The following essay is based on a video created by the author on her YouTube channel.
I promised myself I would make this statement if I received a certain letter in the mail that confirmed some suspicions I had. I received it, and so I created this essay. Frankly I am nervous about expressing this so publicly, as I’m confident that there are a few people who will decide not to work with me after hearing what I have to say. Yet I think it bears saying. And at the end of the essay I will also state: I hope I’m mistaken. I’d like to be.
As an intersectional inclusion expert, performance maker, change facilitator, and leader in my field for many years, I’m excited to see that there are currently a number of executive-level openings available. It’s an exciting time. We are all very aware that our field has been dominated by white cisgender male leadership since its inception. This is a time of opening opportunities and I’ve been encouraged to apply for many of them.
But here’s my first dangerous admission: I don’t know if I want to work for you. I’m not sure I want to invest my considerable experience managing large-scale budgets, curating and directing hundreds of artists, negotiating and developing contracts, fundraising hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly, doing civic engagement working with politicians and community leaders. I am not sure I want to invest my time in transforming your community and institution into greater sustainability. I am unsure I want to invest my spirit in maintaining the legacy and wealth of the historically white institutions. I know I can. I just don’t know if I want to.
I can’t know until I interview the institution and community. Which can’t happen unless a small number of individuals within the institution decide to interview me in person…which has not been happening.
Sometimes I’ll get a Skype interview or a phone call, but generally it’s a letter saying we don’t need you. So I tell myself a story. Because they obviously need someone like me. I tell myself I just need to work harder. My experience is not good enough. I just need more experience. The excellent successes I’ve had in life were not excellent enough. I tell myself, “You’ve only been nominated for a Grammy, you never won one.” Or I tell myself I didn’t present myself correctly. Or my résumé looks more like an academic CV—I have to reformat it so I will be seen. Or I need to change my hair or clothing to present more professionally.
Or I tell myself that they can sense that I’m not 100 percent confident about working for them, because it’s true: I don’t know if I want to lead until I’ve met the institution and its community and seen it in action. I must observe process as well as productions. This takes presence.
I also tell myself I am not special. I am so grateful to know this. I tell myself they must be interviewing the people like me who are better than me. I really want this to be true. I was recently at a theatre conference with executive-level leaders and board leaders all saying, “We have to find a unicorn—that magical person that brings to the table 20 years of experience, who has both internal cultural competency from lived experience and formal training, and experience with organizations in transformation.” They wanted a person who could handle large budgets, curate seasons, fundraise, and work with large numbers of artists. I thought to myself: I’m a unicorn! I also looked around the room at six other unicorns in the room who were not currently artistic directors.
I know that we have the experience that is needed. I started my first theatre company more than 20 years ago when I was in high school. I ran a university program for a year at George Washington University, for the amount of my work-study, $7.50 an hour. I did this because I wanted the program to exist, I had the skill sets, and they allowed me. I held executive-level positions in non-hierarchical collectives and ensemble-based organizations, and leadership positions in the theatre companies I founded while in New York City, while simultaneously holding lower-level or mid-level positions at other performance institutions. I would take any job that I could (admin, ushering, assisting, teaching, cleaning), anything to get in to observe. At the time I was a cynical young person and did not think those places with ever give me resources or power. I was just grateful to have gotten in to observe how they work—how this person works a room, how that person works a problem, how another manages the huge resources they are so lucky to have.
Then I was given the opportunity to lead and manage resources for change, and to observe and actively participate in executive-level hiring processes in a large institution. It was a productive 10 years, because you can do magnificent things when you have the budget, the will, and institutional power backing you.
I know I am not unique! There are so many amazing leaders in the field right now who have a similar constellation of experiences with large regional theatres and their own smaller independent institutions. There’s also a bunch of leaders who don’t have experience managing huge amounts of money, and you know what that makes them? Thrifty, and better at not overspending. We are here. Which is why I truly want to be mistaken.
I would love to hear from companies saying, “You’re wrong, Claudia! We actually had a really huge pool, and our processes are so transparent that we will show them to you right now.” I want them to reveal a diverse pool of people vetting the candidates and participating in interviews and making final decisions. I want them to reveal that when they decided to invest money in travel and staff time in speaking to them in person that it was a pool that had gender, race, age, and ability diversity. I would love to hear from people with disabilities or people of color who have all been flown in for interviews or offered the opportunity to turn the job down.
Because I do wonder: Is this why we don’t get called in? Are they afraid we will see they are not ready for us and that we’ll turn them down? Are they afraid that our interview processes will reveal the places where they have gaps, where they are failing to serve? Do they think they are being kind and not wasting our time? Do they “know” they couldn’t hire someone like us? I really want to be wrong. Please tell me I’m wrong.
Because this is important. I care deeply about our field and I recognize my responsibility to it. These institutions scattered across the United States manage millions of dollars and tell the stories that shift or solidify our culture. I just need someone to tell me that the people who will be making the decisions will reflect my best interests as well. Who will decide what stories are told? Who will decide who gets to embody the stories? Who will decide how all these resources are being distributed? I just need to know that there are some people out there like me doing that work. I will be so disappointed if we squander this opportunity and replicate failed patterns of leadership from a narrow demographic and replicate the problems we have today.
Please tell me I am wrong.
Claudia Alick is a poet, intersectional inclusion expert, performance maker (writer, director, producer, performer), change facilitator, and leader. Follow her at http://facebook.com/claudiaalick and http://every28hoursplays.org.