structure of the organization. With coaching, I saw how my absence from the process would ensure a successful hiring outcome – no new executive director wants the founder/former ED looking over her/his shoulder. Also, this was balanced by the appreciations and accolades I was receiving: I worked hard to take in all these supportive comments and conversations.
The Board, staff and I were savvy and strategic about how we spoke to our partners and funders about the transition. And once the fabulous new executive director was hired, we held a celebratory party. Informal but also ceremonial: this was the handover. I felt deeply appreciated and honored – friends, partners, funders were all there. I was able to thank everyone including board, staff, youth and partners; and, then introduce my successor. She spoke to our community as its new director.
With a background in architecture, education and policy, Beth Rubenstein is currently a Legislative Aide to Supervisor John Avalos, of District 11 in San Francisco. She works on city budget, workforce development, children and youth policy, arts policy, and District 11 community development projects. She is the co-founder and was the long-time executive director of Youth Art Exchange (formerly Out of Site Youth Arts Center), which offers programs in visual and performing arts, and leadership development to San Francisco public high school youth. She has taught at the high school and college level, including at Yale College and Rhode Island School of Design. Beth has a BA in art history from Barnard College, Columbia University, and a Masters in Architecture from Yale University.
Beth is a 2012 – 2017 Koshland Civic Unity Fellow for the Excelsior neighborhood of San Francisco, awarded by the San Francisco Foundation in recognition of being a “Bay Area grassroots risk taker” and for taking on “the most stubborn neighborhood problems as a personal challenge and [working] collaboratively to overcome them.”
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