Thursday, May 19, 2016

10 Ways to Build a Better Community Brainstorming Meeting

You're planning a new exhibition. Considering a new strategic direction. Designing a new program. And you've decided that you want to integrate community feedback into the development process.

Awesome. Admirable. Now how the heck do you do it?

Here are ten things I've learned about making these kinds of community input meetings successful. Please add your own ideas in the comments too.


1. Consider whether you want a bonded group (people who are like each other) or a bridged group (people who are different from each other). 

Bonded groups are useful if you want to understand people's existing attitudes and impressions. Focus group participants will be more forthcoming and honest if they feel like they are "among friends." Bonded groups exhibit groupthink--but sometimes that's the best way to really understand the concerns of a specific group of people. For example, when we held community meetings about the development of a new creative town square next to our museum, a group of middle/upper-class moms talked about not feeling safe downtown. When I've talked with those same folks in bridged groups, they use more circumspect language (i.e. not feeling "welcome") or don't mention their safety concerns at all. But those concerns are real. Not surprisingly, a different focus group of social service providers and homeless adults had a very different set of concerns about downtown. Bringing these different communities together in the same space might not have created safe space for the true issues of each group to emerge.

Bridged groups are useful if you want people to collaborate on a more inclusive vision of the future. If you are building something new and want people's ideas, go for bridging. When you are doing creative work together (making, building, brainstorming), it's catalytic to work with people who see things in a whole different way. In creative brainstorming, groupthink is a killer. The more diverse perspectives in the room, the better. We're much more capable of empathy when co-imagining the future than we are when thinking about the present.

2. Find trusted leaders in communities of interest with whom to partner and recruit participants.

Want to hold a meeting with people from worlds where you don't spend much time? Great. But if you have no credibility in someone else's community, your invitation may fall right into the trash can. Better to establish a relationship with a leader in their community--someone with whom you are building reciprocal value--and ask them to help be your ambassador. It doesn't matter what incentives you offer to participate or how attractive the invitation is if the recipient doesn't know or trust you as a host.

3. Respect and value people's time. 

If you're asking for community input, what are you offering in return? This could be financial; some organizations pay people to participate in community meetings. But it could also be something else that demonstrates appreciation and value. Snacks. Child care. Networking opportunities. Free tickets. You should have a credible and understandable offer, alongside your ask of their time, experience, and expertise.

4. Overcommunicate.

I use a simple rule of contacting participants the week before, the day before, and the day after a meeting. Communication should be clear and motivating. Especially if you don't meet with these people frequently, you can't remind them enough. You also can't thank them/follow up quickly enough.


5. Create a structure that values peoples' participation. 

There are a million ways to run a community meeting--different depending on what you are trying to achieve. The best book I've read on the topic is Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner. It's an incredible compendium of specific meeting formats for different kinds of participant engagement.

In general, I find it is useful to:
  • Honor everyone's contributions and ability to contribute at the top. 
  • Include a mix of individual activities (often writing or drawing), partner/small group work, and whole group discussion. Different people thrive in different levels of social intensity. I recommend spending as little time together as a whole group as possible because it can be intimidating and unproductively slow. Spend just enough time as a whole group to get people motivated and connected to each other (and reconnected at the end).
  • Ensure that you as convenor are talking for a very small amount of the time--ideally just to frame, contextualize, provide clear instructions, and keep people moving.
  • Build on their existing expertise/experience/perspective as opposed to asking them to comment on yours. Participants' stories are often more valuable than their opinions. 
  • Use unorthodox activities to inspire fresh thinking. Movement, making, and imaginative projects are all good for shaking new ideas loose. We use the Pop Up Museum--inviting small groups to build artifacts from the future--in many of our community meetings.
  • Close with a rallying activity, ideally one that invites people to continue conversations with each other.
6. Be honest and clear about the opportunity at hand. 

Share where you are clearly and concisely. Explain the opportunity to participate and what is and isn't on the table, so people don't get frustrated. Don't overpromise.

7. Provide snacks and drinks and a bit of time at the top to enjoy them. 

A little socializing and sugar can go a long way. We almost always use nametags with a playful prompt on them ("what superhero would you be?," "what's your favorite local place to relax?" etc.) to get the conversation started.

8. Inspire people to stay involved.

There's a big difference between a meeting that feels like a chore and one that generates energy. When participants get excited by the experience--whether because of the content, the other people in the room, the format, the invitation--they are more likely to seek opportunities to go further. Note that for most participants, the content is NOT the most important part of this calculation. Good content cannot succeed if delivered poorly, or in a group context that feels dull or unsafe. But ambiguous content in a room full of enthused people doing fun activities can thrive.


9. Follow up.

If the meeting was successful, you now have a whole crew of people who are interested and rooting for your project to shine. While you don't have to continue the level of engagement present at the meeting, it's poor form to drop them entirely. At my institution, we (embarrassingly) did this for a long time. People would come participate in a meeting and then we wouldn't even add them to the weekly mailing list. Part of this is rooted in a legitimate desire not to spam people. But imagine how you would feel if you were invited to someone's house once and never again. You'd assume that something hadn't gone well. We're now inviting participants to get more involved--both broadly in the world of our organization and specifically in activities that build on their experience and expertise.

Followup is important on the individual level too. Most community meetings are short. Catalytic. You hear an intriguing 20-second snippet. You see someone light up at something you didn't expect. Most of the value you will get from participants comes when you follow up to say, "hey, I'd love to hear more about X. Can I buy you a cup of coffee and hear more?"

