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Leading Through Chaotic Times
Episode 90

Leading Through Chaotic Times

Live Panel from Boot Camp 2020

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In This Episode

This top-rated session from Boot Camp 2020 explores what three incredible arts leaders have learned as they continue to navigate this turbulent year. Whether you’re a team member, lead a department, or run an entire organization, this session will give you inspiration and insight as we move through this uncertain time.

Jennifer Zaslow: Good afternoon to all of you. Thanks panelists, and to all of you. So, I’m Jennifer. I’m a white woman with dark brown hair and I’m wearing a green and orange scarf. My pronouns are she/her and I want to acknowledge my presence on the traditional territory of the indigenous nation of the Lenni-Lenape specifically the Munsee Lenape tribe, in the area known as downtown Brooklyn, which is where I’m presenting from today. Actually, a very glamorous WeWork. You already heard a little bit from Erik about the Lenape. I can add this to that. Last October, the Brooklyn Museum convened a public conversation between representatives from Lenapehoking, or the Lenape Nation, and Brooklyn cultural institutions, to discuss making living land acknowledgements more widely accepted and understood. Ideas ranged from adding language to signs that remind visitors that they are in Lenapehoking to creating educational programming around First Nations. So, this made me think that for all of us as representatives of cultural institutions, we have an important role to play by finding ways to honor the land and its original caretakers. And all of us here today are taking an important step in highlighting the importance of true inclusion. So, with that, I’m so honored to be here with our three panelists, three remarkable leaders of cultural institutions. So, based on my conversations with them, I know they would agree that while there were certainly best practices in leadership, there is no one right way to lead and my hope for today is that by listening to their stories from the field, you in the audience will be able to take away some learnings so that you can translate what you hear into your own authentic leadership style. So, first, let me just say, we’re going to talk for about 45 minutes and then we’re gonna open the floor to questions. I’m going to ask each panelist as you introduce yourselves to remind us of your institution. So, this has been an incredibly challenging time for cultural institutions, many of whom have had to grapple with a decrease in revenue with furloughs and even layoffs. I’m going to start with you, Anna. Can you take us through how you handled making a hard decision and what you learned from that?

Anna Glass: Sure. Thank you, Jennifer. So, before I answer that question, again, my name is Anna Glass and I proudly serve as the Executive Director of Dance Theatre of Harlem. I am an African-American woman. I am wearing a peach pink dress and I am in a room that has a blue background and I I’m very honored to be situated on the land of the Sauk people, here in Waterford, Michigan, where I am temporary located. So, Dance Theatre of Harlem, like many cultural institutions, it was a very rocky period for us when the pandemic hit and Dance Theatre of Harlem is not an institution with an endowment. We have a very modest cash reserve. And so, when the pandemic hit, my first reaction was one of panic, very concerned. You know, we had been doing a lot of great work in strengthening up our institution, ensuring that we had the capacity up under us so that we could thrive for the next 50 years of our life. And all of the great work was happening and then the bottom fell out and I felt, initially, that we should have been more prepared for the moment, but I think we all felt that way. And, you know, when you’re dealing with issues of ensuring that your institution survives this moment, there are hard decisions that have to be made in order to preserve your ability to do that. And for us, the big question that we had was how we were going to maintain the number of staff members that we had with us. And our initial plan with the cash that we had on hand was. we did rotating furloughs, everyone. You know, it would be two weeks for me on, and two weeks, you know, for someone else on, and that way we could sort of get our bearings, and figure out how long we could, sort of, stretch out what we had in front of us. Ultimately, we ended up having to furlough a significant number of staff. It was a very tough decision, but it was a necessary decision again, because while we’re in this short-term moment, God willing, we have to be looking at what is our viability beyond this moment and ensuring that we have enough strength under us to thrive in whatever this next iteration looks like. And so, you know, we are normally a staff of about 86 people and we went down to a staff of 30 people. It was a very challenging and very difficult decision to make, but it was one that was necessary.

Jennifer Zaslow: Anna, thank you for sharing that. I’m curious, are you able to talk a little bit about the emotional impact of that decision? Not just on the team, but also on you?

