Friday, May 27, 2016

My statement at DCCAH's May Commissioner meeting

This week, I signed up to make a statement during the public comment portion of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities monthly commissioner meeting. The public comment period is a 30 minute slot for up to ten individuals or groups to have several minutes and speak directly to commissioners, on behalf of associations, organizations, or simply themselves.

While it is not a dialogue, it is an opportunity to literally have a voice at the table, and have your comments captured in the official and public minutes. Normally time is limited to 3 minutes but because of the low number of people who had signed up to testify, so to speak, I was allowed up to five.

Not one to want to waste time, either the Comissioners or mine, I wrote out and practiced my comments, regularly clocking in at about four minutes and twenty seconds. And so I wanted to share them:
Hello. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is JR Russ. I worked here at the Commission first as a Grants and Legislative Affairs Assistant; then as a Grants Co-manager for the Artist Fellowship Program, with Regan Spurlock; and finally as the Online Marketing Manager, working with Jeffrey Scott and Teresa Boersma, up until last summer. And while I would love to be back working with Mr. Scott and Ms. Boersma or most anyone else here, it is nonetheless a treat to be back not as staff, but simply a DC artist, resident, and native. I actually grew up at 605 G St SW, where my parents still live, just about 8 blocks to the west. 
Whether you knew me before today or not, I thought I’d just share a bit about myself first before getting to my request. Born and raised in DC, my first artistic endeavor was as a professional boy soprano, singing at the Washington National Cathedral. My pinnacle experience there was singing at Justice Thurgood Marshall’s funeral, back in 1993. 
I went on to become involved in theatre in high school where I was president of the Drama Club, and ended up going to the University of Maryland College Park, as a dance major. After graduating I would go on to work on and off stage at various dance and theatre organizations in the metropolitan area, from teaching at City Dance to managing a Discovery Theater tour, from being a part of the Atlas Performing Arts Center’s opening season performing in the Washington Savoyards’ Kiss Me, Kate, to dancing in Bodies in Urban Spaces a site-specific public art dance that would lead audience members throughout Chinatown to end up at the Harman Center for the inaugural VelocityDC Festival
And as I seemed to get pulled into more of the admin work as well, I ended up pursuing my M.A. in Arts Management from American University, where my thesis was on how working performers in the DC area defined arts advocacy and community. Since then, I’ve explored my own artistic voice and vision, having produced shows at five of the last six Capital Fringe festivals, with another show on the way this summer where I’ve committed to providing ASL interpreters for three of the six performances. And I endeavor to find other ways to be an active & engaged participant in our local community, from serving as a member of the steering committee for the Emerging Arts Leaders DC to being the first one to move into the Brookland Artspace Lofts five years ago. 
Current affiliations include being an artistic collaborator with dog & pony dc, a board member of Story District 5 years going on 6, as well as one of Dance Place’s newest board recruits. Oh yeah: and Burning Man. Upcoming projects other than Fringe include being a judge for Capturing Fire’s Queer Cookie Slam, facilitating an arts advocacy session at Now Next Dance’s First Leadership Symposium at the Dance Loft on 14, and being in Synetic Theater’s remount of Twelfth Night this summer. 
My current day job is actually my first non-arts job in ten years: I’m the Communications and Development Manager at the DC Alliance of Youth Advocates. An organization that’s been around for over ten years, we have about 150 member organizations, many of which are arts organizations or community-based organizations with arts programs for youth. 
But the takeaway for me there has been learning what I can from an organization that is VERY effective with its youth advocacy, and seeing what I can bring back to arts advocacy in DC. Being here, talking to you, is just a part of that. And I hope, in sharing my own work before, outside of, & after my time at the Commission, you understand both the breadth & depth of my experience with, passion for & dedication to our arts community. 
And so the main reason, my main request, for coming here today has to do with the current strategic plan. Since it’s been posted on the website last September, I noted it’s only been mentioned five times at Commission meetings, according to the minutes. And while this is certainly understandable, as there’s been a good bit of transition since it was posted, if possible I would ask for the following, which you might already be planning to do anyway. 
There are a lot of great priorities and strategies in the strategic plan. It would be wonderful if, at one year in, the Commission could share some kind of status report regarding what’s been accomplished. It certainly doesn’t have to be comprehensive and practically can’t be. But at the very least, I’d  say an update on all the strategies identified as priority one would be ideal. Anything less would be questionable. 
Your strategic plan’s theme is “leadership beyond grantmaking”. And you have a great roadmap in your strategic plan for “communications beyond programming”. Because I’m not asking you to just share an update with me, but to do so proactively and publicly. 
In sharing the plan within even just my own networks, there’s been a lot of positive feedback to the strategies outlined, but cautious concern about actual implementation or execution. The negative optics and perception (real or imagined) of if just sitting on a shelf for the next five years could be easily counteracted by simply keeping the community updated as progress is made. Thank you for considering this. And thank you for your time.
That's it. Not an unreasonable ask, I thought. And Chair Kay Kendall actually reassured me that even before my statement, it was her intent to make sure that the strategic plan was also being used and not just collecting dust. In fact, she was already planning to regroup with her leadership soon, also reasonable in terms of not having happened sooner, as DC Council budget hearings, which just ended earlier this month, do take up a lot of bandwith for any city agency.

And so I wanted to share not just so you could see what I read to Commissioners, but to hopefully give an idea of what one could share themselves.

I would urge strongly not to use this opportunity as a grievance session to blame, accuse, or guilt Commissioners regarding often times perceived but false inequities. Which isn't to say that there aren't inequities which affect some arts organizations and the communities they serve, but the grant application and review process is not one of them.

For a couple of examples of what I would recommend NOT doing, you can check out the Commission meeting minutes from October 22, 2015. I can provide a further breakdown of some of the specifc reasons why. And not that you can't speak about your own work either individually or with your organization, but ultimately the Commissioners can only take whatever you have to say within the context of the larger DC arts community as well as the bigger picture of the work and programs of the Commission. There's very little they can do "fix" whatever you think the problem is with your particular situation.

And here are a couple of final suggestions. When sharing challenges provide systemic solutions, not ones specific to your own individual situation. And when possible share gratitude for the things that do work well, in terms of the work the Commission does to support the DC arts community through its programs.

Because having been on the other side of the table, it's often a thankless job for Commissioners and staff, with the squeeky wheels in the community often being the loudest.
Post a Comment