Professional ballet dancer. Licensed attorney. Doctor of Cultural Psychology. Project director at the Vera Institute of Justice. If this résumé sounds like it could not possibly belong to a human being, that is because it does not. It belongs to an Ironman—a title Michelle Ramos (she/her), board chair of the Performing Arts Alliance (PAA), earned in 2010 after completing the long-distance triathlon, which spans over 140 miles of water and ground. (The PAA is a 2021 Theatre Communications Group Gala honoree.)
The discipline, determination, and grit needed to complete a feat this epic are not just traits of Ramos’s personality—they are her superpowers. They’re the same powers she wields in the face of another seemingly insurmountable task: breaking down the well-groomed, white-centered structures that hold up the American arts. Her efforts to uproot and redistribute control to communities of color go beyond adding an additional bullet point on that mighty résumé—she has personal skin in the game, as a retired professional dancer, teacher, and mother of a Broadway choreographer. It is this intimate tie to artists that guides her advocacy work in any and all of the positions she has held.
Today, in addition to serving as board chair of the PAA, Ramos is the executive director of Alternate ROOTS, a cultural advocacy group composed of 18 nonprofit arts organizations based in the Southern United States. Since its founding, the PAA remains “the premiere advocate for America’s professional nonprofit presenting and performing arts organizations, artists, and their publics,” according to its website, which details its many services: funding for arts education programs, advocacy against congressional attempts to decrease NEA funding, visa processing for international artists, and, more recently, COVID-19 resources. The work is shared by the Alliance’s network of members, including national arts organizations such as Chorus America, Dance/USA, and TCG.
Alternate ROOTS is also a part of this group. Since being appointed executive director—alternately referred to as Vision Keeper—of the regional service organization in 2012, Ramos has remained committed to the mission of championing social and economic justice for artists and cultural organizers in the American South, namely Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.
Ramos’s personal roots are planted here as well: Since joining ROOTS and moving to New Orleans, she has traced her father’s side of the family to Louisiana and Mississippi, while her mother’s side comes from Michoacán, Mexico. Lived experiences as an ambitious Afro-Latina artist continue to inform her advocacy work. In fact, the racial discrimination that plagued her early years as a ballet dancer might have watered the first seed.
“I went to a summer program at one of these big, prestigious ballet companies, and all the Black and brown dancers got cut after the first exercise,” Ramos said. “I remember sitting in the dressing room and all of us looked at each other, like, ‘Did that just happen? Did they just cut every brown dancer in the room?’ We were looking through the window, and yeah, that’s what they did. Everybody out there was white. Moments like that stick with me.”
Clocking injustice became a pattern, and then a profession. And in a year that inspired artists and artistic institutions alike to become more political than ever—with renewed public interest in a Federal Theatre Project, the virality of policy-backed social campaigns like #SaveOurStages and #BeAnArtsHero, and calls for government relief, with the Payment Protection Program (PPP) and Shuttered Venues Operators Grant (SVOG)—the tireless efforts of advocates like Ramos continue to be essential work.
I had the chance to speak with the Ironman herself on Zoom about taking a social justice approach to theatre, the need to affirm and prioritize artists, and how theatre’s shutdown activated the Performing Arts Alliance.
BRITTANI SAMUEL: You have worked at, advised, and serviced a great array of organizations throughout your career. What drew you to the Performing Arts Alliance?
MICHELLE RAMOS: I came to PAA because of Alternate ROOTS—the past executive director joined the Alliance a little before he stepped away and he told me, “Hey, we’re a member of this national advocacy organization, and we have to be at the table because there just aren’t a lot of organizations of color that are a part of this body. Our presence is important, so make it a priority to stay engaged.” He was honest with me and said that it is a tough, challenging environment, especially as one of only a handful of people of color there. I hear warnings like this and I’m like, ooh, opportunity! I’m the one who asks, how can we change this? How can we make this a better place? When I got in the room at PAA, I listened first, but then started to ask questions and ruffle a few feathers, so people were naturally like, “Oh, you should lead us! You’d be a really great chair.”
Did you immediately jump at the opportunity?
I actually wasn’t sure. I wasn’t sure that the organization during that time really aligned with who I was and what I stood for, but I also knew that one of the best ways you can make changes is to get on the inside.
You started out as a ballet dancer. Did you know then that your dreams for an artistic career would go beyond performing?
Not at that time, because I was so in love with ballet it’s all I could see. Even when I ran up against all the racism that the ballet world shelled out to me—this was during the ’70s and ’80s—my love of the art form wouldn’t allow me to stop. Ballet is such a body-centric art form, you know, and it is pre-designed to be aesthetically conducive to white bodies, not Black and brown ones. I certainly had a passion for the art, but I never would have thought I’d eventually be a lawyer, doing advocacy work, and standing on the front lines as well.
Dancers are one group of performing artists who have had their livelihood decimated for what has now been over a year. This stretch without live performance is the longest our industry has ever seen, but many artists are adamant not to return at all if the performing arts landscape is not improved. What is most essential for you right now as an advocacy worker trying to improve this landscape?