Anna Glass: Yeah, you know, I think it’s hard for everyone. Anyone who has worked with me, who are friends with me, my staff knows this very well about me, that I am a crier. You know, I am a leader that believes in transparency and there were multiple moments, beginning in March, where I would have the entire staff on Zoom in front of me and me having to deliver to everyone how I wasn’t actually sure what was going to happen next and how we were going to get through this, but that I was certain we would get through it, but not sure how. And, you know, I would be choked up, you know, having, you know … just be in tears in front of my staff, knowing that their livelihoods were also in question, that this was no one’s fault, that no one did anything wrong. And to be in front of a group of people, knowing that there really wasn’t going to be a way, unless there was some significant miracle that arrived for us, to be able to maintain all of those people on payroll. We have found some creative ways to bring people back, which I’m very happy about. We’re actually doing a bubble right now and it allowed me to bring our production staff back on payroll. And so, there have been ways in which I have really tried to focus on, how do I bring our people back? Even if it’s in small chunks, recognizing that people can’t live on unemployment forever, you know, and that these are not necessarily positions that you are the company manager one day, and then you are, you know, some other position the next day. You know, that we were a family. We are a family. We are a group of individuals that are committed to the mission and the vision of this institution, and that’s hard. It’s hard because, as a leader, you’re still ahuman being. You’re not a robot, you know? You don’t, exist in this sort of boxed isolation. And, you know, I would say, at least from March through early May, there wasn’t a week that I wasn’t in tears just, you know, trying to make heads or tails of, you know, what this all was and how we were going to get through it.

Jennifer Zaslow: Thank you. Terri, you and your organization have also faced some difficult situations. Can you tell us about what you’ve experienced and maybe what you’ve learned?

Terri Lee Freeman: Sure. So, first, let me introduce myself. I am Terri Lee Freeman. I am the President of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. We are housed at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. King was assassinated on April 4th, 1968. I’m an African-American woman who wears glasses and I am in my office right now at this moment and my pronouns are she/her/hers. And let me acknowledge the land that we sit on, which is the Chickasaw Nation land. The Chickasaw we’re in West Tennessee and Northern Mississippi from the 1600s until about 1830, when they were a part of the Trail of Tears and were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma, so we acknowledged their presence in this space. So, what have I learned? You know, it’s interesting, and I’m sure for those of you who are in New York, you lived through September 11th. You thought that there probably was nothing worse. I was in Washington, D.C., at the time of September 11th and, running a philanthropy that started the largest fund to support survivors of September 11th in Washington, D.C. I would have thought that that was probably the capstone of the crisis that I would have to kind of manage. At the beginning of 2020, on January 15th, I actually was in a pretty bad car accident and that kept me out of the office from January 15th. I was just preparing to come back to the office when word of COVID-19 started to come around cause I was off of my feet for 12 weeks. And so, I began managing this from home with my CFO and thinking about what we were going to have to do because it became very clear to me very quickly that a museum whose audiences are people all over the country, many of whom were international visitors at the time, was a really tenuous situation for the museum and for the staff of the museum. We did have to close the doors of the museum on March 17th, based on what was going on in the city, and soon thereafter, we made the decision to furlough about 50% of the staff. That was tough enough. And then May 25th, George Floyd is murdered. The National Civil Rights Museum really does credit itself for being a public square, a place where people can call home, a place where people can heal, a place where people can gather some strength from those who are pictured on the walls inside of the museum. So, here we are, closed to the public, and the public is saying, “We have to be at the National Civil Rights Museum.” So, we became a place for convening and for organizing around protest during that time, almost every evening for several weeks, trying to make sure that people were being safe. But we could not open the museum. We could not have people come inside the museum. So, they use that courtyard as the space for organizing. I think, for the staff, it was a time of this kind of pull and push, wanting to do as much as they could, but recognizing that we were in a global pandemic and there was only so much that we could do. We worked through that. We pivoted. I found out how nimble actually we can be because we closed the museum, actually, a couple of weeks before our annual April 4th commemoration and April 4th is why we exist. So, we couldn’t not do it and we created a virtual program. I actually think, for me, though, the decision to reopen was harder than the decision to close because I knew that that meant I had to have people on the floor with people coming into the space. We did put in place all the protocols made sure that masks were mandatory, tried to make sure that people distance, but it was kind of anxiety-creating for me, as well as for the staff. And I think it wasn’t a new lesson; it was more just confirming that when you are in a crisis, you just have to communicate constantly. It is a constant communication and you have to constantly ask for feedback because you think you’re communicating one thing and somebody might be hearing it a different way. I thought I was being totally transparent, but I’m not sure that all the staff heard it as being fully transparent. And so, I had to get that information, build that in, and then give the information back to them. So, it’s this kind of constant feedback loop that I think we are still operating within. I will say this to the museum’s credit: we have worked really hard to develop an operating reserve and an endowment and, because of that, we have financially been in good shape. We have made the commitment to keep staff on for at least six weeks before having to make any lay-offs and that was only because we were able to put in place the finances that we’re able to support that. And at this point, we don’t really think that we’re going to dip into those, reserves, God willing, until maybe March of 2021. So, we feel pretty good about where we are. The other lesson that I learned out of this was, because the doors are closed does not mean that you are closed, right? You continue to do this work. You continue to create programming. You continue to present a voice for those who may not have a voice. you continue to organize with other groups and collaborate with other groups and try to be as active and relevant as possible and you continue to fundraise. And so, we did just that. We continued to fundraise and we were able to, in fact, raise about what would have been the equivalent of our major fundraiser that was canceled this past October. So, the work had to continue. It was not about stopping anything. I think the last thing that I’ll mention here, Jennifer, is that when we did get back, knowing the tense situation that we were working in, knowing how I was feeling—and let’s not even mention the fact that we’re in the midst of this election season, as well, and what that means—I had a psychiatrist come into our staff meeting, a virtual staff meeting, because I knew that people were dealing with a lot of things and I felt that it would really be helpful for them to hear from a professional, ask questions, and I could also be a little vulnerable, and let people know this isn’t just happening to them, that it’s happening to me, as well. And we are in this together. So, I think we move forward trying to make sure that people are as comfortable in the working environment that they can be, that our guests are safe and that we continue to present the work and the messaging of creating a society that is just and provides the civil rights and protections for all of its citizens. So, that’s kind of where we are right now, in the midst of this wonderful year called 2020.

