Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Making Meaningful Connections: Inspiring New Report from Irvine and Helicon

Our work to transform the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History into a participatory and community-centered place has been heavily supported by the James Irvine Foundation. I've learned a lot from Irvine Foundation staff and partners directly. But one of my favorite things they do is remarkably unpersonalized: they produce killer reports.

Their newest one, Making Meaningful Connections, was written by Holly Sidford, Alexis Frasz, and Marcy Hinand at Helicon. The report is a slim 12 pages on the common characteristics of arts organizations that successfully and continuously engage diverse audiences. It is paired with a thoughtful infographic (part of which is shown at the top here) that summarizes their findings.

Making Meaningful Connections is not riddled with jargon and academic theory. Nor is it packed with juicy examples and case studies. Instead, it's a tight, inspiring, and reasonably original brief on the strategies that lead to sustained involvement of diverse people with arts organizations. It's the first report in a long time that I am sharing with my board. (The last one was on arts innovation and change, also from Irvine.)

Here are three aspects of Making Meaningful Connections that I like most:
  • New participant relationships are like new friendships. They take time, curiosity, respect and the willingness to be changed by the relationship. The report starts with an elegant friendship analogy (see the box on page 4) that breaks down the challenges of genuine arts engagement in a clear, relatable, and motivating way.
  • Targeted programming is not enough. The authors name the reality that one-off programs, exhibits, or shows for specific groups do little to change the mix of participants longterm. Interestingly, they argue instead that structural change--including but not exclusively programmatic change--is what makes the difference in participant makeup. They also acknowledge that some organizations are happy with their participant makeup, and that these multi-faceted organizational shifts are voluntary for those who want them.
  • The characteristics of successful organizations involve deepening, not adding. So often, these kinds of reports recommend a long list of changes and new things to add to your work. It can feel defeating or downright impossible to integrate them into already-strapped schedules. But this report was developed based on existing organizations and practices, looking for common characteristics as opposed to new directions. The recommendations read less like "thou shalt do this new thing" and more like "deepen and embed in this thing you already have." We all have missions. We all have leaders. We all have business models. We can all shift within our existing worlds. 
And here are two things I wonder about:
  • Universalist tone. This report could come from--and go--anywhere. I assume that's intentional, and for the most part, it's a good thing. The report is brief, clear, and open. If you are reading this report in Manchester or Malaysia or Memphis, you will find meaningful and useful content. On the other hand, the Irvine Foundation makes grants specifically in California. When Josephine Ramirez, Program Director for the Arts, introduced the report on the Irvine blog, she did so in the context of a state that is now 55% Latino and Asian. Nowhere in the report itself is there a comparable framing statement about why it is urgent to consider this work now, in California and around the world. Perhaps it's self-evident. But especially for organizations where cultural competency is in its infancy, those starting points and case statements are still necessary. Then again, Irvine made that statement pretty clearly in a previous report
  • Recommendation to bring practices "into balance." I didn't find it meaningful to imagine an institutional "balance" of the five recommended practices (welcoming spaces, relevant programming, respectful relationships, analysis for improvement, business model). I agree that all are important, and that they are interrelated, but I didn't see a rationale in going for parity. I'd like to understand more about the basis for that recommendation.

What did you get out of Making Meaningful Connections?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New Approach, Historic Mission: Remaking a Factory Museum via Community Co-Production

Imagine a historic site. It has an incredible story. But not enough people care about it anymore, and the museum is fading into disrepair. It is losing funding, attention, and relevance.

What do you do?

Yesterday, I learned about the Silk Mill, a British historic site that is going through a dramatic community-driven reinvention. The Silk Mill is part of the Derby Museums, a public institution of art, history, and natural history. The Mill itself claims fame as the world's oldest factory, a UNESCO world heritage site, and a birthplace of mechanized silk production.

Many people would look at the world's oldest mechanized silk mill and say that the core content of the museum is silk. Or silk production. Or factory life in the 1700s. The Derby Silk Mill folks have a different tack: they define the Silk Mill as being about making.

