001: How Is Your Heart Beating?

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Learn how we became who we are today, an artistic space for BIPOC and ALAANA, through changing our board of directors.

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Threewalls was founded in 2003 to fill a gap for emerging and experimental artists. The organization offered solo exhibitions, and for many artists, this was their first solo show. It was an important opportunity to help launch their artistic careers. But it also hosted residency programs for national and international artists. With the programming being presented, most of the artists were White and affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, also known as SAIC.

Threewalls was not intentional in making space for a majority, Black and Brown city, a city that is incredibly rich in artistic and cultural history outside of Whiteness. In essence, the organization, prior to the Fall of 2015, was predominantly White, reflecting and participating in reinscribing white supremacy in the art world, and society at large. Whether intentional or unintentional, this is part of Threewalls's history. And given that this podcast is happening during a moment where there is a revolution and uprising against anti-Black racism in the world, due to the state-sanctioned violence and killings of Black people, it's really important that as an organization, we acknowledge our history. And while acknowledging our history, and reinscribing Whiteness, and the arts being valued through the lens of Whiteness and Western thought, it's important to acknowledge that in this moment, as we have evolved into the organization we are today.

When I became the executive director in Fall 2015, it was a big signal shift for the organization. And for the Chicago art community. The heart of the organization was beating differently because it was a different heart. The Board of Directors, all-White at the time, understood it was past time for something different, and that the organization needed to serve Black and Brown artists, especially those who are not affiliated with SAIC. And those who were not used to simply represent diversity at institutions in the city--the board was checking and recalibrating the heartbeat of the organization. And this is why I'm here.

If you notice, I'm mentioning heart and heart beating. I'm talking about our work and using these terms because at the core, it is about the individual and their humanity, and not their productivity or their objects. Artists are humans who are not divorced or separated from the world and their communities and what's happening in those spaces. Threewalls's work is not like that of a museum or a gallery, which is to put more emphasis on the object, or what has become the luxury item that increases in monetary value, and not an agent of lifting up human experiences and connections. Now our work begins and ends with the person who is an artist or creative. This is the heart at the core of Threewalls today.

Understanding that our work is heart work. And this is a term that we use internally at the organization. And that the hard work is rooted in Blackness. I ask you, how is your heart? How do you check its speed? Its rhythm at all levels of your work? Whether you're an artist, a creative cultural worker, board member, or funder. See what we understand it Threewalls is that our work cannot have the impact it needs without making sure our heart beating is in tune.

How did Threewalls tune its heart? And this is the part in the

podcasts where I get to share a little bit more about how we became who we are today.

So to begin with, we assess the entire organizational structure from top to bottom, making the changes necessary to align with the vision of serving Black artists, and other artists who self identify as BIPOC, which means Black, Indigenous and People of Color, or ALAANA (African, Latin x, Arab, Asian and Native American).

Truth be told Blackness and Black feminist practices serve as the baseline for checking our heart. So we had to recruit Black and POC board members,

encourage and ask White board members who were or are not anti-racist and pro black woman, to step off the board, and recruit not moneyed board members like typical nonprofits do. But those who are active in different parts of our Chicago community, and assisting with systemic change.

The board piece of reimagining an organization or an institution is just as important as thinking about who you will hire to advance your mission and practice your values. Oftentimes, we think that it's enough to just hire someone of color, or someone who is of the LGBTQ community or disabled. And oftentimes, that's not enough. It's not enough. Because if the leadership at the top that is responsible for stewarding the organization, which is the board of directors or the Board of Trustees, if they don't practice these values of inclusion, and celebrating difference, then any work that's happening at the ground level, and in these terms, when I'm talking about ground level, I'm talking about the daily work of the organization,

it doesn't matter, the work will not actually root. And so for Threewalls, while as a Black woman, I was appointed and have the credentials, I was appointed by an all White board, who I believe had very good intentions. But were not necessarily ready to do the necessary work to unlearn and unlearn their biases. And that it was not going to be enough for me to be the ED and be an organization that was much more inclusive.

So without really taking a hard look, and asking the difficult questions of the board, and to, to not just think about but put into action, how the board would also reflect the staff, the artists and creatives in our community, and then Chicago more broadly. And we began that work in, I would say, kind of summer of 2016. And it is an ongoing process. It is a process that we manage on the daily because as an organization who has evolved from serving predominantly White artists and creatives and having an all White staff, it takes time to usher that in in such a way that it does not leave when certain board members decide it's time to exit the organization or if I exit the organization.

So one of our strategies for becoming a more inclusive board of directors that reflects a more richly diverse Chicago is to participate in board matching programs. And we have participated so far in two different programs. One program is led by the Arts and Business Council.