Jennifer Zaslow: It’s so extraordinary, so extraordinary hearing you talk both of you about what you’ve had to go through, and what I’m hearing is the incredible balancing act of being a leader in this moment. It reminds me of, you know, being on one of those balls at a gym that you’re constantly like teetering from side to side, trying to maintain your equilibrium. So, Betty, how have you balanced what you’ve had to balance? Tell us about what you’ve been going through and tell us a little, just moving a little bit into a new topic. How have you kept your staff motivated? How have you cared for them and how have you kept yourself resilient in this time?

Betty Avila: Sure, thank you, Jennifer. And it’s such an honor to share space, even virtually, with all of you and Terry and Anna. I’m Betty Avila, Executive Director of Self Help Graphics and Art in Boyle Heights, the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. And we are on the unseated territory of the Tongva people here in LA. I’m a Latina woman. I have a short hair. I wear glasses and I’m wearing a floral blouse this morning. But, I’ve, you know, I’ve been reflecting a lot on—I generally reflect on—leadership as I’ve gone on this journey. And I think this year has really amplified that for me. But something that I learned and that took me some time into the quarantine was that, as a leader, you know, part of our job is to motivate. It’s to be the cheerleader, to get the team across the finish line. And I was having a really hard time and, at some point, came to the realization that I don’t have to be the cheerleader all the time. Sometimes, I can just acknowledge with the team that, you know, this is a situation we’re in, it’s not good, and we just have to navigate that and weather that together, and that is played out in terms of just our own internal team spaces or staff meetings but I think also with our programming. You know, there was that question of, I think an initial reflex of, “Let’s just move everything we would have done in person into the virtual realm,” and understanding that, one, that was not necessary, but also recognizing that our programming could also be really responsive and reflect on what’s happening now. So, and I think that doing that and thinking about what our community needs … what is our, you know … What does the artist community that we serve need right now? How can we serve them? And I think, in some ways, that helped the team to process a little bit what was happening around us, if not for ourselves, for our community. I think for myself, something that I’ve really been challenged by during this time—and both Terry and Anna mentioned—this is that balance of transparency. You want to share and be as honest as possible with the team. But, you know, for me, I also recognize that those big decisions, those challenges of this work and leadership of this organization, you know, I don’t want to burden the staff so much with that, especially, you know, as they’re navigating this with their family, they’re trying to figure out, you know, are they going to have a job in the next couple of months? So, that’s something. I continue to try to find that line, still, but it is, I think, important, also on that transparency side. and this is something that I’ve just learned about my own leadership is, I have tried in the past to, you know, not share or be real about the physical toll that being an executive eirector takes on a person, just in any regular moment in time, can be a really lonely position. And so, to be in that space now, at this time, in a really incredible organization that’s serving that has been serving the Chicano/Chicana community for almost 50 years, you know, it’s actually a disservice to not be real about that. It’s a disservice to the staff. It’s a disservice to the people that we serve to not be honest. So, that’s something that I’m trying to bring forward now, you know, as we’re seven, eight months into this, and something that I hope is modeling for the staff too, right? Like, we’re not super humans. You know, we don’t have to, you know … There’s no reason for 12-hour workdays right now. And that’s something that I continue to tell myself. And I tell, I always tell the younger, more emerging staff, you know … they’re really, they want to put in the time and I think there’s this amplified sense of urgency now, and I always tell them, like, “You have time to build your way up to that role where you won’t have a choice and you’re going to have to do those 10, 11, 12-hour days, and so, right now, take the time that you need to take care of yourself because that is to the benefit of the organization that you are healthy, that your family is good. So, and I, everything that I say, I always realize that I’m also telling myself as much.

