Are We Living in a Zeitgeist of Catalytic Change? Maybe...But Does It Matter?

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 28, No 3 (Fall 2017)

Lisa Yancey

Do you think that we are living in a zeitgeist of catalytic change? I have heard the word catalytic used so frequently that I find myself accessorizing moments with this adjective as if it holds the weight of tectonic shifts. It seems to promise the kind of change that either redirects historical systems of oppression toward equity — gradually erasing calcified notions of otherness that fuel supremacist behaviors — or catapults us back into a time where Flintstones-like ideals become presidential norms.

From my perspective, indicators of change are illuminating like New York City’s Time Square at midnight. Global consciousness about climate change has united an international community of activists. Hashtags have become social media parlance and the equivalent of twenty-first-century digital identities. #BlackLivesMatter, #ImWithher, #transrightsarehumanrights, #NoDAPL, #equalpay, #climatechange, and #gnc are all indicators of movements and transitions to something greater, yes? As a Black American, the fact that I am living in an era where movies like Fences, Hidden Figures, I Am Not Your Negro, 13th, Moonlight, and Get Out all debuted within a twelve-month span is a Prince-evoking Sign o’ the Times. Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Solange, Chance the Rapper, Lupe Fiasco, and Jasiri X imprinting various pockets of the world with Black consciousness must certainly mean something. Even Jay Z’s 4:44 suggests that capitalistic blinders won’t keep enlightened ideas in the dark even if they aren’t common and don’t make cents.

We are living in a time of Afrofuturism, Afropunk, Luke Cage, Black Panther (debuting 2018), Black Girls Code, Dear White People, The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander), Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson), Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates), The Warmth of Other Suns (Isabel Wilkerson), Salt (Nayyirah Waheed), Empire, Queen Sugar, and Girls Trip. Misty Copeland has changed the game for ballerinas of all cultural backgrounds. And a Basquiat sold for $110.5 million without a title. Glenn Ligon, Renee Cox, Aliza Nisenbaum, Vanessa German, Kara Walker, Zena Zendejas, Mickalene Thomas, Kehinde Wiley, James Kerry Marshall, Carrie Mae Weems, Maria Garcia, Hank Willis Thomas, Rooster Cabrera, Titus Kaphar, Theaster Gates, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Postcommodity (Raven Chacon, Cristóbal Martínez, and Kade L. Twist), Alicia Mack Graf, Okwui Okpokwasili, Ralph Lemon, Somi, Issa Rae, Sarah Jones, Lynn Nottage, Suzan-Lori Parks, Danai Gurira, Ava DuVernay, Donald Glover, Dominique Morisseau, and the landmark National Museum of African American History and Culture are unapologetically redefining a quilted cultural landscape that is not esteemed by Eurocentric values.

Historically fringe populations are centering themselves. There is a nuanced but meaningful shifting from advocating for a seat at the table to building their own tables. Marginalized groups are standing in their own economic and creative power, radically disrupting notions of “center.”

I ask this question because a colleague and I were discussing whether it is true that we are living in a pivotal moment within the arts and culture landscape, particularly for cultural-niche organizations. We were discussing the growth in conversations about institutional mergers, transitions of founding leaders who have shaped the culture of institutions for a generation, the impacts of the Internet and digital technology in the production and distribution of cultural content, and how intersectionality has become a strategic pathway to discuss fundraising, program partnerships, and community impacts.

We noted how conversations regarding equity are propagating nationwide throughout philanthropy and among staff and boards. Unprecedented amounts of people are at least speaking about anti-oppression, microaggressions, and antiracism training, if not having undergone some formal training or conscious-raising workshop. There is a rise of first-voice narratives elevating authentic cultural perspectives in productions and media. Cultural plans are being produced in cities throughout the country — New York, Boston, D.C., Chattanooga, Charlotte, St. Louis, Chicago, Houston, and Seattle, to name a few — with references to improving diversity, equity, and inclusion. Even the president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, alludes to a moment when he unveiled Ford’s future-forward commitment to impact investing from its endowments. He shared, ”I believe the time is right for [Ford] . . . to consider how we might start to bridge the gap between philanthropic impact and investments,” in the April 5, 2017, Equals Change blog, “Unleashing the Power of Endowments: The Next Great Challenge for Philanthropy.” It is becoming a common understanding that the future of investing broadly is impact investing. This is a truism that is even being advanced in international money markets. The Case Foundation has created an online platform that advances this emerging perspective, calling it “the next frontier.”