10. Use their input.

This is the most important part. It's why you held the meeting, right?

The worst way to disrespect participants is to ignore the advice, experience, and expertise that you asked them to provide. You don't need to involve them in every step forward of the project. But you should use their input to guide and shape where you take it. You should--bonus points--reach out to individuals to acknowledge how they influenced your direction. You should--double bonus points--let the whole crew know where their input took the project. But most of all, you should use the input. Community meetings should never be a "check the box" activity. They're too much work--and offer too much value--to tokenize.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Friday, May 06, 2016

Year Five as a Museum Director: Good to Grow

Five years ago, I left the consulting world to take the helm at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History (MAH) at a time of crisis and change. We went through a dramatic turnaround. We started bootstrapping growth. Now, we're on the doorstep of a major expansion. It's exciting and tiring and rewarding as ever.

As I did at the one-year and three-year mark, here are some of the things I'm most proud of, mistakes I've made, and questions on my mind as we head into the next five years.

  • Building a rigorous strategic framework under our creative, community-based work. In my first few years, it was all about getting the programming moving, experimenting, and exploring the possibilities with our community. Three years ago, we decided to put in the work to create foundational documents--a new mission statement, values, engagement goals, survey methodology, and most importantly, a theory of change--to ground our work in shared language and priorities. The theory of change has been invaluable as a "playbook" that we use to guide programming decisions, evaluation protocols, and marketing messages about our impact. We're finally able to systematically make data-driven decisions, rooted in a shared understanding of our intended outcomes and impact... and it feels amazing. 
  • Leading a successful capital campaign for an expansion that will fundamentally change our organization. We have spent the past three years planning and raising money for a project to build a creative town square for our city on the front porch of the museum. Abbott Square will include free outdoor public seating, a public food market, and several areas for free art and cultural activities. I'm excited about Abbott Square for a million reasons, but I'm PROUD that our supporters and our board especially embraced the idea that growth means going beyond our walls and bringing art and history to the streets. 
  • Working with amazing colleagues, trustees, and community partners to make our institution more inclusive. My first few years, we focused on increasing attendance. Over the past two years, we've focused instead on how we can ensure that people of all walks of life in our community feel welcomed and included at the MAH. We're investing in cultural competency and board and staff development. Learning more about the specific cultural assets and needs of underrepresented groups in our community. Inviting those groups into partnership and leadership in our programming, exhibitions, staff & volunteer team, and institutional decision-making. Tracking and adapting to our successes and failures. We see the change happening--our visitors are now representative of the age and income diversity of the County, and we've made significant advances in terms of ethnic/racial diversity. We still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. But we are on the path. 
  • Going big with our board and community partners. For the first couple years at the MAH, I honestly didn't understand how valuable a board can be. I understood their basic responsibilities, but I didn't understand the possibilities of how they could contribute. That has changed. The more ambitious we've become as an organization, the more I value the ways board members' experience and expertise extends our capabilities. I turn to trustees to help make tough decisions. I depend on them to push us further. The same is true of our community partners. We've increased the diversity and depth of ways that creative collaborators help guide our work. The bigger our goals, the more important it is that we learn how to identify and recruit talented partners, volunteers, and supporters, and engage them to their maximum potential.

  • Not communicating clarity as often as I should. I'm someone who is more comfortable communicating energy than clarity. My base personality is a cheerleader waving pom poms in multiple directions. A lot of my missteps with colleagues over the past couple years--ones that sent people in the wrong direction, sowed confusion, or exhausted people--were due to my lack of discipline about staying on message. I've learned that I have to stick to the same cheer--and share it with others--longer and with more consistency than is my inclination. The more clarity I provide as the leader, the more everyone can move forward together with confidence.
  • Resisting change that worked for others but not for me. As the MAH grew, colleagues started asking for more structure: clearer lines of reporting, more consistent processes, job descriptions that didn't change every few months. I stressed out over these changes, worrying that they would introduce bureaucratic creep to a nimble, creative organization. I now believe that these concerns were mostly my own personal fears. I bridle under too much structure. I like change. But what works for me personally is not necessarily what is best for our organization. I had to learn--slowly--not to force my personal values onto reasonable needs of our institution. I had to learn that I still belonged at the organization as it matured, and that as its director, I needed to adopt some approaches and procedures that don't come naturally to me. It's easy as the boss to mold everything in your image. It's also really stupid. I'm learning that.
  • Not understanding the full costs of a capital campaign. I thought we did a decent job setting up our campaign to cover associated staff costs along with capital costs. But now that the campaign is at its end and Abbott Square is under construction, it's clear that we have to make additional investments to meet the opportunity that this expansion affords us. While I thought a lot at the start about how we would fund the ongoing costs of operating the new town square, I didn't think enough about how that new town square would require changes to our "base" museum operation.

  • How can we intertwine community engagement and fundraising? We involve many diverse, creative, community-loving people in our work as programmatic partners and donors. The thing is, we usually separate the two groups. If you volunteer your talents to an exhibition or program, you live in community engagement-land. If you donate money, you live in fundraising-land. We're now recruiting a leader for a new department of Development and Community Relations with a goal of bringing all these talented, valuable partners together in one community of support. I'm curious and hopeful as to what kind of positive change this can create. (And if this sounds like your kind of challenge, please apply for the job!)
  • What field are we in? Over the past few years, I've shifted from spending most of my professional learning time with museum folk to spending it with people who are involved in public service and community activism--some in the arts, some not. Around the MAH office, we often struggle to figure out what conferences will be most valuable and what professional alliances to build. We seek to build a stronger, more connected community through art and history. I'm not sure how to most usefully characterize this work--community development? creative placemaking?--and how all of us those of us doing this work around the world can best ally to learn, share, advocate, and grow together.   
Thank you for continuing to be part of this journey through your comments, questions, critiques, and support as part of my professional community. I learn so much through writing and engaging with you.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Advocacy Policy, Part Two - And Why Now is an Especially Good Time to Create One

A few months ago, the MAH board and staff started discussing whether and how to create a formal policy for advocacy activities. I blogged about it, and you offered several good pointers on what should be considered in constructing it. Now, we've created one (unanimously approved by the board), and I wanted to share it with you and the process behind it.

