Social Class & Wealth And The Pursuit Of Creative Careers

It appears that concerns about how social class and wealth limit access to creative careers may be a hot topic of discussion in England these days. Via is a The Stage piece by Lyn Gardner addressing how the issue impacts theater professionals and via a Twitter post by Arts Emergency was an article about the same situation with journalism in England.

The latter article talks about a mentoring program called PressPad which provides people pursuing journalism careers two important assets- a place to live and a mentor from the industry. It appears these things are rolled together, with the young person living with their host mentor in London which is definitely not a cheap place to live. One person interviewed for the story decided to pursue journalism in South America because the cost of living was so high in London. PressPad also provides other networking and support services.

As has been mentioned numerous times before in regard to creative careers, the article cites one of the most important factors contributing to whether people are able to pursue a journalism career as coming from a social/financial background where family resources and connections allow you to pursue a career while receiving little to no pay and working unpredictable schedules.

Additionally, one of PressPad underlying goals is

“…trying to change the culture of the journalism community: “We have some really high-profile hosts – some topic editors and senior journalists in our industry. Where else would they meet a 19 year old, working-class white girl who has been on free school meals? They wouldn’t! The real thing is- it’s a two way street.”

On the theatre side, Lyn Gardner opens her article noting,

Just before Christmas, Arts Council England announced that from next year regularly funded organisations will be required to report not just on the gender, ethnicity, age and disability representation of workforces but also on the socio-economic backgrounds of employees.

Part of the motivation for this was the recognition that only 10% of theatre directors were from working class backgrounds. I recall seeing similar statistics about actors. There is push to reduce auditioning fees for training programs as well.

I had seen some implications that there might be penalties if organizations could not demonstrate representation among these categories, but it was never clear what this might be. It also wasn’t clear if there would be a standard set to ensure representation in jobs of higher authority and responsibility and not just custodial, secretarial and food services employees.

Presumably, there would be if the goal is to provide more opportunities to working class individuals, but I haven’t received a clear picture of what those standards might be.  I get the sense from Lyn Gardner’s writing that despite welcoming the new focus on improving the environment for working class individuals, as with the journalism program, she feels a larger cultural shift is required.

If we don’t reinvent drama training to reflect the different needs of students from much more diverse backgrounds – and that includes those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds – it’s like holding the door open so that they can get in the room, then blaming them when they leave quickly because they feel uncomfortable or can’t afford to stay.

When you change the intake of an institution – whether a training school or a theatre – if you don’t also change the culture, then it is not real change. Just as more diverse casting on our theatres’ stages is only virtue-signalling if it doesn’t extend beyond the wings into the entire building.

There are strong imperatives to hold the doors wide open, not least because if you widen the creative pool you immediately boost the creative possibilities. A huge advantage of bringing people from diverse backgrounds into theatre and training establishments is that they bring a new perspective, questioning rather than accepting the way things are done.

My perception is that in the U.S. we are having similar conversations about how large a factor family wealth and social expectations contribute to the success of people pursuing creative careers, but there is a lack of institutional mandate from governmental entities on the state or federal level. At this time I can’t recall any major, influential funders embracing something along these lines as a central policy initiative.

One Of The Most Significant Music Venues In Washington DC Is Outside A Cellphone Store

Today CityLab had a post titled “How Go-Go Music Became Kryptonite for Gentrification in D.C.” This was actually a follow up to an article that had come out in the Spring that I bookmarked with a notation “A T-Mobile store is the cultural axis for Go-Go music?”

I had bookmarked the story with the intention of returning to it in order to draw attention to the way centers of cultural signficance often emerge organically rather than by plan. I don’t think anyone uses a cellphone store as a model when drawing up plans for a cultural facility.

Briefly, the story here is that a guy who owned a nightclub which featured go-go bands opened a cellphone store when the venue closed and started playing his go-go music collection over the speakers outside his store. The neighborhood has gradually gentrified since the mid-1990s and residents of the new condo across the street complained about the music being too loud.

You may not know that residents of Washington DC claim go-go as their own, feeling the music style is synonymous with the city. Hearings were held on October 30 in support of a bill to make it the official music of the city.

They rallied around the store in a big way:

Thousands of people flooded Shaw’s streets and thousands more signed a petition (80,329 to be exact) demanding that Campbell be allowed to keep playing go-go at his corner, all done under the banner #Don’tMuteDC, which was to say “don’t mute—or erase—black people in D.C.” … which was to say, “don’t let gentrification have the final say.” And it didn’t. Several forces converged—including the CEO of T-Mobile, which owns the Metro PCS cell phones and service Campbell sold at his store—to declare that “the music will go on,” which led to the condo tenant dropping the complaint and acquiescing to the will of the streets.

Often speakers/writers about non-profit organizations challenge people to think about their place in the community and ask the question, who would miss you if you were gone, as a way to gauge the degree of relevance your organization has in the community.

Something of a corollary to this question is whether there is an entity in the community so that is so closely tied into the identity of the community that people would become angry if it disappeared. It may not be your organization, but really asking the question and paying attention might be revelatory. On the surface, it may seem obvious. In some communities, everything may seem aligned toward high school or college football. But there may also be some powerful, but overlooked element your organization could do a better job embracing and/or magnifying. Or at the very least recognizing and acknowledging the importance of.

Colorblind Grant Evaluation Measures Aren’t

There was an opinion piece on the Chronicle of Philanthropy website today by Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund, discussing how the evaluative measures often employed by funders tend to discriminate against non profit organizations lead by, and serving, people of color.