If it is true that we are living in a zeitgeist of change, does the type of change need to be catalytic for meaningful transformations? Because, arguably, change happens every day. Moreover, to bring this back to the conversation that I was having with my colleague about shifts in the arts and culture sector, what lessons can be extracted about change that may strengthen the vitality of the arts and culture ecosystem?

To the question, Does the type of change need to be catalytic for meaningful transformations? I believe the answer is both yes and no. Sustained change is long and hard. As Nelson Mandela said, “After climbing one great hill, one finds that there are many more to climb.” I believe the idea of a catalyst or being catalytic invites the space for bold and radical thinking, which in turn produces cause-driven actions. This qualifier motivates a push for not just any change, but the kind of change that disrupts the status quo. To be clear, it is rarely, if ever, one thing that triggers a catalytic shift. It is the aggregate of inspired works over time by many people that forces change. This gets to the “no” part of my answer. Since catalytic shifts come from the actions of many over time, meaningful transformations are more the result of sustained movements. Thus, not every single action toward change needs to be catalytic. It is the sum of continued actions that transforms. #tinyrevolutions

So, what lessons can be extracted about change that may strengthen the vitality of the arts and culture ecosystem? When we understand that change is long, hard, and a series of inspirations maintained over time, we can approach organizational transitions differently. There are three areas of institutional change that have been prevalent in my work of late that we can reference: (1) founder transitions after generational leadership, (2) institutional mergers and dissolutions, and (3) the pains of pipelines.

As a field, we often approach sector changes institutionally, negating the human aspects of change. For instance, common phrases about change are “This organization is going through a transition,” or “There needs to be a succession plan,” or “We need to get more people of color on the board” in historically white institutions (without thoughtful onboarding or community support to address the less-talked-about isolation that shadows being among “the first” or “the few”). Solely, institutional framing undermines self-care, emotional stability, transitional readiness, and efficient and effective modeling — not to mention a viable human resources pool. One cannot be catalytic without tapping into human passions and inspirations. Institutional framing depersonalizes the individuals shouldering these transitions, thus making the person (and the field broadly) ill prepared for the resiliency required before thrivability and sustained change become the new norm. Let’s take this one step further: in the space of change and transition, the individuals directly impacted by the shift naturally oscillate between emotional extremes, such as fear and excitement, community support and isolation, resistance and adaptation, and confidence and insecurity. I call this oscillation the “emotional leadership pendulum for resiliency.”

We can improve as a field in the acknowledgment of these extremes and the grace shown in supporting them. If we better support the emotional labor endured in moving this work, I believe we fortify the environment where change happens. We empower people to acknowledge that these feelings are real and appropriate, mitigating time wasted on self-doubt while encouraging honest and inclusive dialogue. There are also unintended inequitable consequences of people having to quietly deal with their emotional feelings in isolation. You leave people trying to maintain a front for the greater good, sometimes at the expense of emotional wellness.

Given the zeitgeist we behold, perhaps this is an apt opportunity to examine three areas of institutional change that may have a transformative impact on the landscape if we embrace the emotional leadership pendulum for resiliency and approach how we manage these transitions differently.

Generational Founder Transitions

This situation is akin to a parent deciding to leave the family. No matter how great or awful that parent has become by the time of transition, a founder that has been around for twenty or more years (a generation) is not leaving a simple job opening for the next person to fill. They are leaving an active artery of organizational values, practice, ideas, promises, hopes, and expectations. No matter how fantastic and visionary the succeeding candidate is, there is a residue of workplace culture tattooed by the former boss that begs acknowledgment and understanding from the hiring board. Ideally, this understanding would be in place from the beginning of the search and would continue through the onboarding experience once the new person is hired, allowing the board to lead by example, showing the staff how to approach this change. Thus, if one wants to embrace this opportunity to do things differently with a long view for change, what may prove catalytic is to abandon the phantom fresh-start idea and approach these moments of transition as the twilight zone they are. It is a continuum that will likely feel weird and awkward in the beginning, irrespective of the transitioning founder being supportive and participatory in passing the baton. Once rid of this false notion, the board, newcomer, and staff are open to imagining the bold and unfathomable ideas that do not have to give the illusion of business as usual. The new leadership can enter the space with the grace and transparency of acknowledging that it will likely be a bit bumpy before the new, productive rhythm sets in. Approaching generational leadership transitions from this perspective invites honest dialogue and realistic planning between the staff and board. They can collaboratively explore ideas on how to mitigate the transitional obstacle course. Oddly enough, this moment of board and staff engagement and alignment could go a long way in currying favor with the new leader and easing natural anxieties and discomforts common with leadership transitions.