Want to go straight to the policy?

Here it is.

Why create an advocacy policy?

In our case, it started when we were asked to sign onto a local petition to save a community garden under threat. We realized that we needed a systematic way to evaluate these kinds of requests--a tool that would help us evaluate when to say yes and why to say no.

Regardless of your institutional mission, nonprofits are all in the advocacy business. We champion causes through the partnerships we build, the programs we offer, and the stories we tell. While most nonprofits regularly advocate for our own institutions and/or sector, I think it's just as important to advocate for the interests of the communities in which we serve.

If you've been considering this for awhile, now is the time to act. Everyone is going to the ballot this year in the United States. Our museum has already had several requests to lend our support to bond measures that will be on the ballot in 2016. While 501c3 nonprofits cannot endorse candidates, it is completely kosher to endorse bond measures, propositions, and other ballot measures. If you want to be engaged in 2016 ballot measures relevant to your institution or community, now is a great time to develop a policy for how and when to do so.

How did we create it?

A small team of trustees and staff members worked together on our advocacy policy. We reviewed a handful of existing policies from other institutions (local and national, museums and not), discussed their attributes, and started drafting/stealing/reworking with a Google doc. We only met once in person. It was especially valuable to have activists, retired government employees, and social service leaders on the team; they brought helpful perspectives on what advocacy means beyond a cultural context.

The policy our board approved is intentionally broad. We wanted enough of a foundation to ground our advocacy without prescribing it. We wanted enough of a process to provide clarity and structure without too many hoops. We wanted it to make "yes" possible but "no" completely reasonable as well.

Any surprises?

One of the biggest "aha" moments I had in the development of the policy is that our museum was already doing advocacy in a variety of ways before we had a policy. We educate the public on local issues. We invite people from community organizations and campaigns to use the museum as a platform to share their message. We partner with thousands of artists and organizations, providing staff support and engagement in their work. We incubate a youth art and social change program. We host community festivals like the recent Artivism event that showcase local changemakers. We've made changes to our museum--bilingual signage, all-gender restrooms--to be better advocates for the diverse visitors who walk through our doors.

Though we started working on the policy specifically to address situations when we are asked by an outside group for formal endorsement, we realized as we dove in that we should also use this opportunity to contextualize endorsements as just one of many advocacy tools at our disposal. Advocacy is not just for executives and boards of trustees. The result is a broad policy that empowers our whole team to think about our roles as advocates for our community in the work we do.

I know our policy is not perfect. We're just starting to use it to evaluate endorsement requests coming our way, and I imagine we'll find some ways we want to clarify or change what we've written. But I wanted to share it with you: in appreciation of your role in its development, in curiosity as to your response, and in hopes it might inspire you to draft your own.

Because no matter the content, I heartily advocate for such policies to exist.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Does Community Participation Scale to Destination Institutions?

Our entire strategy at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is rooted in community participation. We invite diverse locals to share their creative and cultural talents with our greater community at the museum. Printmakers leading workshops. Teens advocating for all-gender bathrooms. Volunteers restoring a historic cemetery. Sculptors building giant metal fish with kids. You get the idea.

When I share these stories at conferences, someone always asks: what about institutions that serve millions of visitors each year? Does community participation work for big cultural destinations too?

It's a good question. On a basic level, the answer is no. Local community centers and destination attractions are different beasts. If your institution is built for millions of one-time visitors, it is not built for thousands of frequent visitors, and vice versa.

My museum can pursue radical collaboration because of our small size and local focus. We have the opportunity to build relationships with community members over time. The time to get to know folks who walk in the door. The flexibility to be nimble, responsive, and involved.

When people ask if our work in Santa Cruz scales, I start by acknowledging our distinct strategy. We are doing something different than the big guys, for good reason. And they should do something different from us.

But does that mean community participation is only for small institutions or small communities? No. The principles of community participation--seeing the public as partners, inviting folks to get meaningfully involved, welcoming their talents and perspectives--work at any size. But the strategies are different.

Think about democratic politics. People participate in national and local politics--and they do so completely differently. Local politics are personal, accessible. You can meet a candidate. You can show up to a public meeting and ask a question. You can even get on a commission if you are so inclined. National politics are sweeping, remote. You can join a movement. Attend a rally. Share links and opinions and funds online.

People participate in both of these political arenas, and they do so differently. The same is true for cultural participation.

Here are a few distinctions between participation in cultural institutions by scale. Instead of separating these into smaller and bigger institutions, I separated these into "local" and "destination" institutions. I think it's a more realistic representation of the two types described, and a more useful way to look at strategies for community participation.