In the fall of 2013, they launched Re:Make, an ambitious project to redevelop the museum, live, on the floor, with a mix of staff, guest artists, and community members. They see this as directly related to the founding principles of the Mill as a place of experimentation, design, creating, and making. They see it as the future of their museum. And perhaps most ambitiously, they see it as a community-based project.

This means that not only have they turned their museum into an experimental project space, they have opened that space explicitly and intentionally to community co-production. They invite people to participate: in design, prototypingartifact interpretation, collections preparation, audience development.

They don't just invite participation by opening the doors. They host public co-making events, invite groups to book workshops directly, engage on twitter and tumblr, and encourage drop-in participation. It's clear from the diversity of activities, the professionalism of the scaffolding, and the forms of access that they are serious about inviting meaningful participation in the Re:Make project.

Watch the video at the top of this post, and you'll see the requisite happy people of diverse backgrounds with power tools and post-its. But you'll also hear participants saying things that speak to the intentionality of this process. Things like:
"I was curious about how it would happen. And then I thought, ok, it does seem serious. They do know what they are talking about." 
"I've never had anything quite like it... it's carried on. Everyone in the community helping out. I love the way they've stuck to their guns and said, guys, keep going."
These participants are engaged because they've been invited not just to participate once but to be part of something substantive and comprehensive. A strong participatory process is not a loosey-goosey, open the doors and do whatever strategy. It's serious. These guys needed to see that the museum was serious--putting resources, time, and real estate into the process. That investment by the institution helped them commit to making an investment of their own time and energy.

Staff members made some powerful statements as well. My favorite was this one:
"I'm the workshop supervisor, but the workshop belongs to everybody. It's like a swap. I'm a resource for the community, they're a resource for me, and the things we bought, in a public workshop, belongs to the public."
This staff member sees community members as partners. Everyone has something they need. Everyone has something to give. It's not a question of the participatory process being unidirectional, something that we are doing for you the community. It's a shared space and process.

Kudos to the Silk Mill for doing the difficult, messy, resource-intensive work of making their participatory process both open and professional. Invested at all levels. It shines through even from across the pond.

And it leaves me with just one question. As I explore how the museum is growing with the community remaking it, I wonder: what will happen when they are done? Is this a participatory process to redevelop a museum, or can it be a participatory product: museum as making space?

Many projects have more energy in the making than in the completion. The people walking into the Silk Mill, being asked for their ideas and help, are living in an era of possibility and opportunity. As the museum project gets completed, the opportunities constrict. While it was amazing to get to make a robot, it may be less amazing to see that robot completed.

One of the things that struck me most about the Silk Mill was the positioning of Re:Make as a natural extension of its historic use as a factory. A factory never stops making things. Its work is never done. Is there a way that the Silk Mill could shift from a project of remaking to a site for continual making? It seems to me that that may be the truest to the original intent of the site--and the most compelling to the community now engaged.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Three Business Books that Deliver on Organizational Change and Leadership

Have you ever picked up an intriguing-looking business book, started to read it, and then realized it's just one five-page article's worth of content spread out over 300 pages?

Maybe I'm unlucky or a bad chooser, but I've encountered whole shelves of one-horse fluff and drivel. It gives the gems a bad name.

But! Here are three great books that have stuck with me. I found each really helpful in navigating an aspect of organizational change and leadership.

  • Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage-Based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity by Susan Kenny Stevens. This slim book provides cogent and insightful analysis of organizational evolution from startup to growth to maturity to decline to turnaround (hopefully). I have used this book in many ways over the past few years: to diagnose and understand an organization that was new to me, to plan for the future, and now, to relearn the needs and abilities of my organization as it moves out of turnaround and into growth. These 130 pages have a magical quality; I keep finding more in them. I didn't know what "capacity building" meant when I first picked up this book. I still don't entirely. But I do know that this book keeps helping me learn and grow... and that's about as good a definition as I've got at this point.
  • The First 90 Days by Michael Watkins. I've been recommending this book to many friends and colleagues recently as they take on new leadership roles. Unlike the other two books on this list, this book is more about the individual in the organization than the organization itself. I found it to be incredibly helpful when I was preparing for and then taking on an executive director role, but it can be useful for anyone taking on a new role who wants to do so mindfully and successfully. This book uses the classic business book formula--pithy missives mixed with diverse examples--but it does so really, really well. The thing it does best is help you think about how to strategically plan out not just what you will do at work but who you will be, and how you can construct your position, relationships, and roles intentionally instead of having them "happen" to you.
  • The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business by Patrick Lencioni. I picked up this book on a whim at the beginning of the year based on the fact that Fractured Atlas, an organization I admire, was using it to guide their work. Like The First 90 Days, The Advantage employs a classic business book formula. But instead of focusing on individual leadership, this book focuses on organizational culture. I'm not sure I completely buy Lencioni's big idea, but the content is solid and useful--regardless of what trumps what. For us at the MAH, this book has been helpful as we shift from a startup culture of change and experimentation into a growth culture of strengthening and deepening our work. We are using approaches from The Advantage to write meaningful organizational values, infuse those into our hiring, onboarding and performance review processes, and protect and cultivate the unique aspects of our interpersonal culture that make us thrive. 

Now, I'm hunting for truly great books about moving from startup to growth/mature operations while maintaining energy, collaborative spirit, and creativity. I'm personally struggling with this a bit and would love your recommendations of books that can help in thinking about how to add structure in a way that supports and builds with minimal ossification.

What kinds of books would help you most in your work? What books would you recommend?

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Learning Cultural Competency through Social Media

What if there was a place where we could learn more about the experiences of people who are totally different from us? Where we could hear directly, in their own words, what they love, hate, fear, desire, dream?

There is that place. It is called the Web.

I don't care who you are interested in learning more about--people of a particular race/ethnicity, gender, political affiliation, physical ability, generation, sexual orientation--there is a bubble on the Web populated by them. People often complain that social media can become an echo chamber to reinforce pre-existing beliefs and expectations. It's true. The extreme atomization and diversity of media sources can enable people to burrow into mirrored caves.

But most of the Web is open. Which means you can go into whatever cave you want--including those occupied by people who come from different worlds from you.

Earlier this spring, I decided to go on a mission to use social media to increase my cultural competency around Latino experiences, issues, and interests. At our museum, we're making a big effort to increase our engagement with local Latino families. Alongside work we are doing locally with specific neighborhoods, individuals, and organizations, I wanted to use the Web to learn more about Latino issues generally.

I didn't do anything fancy; I just shifted my informal news diet. I eliminated some blogs and podcasts from my reading list that reinforced information I already knew. I took a break from my regular diet of feminist-tinted news. I used the time I had carved out to tap into new sources related to the Latino experience and people of color.

How did I find these sources? I started by:
  • subscribing to some mainstream aggregators, like Huffington Post Latino Voices, Latino USA, Colorlines, Codeswitch
  • reaching out to Salvador Acevedo, a brilliant marketing strategist who focuses on Latinos. Salvador gave me suggestions of websites and influencers to check out. I spent a few hours hunting around and subscribed to a few that related to my interests.
  • following a few hashtags and people associated with these sources on Twitter, checking out the lists of who they follow, and adding more people to my Twitter feed through their networks.
That's it. It's not a complex educational activity. I'm not segmenting or diving into very specific areas. I'm wading in the waters of someone else's media landscape. 