Jennifer Zaslow: And I was going to ask you, really all of you, how were you putting into practice this idea of caring for the staff? What kind of practices are you putting in place for them, if you are?

Anna Glass: Well, one of the things that, you know, I have been doing, we have, normally, on a normal year, when we’re sort of dealing with vacation rollover, we normally have a period of time where if you don’t use it by a particular period of time, then you lose it. Well, that period of time, that deadline happened while we were in the midst of trying to figure out life. You know, those first few months of the pandemic. And, you know, I had made the decision and still am, you know, as it relates to taking time off, I feel like the old rules are just sort of out the door. Like, you know, you need to take some time off, take the time off. You know, don’t even stress about, “Do I have the vacation days?” You know, I basically gave the staff two weeks to take in August. Just take them. If you don’t use them, let’s find another week, but I need you to take the time. And, you know, Betty, it’s so funny what you said because I don’t necessarily feel like I’m the great modeler of that that I am. I’m the person insisting that my staff really cares for their wellbeing and I am not someone that is a stickler around time. I don’t put that into practice for myself and I need to do a better job at that. But, you know, I think the wellbeing piece is critical. You know, I was really interested in what you were saying, Terri, and would love to hear a little bit more, about, you know, sort of investing in the mental health and wellbeing of your staff. Because one, it is one thing to say, “Take the time. You need the time. Take it.” You know, “The work’s going to be there tomorrow. Don’t even stress about it.” But it’s also another thing of being able to give your staff a platform, the space to say, “I’m struggling,” or “This is happening in my home life,” or, “I’m scared,” you know, and I don’t, you know … again, would love to hear more, Terri, how you’ve been doing that because that’s not … even though I’ve been giving the time, I haven’t necessarily created the space for what’s happening, what’s showing up for you.

Terri Lee Freeman: So, let me just give some more context and I’m not mentioning this for any sympathy, but I want to give you the context. So, I mentioned that I was in this car accident, which was a 12-week kind of being able to get back and then starting physical therapy and then working through this pandemic and working through the civil unrest. And between March and August, we had seven staff to lose parents or close relatives. I was one of those people. My mom passed during that time. And we also had three people diagnosed with cancer, and this is a … we’re a small staff. And so, it kind of did feel like this dark cloud was lingering and I knew people were feeling this. So, the idea for me has always been that the mind, the brain, is an organ that sometimes can get ill. And when it gets ill, you need to go to the doctor to fix it, right? And I had the ability to bring the doctor to the group, again, to show my own vulnerability, but also to highlight that we care about you. We care about what you’re feeling and what you’re thinking and it doesn’t have to be just work-related; it can be personal. And that the organization provides you with an EAP so that you can get a therapist. And we had several people say, “Well, I’ve had a therapist for about the last five months or so,” which was really good! To let people know that. The other thing, though, that I did do and was kind of like what you were speaking of was to say to people, “Okay, look, I know there’s an expectation that the National Civil Rights Museum is going to be in it and about it constantly, but we can’t be. Just because we work here that does not mean that we are going to solve every civil issue that is on the plate. You guys got to step away from this.” So, we actually took work off of the plate, had told people don’t do it. “It hasn’t gotten planned yet? We’ll push it into ‘21. We’ll reevaluate in ‘21 to see if it needs to be done. Take it off the calendar and give yourself some space and take some time off and take some consecutive days off. Don’t do this Friday before Saturday thing (laughs). I want you to be gone from Monday through Friday, Wednesday through Friday, whatever you need to do, but it needs to be more than a day because I know what happens when you take a day: you do a whole bunch of stuff around the house, right? If you ever leave the house because many of us were working from home. And that was the other thing to tell people who were working from home. You need a schedule. You cannot just continue to work constantly from your space because it ruins what is your relaxation space. What I really have tried to do is just say to them, “I’m here for you. You guys were there for me when my mom passed. I’m here to provide you all with the help and support and the comfort. And if I can’t do it, I’ll let you know that. But please know that I recognize us saving the world and losing ourselves is not worth it.”