  • LOCAL INSTITUTION: Your community is a definable group of people connected by place. You can probably name several of them. Many of them can name each other. You run into each other in and beyond the institution. It's reasonable to focus your marketing and programming on participation onsite at your institution or at sites within your city. Your community lives nearby. Of course they can participate here. 
  • DESTINATION INSTITUTION: If your visitors come from all over the world instead of from down the street, defining community strictly by place doesn't work. You can't define your primary community as the people of Manhattan if 75% of your visitors are from other cities. For huge institutions, it's more appropriate to define community by identity or affinity instead of by geography. Think Etsy, Sierra Club, Mormon Church. Each of these institutions engages a community of like-minded individuals spread around the globe. Engagement for a distributed community can't happen solely or even primarily onsite. It requires a lot more distributed online engagement to complement onsite engagement. 
  • LOCAL: If your visitors can come in often, you can build relationships with people over time. They can attend first as audience members or spectators, checking out the space and getting comfortable. As you get to know visitors, you can learn more about their talents and interests. You can invite them into opportunities that build on their strengths. You can invest in building relationships on your site and theirs. Participation can be onsite only, or onsite and online. It's OK to expect people to come back to keep going deeper, and it's manageable for you to go to their sites, too. 
  • DESTINATION: If visitors come once a year or once a decade, the stakes are higher on the first encounter. Onsite participation has to be welcoming to first-timers, and it should catalyze opportunities for deeper engagement offsite. That means offering clear, visible, appealing participatory experiences that enhance the destination experience. And then it means creating some kind of digital link--via email, social media, photos--that encourages people to continue building relationships when they are back home. 
  • LOCAL: One of the hazards of small and local institutions is the potential for insularity. Some organizations invite a certain number of locals into the club and then close the door. If you want to build community, you have to balance the tribal desire to bond with buddies with the collective opportunity to bridge with strangers. Strong local organizations build alliances across sectors, cultures, and neighborhoods. They link people together across differences. This can happen through committees, summits, or long-term projects in which a group puts on a show builds something together. The local scale makes it possible for individuals in the group to make commitments to the institution and to each other. 
  • DESTINATION: Frankly, I think building community is difficult for large destination institutions to execute. Visitors to these institutions are often so focused on their own bonded group experience--my family vacation, our special date at the opera--that they are uninterested in strangers. Worse, since many of these institutions are crowded, visitors see strangers as annoying obstacles instead of potential friends and community members. However, destination institutions can build community through participation in at least two ways. First, through large crowd events (think political rally or pro sports game), where numbers work for you to build a sense of shared identity. Second, online, where participants from around the world can commit to long-term projects and relationships. 
I'll be honest: I prefer to work on the local level rather than in a big institution. I love tackling the challenges of building a more connected community in our county through art and history. I love sharing stories of our work--in part because I believe small institutions deserve more credit for their unique contributions to our field. But do I think local institutions are better than destination institutions? No. I appreciate the big guys too. Especially the ones developing ways for community participation to shine in their environments.

How do you see community participation thriving in large/destination institutions?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Aspiring, Thriving, or Struggling Changemaker? Join us for MuseumCamp 2016.

Each summer, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History hosts MuseumCamp, a professional development experience that is part retreat, part unconference, part adult summer camp.

MuseumCamp will be August 31-September 2, 2016. This year's theme is CHANGEMAKERS. We will host 100 diverse people who are making change in the world, our communities, and our institutions for 2.5 days of fun, fellowship, and active learning. Whether you are dreaming about change, making it happen, or have faded battle scars to share, we want you here this year.

As always, MuseumCamp will be a high-energy, all-in experience... with enough downtime for introverts, too. The 2.5 days include lightning talks from campers, team design bursts to tackle your thorniest change challenges, MAH community programming, movement and meditation, delicious food, and late-night conversations. Yes you can sleep at the museum. Yes you can swim with sea lions. Yes you can--and will--learn things about yourself and your work that surprise and enrich you.

We're proud that MuseumCamp brings together a very diverse group by design--campers are 50% people of color, and 50% people from outside museums/visual arts institutions. You do NOT need to work in a museum to attend... and we especially want you to apply if you are making creative change in the civic, social, political, environmental, or economic sphere.

The MuseumCamp website has more information about this year's camp and how to apply. It also has testimonials from past campers and information on past years to help you get a sense of the experience.

MuseumCamp is for activists. For designers. For knowledge workers. For people on the front lines. For managers. For creative types. For anyone seeking to make positive change in your community. If you are interested in applying to attend camp, please check out the site and fill out an application today. We will accept applications through March 25 and inform people of selections in early April. Space is extremely limited and the process is competitive. I encourage you to apply soon.

And please, help make space for others by spreading the word. Many campers share that the best part of the experience is the diversity of campers. The strength of our experience together is partly based on the opportunity to come together across different disciplines and perspectives, and we want to continue pushing for that. In that spirit, we would especially love for you to apply if you:
  • identify as a gender other than female 
  • identify as a person of color 
  • are over 50
  • work in a field that is not visual arts/museums 
While MuseumCamp has a registration cost (sliding scale $150-$250), we work with sponsors to underwrite all scholarship requests. Most sponsors are amazing companies serving museums, libraries, performing arts organizations, and grassroots community organizations. If you are interested in helping provide financial aid for this amazing event, you'll be in good company. Thanks in advance for considering it.

Want to make a change? Please apply now to MuseumCamp--and if you have a friend who you think would love this, encourage them to apply too. Let's make creative change together.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

One Simple Question to Make Your Work More Participatory

Photo by CLoƩ Zarifian, MAH Photo Intern
We're working with a guest curator, Wes Modes, on an upcoming experimental project at our museum. Wes is an artist, and this is his first time running a museum exhibition development process. In a recent meeting about the exhibition process, Wes asked me: what am I not thinking of that I should be doing?

