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What can an artist-in-residence program do for your nonprofit?

By Jennifer Lentfer, Thousand Currents Director of Communications

I’ll admit it. I’m scared.

I joined this organization less than two months ago, and now, I’m being asked to “take on the mantel of being an artist.” What?!

I’m the Director of Communications. I think up strategy to reach our audiences. I update the website. I manage our brand. I post blogs. I run our social media accounts.

I do not “work on movement” or “improvise with my body.” Art is something I do at home, alone. It’s in my quiet moments that a poem begins speaking to me or that I get completely absorbed in a collage.

Who joins a nonprofit to do art? Thousand Currents gives grants to leaders in the Global South that are working on food sovereignty, alternative economies, and climate justice. I joined Thousand Currents because their work is aligned with my values and their demonstrated impact in affecting social change at the grassroots level.

Ok, this is the fear talking. I do do art in my work. Writing is my passion and can be an art form. I create spaces for ideas, experiences, evidence, and stories on paper or online in written form all day. Why not through theater? Or painting? Or dance for that matter?

Starting July 22nd, Thousand Currents is inviting two artists-in-residence to join our team for 10 intense days. Sharon Bridgforth and Omi Osun Joni L. Jones will offer theatrical jazz as a tool for improvisation, creativity, and innovation. (See more on their backgrounds below.)

“We feel that IDEX* staff are already excellent facilitators…that they have access to the best of professional trainings, institutes and conferences provided by your field. The thing that they don’t have/the thing that we have more than twenty-five years experience doing…is using art ​making practices as ways to return to traditional (and re-imagined) ways of living/of being ourselves most fully,” Sharon explains.

Omi adds, “The vulnerability, humility and courage it takes to be an artist is something that can improve IDEX’s* work with their partners, as facilitators and as grantmakers.”

It’s that pending vulnerability in theatrical jazz that has me nervous. From how I understand it now, theatrical jazz is all about the here and now. What’s going on right now is more important than any pre-conceived plan. Wow, what a 180 degree turn from the large-scale, donor-controlled, sectorally-myopic, risk-averse, conditionality-driven, bureaucratic project-based funding world from which I have spent much of my career!

Having Omi and Sharon in house will provide us with the opportunity to remove the veils of our own thinking – the thinking that compartmentalizes our lives. The work of “being present” is, in fact, work. And as people who want to walk with our partners in their fight for social justice, we need the practice in deep listening and collaboration, which is at the heart of theatrical jazz.

We also need to continually explore the relationship between art, healing, and community building. If our jobs are to create a more healthy society, artists are important allies for nonprofits, because they help us imagine, see, and explain that another world is possible.

Am I ready to crack open my masks and get deeply personal with colleagues I don’t yet know that well? I guess I’ll have to find a way, because this is the community and the journey that I’ve gratefully and joyfully joined.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll create a new work of which I’m proud and survive (and even enjoy!) Thousand Currents’ latest effort to turn global philanthropy on its head.


*Thousand Currents changed its name from IDEX in 2016

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