Jennifer Zaslow: Betty, it looked like you had something to add and I don’t want to stop you from that.

Betty Avila: That very much resonated, Terri. What you’re saying about that expectation, on the museum. You know, Self Help Graphics is so closely connected to so many social justice movements. You know, it’s been home to, you know, collective organizing, to poster making and preparations for major marches and actions over the years. And so, that expectation to step up, especially at this time, was definitely felt. And I actually, I remember, that first weekend in June when Los Angeles was seeing the actions and protests in response to the killing of George Floyd, having a phone conversation with one of our team members who was in tears because we couldn’t open our doors. Like, this is the time for us to step up and we can’t open our doors and that pressure on the staff, it’s, it’s very personal, right? Like, we’re doing this work because we believe in it and that, language around pumping the brakes is something that I’ve had to really do regularly and consistently during this time. And even if it wasn’t okay, we’re just going to pause this. It’s, you know, “Well, maybe we’re not going to have a virtual exhibition every month. Maybe it’s every two months or three months.” So … and it’s interesting to kind of, almost like negotiation, like conversations that I’m having with staff who, again, feel pressure to step up at this time and just having to help them understand that that’s not healthy for them or for the organization. So, that definitely resonated with me, Terri.

Jennifer Zaslow: You know, in coaching, I often ask, when a client is experiencing darkness or demoralization, I ask them to think about whether they’re open to reframing what’s going on as a gift, which is not that we step over the reality of what’s happening, nor do we deny the real emotional impact of what’s happening to us, but that in the interest of being able to move forward, what would it be like to reframe as a gift? And I’m wondering from all of you, is there a gift, are there any gifts here? And if so, what are they?

Terri Lee Freeman: I received the personal gift, frankly, from COVID-19 of time with my mom, who I would not have been able to be there with her every day. I received … my husband and I actually have a kind of commuter marriage, but his commuting stopped. So, I received the gift of time there. Most of the time, it was a gift. Sometimes! (Laughs) And my daughters, all of whom are grown, they all were able to spend time with their grandmother before she passed. So, there was, there’s a real, silver lining to this for me.

