Monday 23 July 2012

Comfort and disturbance - Part II

I was curious to find out where the quote from my last post came from: “Art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”. I did a search on Google and the name that came up with most frequency (although there seem to be at least two more contestants) is Cesar A. Cruz, Mexican poet, educator and human rights activist. I suppose that every sector - be it the social, the educational, the political, the media, the artistic/cultural sector - honestly wishing to have an impact on people´s lives aims at the same thing: to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.

This is exactly what Washington has been for me these last weeks. I am always somewhere between the two, sometimes leaning on the comfort side, others on the disturbance. For all good reasons, I suppose.

I could talk about a lot of things, but I´ll only talk about two: two people, whom we had the privilege to meet. These are their stories:

Yvette Campbell
, an ex-Alvin Ailey dancer, is the President and CEO of Harlem School of the Arts (HSA). In January 2011, she accepted the invitation to head the HSA at a time when it was carrying a significant debt and was facing closure. Apart from the existence of the debt, she diagnosed the following issues: the school was mainly known to older people who had some memories of it from the 60s; the building was quite prohibiting, visually inaccessible, hiding the ‘treasures’ it kept inside (Yvette, herself being a dancer, had never walked into it); there was a need to re-tell the story, to the immediate but also to the larger community, and to build a ‘family’ that could contribute (also and especially financially) towards the school’s sustainability. It was around these problems and needs that Yvette Campbell built her strategy, focusing heavily on good institutional marketing and being open to every opportunity that would help the school be 'the talk of the town', placing it into people´s minds and hearts.

In the months that followed Yvette Campbell´s arrival, Harlem School of the Arts  made sure they kept the media regularly informed on their activities and the determination to keep the school open. In April 2011, just three months after Yvette took up her position, there was an opportunity for a feature article on the new Director in Essence, which helped to significantly boost the school´s visibility. (Photo: Kwaku Alston)
Among the many things Yvette shared with us, I would like to highlight two. First, her relationship with the HSA team. Yvette did not bring in with her a ‘dream team’ to make a ‘miracle’ happen. When taking up her position, she started by finding out what each member of the team was doing. She then shared her vision and objectives with them, she explained what the goal was and told them what she expected from each one. Those who didn´t live up to the expectations were invited to leave, just like Yvette thinks that she should be asked to leave if she didn´t do her job. She aims to have a focused, motivated and dedicated team and she wants to be surrounded by people who are smarter than her in their own fields. The second point I would like to highlight is her relationship with the ‘family’. Yvette made herself accountable from day 1 to the school´s stakeholders and to those who might be able and interested in helping fulfil its mission (especially financially). She realized she had to share the story, so she´s been sharing information on the evolution of the project by personally sending detailed reports to a few dozen people (initially on a daily basis, then weekly and then monthly). She calls these “the CEO reports”. This is her way of keeping them all informed on the progress the school (and herself as CEO) is making in achieving the established goals and also of keeping them all involved in this collective effort, reminding them of the need for their support. Listening and watching Yvette Campbell, we have that very distinct feeling that we have in front of us a natural-born leader. Her energy, enthusiasm, determination, her structured thinking make us feel that she’s the right person at the right place. Thanks to her and the rest of the HSA team, a year and a half later the school is back on track and towards paying off its debt, becoming a financially heathy arts institution.

Our second remarkable encounter was with Taro Alexander
. Taro, an actor and teacher, stutters since the age of three. He spent years and years trying to be just another cool boy and not to be seen as a freak; trying to hide, with a number of tricks, the fact that he stuttered (but not when on stage). He personally knows what a struggle this is for a lot of children and young people, who form part of a community of 60 million people around the world. So, in 2001 he founded Our Time, an organization that helps children who stutter to improve their confidence and communication skills through theatre. At the same time, it assists parents and teachers, including speech therapy teachers at schools, the majority of whom are very little prepared to deal with stuttering. This is a small organization of 5, working at the moment with approximately 150 children, hardly what could be of interest to potential sponsors and donors, looking for large projects that can offer the desired visibility and recognition. Thus funding has always been an issue and one of the ways of tackling it was the organization of an annual event, a gala, in order to raise funds. Things were quite difficult in the beginning, where the organization ended up actually losing money. But Taro Alexander and his team kept focused, continued with their work, continued organizing a good quality and exciting event, and managed to have better and better, albeit modest, fundraising results. Their best year ever was 2010, when Carly Simon, a famous singer - who also stutters -, accepted the invitation to be that year’s honoree, attracting a lot of people to the event and helping to raise more money.

The year of 2010 was the turning point for another reason. Taro Alexander was asked to give his opinion on the script for a new Broadway play on King George, the king who stuttered. Later on, it turned out that the script actually became a Hollywood film, starring Colin Firth,
Helena Bonham Carter and Geoffrey Rush. Taro was invited to the premiere. He was overwhelmed by the film and by Colin Firth´s performance. As soon as it finished, and overcoming his shyness, Taro went to congratulate the screenwriter, David Seidler (a stutterer himself), and asked him if he would accept to be the 2011 honoree in the annual Our Time fundraising gala. He accepted, but the fact that he was not a very known person was a reason of concern for some people involved in the organization of the gala regarding the impact his name would have on the fundraising effort. But just look at what happened in the months that followed: people talked more and more about the film; The King´s Speech was awarded every possible prize, including the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for David Seidler; Colin Firth would not be able to attend the Our Time gala, but agreed to be Honorary Chair; the singer Carly Simon accepted the invitation to perform. 

The fundraising gala was a huge success and also the award for a decade of consistent and dedicated work. Taro Alexandre and his small team are now trying to carefully build on this success, considering the organization´s concrete mission and its resources. One thing they are certainly doing better and better is registering and sharing their impact, a primary way of communicating with their ‘family’, with existing and potential new members and donors.

Why were these two encounters particularly important? What did we take away?  We took away the comfort: about the things that can and are being done. We took away the disturbance: about the things that can, and should, but are not happening. And we were also reminded that it takes courage, persistence and determination: from overcoming one’s shyness, to dealing with teams, to bringing about significant change. Because going against the wall is part of the process.

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