Possible Setback In Push To Eliminate Unpaid Internships

Just before Christmas Non-Profit Quarterly called attention to a situation of some concern. Recently the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) overturned an administrative law judge’s ruling and determined that employees were not protected when they advocated for non-employees.

In this particular case, it was employees of Amnesty International  signing a petition supporting paying unpaid interns who were determined to lack protections. However, as the article points out, this ruling would be equally applicable to other categorized as non-employees.

Molly Lee Kaban, an attorney with Harrison Bridgett in San Francisco, who observes that “other types of nonemployees, such as gig workers and other independent contractors, will not be able to rely on support from employees within an organization to advocate on their behalf. Uber employees, for example, can potentially be disciplined or terminated for advocating on behalf of nonemployee drivers who want to be classified as employees. This could lessen the pressure on employers to make changes.”

In the non-profit arts this might translate to a lack of protection for orchestra musicians who were advocating for better pay for substitute musicians who were classified as independent contractors. Similar to the Amnesty International case, employees of an arts organization advocating that interns be paid could likewise run into problems with their employers.  Obviously, labor law is not my area of expertise. There may be other rules and contract agreements that would forestall concerns about reprisals.

The are shades of gray and nuance to the rules. The NLRB’s basis for overturning the administrative law judge’s decision was based on the board’s interpretation of Amnesty International executive director’s comments as expressions of concern where the judge’s view was there were implications of reprisals.

Even if independent contractors do have more of a basis for being considered employees because they are paid, this ruling undermines the effort to eliminate the use of unpaid interns in both the for- and non-profit world.

As the National Law Review article on the case notes, trends are indicating potential barriers to graduate students, among others, efforts to unionize as well:

The NLRB has been signaling a hesitancy to impose obligations on employers outside the traditional employment context. It has proposed exempting paid undergraduate and graduate students from the NLRA, for example. Over the last several years, as employers are forced by the low employment rate to increase their use of nonemployees, unions have increased their efforts to expand the NLRA’s reach by organizing non-traditional workers, including temporary campaign workers and graduate students.

Seeing Your Stories In The Audience

If you want to see a good example of a show that is answering people’s need to see themselves and their stories on stage, check out Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. The show is on Netflix, but you can catch episodes on YouTube as well.

Actually, the best examples aren’t the show episodes but the Deep Cut videos. The show itself is scripted and addresses social, economic and political issues with comedy–attempting to communicate serious issues without feeling preachy.

The Deep Cuts are separate videos of conversations Minhaj has with the audience. At first it seemed they were using them to keep the show in people’s minds when there weren’t any new episodes being released. Now the Deep Cuts seem to be a feature of their own. Where they used to be only around 5 minutes long, they now rival the length of the regular episodes.

What I had noticed in some of the earliest episodes of the show was that there seemed to be a very racially mixed group of people in the front row of the audience. The fact I noticed this made me realize just how homogeneous live studio audiences tend to appear on TV. At first I was thinking he was making an effort to seat diverse faces in the front rows, but once I started seeing the Deep Cut episodes where the camera is turned toward the whole audience rather than just catching the first couple rows, I realized there was no difference between the first row and any other row.  (So if there was anyone who said there aren’t any Asians in NYC interested in seeing a show dealing with topical issues, Minhaj proves them wrong.)

The stuff the audience asks Minhaj runs the gamut from asking him to choose between two silly options to making fun of his enthusiastic hand gesturing to questions about pop culture and his relationship with his parents. Many of the questions are derived from his family background as Muslim immigrants from India, which again has dealt with everything from parental expectations and Bollywood references to more serious issues associated with that identity.

Or rather, the questions are derived from a SHARED experience and background. Minhaj often turns the question back on the person and gets their answer. It is as much seeing your stories in the audience as it is on stage.

In a recent Deep Cut episode, he discussed being on Ellen DeGeneres Show and correcting Ellen when she mispronounced Hasan. He said he saw his mother cringe in the audience and decided to address it. As a comedian, he did it in a light-hearted way, but he said his father was angry with him on the drive home. Minhaj observes that his father’s generation had to tolerate the indignity of having their names mispronounced in order to survive and make a place for their kids, but that he felt like it was his generation’s responsibility to hold people to make the effort to use their real names rather than convenient shorthand.

I think it is conversations and stories like that which help establish the sense of trust audiences need to feel assured that their faces and stories will be depicted with sincerity and accuracy.

Now how that translates into something arts organizations can bring to their homes, I don’t know. It is definitely different for every community. In some places it may be facilitated by humor, in other places, food.