Anna Glass: I would agree with that. You know, as I shared in my land acknowledgement, I’m here in Michigan right now, and, you know, had made that decision to relocate with my family here. My parents and brother and sister live here, and the decision was made in support of our daughter. My husband and I, our daughter, to be in a space where we’re not in a, you know, thousand-square-foot apartment, but we have a home with a backyard. It was also for my own personal peace of mind, being able to just, you know, deal with the stressors but know that I had family to laugh with, to take walks with, you know, just being in sort of that environment to offset the other aspects of what it means to run DTH. I would also say, from a professional standpoint, you know, I think that the pandemic was a big reset button for everyone. And for us, there were so many aspects of our business model that just did not work, but because they were generating income for us, it made it very difficult to tear apart those aspects of our model. Well, what happened was the model just fell apart. You know, we couldn’t tour. We couldn’t, you know, the things that are sort of our in-person activities just couldn’t happen and we weren’t generating income earned income from anywhere. And so, it was … it’s been a fabulous moment for us in really reevaluating, how do we want to rebuild in this new world? What do we want touring to look like? What does sustainability look like for us? You know, we are in this position right now where we actually have more cash on hand than we’ve ever had, ever, you know, that we can also look ahead and know that comfortably we can get to the spring of 2021. Now, what that means is we’re not going to build what we were before because we know that what we had before put us in a situation of robbing Peter to pay Paul, you know, every payroll. But how do we want to restructure this institution? What are the aspects of who DTH is, also born out of the civil rights movement? How do we want to lean into those aspects of who we are in this new world? And so, I think, you know, in, in that respect, there have been a number of what I’ve been calling “COVID blessings,” you know? Gifts that have come out of nowhere. This opportunity to reevaluate how we rebuild. You know, I’ve been saying, you know, the non-profit structure is the … you know, the house, if we were thinking about a house, it is, you know, the four walls and the pitched roof. And, you know, we can either make the decision to build a smaller house, or we can say, “You know what? I’m going to build a yurt. Let’s just really just … you know, why are we all building houses, anyway? You know, let’s build a yurt.” And that kind of conversation excites me, this idea of, let’s really actually look at this model, and why would we want to go back to that? Why not, let’s look at something else that that could be entirely different. How do we engage in … what does the organizational structure look like? How do we earn income? All of those things, I think, are on the table and I think it sort of eases any anxiety that I was feeling back in March and April. You know, today, I can feel excited about this new future, even though there’s so much uncertainty. You know, that that’s sort of just this very interesting blessing that has sort of come out of all of this.

Jennifer Zaslow: Wonderful. Betty?

Betty Avila: Well, you probably heard my COVID gift, the puppy in the background. Apologies for that. My husband was supposed to take him into the other room! So, actually … but, seriously, that that was something that was possible because we were home and I’ve been wanting a fur baby for many years now. So, little bit of a silver lining there. I think in, in terms of the organizational work, you know, we’re a small, small organization. We’re on the verge of becoming a midsize organization and I’m definitely gonna echo a little bit about what Anna’s saying with this, like reset. What happened immediately was our teaching artists who are all part-time lost all hours. Every hour that they’d had scheduled, some of them through June, were just gone. They lost all that income. So, for us there, there’s some moment of reflection around understanding, our teaching artists are very, dependent our compensation of the teaching artists and giving them hours is very dependent on our ability to partner with other organizations, to partner with government organizations, public parks. So, that’s a little bit of a shift that we’re having to revisit. you know, how do we bring them back home more often into our space, whether that’s virtual or in-person, eventually? I think the other gift is this reflection, organizationally, as we’re going into our 50th anniversary in a few years, and there’s, you know, the ever-present question of sustainability. What does long-term sustainability look like for this organization? And we previously, just in the last two years, purchased our building, which was a huge uphill battle. But, you know, we purchased it and then we just kept going and there wasn’t that opportunity to stop and kind of think about, you know, “What does it mean to be a steward of property in the community that we’re in that is experiencing, gentrification and displacement?” That, I mean, even just on an infrastructure level, “What are the staff members we need to have in place to maintain a building now that we own it?” And now we can’t just call the city and be like, “Hey, this thing broke,” and we’ve actually had the space, you know, and it took this really forced time out for us to start to think about that. And to … beyond think about it, you know, start to make decisions and implement so that … I find it ironic that it took a pandemic to get us to do that but, you know, it’s what it simultaneously put us into this continued survival mode, but also got us out of it just enough to have the space to think about these things.

Jennifer Zaslow: Yeah. I’m hearing, you know, a real chance to re-imagine the futures of your organizations. Really extraordinary. I’m mindful of also wanting to open up time to questions and before we do that, I want to ask each of you to name a leader who has inspired you and I’d like you also to leave our audience with one piece of advice that you feel is important for them to take away from today. One piece of advice on leadership, whoever would like to start.