I said to him: I can't really answer that question. I'm sure you're thinking of a lot of steps to make this process work, and many more tasks will arise. The key question is, every step of the way: how can you invite people beyond yourself to help make this step better?

This is the question I ask myself anytime I'm working on something with a participatory intent. How can people--staff, volunteers, community members--help make this project better?   

In the case of the exhibition process that Wes is leading, we talked about how others could be involved in an experimental exhibition/residency in which artists work with visitors in the gallery. The obvious start was to think about how we recruit the artists--using an open call to invite anyone, anywhere to participate. But even developing that open call was a participatory process:
  • Wes worked with other staff to think through how the residencies could work. Their input helped shape the entire project, which in turn shaped the call.
  • He asked staff and artist friends for feedback on the concept. Their input helped shape the messaging of the project and the key questions to be answered in the call.
  • Once the call was 95% ready, Wes circulated it to a small group of existing museum partners and artists for feedback. Their input helped us get to 100%, and it created a group of invested collaborators who were ready to help spread the word once the call was live.
  • Once the call was ready, Wes circulated it to even more museum partners, as well as to artist listservs and our general membership. These people were both potential participants and promoters of the call, helping it continue to spread.
All of these steps helped make for a better call to artists, one that has gotten way more response than I ever expected.

This open call project may sound like one that is uniquely suited for participatory input. But I find that the more I live with that question of how others can make something better, the more naturally it infuses all kinds of work at our museum. Developing new staff policies. Prototyping all gender bathrooms. Creating an event or exhibit. All of these activities involve ongoing collaboration and co-creation with people beyond the staff member(s) responsible.

How can people help make your project better? Here are a few tips to asking this question successfully:
  • ask the whole question. It's not just a question of how people could get involved or participate. It's a question of how they can make it BETTER. You can always come up with ways people could participate. But if those approaches require a lot of time or effort and don't improve the result, they're a waste. Be generous and creative about what "better" could look like, but hold onto that goal. That way, you'll build a virtuous cycle where you keep wanting to find opportunities for participation to continue improving your work.
  • share your work. It's impossible to ask this question if you work so close to the chest that no one can even see what you are doing, let alone get involved. Inviting starts with sharing. Share what you are doing, the questions you have, the things you're unsure of, and you'll naturally encounter people who want to help make it better. This takes confidence in sharing half-baked ideas, and also the time to type them out, circulate them, have a meeting, etc. It's part of a culture of learning and curiosity--something I hope that museums can embody.
  • define "people" in the way that works for you. At my museum, the people who participate may be staff, volunteers, community members, organizational partners, Facebook folk... it depends on the project or task at hand. It's always good to start closest to home. Ask your colleagues. Ask your friends. And then as you build confidence in their ability to help make your work better, you can start inviting participants who are further from your comfort zone.
How are you inviting other people to help make your work better?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Does Your Institution Have an Advocacy Policy?

In October of 2015, I got a call from a community partner. The Beach Flats Community Garden was under threat, and this friend of the garden wanted our help. The garden, which had operated for 20 years in a predominately low-income Latino neighborhood near the beach, was losing its lease with a private property owner. The City proposed moving the garden to a nearby plot of City-owned land, but gardeners felt that this disruption would literally uproot an essential community place. Garden supporters and partners were putting together a petition to try to push the City and the property owner to find a long-term solution to allow the garden to remain in place. And so the collaborator on the phone asked: would I sign the petition on behalf of our museum?

The outside partner wasn't the only one asking. Several museum staff members had gotten involved in the political action personally outside of work, and they wanted to know if we could sign on organizationally. This wasn't just a question of what was moral or politically useful in the abstract. It was a question about our commitment to our partners, to local sites of cultural importance, and to the Latino families with whom we have been working intensely to build stronger relationships.

I watched as other partner organizations signed on, uncertain what to do. I didn't know how likely the petition was to have influence, but I knew that signing on was important to the people asking.

Ultimately, I decided we couldn't sign - not because it was the necessarily the wrong thing to do, but because we didn't have any kind of policy beyond directorial discretion to decide when it might be appropriate to take a political stand as an institution.

I took the issue to the board, and we agreed that we need to develop some kind of advocacy policy to be able to answer these phone calls with confidence. Our board/staff advocacy task force is meeting this Friday to get the work started, and so I'm curious: has your organization tackled this question? How have you addressed the challenges and opportunities to raise your institutional voice on local issues?

I'm going into this meeting with a strong feeling that our policy can't be to always say no. Our museum has a growing advocacy component to our work. Our theory of change focuses on an intended impact of building a stronger, more connected community. We already embrace the reality that manifesting that impact requires work beyond our building, beyond traditional museum activities. We are proud of our wide-ranging community partnerships, proud to amplify unsung voices and stories, proud to tackle issues of equity and social justice through our programming.

But that's all work we do on our terms. What good are we as a partner if we can't step up and support our partners on their terms, too? I'd hate to be the kind of organization that embraces partners when we need them but not when they need us.

I don't have an opinion about whether our eventual policy should have enabled us to sign that particular petition. But I do want to see us develop a policy that enables us to address these opportunities thoughtfully, with our mission, theory of change, and community values at heart.

