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Decolonizing Arts Leadership Through Shared Black and Indigenous Leadership

With sharp attention to ongoing and embedded systemic and structural Indigenous erasure, racism and colonial and anti-Black representation within institutions, we must transform and change institutional systems and governance.
Decolonial Action Coalition

In the United States, we have repeatedly seen that when new Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) faces are present in leadership, the ingrained structure of institutions present unique obstacles that impede their success. This is true not only in the arts, but across many industries. It is crucial to seek out new types of leadership that are not anchored in the patriarchal, hierarchical, and colonial structures that have brought us to where we are now. We have the opportunity to embrace the regenerative and kinship-based approaches to leadership that have existed for tens of thousands of years, begun when Indigenous peoples first stewarded these lands and were joined by Africans who cared for the environment, the community, and each other. Maya Angelou stated,

"I have tremendous respect for the past. If you do not know where you came from, you cannot predict where you will go. I revere the past, but I am an individual of the present. I’m here, and I do my best to be completely centered in this location before moving on to the next."

As co-leaders of ArtsEmerson, we (David Howse and Ronee Penoi) are committed to living and leading in a present deeply informed by where we come from, and we do so with intentions for where we are going.

Black and Indigenous communities experience disproportionate violence and are frequently the most marginalized of BIPOC communities. However, the very structure of settler colonialism that we live in, which creates this dynamic, also pits these communities against one another. There is anti-Blackness in Native communities, and historically there were Native people who owned slaves. There are also stories of Native communities giving their lives defending Black freedmen and Black leaders who supported Native erasure as a way to strategically gain footing in society. We could go on. However, powerful change happens when communities come together in solidarity. This solidarity happened during the Civil Rights Movement and, more recently, during the protests at Standing Rock and after the murder of George Floyd. We believe that moving towards kinship, solidarity, and intersectionality is the next step towards systemic change in our country. However, there is crucial listening, reckoning, and acknowledgement—if not healing—that is necessary in order to come together across differences and create a shared vision for a future that benefits all.

The majority of our arts organizations in the United States are rooted in a leadership model that replicates and perpetuates this storied and oppressive past—a past in which a privileged few dominated those with less power and influence, and in which Eurocentric logics and approaches were prioritized over Black and Indigenous methods of knowing. This structure has been successful for some people but not all.

Our shared leadership model aspires to be a decolonized leadership model, one that reimagines, reshapes, and restories the role that organizational leaders can play in leading their institutions.

In 2015, ArtsEmerson committed to a model of shared leadership in which multiple leaders simultaneously manage and direct the organization. This value is now profoundly ingrained in the culture, and the entire team understands that shared leadership is a mindset, not a structure. What is the meaning of that? This mindset is the belief, attitude, and philosophy that leadership is not the primary responsibility of a single individual, but rather an approach that can be distributed and practiced by multiple individuals at various organizational levels. This is not dissimilar from many forms of Indigenous tribal leadership (of which there are many), in which an individual may be tasked with leadership on a particular matter, but all have a role in the leadership of the tribe. Our shared leadership model aspires to be a decolonized leadership model, one that reimagines, reshapes, and restories the role that organizational leaders can play in leading their institutions. In our work, we seek to embody a leadership model that prioritizes inclusivity, is respectful of cultural differences, enables individuals to fully lead from their position of influence, and breaks free from the constraints of our colonial past.

We (David and Ronee) have been engaged in this shared leadership model since Ronee’s 2021 arrival in Boston, Massachusetts. During the recruitment process, we engaged in a substantive discussion regarding our shared belief in the concept of shared leadership. We agreed to support one another, clear the way for one another, and promote one another’s activity. We committed to putting our finest thoughts and actions at the disposal of whomever makes the final decision on a given issue or project. Both Ronee and David have multiple and complex identities, but we choose to emphasize the identity that best characterizes who we are as human beings: David is a Black man, and Ronee is a Laguna Pueblo, Cherokee, and white woman. Along with these two distinctions, we share so much and have so much in common. We are frequently reflecting on how our identities and our shared leadership inform accountability. We need to support each other in being accountable to the communities we hail from, to the city of Boston, to the larger arts field ecology that is in a key moment of crisis, and to ourselves and our shared (and not shared) values. This requires deep listening, agreeing to disagree, radical support, and transparency. In a world that emphasizes the solo leader and “genius,” and that wants to attribute credit (or blame) to one key person, the trust and buy-in that is required for shared leadership is palpable. It is a daily exercise, a commitment, and like any living thing, requires care.