Anna Glass: I guess I’ll go ahead and start. I am going to name two leaders. One is my mother, who is … I fell into nonprofit wanting to be like her. And she ran many nonprofit organizations as an educator. And, I have really followed the way in which she has led her institutions. I think, in a lot of ways, I have modeled my mannerisms from her. The other person I will name is Sharon Luckman, who was the Executive Director for many years of the Alvin Ailey organization. and I had the great fortune of working with her briefly when I first came to DTH. You know, I admire so much about how she approached running a dance institution that had so much history and legacy and just the manner in which she was very straightforward with what it meant to put an institution on its feet. And so, in many ways, you know, when I’m thinking about how I’m going to approach something, I will often have both of those women in my head, as way to kind of guide me through what it is that I am trying to figure out. And then, I guess, what I will say from, you know, words of wisdom that I have really leaned into quite a bit in this moment is how important community is. And I mean, you know, the community that you exist in, the community of people that you lean on, but the community of executive directors. There have been more communication in partnership and allyship in this moment that I have ever experienced in my career, to be frankly honest. There are some institutions that, previously, would have been considered competitors that now, I think, we are all feeling that we are in the same boat and you know, that competition thing, that’s not getting us anywhere because, you know, nobody’s paying attention to ballet as it is. So, we need to lean on each other to get through this. and so, you know, I do while, you know, what Betty was saying earlier about, this is a very lonely position. You know, being at the top, we don’t have to be alone. You know, I think that we can pick up the phone and just say, “I’m really struggling. How did you do this? What would you recommend?” and when you are feeling … and this is for any position. It’s not just for executive directors. In any role that you are in, we are in a community together and it is important that we recognize and lean on one another in order to get through this very challenging moment.

Terri Lee Freeman: I would just say that, well, my … the leader I would point to is Congresswoman Barbara Jordan. I always held her in high esteem and then had the opportunity to work with her and the combination of presence, oratory, commitment, principles, that was what she represented to me. And so, I always wanted to kind of lead with that. As for something that I leave with the audience, I think it would be that what we do is not who we are. What we do is a portion of what makes us who we are. And as hard as I believe it is to find balance—I don’t know that there is really a real thing called balance—but as hard as that is, it is important to, accept the different pieces that make us, us, and recognize that there are different pieces that make each of our staff members who they are. And I think that this pandemic should help us see as real people, real human beings, with real feelings and fears and joys. And if we can move forward in that direction, accepting all of those pieces of ourselves, I think, ultimately, our organizations and institutions will be better for it.

Betty Avila: I would like to, name Leslie Edo. She is the Executive Director of the Armory Center for the Arts, here in Pasadena, California, and was previously at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center. And I’ve watched her, as a fan and as a friend, really work so gracefully to manage, you know, these organizations in challenging positions. And especially now throughout the pandemic, I think, you know, talk about tough decisions, but somebody who’s moving with such integrity and grace through what can feel so chaotic and, just jarring. So, I definitely, looked to her as an example. I think the other leader I want to mention is actually the founder of Self Help Graphics and Art, who was a Franciscan nun named Sister Karen Boccalero. And she has been described to me as a chain-smoking, rough-around-the-edges, did not mess around, was very blunt and people either loved her or had issues with her. And when I think about my leadership style, I’m on the exact opposite end of the spectrum but I do have moments where I would think to myself, “What would sister Karen do?” and, “How do I start to kind of meld a little bit of that into my approach and lens?” And the piece of advice I would share is, listen to your body. that is something that I don’t think we do enough. And that, you know, when we think we’re listening, it’s really, our body is like on the last, you know, red flag, glaring drums. And I have had that experience during this pandemic, very recently, with my back going out. So, and I know 100% that that is, that that’s my body saying, “You need get up and out of this chair and stop being in front of the computer.” So, I hope that everybody hears that and thinks about that a little bit more.

Jennifer Zaslow: Thank you so much for all of this sharing. What strikes me—and I’m going to go to questions—is how open and transparent and human you are. And I hope if nothing else comes through today, that people listening see that leaders, like all of you, are humans first, right? This has been an exceedingly hard time and your sharing that and saying it out loud, I think means a lot to people who are listening. So, one question here, kind of piggybacking on what you just said, Betty, the question is, have you made considerations for staff at different life stages or home circumstances?

Betty Avila: Yes, absolutely. We, at the very beginning of the pandemic, thinking about schedules and just the way that people … you have a different role at home than you do in the office. And we’ve got moms on the team. We’ve got, you know, people who are caretakers for other family members. So, I actually asked the staff to tell me what their schedule is going to be. It was like, do whatever is best for you. You know, we’ve tried to be good about not scheduling meetings during lunchtime, when some people are having to actually make meals for other folks. And I have a staff member who a couple days of the week actually has a really long break in the middle and works until 10. And not, you know, not ideal, but also, like, if that’s what works best for them, then that’s fine. So, and we’ll probably revisit that as we go into the end of the year to see where folks are at and how that might’ve changed for everybody.