How have you, or would you, go about this? What resources might be helpful as we embark on this work?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Give Yourself Some SPACE in 2016

Every once in a while I look at my growing toddler and think: time will never go backwards. She'll never be this age again. Sometimes, that's a relief. Sometimes, the thought invokes pre-nostalgic fear. But mostly, watching her grow reminds me that time keeps moving relentlessly forward, whether we like it or not.

How do we tackle the problem of time? Some people attack the problem by sleeping less. Some seek to maximize and quantify time, building personal efficiency engines to squeeze out a few more seconds or minutes of joy each day.

In 2016, I'm choosing to take a different approach, inspired by Albert Einstein. I'm confronting the problem of diminishing time by making more space.

When you make space for yourself and others--physically or metaphorically--you expand your world. I've always loved the idea of "space-making" as a strategy for personal care and interpersonal empowerment. This past summer, my museum hosted a retreat for diverse professionals to explore space-making in deep ways. We talked about it. We shared tips and what ifs. We tested out each other's preferred ways of making space, and we tried to develop new space-making solutions to each other's problems.

The result is the Space Deck - 56 ways to make space for yourself and others. 100 extraordinary campers developed hundreds of different spacemaking ideas, which we developed, tested, and distilled into this deck of 56.

Just like a deck of playing cards, The Space Deck is divided into suits, representing different ways to make space through STILLNESS, CREATIVITY, COURAGE, ACTIVISM, RELATIONSHIPS, MOVEMENT, RITUAL, and ENVIRONMENT.

The Space Deck addresses frequent questions at work, like "how can we make space for everyone's voice to be heard in this meeting?," as well as personal questions, like "how can I find some peace in a world of chaos?" The cards share techniques that help you tackle your fears, declutter your mind, connect with your senses, and confront injustice.

You can check out all the spacemaking cards by suit on the Space Deck website. But if you prefer to hold space in your hand (Einstein would approve), you can buy your own personal deck to have and hold. Special thanks to Beck Tench, Elise Granata, Jason Alderman, and all the MuseumCampers who co-created the Space Deck together. All proceeds from Space Deck sales will support future creative retreats and camper scholarships.

Time won't slow down. Instead of trying to race time or trick it or beat it into submission, buy yourself some space in 2016. You'll be amazed how roomy it makes the day.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Can We Talk about Money? Tweetchat on #RadicalGiving December 18

On December 18, at 10am PT/1pm ET, I invite you to join the denizens of Museum 2.0, Museum Commons, and Incluseum for a 30-min tweetchat about how and why we can give for change at #RadicalGiving. We've each written some preliminary thoughts about giving to prime the tweetchat. Here are my reflections (theirs are at the links above). Please join us on Friday on twitter to talk more.

I remember the first time I asked someone for money. I had just taken the job as director of a museum that was struggling financially. If we didn't raise substantial funds in my first few weeks on the job, we'd have to close our doors.

I stood in my bathroom, looking in the mirror. I tried saying, "Can I count on you for ten thousand dollars?" without choking or bursting out laughing.

The first few times I asked for money--heck, the first few years--it felt awkward. But it also felt amazing. I saw how we were able to garner support for work I was passionate about. How we could build a more relevant and valued museum. How we could expand our impact. How donors could be partners in change. I learned the addictive power of asking.

The more I asked, the more I found myself thinking about giving. I started asking on behalf of other organizations I care about. My husband and I started being more intentional, and bolder, with our own giving. The more I asked, the more people asked me. Even with limited means, I saw how our own giving could make a difference.

At the same time, I became more and more aware of the screwed-up societal inequities that make philanthropy possible. One of the ways we redistribute wealth in an inequitable society is by asking rich people to voluntarily donate. And then we celebrate their generosity, rarely questioning why they had the capacity to give in the first place. Especially in the arts, research shows an alarming imbalance in what kinds of organizations have access to grants and donations. Our system of philanthropy often reinforces the inequity that it theoretically has the power to disrupt.

I decided that in my own limited way, I wanted to contribute in two ways:
  1. by developing a strategy for my own giving that helps boost organizations that have powerful impact AND are more subject to philanthropic inequity than others.
  2. by trying, where I can, to talk more openly with friends and colleagues about philanthropy.
My husband and I don't have a master plan for our giving, but we have started to identify some things that are important to us. Locally, we give to organizations for which we volunteer. We give to organizations with leaders who we believe in. We try to give early, to help leaders who are starting out to believe in themselves and their ability to raise funds for their work. We try to talk to friends--especially those doing well financially--about integrating philanthropy into financial plans. Yes, it feels awkward. But other people are talking to them about investments and trips and cars. Why shouldn't we feel as comfortable talking about ways to buy into social change?

That's on the personal side. Professionally, I've always struggled with what organizations to support--especially in museums and the arts. I admire many around the world. I can't support a fraction of those I love. How should I narrow the field?

Bearing in mind the data on who has access to philanthropic capital, I've decided to give to organizations that are rooted in and/or led by communities of color. This year, that included: Rainier Valley Corps, a Seattle-based leadership development program for people of color; the Laundromat Project, a New York-based neighborhood arts organization working in communities of color; and the South Asian American Digital Archive, about which I know little but was encouraged to support by a colleague volunteering her time to a project of mine.

These are organizations that inspire me. I've learned from their work and their leaders. I'm trying to more frequently convert my admiration into cash--just as I encourage people to do as a fundraiser for my organization every day.

I've noticed that the more time I spend fundraising as part of my job, the more comfortable I get talking about money. Money has become a currency of my work. I talk about it. I think about it. I treat it the same way I treat ideas and people and objects and stories. It is an essential, powerful part of getting the work done.