Before we move on to the next scenario, there are two transitioning vantage points that we must address in this situation. We just referenced the newcomer coming in and the remaining staff and board left to collaboratively design and experience what happens next; however, there is also the generational founder who is transitioning out. So often, most conversations with the transitioning founder pertain to severance and the going-away party. Depending on the relationship, there may be an emeritus role on the board, but that is rare (and in many cases, awkward). What about dedicating time and resources to support the transition of those who in many cases have dedicated their lives to this field? What if plans for succession and the new hire focused not only on the exit but also on retaining the relationship with the former director? The exiting director could become a future major donor. In this moment, one can reimagine what vitality looks like when ongoing stakeholders of the organization actively steward those who were once central figures.

Institutional Mergers and Dissolutions

A wise person said to me once, when sharing his experience going through a merger, “There’s no way to avoid people getting upset.” In the nonprofit sector, since the value exchange is about mission and impact versus profits, it is difficult to objectively discuss the nuts and bolts of merging without some emotional exchange. Merging or dissolving an institution is heart-and-soul work. There is a loss that happens that must be acknowledged and mourned in some way. So, approaching this work as if it is simply part of an organization’s growth cycle dismisses the humanity necessary to embrace adaptive change. Within the past six months, I have been either directly a part of or aware of three institutional mergers and one dissolution. None of these conversations was easy. But in the spirit of catalytic change, how fantastic is it that people are doing the work and leaning into uncomfortable conversations to create more viable institutions or to respectfully exit beloved organizations that can no longer be sustained! The joy of being a part of a mission-based organization is that you can center the vision that inspired the organizational change. Also, you can create shared agreements on how you will approach all issues that emerge and how you will support each other through the process. The simple revolution that may lead to meaningful transformations in the aggregate is recognizing that you are a team working toward an exciting, shared vision that you will bring to life together.

The Pains of Pipelines

Let me start by saying that the word pipeline is undergoing intense and appropriate scrutiny. I believe that the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and the challenges with the fossil fuel industry broadly have a lot to do with this interrogation. The deconstruction of words and language is one of my favorite signals of a radical moment. But for purposes of this example, I am using the word pipelines because it has been exhaustively employed to reference ways to cultivate more diverse and inclusive human resources, volunteers, and internship practices in historically white institutions. It is great that there are practices being instituted to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion. The institutions are better and richer as a result of these shifts.

What rarely gets discussed as we herald these pipeline programs is the emotional labor shouldered by the pioneer leaders carrying the weight of diversity in spaces recently embracing equitable practices. And to be clear, these individuals are passively expected to almost single-handedly reorient a new culture while also excelling in their new position. Further, the additional “representation” labor does not get negotiated in pre-hire expectations for roles, responsibilities, compensation, and performance evaluation. Yes, we are in a time where folks are talking about equity. Awesome! But a shift toward meaningful transformation requires acknowledging the emotional labor and cultivating nonjudgmental safe and brave spaces for candid conversations so that leaders do not have to manage in isolation.

Why Should Examination of Institutional Change and Supporting Emotional Leadership Matter to Philanthropy?

As radical stewards of social justice maximizing this moment of remarkable change, philanthropists can set the bar for supporting a change culture that nurtures the entirety of the experience. We have to remain human centered and create safe and brave spaces for honest, solutions-oriented conversations about these issues. This allows philanthropy to better resource the emotional carrying costs of these transitions.

Finally, to move toward catalytic change, we have to embrace solutions from a generational framework, balancing the needs of the now with work projected twenty years from now. If our horizons are solely in the now to next five years, we are responding to what was done fifteen to twenty years ago. Imagine taking this moment, where movements are guiding change, to encourage the field to dedicate resources to support emotional leadership resiliency that will sustain into the future. Imagine what that intentionality can convert. James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” In this moment, we can face change head on. The better we understand, embrace, and resource the comprehensive needs of these transitions, the greater the likelihood that the changes we institute today will become the sustained normalcy of tomorrow.

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