Jennifer Zaslow: I mean, I’m hearing that all of you, are really prioritizing staff wellbeing and health. And I just kind of want to ask the question that is kind of like the elephant in the room. Do you see impacts on your effectiveness as a result of making these … I’ll use the word concessions, or these changes?

Terri Lee Freeman: I have not.

Anna Glass: No, I haven’t either. I think that, this is a lot for everyone and I think, you know, the work that we’re doing has shifted. And so, I think we are just all sort of shifting and being nimble and pivoting along with it, but I don’t feel that our output is … It’s different than what we were doing before, but I don’t feel that it has been negatively impacted by any stretch of imagination.

Betty Avila: Yeah, I would agree.

Jennifer Zaslow: Here’s a question that apparently a lot of people are asking, which is about board buy-in and working with boards to rethink operating models. Any surprises, challenges? What has that been like?

Terri Lee Freeman: You know, since we are a facility that requires people to come into the facility from all around, there has been an impact on our revenue because fewer people are coming. But interestingly, not … few enough in some instances. I mean, sometimes I would like to have fewer people in the museum and I think that has to do with kind of the social climate. So, people come here to see, to kind of wrestle with what they think is going on in social climate. Here’s what I’ve learned about the board. I’ve been open with the board. They recognize that administrative staff—those that can—are working from home at least several times a week. And they also know that we haven’t missed a beat since this whole thing started. In fact, what I’ve said to the staff is, the board is not pressing us to do anything except try to bring in dollars. And we’ve been doing pretty good at that. So, we’re the ones who are putting a lot of the pressure on ourselves. So, as long as this has been my experience, as long as I’m keeping the board abreast of what is happening with the facility, when we’re open. We did have to decrease our days open by one day. So, and that was a weekend day. So, we’re not open on Sundays that has an impact on revenue, but I just don’t have the staff back yet to be able to support that, regulate it, because we’re not meeting our maximums every day of the week. The only day that we’re kind of getting close to maximum, really, is Saturday. So, they understand that it wouldn’t be prudent for me to open on Sunday. And the other thing is, if we switched a day, that will require some staff to work Saturday and Sunday, and I’m not willing to ask people to do that. So, it’s not been an issue with the board. I think if we were in free-fall long slide and it, and they felt and sensed that we weren’t doing enough, then that would be another issue, but that hasn’t been the case.

Jennifer Zaslow: Noticing the time, I will say that I saw all of their heads nodding that each of you was stewarding your organizations well enough that you have garnered the trust if your board, and also it’s crystal clear that you’re able to go with, listen to what they have to say and speak directly to them, to be able to communicate—as you said, Terri—to help them understand the lay of the land and your priorities. I want to thank you all for an incredible conversation. That feels like it only scratched the surface of what it takes to lead in a moment like this but I hope that our listeners have taken away something that they can then bring to their work. So, thank you.

Panelists: Thank you.

About Our Guests
Anna Glass
Anna Glass
Executive Director, Dance Theatre of Harlem

Anna Glass has been involved in the performing arts for over twenty-five years. She currently serves as the Executive Director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem, where she co-launched with Virginia Johnson a collaborative initiative addressing racial inequity in ballet.

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Betty Avila
Betty Avila
Executive Director, Self Help Graphics & Art

Betty Avila is the Executive Director of Self Help Graphics & Art, an organization on the East side of Los Angeles. Working at the intersection of arts and social justice, Self Help’s mission is to foster the creation and advancement of new art works by Chicana/o and Latinx artists, with a focus on printmaking. Betty was named one of C-Suite Quarterly Magazine’s NextGen 10 in Philanthropy, Arts and Culture, and an Impact-Maker to Watch by City Impact Labs.

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Jennifer Zaslow
Jennifer Zaslow
Executive Coach

Jennifer Zaslow is an Executive Coach who believes that power begins with finding your voice. She began her professional life in New York as an aspiring opera singer, an experience that led to a twenty-year career as a leader and senior fundraiser in the non-profit sector.

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Terri Lee Freeman
Terri Lee Freeman
President, National Civil Rights Museum

Terri Lee Freeman is the president of the National Civil Rights Museum. She is responsible for providing strategic leadership in furthering the museum’s mission as an educational and cultural institution. She has also emphasized the connection between the historic civil rights era and today’s contemporary issues.

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