In three months of doing this passively, I've already noticed some specific changes to my work practice. Here are just two examples:
  1. It has made us more savvy surveyors. There has been a lot of coverage in the Latino/PoC mediaverse about how Latinos self-identify racially on the US census. Blog posts like this one--which I probably never would have seen in my old news diet--have informed conversations at our museum about how we ask visitors to identify in demographic surveys. We are in a year of developing assessment tools for our programming, so this issue is highly relevant to our work, and these news sources help us address weaknesses in our approach.
  2. It has influenced exhibition content. I'm neck-deep in a redevelopment of our permanent history gallery about Santa Cruz County. Reading news from a Latino perspective has helped me consistently encounter non-dominant ways to look at California history. Yes, these narratives are also present in some of the advisory discussions and reference materials we are using in developing exhibition content. But hearing those counter-narratives reinforced daily in my news diet builds confidence in them and makes me more thoughtful about how to frame historical issues of immigration, labor, culture clash, and racism in the exhibition context.
Again, I don't want to suggest that this approach is ground-breaking or intensive. It's not. But it IS easy, and I have found it to be powerful as a context shift.

I spent years immersed in a feminist media landscape. I consumed news, pop culture, and media through that lens. Now, I'm trying out someone else's media landscape. I'm noticing how that lens is showing me things I didn't see before. It's focusing my attention differently. It's turning the Web into a window instead of a mirror.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Design for Community is Design for Strangers

This post is a hypothesis I'm exploring. Please amplify, poke holes, ask questions, and help me learn.

There are lots of places where we can come together with people we already know. Dinner tables. Coffee shops. School. Church. Ball fields. These places are important. The relationships they support are powerful. These places help us strengthen bonds with the people who matter most.

But those places are tribal places. They are places for people who are already affiliated--whether they have met previously or not.

What about places for strangers? Places where we encounter people who are truly different from us?

Those are places of uncertainty. Places of friction. Places of possibility.

Those are places that build community.

Or rather, those are places with the potential to build community. Sadly, most of these places are not intentionally designed to bring us together. They are built to let us pass each other, to practice "civil inattention." We look, we confirm that there is no imminent threat, we ignore, we walk by. Public space is designed for neutrality.

But what if we designed public space for community? What if we treated interpersonal collision as creative opportunity instead of risk? What if we used art to activate space in a different way? What if we designed spaces and interventions to bring people together?

These are the questions on my mind as I start working more intently on an outdoor plaza project. I've been reflecting a lot recently on our museum's work on "social bridging"--bringing people together across cultural, ethnic, geographic, generational, and socio-economic differences--and how to take it outside.

Recently, we made a conscious strategic decision to prioritize bridging experiences over bonding experiences in our programming. Not that bonding with people we already know is bad, nor that we don't want to support it at the museum. But bonding is easy. Bridging is hard. There are so many places and opportunities to bond, and so few opportunities to bridge.

There's a moral argument that we need more bridging to build strong civic life. But there's also a business differentiation argument. Bonding is crowded. Bridging is wide open.

At our museum, magic happens when we intentionally design opportunities for strangers to interact. Festivals that mash up dozens of seemingly-unrelated creative practices. Collaborations with unorthodox community partners. Exhibits that offer explicit invitations into dialogue with strangers. Pop Up Museums where people share the objects they hold most dear. Moments like the one in the photo, where two strangers made a meaningful connection without words, through art.

Now, our museum has received an ArtPlace grant to redevelop a forgotten plaza into a creative heart for Downtown Santa Cruz. I'm thrilled and finally realizing what this means for our community. I've been reading and thinking a lot about "creative placemaking"--both the possibility and the hype. And I realize that in public space, we have even more opportunity to do bridging work that makes a difference.

Public space has the greatest potential to be community space. Anyone can dwell there. Anyone can activate it. It's open 24 hours a day. And yet, so often one of two things happens:
  1. It gets turned into bonding space. It is commercialized, gentrified, or specified for a particular subset of the community. It becomes exclusive, either explicitly or implicitly.
  2. It gets neutralized and deadened. Seating gets removed, streets are built for cars, and laws turn lingering into loitering into crime.
These things happen because we are afraid and unsure of what will happen when strangers meet in public space. We don't have a business model for it. We don't have the liability insurance for it.

But I believe there is a business model. I believe the opportunities outweigh the risks. I believe this is the work we need to do to build our communities. Designing infrastructure and interventions that activate and connect us across our differences. Design that brings strangers together.

I look forward to exploring these ideas more with you in the months to come.