In light of the recent events surrounding the election of a known sexual predator, a year of the #MeToo movement, and the Supreme Court nomination, this blog about Women Leadership in the Arts is informed by my personal experiences and my unwavering mission to grow arts, culture, and creativity in every facet of civil society.
I was lucky. My Mom was a staunch feminist who instilled in me the fundamental right to claim my body as my own. I am a child of the 1970s, so I vividly remember leafing through the first edition of “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and learning the proper names for all of my body parts. However, when I entered adolescence, most of that body awareness and self esteem melted away. Sexualized at an early age, many women, like myself, balanced the need to be attractive with our intelligence. Many of us also tend to defer to the needs of others over our own (this one, I am still working on).
Our cultural institutions (church, state, the military, etc.) indoctrinate gender roles before any of us learn to walk or talk, so we are hard-wired to behave within the confines of a two-gender society (oh the remnants of an oppressive Western, Euro-centric, Victorian era). Gender, racial, and cultural bias exists deeply in our society. These prejudices manifest in subtle and not so subtle forms of aggression, oppression, and public policy, to name a few.
I too have been the victim of sexual assault, sexual aggression, and inappropriate advances from male colleagues and supervisors on more than one occasion. UN Women, the UN organization dedicated to gender equity, reports that one in three women in the United States and one in six men are sexually assaulted each year. Close to 120 million girls worldwide (slightly more than 1 in 10) have experienced forced intercourse or other forced sexual acts at some point in their lives. By far the most common perpetrators of sexual violence against girls are current or former husbands, partners, or boyfriends. These statistics are heavy, reflecting an epidemic. The next time you are sitting around a boardroom, a staff meeting, or a convening, look around and take stock. These figures are in the room with you.
While it was not a conscious decision on my part to begin to heal past trauma through drama and theater, that is precisely what happened. Through my high school play production class, I learned how to talk about trauma through characters. I learned how to connect my trauma with theirs, as well as my other fellow thespians (remember, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 10 men). So many of us had already experienced early trauma by high school, but we could only talk about it through the guise of a character in a scene or play. Nevertheless, that first step helped me to name the trauma, get it out of my body, and prepared me to pursue more traditional forms of therapy. Very slowly the trauma began to lose some of its power over me.
The healing process occurred alongside my career in the arts—first as a student and volunteer; then as an artist and a teaching artist; and now as an arts administrator and leader. The transformation happened over the past 25 years. While the trauma is no longer debilitating, it is never forgotten. And, while the arts didn’t heal the trauma alone, theater was instrumental in helping me build the language and my own awareness of the trauma, and in seeking additional outside assistance.
It is impossible for me to separate these narratives. I fervently believe that at its core, our work in the cultural sector is to build a more inclusive, empathetic, and humane society. As leaders we must recognize that many of the people we interact with on a daily basis have experienced some sort of trauma, bias, or oppression based on gender, sexual orientation, or race. It is not that hard to accomplish—just use the tools acquired through the arts themselves.
Over the years, this awareness has helped me to move my leadership style from fear and self-doubt to inquiry and curiosity. Understanding the complexities of human experience and society allows compassion and empathy to exist within our mission-driven organizations. My goal as a female leader in the arts is to empower artists, producers, curators, cultural practitioners, as well as employees of nonprofit arts organizations to be empowered with the tools, resources, and knowledge they need to expand arts, culture, and creativity into every aspect of our civic life. This manifests in platforms, systems of acknowledgement, and resources. For it is our responsibility to support the connections people make through cultural expression. It is in this space where “othering” becomes “belonging;” where trauma is healed; and where empathy Trumps Hate.
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