I realize that not everyone is comfortable talking about philanthropy, or about money. When we do so in our field, we're often focused on pay inequities for the work that we do. But pay and philanthropy are two separate topics. We should be willing to talk about both.

Talking about money is like talking about death. The more we do it, the more we are in control of our own fates. Talking about money helps us honestly and unflinchingly tackle challenges we face in our society. The more I talk about it, the more power I see it has--and the more I feel I have an ability to influence that power, however small my influence might be.

Many professionals--myself included--have the capacity to give. We give as donors. We give as volunteers. Let's not be silent about this giving. We can be leaders with our dollars and our time. We can influence change when we put our money where our hearts are.


As alluded to above, topics like the role of money, or the equivalent (time/work), in bringing about radical inclusive change are little discussed in our field.

We have some questions we want to pose to YOU in an upcoming #RadicalGiving Tweetchat on December 18 at 10am PT / 1pm ET.

Below, find some questions that came from our joint discussion on these subjects and that we will ask for your responses on during the tweetchat:
  • Q1A. What is your personal motivation to give to support inclusive change and those who are leading change? 
  • Q1B. How do you give? 
  • Q2. What do you give your time/money to? Let’s signal boost these projects and efforts! 
  • Q3. How can we have these conversations about money more in museums? 
  • Q4. If money talks, how can we influence the conversation?

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

A Different Story of Thanksgiving: The Repatriation Journey of Glenbow Museum and the Blackfoot Nations

I spent last week holed up in a cabin, working on my forthcoming book, The Art of Relevance. One of the most powerful books I read while doing research was We are Coming Home: Repatriation and the Restoration of Blackfoot Cultural Confidence (read it free here, great appreciation to Bob Janes for sharing it with us). The book is a deep account of repatriation of spiritual objects from museums to native people, written by museum people and Blackfoot people together. I hope this synopsis might inspire you to read their full incredible story. 

How do institutions build deep relationships with community partners? What does it look like when institutions change to become relevant to the needs of their communities--and vice versa?

Going deep is a process of institutional change, individual growth, and most of all, empathy. It requires all parties to commit. Institutional leaders have to be willing and able to reshape their traditions and practices. Community participants have to have to be willing to learn and change too. And everyone has to build new bridges together.

That’s what happened when the Blackfoot people and the Glenbow Museum worked together over the course of twenty years to repatriate sacred medicine bundles from the museum to the Blackfoot. 

This story starts in 1960s, though of course, the story of the Blackfoot people and their dealings with museums started way before that. Blackfoot people are from four First Nations: Siksika, Kainai, Apatohsipiikani, and Ammskaapipiikani (Piikani). Together, the four nations call themselves the Niitsitapi, the Real People. The Blackfoot mostly live in what is now the province of Alberta, where the Glenbow Museum resides.

Like many ethnographic museums around the world, Glenbow holds a large number of artifacts in its collection that had belonged to native people. Many of the most holy objects in its collection were medicine bundles of the Blackfoot people.

A medicine bundle is a collection of sacred objects—mostly natural items—securely wrapped together. Traditionally, museums saw the bundles as important artifacts for researchers and the province, helping preserve and tell stories of the First Nations. Museums believed they held the bundles legally, purchased through documented sales. By protecting the bundles, museums were protecting important cultural heritage for generations to come. Many museums respected the bundles’ spiritual power by not putting them on public display. They made the bundles available for native people to visit, occasionally to borrow. But not to keep.

The Blackfoot people saw it differently. For the Blackfoot, these bundles were sacred living beings, not objects. They had been passed down from the gods for use in rituals and ceremonies. Their use, and their transfer among families, was an essential part of community life and connection with the gods. The bundles were not objects that could be owned. They were sacred beings, held in trust by different keepers over time. If they had been sold to museums, those sales were not spiritually valid. They were not for sale or purchase by any human or institution.

Why had the objects been sold in the first place? Many medicine bundles had been sold to museums in the mid-1900s, when Blackfoot ceremonial practices were dying out. The 1960s were a low point in Blackfoot ceremonial participation. Ceremonial practices had ceased to be relevant to most Blackfoot people, due in large part to a century-long campaign by the Canadian government to “reeducate” native people out of their traditions. Blackfoot people are as subject to societally-conferred notions of value as anyone else. In the 1960s, when Blackfoot culture was dying, some bundle keepers may have seen the bundles as more relevant as source of money for food than as sacred beings. Others may have sold their bundles to museums hoping the museums would keep them through the dark days, holding them safe until Blackfoot culture thrived again.

By the late 1970s, that time had come. Blackfoot people were eager to reclaim their culture. They were ready to use and share the bundles once more. The museums were not. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Blackfoot leaders attempted to repatriate medicine bundles back to their communities from various museums. Some tried to negotiate. Others tried to take bundles by force. In all cases, they ran into walls. While some museum professionals sympathized with the desires of the Blackfoot, they did not feel that those desires outweighed the legal authority and common good argument for keeping the sacred bundles. Museums held a firm line that they were preserving these objects for all humanity, which outweighed the claim of any particular group.

In 1988, the Glenbow Museum wandered into the fray. They mounted an exhibition, “The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada’s First Peoples,” that sparked native public protests. The exhibition included a sacred Mohawk mask which Mohawk representatives requested be removed from display because of its spiritual significance. More broadly, native people criticized the exhibition for presenting their culture without consulting them or inviting them into the process. The museum had broken the cardinal rule of self-determination: nothing about us, without us.

