The Journey is the Thing

Posted by Leah Harris, Jun 28, 2021 0 comments

“Yes, I mean you!” was the email that Dasha Kelly Hamilton, Wisconsin’s 2021-22 Poet Laureate, sent me with the application for Americans for the Arts’ Arts & Culture Leaders of Color (ACLC) Fellowship. I typically don’t give those kinds of application announcements any real attention because while they might be geared for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color), I have found that I typically don’t meet all the requirements to even apply. Whether it be geography, occupation/discipline, career status, etc., there has always been a barrier preventing me from applying. I noticed that this fellowship was looking for arts administrators in the Midwest—Milwaukee, specifically—and after a second glance, I realized the application deadline was coming up soon, so I decided to just go ahead and apply. At the time, I had just marked my first year in Milwaukee working as the Director of Community Engagement at Milwaukee Repertory Theater. COVID-19 was not something we were dealing with at that time, and I figured expanding my network of arts administrators of color in my new home region couldn’t hurt. 

As I reflect on my journey, I am unsure of when I started referring to myself as an “arts administrator,” or if I have yet fully embraced the term. I’ve always lived and worked in the community engagement lane, in theater arenas. My resume reflects a career path synonymous with the definition of arts administrator, but I never really claimed that title out loud. I knew, however, that this fellowship would put me in community with other people of color outside of the American Regional Theater network. I was eager to learn what arts admin looked like in other arts and culture spaces. At the time of applying for the fellowship, I had just come out of a really hard period of time at my job. It was the hardest institutional setting I had ever worked in. Being the only Black woman in a senior leadership position in a very white environment was starting to take its toll on me. I was beginning to seriously question my worth, my ability to do the job I thought I knew well enough, keep my staff of color safe, etc. I was in need of support and found it hard to articulate what that needed to look like for me. The day-to-day work of running a community engagement office and team started to feel heavy and definitely impacted how I showed up. Arts professionals working in the administration arena don’t have the luxury of leaving it at the office—we take our work home with us. And sometimes that means taking home the trauma and pain that comes along with work. Any Black, Indigenous, or Person of Color who has been in a similar position can surely attest that this work is personal, and the personal is political. 

COVID-19 hit in March 2020 and by the first week in May, I had learned that I would no longer have a job. I was devastated, to say the least. I did not think that the pandemic would impact my job as quickly as it did; but also, the convenience of that moment is not lost on me. Not only was I without a job—my entire team was let go and the community engagement work was merged with the existing all-white education team, who all kept their jobs. 

Because COVID was quickly shutting down the arts and entertainment industry, Americans for the Arts was keeping us updated on how this would impact our application process for the fellowships. In July, I got notified that I was selected for an interview. I was excited, and also embarrassed to share that I lost my job and totally understood if I would no longer qualify the fellowship. Instead, I was embraced and encouraged to interview, and was reminded that I was not the only mid-career arts professional without a job because of COVID. 

Being in this fellowship while I was unemployed ended up being exactly what I needed. I was able to hyper focus on areas of my development that I likely wouldn’t have been able to make space for while working full time. A space that I initially thought would be pure refuge from my (at the time) predominantly white working environment ended up being so much more. It was affirming, challenging, and, at times, liberating. I felt seen and inspired by my cohort of fellows.

One aspect of this past year that I am still unlearning is this idea that our self-worth is tied to our job/titles. I did not realize how much I participated in that belief until I no longer had my job. It really hit me during the first few sessions with ACLC. I had to introduce myself multiple times and got increasingly frustrated with the fact that I did not know how to identify myself outside of a title given to me by an institution. To put it plainly, that line of thinking is a product of white supremacy, capitalism, and respectability politics. At what point do we truly focus on getting in the right relationship, with ourselves, to carry this work forward with trust, integrity, and joy? After all, our work relies on the vastness of the human condition and our ability to wrestle with complexities of our world. At what point do we stop chasing titles and seats of power and come to terms with being a whole human outside of our professional responsibilities? I am still learning how to live those values out loud. I am thankful that I was placed in a community of brilliant, BIPOC creators who were interrogating similar questions and giving themselves grace along the way.

When I set out to really think about focusing on a “capstone” project as a culmination to the Fellowship year, my mind went everywhere. I was overwhelmed with the many things I wanted to investigate and how they could connect back to the community of Milwaukee. However, just as I started doing research on one idea after another, my life started changing. I moved out of Milwaukee and was thinking seriously about my next career move. After conversations with Ms. Margie Reese, our instructor for the Fellowship, and a few other fellows, I decided my capstone should be about me, my questions, and my journey. Surprisingly, I felt so liberated by that decision. I realized the fellowship bookended my last year in a really beautiful way, and reflecting on my journey felt like such a redemptive exercise. The ACLC Fellowship nurtured me in a diversity of ways, but most importantly gave me time and permission to reflect on what had been my journey thus far, and allowed me to dream and project what lay ahead.

As I am writing this piece, I have secured a position that allows me to build and launch a new Fellowship Program that will directly support Black leadership in the commercial sector of the arts and entertainment field. I couldn’t have dreamed up a better next career move for myself, and with this opportunity comes the chance to pay it forward. To say the last 8 months spent in the ACLC Fellowship will inform how I approach my work going forward would be a huge understatement. I am now in a position where I can both imagine a more fair and just field for arts professionals of color, and do the real work to make equity and inclusion a reality. What a gift!

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