He writes,

What I did not realize then was how colorblind application of financial assessment and funding practices can make it harder for organizations led by and serving people of color to get grants and make the most of them.

The problem often originates in the fact that these organizations don’t have access to networks of influence and financial resources that other organizations do.

So requiring dollar for dollar matches for grants or using rates of donations by board members as a measure of engagement and investment are difficult criteria for many non-profits to meet.

The same problem arises when using budget size as a point of assessment.

Determine grant size based on the value of the work rather than the current revenue of the organization: When you recognize the structural barriers that prevent many well-run and effective organizations from gaining traction, you come to see how distorted the link can be between an organization’s size and capacity. And the formal accounting rules that determine what counts as revenue make the problem worse. For example, pro bono legal advice from a corporate law firm counts as revenue. The many hours a volunteer spends reading to young people in a community center does not.

A better approach: Rather than creating rules that peg grants to a share of revenue, spend time understanding the value the work would generate and the full cost to undertake it.

Obviously, these evaluation measures don’t just present problems for organizations run by and for racial minorities. Many non-profit organizations run by racial minorities lack resources, but not every non-profit lacking resources is run by and for racial minorities.

Bugg-Levine provides a link to a guide recently issued by the Nonprofit Finance Fund which charts racially-based financial analysis and provides suggested alternatives.

There are some issues you might not immediately anticipate. For example, having access to a wealthy private donor allows organizations to take government contracts which tend not to cover full costs. Having the imprimatur of a government contract provides other funders with a greater degree of confidence in the organization, leading to better funding opportunities. But not having a relationship with a wealthy private donor makes it difficult to secure the government contract in the first place.

Another example identified in the chart is that:

Funders associate small organizations with community authenticity

Organizations will intentionally limit their revenue (often below $1 million/year) to remain eligible for “small organization” grants, because some funders will cut them off when they become larger. But, they still can’t make the leap to effectively compete against larger organizations for larger grants, given the dearth of funding options for organizations in the $750,000-$3 million/year revenue range.

Even an organization’s accounting method can be a source of bias. The indication that the organization employs accrual based accounting vs cash based accounting  favors better funded organizations that have the resources to pay for accrual accounting services because,

If an organization is using cash-basis accounting, which counts money when it is received or spent, rather than when it is earned or billed, their finances appear less stable. This can lead to suspicion about the soundness of their leadership and overall financial health, and create a perception that making a grant to this organization is riskier than if they were using accrual accounting

Gradually Finding The Leader Within

Long time readers know I am a fan of Peter Drucker’s short piece, Managing Oneself.  It has been awhile since I have sung its praises so it is timely that a TEDx Talk by Lars Sudmann about self-leadership came across my social media feeds recently.

Actually, it was a written summary of the talk on the TED website that initially came to my attention.

One of the first things I appreciated about Sudmann’s talk was that he acknowledged that good leadership is a lot easier in theory than in practice. As a subordinate, we always have ideas running through our heads about how we would do a better job than our bosses if we were in charge. Then when we are actually put in charge, we get bogged down with all the details and demands for our time.

Sudmann talks about walking in to his first staff meeting, resolved to be an inspiring, dynamic and awesome leader only to have the conversation bogged down by a discussion of email signature files.

Where I really agree with Sudmann is his suggestion that self-reflection and introspection is one of the most important traits of a good leader. It isn’t enough to simply make a list of your strengths and weaknesses and acknowledge them, you have to be in the practice of evaluating your daily decisions and activities.

Drucker covers this in his piece too. He urges people to become aware of their strengths and what they need to become better and encourages people to share how they work best with co-workers as a way of enlisting their in providing materials and opportunities in a manner that aids your improvement.

Sudmann cites Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher recognized as one of the better Roman Emperors, who focused much of his time practicing self-leadership versus trying to lead others.

Sudmann suggests that a little self-examination can result in a realization that we share many of the traits we dislike about those we consider bad leaders. You can do the same thing with the traits you admire in others:

Every day, take 5- 10 minutes to think about the challenges you’ve recently handled and the ones you’ll soon face. While Marcus Aurelius was fond of reflecting in the evening, Sudmann likes doing this over morning coffee. Questions to pose include: “How did my leadership go yesterday? How would the leader I’d like to be have faced the challenges I faced? What about my challenges today? What could I do differently?” Write down your thoughts so you can refer back to them and learn from them.

Prioritizing issues is also an important part of leadership. If you hadn’t guessed it already, a discussion about email signatures shouldn’t occupy important staff meetings.

You should engage with 9s and 10s right away, but you’ll find that many things which shatter your calm will be of lesser importance. With anything that’s a 6 or lower, either excuse yourself physically (“I need to take a quick break; be right back”) or figuratively (“Let me take a minute to go over what you’ve said”). Then, give yourself a moment to think: “How would the leader I aspire to be handle this situation?” The answer will come to you.

There are pretty much direct parallels between strategic plans and developing leadership skills. Just as you shouldn’t put a strategic plan on a shelf after investing time in examining the state of your organization and creating a plan to guide the organization into the future, you don’t want to scrutinize your strengths and weaknesses and do nothing to address them until the next crisis or next scheduled board/supervisor evaluation.

I also see parallels between the approach Sudmann  espouses and Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative.  (You knew I was going to tie something back to that sooner or later!)  Just as building public will for arts and culture is a long term plan focused on continuous improvement and consistent messaging, so too is the process of becoming a better leader.


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