Arts Advocacy for Newbies: How to Break All the Rules and Create a New Paradigm
“Calendar Invite: Meeting with Kamala Harris’s Office.”
In June of 2020, I did not imagine I would soon be spending the rest of the calendar year lobbying Congress, while at the same time stumbling into the world of human resources as co-founder of a grassroots arts advocacy organization. I did not imagine a whole lot of things that would come to pass during “the year that must not be spoken of,” but I am not alone in that.
Let us rewind a bit.
December 2019. I had just finished acting in a celebrated run of Cambodian Rock Band at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and La Jolla Playhouse, nearly a full year of nonstop work at two of the most venerated theatrical institutions in the country. This experience changed my life: I had never had such consistent financial security as a performer, as I was used to the piecemeal career of a gig worker for over a decade. Add to this nearly fifty-two health and pension weeks working on my dream project and my life was golden. Add to this the careful attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), as well as the sterling commitment to personnel at these two institutions, and I felt safe and protected (a privilege that most performers are not fortunate enough to experience on a regular basis, if ever at all).
When the show closed and I returned to Los Angeles, I signed with a new, fancy talent manager and was greeted by a host of exciting auditions during television pilot season. Opportunities were blooming and everything was coming up roses.
When the nationwide quarantine hit, my world came to a grinding halt. My industry shut down completely in March of 2020. Nearly 2.7 million arts workers became fully unemployed. I no longer felt safe and protected—I felt vulnerable and exposed. It was though I was staring blankly into a dull, empty void. I spent most days feeling numb, unmotivated, depressed, and listless.
What do I do with myself if I am physically unable to do the thing I was made to do?
Existential crisis much?
After a handful of months filled with self-pity and lots of carbohydrates, I connected with a few friends and we commiserated over why the cavalry was not showing up to “save all of us.” Where were Steven Spielberg or Lin-Manuel Miranda to save the entire arts and culture sector from complete and utter collapse? Where?? (Rightfully so, it was never their job to save anyone and, as we would later discover, the only ones who have the resources, responsibility, and infrastructure to save us are our lawmakers.)
We decided then and there that we needed to become the heroes we were waiting for. And, thusly, Be An #ArtsHero came to be: a response to the pandemic, born out of massive, desperate need. We founded a national, intersectional, grassroots campaign comprised of arts and culture workers, unions, and institutions. Our mission was to collectively push the United States government for proportionate relief to the arts and culture sector.
Be An #ArtsHero was founded on the principle that the arts and culture sector requires proportionate relief to sustain our human and physical infrastructure amidst this nationwide crisis. Arts and culture is a $919 billion sector, contributing 4.3 percent to the GDP, and constituting 5.2 million jobs. If ten United States airlines received $25 billion in the COVID-relief CARES Act and our sector provides $223 billion more than all of transportation combined, we surely require proportionate relief as a bare minimum.
My fellow co-founders and I are all artists (or arts workers, a phrase we helped make popular to denote the work we do as labor). When we created Be An #ArtsHero, we did not know that it would evolve into a nationwide labor movement, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of arts workers towards a common purpose: rallying for relief and recovery legislation commensurate with our socioeconomic value as a sector. We did not know that we would be spending twelve to nineteen hours a day, every day, for eight months straight devoting ourselves to a cause much bigger than ourselves. We did not know that we would be writing legislative frameworks, working alongside top-level advocacy groups and lobbyists, and meeting with senators and house reps on the regular, playing games of political football when we had never even been put through training. We did not know that we would be creating from scratch what is now essentially a multimillion dollar company that is equal parts lobbying machine, advocacy engine, and educational tank (run 100 percent by volunteers, by the way). And, along these lines, we absolutely did not know that we would be maintaining our own staff, figuring out how to run a makeshift human resources department along the way.
Which brings me back to where I began: “Calendar Invite: Meeting with Kamala Harris’s Office.”
Harris’s office was the first one to suggest we write our own legislative framework, which has now evolved into the DAWN Act (Defend Arts Workers Now). This was a turning point for us, where we realized that we, novices in the political realm, could leverage our gumption and moxie and truly make miracles happen.
So what does all of this have to do with human resources and DEI?
You see, we realized as we crawled eyeball-deep into the trenches that if we were going to advocate for all 5.2 million arts workers in America, we would need to truly represent all workers. We would need to disproportionately elevate and support the most marginalized, oppressed, and disadvantaged among us. We would need to disproportionately invest in these values, starting from the inside out. We also realized that, in essentially running our own company, we needed to reflect the values of our work as lobbyists within the very organization we had founded: treating our people with integrity, respect, and fairness.
We ran up against our first hurdle: Our leadership is three-quarters white-identifying and half male-identifying. Our 100 percent volunteer staff is predominantly white. The arts advocacy space is much the same.
It became overwhelmingly clear that in order to break new ground, we would need to make deliberate actions to become the most anti-racist, inclusive, and progressive organization that could truly impart the kind of radical change we wished to see throughout our sector and the advocacy world. We would need to create an organization that put our people first, to foster an environment where the personnel are prioritized and not an afterthought to the organization’s overall mission.
We are still very much in the process of figuring it out. We have made some missteps and we are learning as we go. But what I will say is this: as we intentionally carve out our own seat at the table, we are constantly asking “Who else can we bring to dinner with us?” and inviting them. We are also steadfastly focused on making our people (those who are the driving force of the machine) a priority by creating more formalized structures that protect our staff from burnout and foster a safe environment for all.
Throughout the pandemic, Be An #ArtsHero received nationwide support from hundreds of thousands of arts workers and organizations. I would say that part of our success as a movement is due to the fact that we are newcomers on the scene: we do not know what the rules are, so we are less afraid to break them. Lack of institutional knowledge has led us down a few thorny paths but has toughened our skin and guided us to destinations untrodden. We like to say that we are helping to create a new paradigm: arts advocacy you can see.
With great respect to those who have paved the way before us, we have realized this moment in history requires a new paradigm. We have an opportunity to create a wholly new landscape coming out of this crisis and we would be remiss to repeat the mistakes of the past. Moving forward, the people must come first. Without this prioritization, we will be thrown backwards and the human toll will be unrecoverable.
Now is the time for radical inclusion. Now is the time for radical change. We must be willing to impart that radical change ourselves—not wait for others to come around and enact it for us. And we must start by holding ourselves accountable and by looking internally, at our own organizations and structures, and asking ourselves: “Are we the change we wish to see?”
While I move forward with humility in the spirit of learning, I am certain of one thing: we must not be afraid of seismic shifts in thinking and being. A new paradigm is dawning and, as we enter the light, we must not leave others behind. True, remarkable change never occurs when we stay in the shadows.
“There will be a resistance to your ambition, there will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane.’ They are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don't you let that burden you.”
— Vice President Kamala Harris