by Kathleen Welch, TAC Marketing & Tech Coordinator
Until very recently — and for the majority of my five-year tenure with the Thornapple Arts Council — we have been a two-person team. Alone in our rarely-visited office in a secluded corner of the building, Megan and I have always talked openly about our joys, our struggles, and our feelings on topics both professional and personal. We are a duo that values openness, has difficult conversations, and chooses improvement over intractability, and we are grateful to be part of an organization that does that same.
When the war in Ukraine began last year, we felt compelled to do something, limited though we were as a small arts organization in a small town in Southwest Michigan. With the support of our board, we found a way to give back by telling the story of Natasha, a Ukrainian woman living in Southwest Michigan that I have known since our high school days in Barry County.
Today marks one year since we first published that interview. Though we have always aimed to spark creativity, community, and culture, what that looks like and how it serves the greater good is not static. As we reflect this week on Ukraine, our organization, our professional development, and our community, it becomes clear that the world is smaller than it first appeared when watching a war begin half a world away.
by Megan Lavell, TAC Executive Director
It’s hard to believe that the war in Ukraine has been raging on for more than a year now. It lost its sex appeal here in the US a while ago, and the world marched on with its voracious bloodlust for newer news.
But the conflict goes on. Families and lives and a whole nation are still shattered. The harshness of Ukrainian reality still settles uneasily for many.
We revisit this topic often at the Thornapple Arts Council. Our support of Ukraine last year was certainly not the most financially successful program we have ever executed. But it felt like one of the most visceral, gut wrenching projects we have ever touched. Maybe it was because of the personal connection to someone affected by the onslaught half a world away. Or maybe it’s because our staff members have an utter inability to see cruelty in the world and not feel it in our bones.
Something you should know about the Thornapple Arts Council: we are a place where people are allowed to feel their feelings. Why else would we pump staff time and volunteer resources and our own money into a cause that has no direct bearing here in Barry County?
I have been through trainings and read books and listened to podcasts that talk about just that: Emotions in the Workplace. It took a global pandemic for experts to address that topic, but address it they did. How much to allow, what to share, how to keep appropriate boundaries, how to not be “emotionally leaky,” how to be open and honest and vulnerable without tiptoeing into being manipulative or unprofessional. I have dozens of hours into that kind of professional development, and the secret I learned is this. There is no secret. We are all bundles of skin-covered emotion showing up to work every day, hoping to do well and do good and make it to the weekend (no matter how much we truly love our jobs).
“We are a place where people are allowed to feel their feelings.”
Boundaries between work and personal life are important, but they do not negate our inability to set aside our humanity when we walk over the threshold of employment. Being professional just does not feel that important when your heart is breaking, either from a broken relationship or a sick parent or an attack on humanity. I struggle to think of anything we do at TAC that would require our employees to set aside their humanity.
And that’s probably what is driving our organization right now more than anything. It’s bigger than just supporting people in Ukraine. It’s bigger than the efforts we’re making to be more equitable and inclusive. It’s bigger than diversifying our programming. It’s bigger than the lip service often wrapped up in diversity statements and nondiscrimination policies. We have all those things, of course. But our dedication to doing better is more than that.
When Kathleen and I talked about this blog post, it was going to be a big discussion about our efforts in support of Ukraine; diversity, equity and inclusion; and professional development in general. But it seems like maybe what we need to share with the world now is less Look At What We Have Been Doing! and more, We’re All In This Together.
But what HAVE we been doing? We are working diligently to diversify our programming, from what we offer during Hastings Live to adding a session about the history of jazz to our Jazz Festival. Our board is talking about how to create a space where diversity can thrive, rather than just asking people to serve our organization in order to check a box. We are working to engage people in a sincere and holistic way, and we are listening to what they tell us about why they have not been engaged before now. None of this is earth shattering. But we are working relentlessly to move the needle a little every day through what is at times hard and ugly work.
What have we been doing that engages our humanity more than our professions? We have been making space for hard discussions. We have been taking mental health days. We have become comfortable with the discomfort of expressing our frustrations with each other. We are quick to share praise. We believe each other has the best intentions, so we can be quick to give grace. We are learning to give grace to ourselves. We have emotional support cats in our work spaces.
“We believe each other has the best intentions, so we can be quick to give grace.”
I am fortunate enough to be a participant in the Rising Leaders Cohort through the Michigan Arts and Culture Council. The 16 participants and our three facilitators have gathered for two weekends since October, with our final gathering scheduled for April. I’ve participated in many conferences, cohorts, trainings, gatherings and regular old circle-jerks in my 13+ years with the Thornapple Arts Council. But this one is different. It has not taught me new skills. It has taught me to develop myself as a person if I want to show up as a better professional. To do otherwise would just be putting lipstick on a pig.
The Rising Leaders Cohort requires that I stay overnight in dorm-style accommodations – something I am generally very opposed to – and get away from My Life for the three days we are together. Both times we have gathered, we have been asked what we need to really be present in our sessions and in our shared time and space. It’s a tall order to ask busy professionals, partners, parents to put aside their lives (and their phones, as much as possible) over three days to focus on the topic of leadership. But the work of any personal development is done by first turning inward. Now I understand that it’s impossible that any true change and development comes from outside ourselves; it starts inside and works its way out.
“It’s impossible that any true change and development comes from outside ourselves; it starts inside and works its way out.”
At our last gathering, I pushed too hard for discussion with implications rooted in white supremacy. I felt gross about it for days, trying to figure out the right way to move those discussions forward because, like most things in life, I moved it forward like the KoolAid Man going through a wall. I never thought I knew all the answers or all the ways to deal with racial justice or even my own growth. But I had done SOME work, and thought I at least knew my way through the discussion. What I learned was, the work does not get easier. The undying fire to do what’s right needs to remain hot, but I need to learn to handle it with more finesse and present it to the world with more care. I don’t get to play verbal Hot Potato and expect people to stand there with their bare hands open to catch whatever I throw.
I share all of this about Rising Leaders not because that is the foundation on which all of TAC’s contributions and growth are resting, but as a way to set the stage for the most important lesson I have learned in the last year: If we truly want to show up and make an impact, we need to show up with our whole selves. Not half of us. Not a mask. Not a shell of a person. Not one part of our identities, while the rest of our intersectionality sits it out. And for us to show up as an organization, we need to show up having made changes internally first. We need to do the work on our (organizational) insides before we can show up differently to our world and our community.
The mission of the Thornapple Arts Council is, “enriching Barry County through cultural experiences.” It’s a straight-forward enough mission, and one that is broad enough to allow board and staff to be creative in their interpretation of what “enriching” and “cultural experiences” mean. We take seriously our responsibility to our donors, funders and sponsors to be good stewards of their money and make the quality of our programming a top priority.
We recently have started taking very seriously our responsibility to our community and our world to be as inclusive, as equitable, as thoughtful and humble and generous as we can possibly be while living into our mission. It’s a tall order, and our organization has accepted that conviction whole heartedly. That decision has been the root of all the learning and advocating and including and giving back we have done. The decision to embrace and lead with our humanity and our desire to serve our community has changed the way that we approach all that we do at TAC. It is not easy work – and it is not an easy way to approach the work. But it is what is right for us as both people and leaders of an organization. And that is where we are going to make the difference.