A year later, a new CEO, Bob Janes, came to Glenbow. Bob led a strategic planning process that articulated a deepened commitment to native people as “key players” in the development of projects related to their history and material culture. In 1990, Bob hired a new curator of ethnology, Gerry Conaty. That same year, Glenbow made its first loan of a medicine bundle--the Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle--to the Blackfoot people.

The loan worked like this: the Weasel Moccasin family kept the Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle for four months to use during ceremonies. They, they returned the bundle to the museum for four months. This cycle was to continue for as long as both parties agreed. This was a loan, not a transfer of ownership. There was no formal protocol or procedure behind it. It was the beginning of an experiment. It was the beginning of building relationships of mutual trust and respect.

In the 1990s, curator Gerry Conaty spent a great deal of time with Blackfoot people, in their communities. He was humbled and honored to participate as a guest in Blackfoot spiritual ceremonies. The more Gerry got to know leaders in the Blackfoot community, people like Daniel Weasel Moccasin and Jerry Potts and Allan Pard, the more he learned about the role of medicine bundles and other sacred objects in the Blackfoot community.

Gerry started to experience cognitive dissonance and a kind of dual consciousness of the bundles. As a curator, he was overwhelmed and uncomfortable when he saw people dancing with the bundles, using them in ways that his training taught him might damage them. But as a guest of the Blackfoot, he saw the bundles come alive during these ceremonies. He saw people welcome them home like long-lost relatives. He started to see the bundles differently. The Blackfoot reality of the bundles as living sacred beings began to become his reality.

Over time, Gerry and Bob became convinced that full repatriation—not loans—was the right path forward. The bundles had sacred lives that could not be contained. They belonged with the Blackfoot people.

But the conviction to change was just the beginning of the repatriation process. The institution had to change long-held perceptions of what the bundles were, who they belonged to, and how and why they should be used. This was a broad institutional learning effort, what we might call "cultural competency" today. During the 1990s, Glenbow started engaging Blackfoot people as advisors on projects. Gerry hired Blackfoot people wherever he could, as full participants in the curatorial team. Bob, Gerry, and Glenbow staff spent time in Blackfoot communities, learning what was important and relevant to them.

As Blackfoot elders sought to repatriate their bundles from museums, they also had to negotiate amongst themselves to reestablish the relevance and value of the bundles. They were relearning their own ceremonial rituals and the role of medicine bundles within them. They had to develop protocols for how they would adopt, revive, and recirculate the bundles in the community. Even core principles like the communal ownership of the bundles had to be reestablished. This process took just as much reshaping for Blackfoot communities as it did for the institution.

To complicate things further, the artifacts were actually the property of the province of Alberta, not Glenbow. The museum couldn’t repatriate the bundles without government signoff. For years they fought to get government approval. For years, the government resisted. Government officials suggested that the Blackfoot people make replicas of the bundles, so the originals could remain "safe" at the museum. The museum and their Blackfoot partners said no. As Piikani leader Jerry Potts put it: “Well, who is alive now who can put the right spirit into new bundles and make them the way they are supposed to be? Who is there alive who can do that? Some of these bundles are thousands of years old, and they go right back to the story of Creation when Thunder gave us the ceremony. Who is around who can sit there and say they can do that?”

The museum and Blackfoot leaders had to negotiate multiple realities. They had to negotiate on the province’s terms through legal battles and written contracts. They had to negotiate with museum staff about policies around collections ownership and management. They had to negotiate with native families about the use and transfer of the bundles in the community. In each arena, different approaches and styles were required. The people in the middle had to navigate them all.

But they kept building momentum through shared learning and loan projects. By 1998, the Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani had more than thirty sacred objects on loan from the Glenbow Museum. They were still fighting for the province to grant the possibility of full repatriation. Still, even as loans, some bundles had been ceremonially transferred several times throughout native communities, spreading knowledge and extending relationships. Glenbow staff had learned the importance of the bundles to entire communities. Native people were using, and protecting, and sharing the bundles. Even the Glenbow board bought in. The museum had become relevant to the native people on their terms. The native people had become relevant to the museum on theirs. They were more than relevant; they were connected, working together on a project of shared passion and commitment.

In 1999, they put their shared commitment to the test. It became clear that they were not going to succeed at convincing the provincial cultural officials of the value of full repatriation. CEO Bob Janes went to the Glenbow board of trustees and told them about the stalemate. A board member brokered a meeting with the premier of Alberta so that the museum could make the case for repatriation directly. It was risky; they were flagrantly ignoring the chain of provincial command. But the gamble worked. In 2000, the First Nations Sacred Ceremonial Objects Repatriation Act was passed in the province of Alberta. The bundles went home.

At its heart, the story of the Blackfoot repatriation is the story of two communities—that of the Blackfoot and that of Glenbow Museum—becoming deeply relevant to each other. When relevance goes deep, it doesn’t look like relevance anymore. It looks like work. It looks like friendships. It looks like shared meaning. As the museum staff understand more about what mattered to their Blackfoot partners, it came to matter to them, too. Leonard Bastien, then chief of the Piikani First Nation, put it this way: “Because all things possess a soul and can, therefore, communicate with your soul, I am inclined to believe that the souls of the many sacred articles and bundles within the Glenbow Museum touched Robert Janes and Gerry Conaty in a special way, whether they knew it or not. They have been changed in profound ways through their interactions with the Blood and Peigan people and their attendance at ceremonies.”

 That is the power of deep relevance.

If you'd like to weigh in, please leave a comment below. If you are reading this via email and wish to respond, you can join the conversation here.