What nonprofits could be learning from artists
Originally published on August 14, 2015
What are you feeling?
What is that feeling about?
What does it have to do with your work at Thousand Currents?
These are three inquiries that Sharon Bridgforth, one of our two artists-in-residence at Thousand Currents, offers while guiding us through the creative process of art making, truth telling, and community building. These three questions for self-reflection brings us back, every time, to the present moment, from where all feels possible.
We entered into this process with trepidation but also great excitement, for we knew something powerful was about to unleash. We’re professional, competent nonprofit staff. We analyze. We synthesize. We strategize. We plan. We reflect — all things that artists do.
But you see, Sharon Bridgforth and Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, accomplished interdisciplinary artists in the theatrical jazz aesthetic, scholars, and incredible humans that they are, are bringing something profoundly different to our philanthropy table — the radical power of vulnerability; the opportunity for improvising in the midst of uncertainty and ambiguity; and the transformative potential of witnessing each other in community.
Artists are adept not just at expressing their lived experience in new and intriguing ways either through sound or page or canvas, artists know how to build trust; to evoke courage; to stimulate a deeper conversation; to create from the ordinary stuff of daily life; to innovate while also paying homage to what has come before us; to improvise with the resources available to us.
By Day 3 of our workshop, Thousand Currents staff — every one of us — were performing deeply personal and intensely vulnerable works. Dance, spoken word, visual arts, narrative, performance — we laid our souls bare. Not just to each other, but to strangers.
To stop and consider that many of us did not consider ourselves “creatives,” this was astounding to all of us! The process of opening ourselves up in such a safe and open space, has already enabled some innovative and introspective moments as we’ve been looking at our analysis, our strategy, our plans in new ways.
We are just beginning to unpack, understand, and integrate all that Thousand Currents has learned from our work with our artists-in-residence. Here are seven insights:
1) Vulnerability and Courage
To tell the truth, to dig deep, to go to sometimes dark or painful places, to craft personal experience into something one can share — is the source of art. Omi led us through movement so we could access the stored intelligence in our bodies, the wisdom that is beyond cerebral. “Your body only has to make sense to you,” she encouraged. We were invited to get inside of our brokenness.
“Your broken heart is the place of magic, of healing, of transformation,” reminded Sharon.
Over and over again through this process, Omi and Sharon invited us to dive deeper into our most tender, wounded, sweet places so we could pull the fuel for our art from that very human place. To do this, we started with our greatest life challenges. “Whatever is the most difficult for you to work through is what is truest for you and that is what you mine through as a guide for how you show up,” said our artists-in-residence.
Thousand Currents partners work on a daily basis with great courage and such commitment to human dignity under very difficult circumstances, to solve the most intractable challenges facing their communities. We, in solidarity as partners, are finding many ways to practice our own vulnerability and courage muscles!
2) Trust and Curiosity
We emerge with more trust in our selves, our experiences, our stories. Underneath so many apparent workplace conflicts is a longing for greater trust.
Once our most intimate stories have been shared, crafted, and performed, there is no going back to a defended way of living or working.
One of our guiding principles in this creative process was to see each other anew and be curious about each other as artists. Already, our meetings and planning sessions are flowing easier. Even our new staff feel they have come away with so much trust in their brave, loving colleagues. In practicing that curiosity, there’s deeper honesty, authenticity, and rigor because our egos have melted into a growing trust.
3) Improvisation and Innovation
People may think that improvisation is spontaneous. But it comes easily only when the tools that we use are well-honed, tuned, and there’s a mastery of one’s craft. Generating unity, strategy, new initiatives, meaningful collaboration from whatever is available is what our partners, the original innovators, do so well.
We too fell in love with the creative process. We welcomed the call to experimentation with forms of expression other than the ones we know well. We crafted our drafts into authentic pieces of art and invited collaboration from each other. Our artists-in-residence reminded us to stand inside our traditions/lineages but also as innovators in those traditions.
So much of this resonated for us at Thousand Currents. As we celebrate a magnificent 30th year with our donors and grassroots partners, we are only too keenly aware that we cannot rest purely on our lineage. We must continue to craft new ways to solve existing problems, continuing our experiments together towards our vision for a more just world.
The musical definition of this word seems so apropos to us now — an instrumental or vocal part that supports the person singing or playing a musical instrument. We accompanied and generously witnessed each other’s creative process. And in this witnessing, we were each transformed.
By “trusting the process” as Sharon often reminds us, we learn to learn, show up, embody what we know to be true. And through accompanying and being accompanied, we learned the value of community.
Community has the capacity to connect us to our inmost sources of power, our lineage, our past and our potential.
Our partners are playing the melody. We accompany our partners, just as Sharon, Omi, and our team walked with each other.
5) Whole Selves
Through movement, theater of the oppressed, free writing, and creative processes of all kinds, we learned to inhabit our whole selves — our bodies, our experiences, our many forms of intelligences, our feelings, our words, our voices. We were invited to notice our choices, to notice what we choose to stand in, where we choose to hide. “Don’t be intimidated by your true self,” our facilitators offered. Part of owning our whole selves was also to name the lineage, artistic and cultural tradition from which we come.
“What did you discover?” asked Omi often after a particularly challenging exercise. We discovered how fragmented our whole selves can be in this work of social change, and how critically important it is to integrate ourselves if we are to do the demanding work of integrated and holistic social change. As someone shared at the end of the program,
Thousand Currents is showing the world what’s possible when the masks come down.
When artists perform for a public audience, the audience can be passive. But during the artists-in-residence program, we are learning just how different it is to “witness” rather than absorb or experience. Witnessing in intimate settings, where people are bringing their whole selves, is an active role, offering a quality of generosity, non-judgment, and safety.
“Walking with people looks like falling,” someone shared in one of our sessions. When Thousand Currents staff are accompanying our partners, we as witnesses have a willingness to be vulnerable ourselves and to hold the space for other’s vulnerability — this is active solidarity. As people “own” their voice, for a moment we share their emotion, the challenge that is heavy their hearts and minds.
We discovered that this creative process generates great joy. This joy is liberatory for the artist, as well as for the audience. Grief can co-exist with laughter, we learned. We practiced our unique and collective tools to transform our greatest challenges into works of beauty. We celebrated each other through ritual, ceremony, performances, food, music, and dance.
Raising resources is not easy. Building alliances and deepening relationships takes time. At the same time, they are all sources of joy. If we emphasize on the joy, we will move forward and more creatively with our work, shedding the martyrdom sometimes inherent in our nonprofits. We committed and recommitted to great joy in all we do, as a tribute to our partners, our ancestors, and to our collective strength.
Here’s a poem assembled from the words shared by Thousand Currents staff, Omi, and Sharon at the end of our powerful, transformative sessions together, each line from an individual.
What if we are all virtuosos?
Tenderly paying attention,
balancing experimentation & lineage, innovation & wisdom, making magic possible,
with new lenses, new eyes,
What is my body saying? Listen:
Write your own story
A gateway to yourself.
Delight in offering ourselves to each other,
because any moment holds cataclysmic change.
You are never finished.
And we know we’ve only just begun. As Thousand Currents’ work with the artists continues into the rest of the year, we look forward to sharing more learning and insights.