A man holding cards for a speech and a woman who smiles and claps stand together on stage.

David Howse and Ronee Penoi at ArtsEmerson's 2023-24 season announcement. Photo by A Priori Photography.

Leadership by one BIPOC individual is becoming less of an anomaly, but shared Black and Indigenous leadership within the same organization is still rare. What opportunities might this situation present? How could shared leadership between Black and Indigenous leaders enhance collaboration and highlight diverse perspectives? How does shared leadership teach the larger team and community about the complexities of these communities’ experience? How can the perspectives and experiences of our organizations and communities contribute to the development of innovative solutions to society’s seemingly intractable problems? What strategies can we use to cultivate meaningful relationships with Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities?

Some might argue that because this one model of shared leadership at ArtsEmerson exists within the larger academic institution of Emerson College, it is not impactful or not enough. It is true that there are limitations on what is possible for our leadership (as with many leaders), given that ArtsEmerson exists within the hierarchical organizational structure of a larger institution. However, we (David and Ronee) believe that in order to create a more just society, change needs to come from every corner. We not only need new efforts and structures, but we also need to change from within our existing institutions. One definition of an institution is, “a group of people aligned towards a purpose.” In addition to advocating and, when necessary, interrogating and troubling traditional structures, another strategy for change-making is modeling the change you want to see. We hope we are part of moving our institution to be a just institution of the future. As is often said within the People’s Climate Movement, “To change everything, we need everyone.”

What other efforts are happening in the arts field and beyond to create healing and solidarity between Black and Indigenous communities?

We take this approach to leadership not because it is idealistic, but because it is pragmatic and disruptive. The journey of shared leadership is not easy for those engaged in it practices, and it is all too natural for us to revert to our ingrained colonial behaviors. Whether it be perfectionism, urgency culture, or individualism (or many others eloquently captured here), we must resist these dominant traits of white supremacy culture, press on, support and challenge one another, and keep a spirit of inquiry alive.

So we embarked on a yearlong initiative to learn: what other efforts are happening in the arts field and beyond to create healing and solidarity between Black and Indigenous communities? What’s working, and what is not? What complexities do we need to embrace?
We created an initiative that offered many experiments and pathways to learning. These include the following:

  • Black and Indigenous Futures Convening: In September 2023, over thirty scholars, artists, and arts leaders from across Turtle Island, known today as North America, will gather to dig into these questions. The goal is not to take action or “solve” the challenges of Black and Indigenous intersectionality, but to embrace learning and the wisdom of the group. We will be livestreaming panels from this gathering on Wednesday 20 September and Thursday 21 September.
  • Artist Commissions: We are commissioning seven Black, Indigenous, and Afro-Indigenous artists to spend time together and imagine potential future artistic collaborations.
  • Experiments in Audience Building: Surrounding ArtsEmerson productions of And So We Walked, Nehanda, We Are the Land, and Book of Life, we are exploring ways to better build audiences across difference. How can we move from affinity space to showing up for each other’s stories?
  • This Black and Indigenous Futures series in the HowlRound Journal: In this series, we will hear about the importance of rewriting dominant narratives, Black and Indigenous shared kinship futures, and intercultural leadership as a catalyst for change. We are honored to welcome perspectives across the field to this conversation. Kyle T. Mays is an Afro-Indigenous (Saginaw Chippewa) scholar and the author of An Afro-Indigenous History of the United States; he and Amber Starks (also known as Melanin Mvskoke) discuss the siloing of Afro-Indigenous identity and the potential of embracing kinship and duality. Powerhouse musician and abolitionist Samora Pinderhughes, Black Sugpiaq Two Spirit poet and interdisciplinary artist Storme Webber, and Black and Mashpee Wampanoag scholar Mary McNeil come together to unravel how solidarity, kinship, and restorying the past are intertwined in their lived experiences and work. Finally, Lori Pourier (Oglala Lakota) of First People’s Fund and Carlton Turner, co-founder of the Mississippi Center for Cultural Production, reflect on the Intercultural Leadership Institute and building the muscle of leading together across difference.

We know we do not have all the answers. Instead, we are committed to trying, failing, and trying again in the service of seeding the future we want to see.


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