And we participated in that; it was really wonderful because we got our treasurer, and she stepped right into a leadership role when she joined the board and has been really active and responsive and

truly understands the work that we're doing. And the second program that we participated in was supported by the Field Foundation and the Woods Fund of Chicago. And this is where we met our most recent board member. And I really like board matching programs, because board members come in already understanding what their role is in the organization. And they understand that there's governance, they understand that there's fundraising, they understand that their job as a board member, is to support the team. Their job is not to create programming, their job is not to manage the team, their job is really in support. A couple of other strategies that we've used to recruit new board members is the age old ask board members if they know someone in their network or circle. We have gotten a board member through those means. And also me as Ed, being aware of leaders in our community that absolutely practice our values and understand why supporting artists is really important. Why

supporting also art happening in public spaces and communities is really important. And so we've been able to get a few board members in that way. And a lot of times, these are folks that I don't know, but I reached out and ask for coffee date

and start the process.

One thing to note is that while the board transition has happened somewhat quickly, over the past four or five years, the recruiting process has taken us probably about a year to two years. And that might seem really long. But again, when you're thinking about such a seismic shift, and a shift that is rooted in not only Blackness, but centering, marginalized voices, you want to make sure that the board members are really advocates, and not individuals who only pay lip service. So our process has taken a little bit longer. But I can say that the current makeup of our board of directors is really incredible. And everyone knows their role, and everyone shows up. And that makes my job much easier.

And so I shared our strategies for recruiting board members. And you may be wondering, well, how did we handle those who were on the board when I was appointed? How did we handle them exiting or what was that process? And there were several. One process was to say, particularly after, in early 2016, the organization faced financial difficulties and we were closing our gallery space and kind of going in a planning mode for a year; and I'll talk more about what happened there in another episode. But, when we went to that space of "okay, programming is not gonna happen for the next year. This is really rebuilding and reimagining." And the board members had to transition from a fundraising and governing board to a working board. And that meant helping me do day to day things. And with that we had a board member to leave because they did not have the time. As we were transitioning and kind of firming up what kind of organization we would be, what our operational model would be, what kinds of programming we would be doing, and that it was going to be centering on black and brown artists, we had board members leave that

which was totally fine. There's no hard feelings. It was really a different organization. We went from a bricks and mortar traditional exhibitions and exhibitions where objects

were centered to now talking about doing exhibitions actually in neighborhoods,

not focusing on the object making so much, but really the artists and wanting to kind of explore this itinerant model. And so those are two different operating models. And that was fine. The organization transitioned into something that some of the early board members no longer recognized. The other strategy, and it was not intended to get people to leave the board, but as we were, again, rooting ourselves as an organization that is supporting and centering artists of color, it was really important that the board members go through anti-racism training.

And understanding that while we believe racism to be very intentional acts like lynching, like symbolic, like the Confederate flag, it was important for the board members to understand that racism, while yes, it can be that visible, it's also very micro, and it can be unintentional. And so there had been several kind of unconscious acts that had been taking place over four years. And so

it was time for the board to participate in anti-racism training. And through that process, we even had a board member leave the day before anti racism training. But through that process, some of the board members started, I think, to realize that maybe they weren't as open as they thought they were. Maybe they weren't as accepting. And

through that, we had a couple of folks leave the board.

And so those are some of the ways. Again, the anti racism training was not intended to get folks to leave the board as much as it was, for them to recognize their own biases within themselves, particularly as the organization is led by Black woman. From the time of anti-racism training, we had a Latina and another Black woman, so women of color, leading this serving artists of color. And being really concerned about the way board members engaged not only the team, but also artists in our space and in communities, and how unconscious behaviors kind of signal your discomfort with that individual based on their race. So now we do have a board that is, as I mentioned earlier, more racially diverse. It's also more economically diverse, different professional fields, different experiences. And that is exactly who we are as an organization. And again, the the community that we serve. And so our board has been the last piece of the puzzle, quite frankly, it's the first thing I'm talking about on the podcast, but it really has been the last piece to kind of shift. And it's an ongoing thing. Once you get your dream board. There's still managing the board. But there's also understanding that as the organization evolves, your board might also have to evolve. And you might have to ask folks on your board to consider exiting. I'm always on the lookout for new board members, because I think it's really important. Board members, depending on what's going on in their lives, they may be more active one year, they may be less active the other year, they may be burning out depending on what kind of projects or what things happening at the board level and organizational level. So

the board piece is ongoing. It does not stop. But it has been for this organization really important to our evolution to being a Black-led space. And I think that's all I have for y'all today. In terms of how our heart is beating the board, beginning like kind of top down, the board level is really important. If everything else

is kind of on par and beating but you have dysfunction at the board level, it's a wrap. You can't get the work done that you need to get done. And so, really thinking about your board structure, and how to make sure it reflects not just inclusion, but care.

So join me in dreaming and building a new racially just an equitable world through the lens of art, creativity and black radical imagination. Thank you for listening to Inside the Walls. Until next time.

The sound designs to be here at the beginning and at the end of the podcast are by Jared Brown. The podcast is also supported by the Illinois Arts Council agency, the Andy Warhol Foundation for Visual Arts and the Surdna Foundation.

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