Making a pitch to a local community to come see a comedian who will talk about the economic forces that make retirement increasingly impossible, but will also chat with the audience about his favorite hip hop artist and sneakers may garner no interest even though that describes an episode of Patriot Act. Not everyone can make the format work the same way and Minhaj put thousands of hours of sweat into his career before getting his show.

It is almost guaranteed that mistakes will be made.  Readers may recall my post about Mixed Blood Theater and the fits and false starts they experienced while trying to develop a meaningful program with the Somali community in their neighborhood.


Arts Marketing Is About Shared Interests, Not Demographics

Back in October Sara Leonard made a blog post for Americans for the Arts about marketing in the context of the “false-consensus effect,” the idea that your personal opinions, beliefs and interests are more widely shared than they actually are. She says this gets in the way of effectively promoting an experience to others

It makes sense; it’s such a logical starting point! We go to market an event and think to ourselves, “What do I think is cool about this?” or “Why would I want to go?” Or maybe we’re repeating what the artist themselves thinks is the key source of attraction to a given event, believing that the artist must know what’s good about their own work. But here’s the problem: we—you, me, artists—are NOT our average audience members…. Our job, as arts marketers, is to serve our current and prospective audiences a picture that connects with their interests and values in a package that evokes an experience they want to have. And to do that, we need to cast our imaginations beyond the limitations of our own perspectives and experiences, get to know what makes our people tick, and to imagine the other complexly and with respect.

She says the best approach is to employ three  W questions- Who? Where? Why do they care? But in addition to using these questions to segment the universe of potential audiences in order to properly target them, she suggests applying them in slightly different ways with those whom we already know versus those we don’t know yet. The latter group being people who rarely, if ever, participate in events we sponsor. (Though I suppose it could equally apply to people who might attend frequently with whom we have a pretty tenuous relationship in terms of understanding their motivations.)

What I appreciated about Sara’s perspective on this was that she reversed the order of her 3W questions when it came to people we don’t know yet. She asks “Why do they already care”   about some part of what is being offered first. From there she goes on to identify Who those people are and where connections with them might be made.

Perhaps the most salient point she exhorts readers to keep in mind came toward the end (my emphasis):

Your “who” groups should not be based solely on demographics. There is nothing about our demographic characteristics alone that explains WHY we spend our time and money the way we do, so let’s imagine and create connections based on shared interests and values first. Then, look around the room and see what demographic groups are missing. (Hint: That’s a “who” for next time…)


You Think Surfing A Wave Is Tough, How About A Lava Field?

I wanted to give a little love and attention to the efforts of artists in Hawaii. As many readers know, I ran a theater in Hawaii for about nine years, presenting and producing a number of works by Hawaiian & Pacific Rim artists and cultural practitioners.

First, a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa production of a Hawaiian language play has been chosen to perform at New York Theater Workshop’s Reflection of Native Voices festival in January. If you are going to be in NYC at the APAP conference next month, swing by.

I saw it as a tribute to the success of efforts to revitalize Hawaiian as a spoken language that there is a video of cast members and director doing interviews about the show entirely in the language. In fact, I saw an article by a gentleman working on revitalizing the Welsh language discussing what he learned about similar efforts in Hawaii when he was asked to speak on the subject at the University of Hawaii-Hilo.

Along the same lines, there was a piece in Honolulu Magazine last month about four different people trying to keep Hawaiian cultural practices from being lost.

One person has researched Hawaii’s only indigenous stringed instrument in an attempt to revitalize it. (Despite the fact there are only three trees which produce wood from which the instruments are made left in Hawaii.) Another is trying to preserve lua, the Hawaiian martial art. A third is trying to preserve hula ki‘i, an ancient style of hula that uses puppets and imagery.

The fourth person, I actually had some interaction with. Tom “Pōhaku” Stone has been working to preserve papa hōlua which is basically land sledding. We borrowed one of his sleds for a production I produced. The thing is narrower than your leg and like 15-20 feet long. People would ride it down lava fields, though there were also apparently groomed slides of other types of rocks.

If you think that sounds dangerous and crazy, you are right. If you read the article Stone talks about a wipe out that opened up one side of his face, resulting in some nerve damage.

But each of these people has spent decades researching and constructing objects based on scant reference in an attempt to preserve cultural practices which were discouraged or even forbidden. There is a lot of perseverance and reverence that preceded the reckless skull cracking. (And granted, most of what these artists practice is not as dangerous.)

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