So often the artist’s voice is not at the table. There is this assumption that the artists are just gonna come back, but nobody’s talking about what is safe for them. In the case of Alternate ROOTS, when conversations about “going back” started to happen pretty early in July and August, I had to gently remind people to wait. You may have been hanging out on Zoom, having meetings at home, doing your thing, but I’ve got people down in Alabama who don’t have a roof over their head. Ice storms hit Texas and Mississippi. I’ve got people who are living out of tents. I’ve got artists whose family members were taken away by ICE. We’re still dealing with real-life stuff down here. I don’t care anything about your butts in seats; let’s have a conversation about the difference in your world and mine, where our artists are still just trying to survive. I want to remind folks that your reality and the world that you live in aren’t the same for everybody around the country. And there’s a good chance that they aren’t the same for your artists.
Expand on that a little with regards to your role at PAA. What are you all working on right now to keep artists’ safety in mind?
There are a couple of member organizations that are a part of PAA that lack the consciousness of artists in that way, right? Almost everybody in the room is an executive director, government affairs person, or administrator. Those of us that represent the smallest organizations in the Alliance tend to be that voice for the artist.
We have a really strong presence. When negotiations were going on with [Capitol] Hill around SVOG grants and PPP, we would go to all those meetings. You know, even language is so important. I remember looking at a document at one point, I think it was a PPP piece, and the opening paragraph listed off the various categories of artists: musicians, singers, dancers, and I remember yelling, “And culture bearers!” Because our folks down here do not always identify with those titles, right? We have culture bearers, community organizers who identify as artists—
Memory workers, griots—
Exactly! We had to be sure that that language was in the documents we were submitting so that all folks could be included. We also fought for individual artists because, for example, when the CARES Act funding by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) came out it was for organizations, ones that had previous funding from the NEA. Well, what about artists that do not have an organization to attach to? What about them?
It’s really about being that advocate on the front lines with our government affairs folks. Having those smaller organizations—like ROOTS, like the International Association of Blacks in Dance, and now the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures—be the voice in that space made a huge difference.
I’ve been reading a lot about Lorraine Hansberry lately. As the artistic landscape becomes increasingly political, interest in her work beyond playwriting has come back into the ether in a beautiful way. Like yourself, she was a true arts advocate! Do you think we should always be this loud about our politics?
We have to be. What people lose sight of so often in advocacy is the people. The work that we’re doing is really for human beings, and I’ve never really understood how one can bifurcate the art and the artist from the human being.
If I know that a big majority of my constituency are affiliated with or attached to immigrants, and there’s immigration policy happening on a local or state or federal level that’s impacting my people, right? If you are representing immigrant artists, you have to care about immigrant legislation. There’s no way you can’t. It’s so essential to imagine advocacy work further than we know it to go.
What are the best resources for artistic communities, especially those that have historically and systemically been shut out of funding, searching for sustainable support? If you were still a professional dancer, where would you go first?
We’re in this window of time where, blatantly, people care about Black and brown people now. More than they ever have in the past. So philanthropy and all the foundations and government money, everybody’s like, “Oh, race, equity, race, equity, let’s give money to Black and brown people!” Which is great. And problematic, right? Because y’all should have been doing this all along. Great that you’re doing it now, but we also know it’s not gonna last forever. So my message to communities is to take advantage of this window that we are in right now because it’s closing. It’s going to close. And I don’t know if we will get it back again. I hate to sound pessimistic, but I’ve been around a while and I’ve seen the ebbs and flows. I have no reason to expect philanthropy to stay interested in race and equity on a long-term basis.
I do think the beautiful thing that has come out of this time, and to directly answer your question about where should an artist go: Look in your backyard. There are many collectives doing ground-up fundraising right now and seeing much success. We are attached to one called the Southern Power Fund and what we have been able to accomplish during the pandemic year, the amount of money we’ve been able to give out—$8 million—without philanthropy is amazing. Look in your backyard, because there are a lot of community-based and community-controlled funds that have emerged all over the country. You might be surprised at what you have access to with little or no strings attached.
That’s great advice. And this TCG gala honor certainly feels right on time.
I know I’m named as the recipient, but it really is an honor for the Performing Arts Alliance. It’s about the ways PAA has been a model for the field of what it looks like when a whole bunch of predominantly white institutions come together and do the work of being an ally, and what it means to lead from behind when supporting artists and organizations of color. I came in as one of only a few Black or Latino organizations at a table of 20. I have seen that change and then ended up becoming board chair. The trajectory we’re still on is a great model for understanding how long this work takes and the commitment you have to make to it.
In a pandemic year where we collected no money or dues from anybody, had a deficit budget, and had no idea how long the pandemic was going to be, this board still went, “You know what, we have to do this equity work, pandemic or not, in-person or not, because it is important to who we are at the core. So allocate the money, take the money out of the cash reserves because we are committed to doing this equity work.” We are better as an institution on the other side of all of it.
What do you still dream about accomplishing? Or—I won’t even say dream, because I have no doubt that you will make it happen.
I know where my mom’s side of the family is from in Mexico, but I’ve never stepped foot in that place. I have a lot of excitement about eventually doing that exploration and research, being in the space and feeling the cultural tie to the land there. There’s a lot of beautiful art in Mexico, a lot of beautiful artistry. And if I can use my tools, my resources, my skills, my knowledge, to help Mexican artists, well I would love the opportunity to do that as well. But I got to get better at my Spanish! I’m working on one thing at a time.
Brittani Samuel (she/her) is a writer currently based in New York. Bylines can be found at Zora, OkayAfrica, InStyle, Backstage, and a few other places on the Internet. She can be found on Instagram at @brittaniidiannee.
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