How To Make Your Leadership Transition a Joyful, Fun Revolution

Meggan Gomez: You founded Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC) in 2011, based on the methodology that Augusto Boal created in Brazil in the 1960s; he was your teacher! At its core, the work aims to confront power and celebrate the wisdom and leadership of the community. In a Theatre of the Oppressed (TO) forum play, the actors and audience “rehearse for reality.” The audience members step onstage, becoming “spect-actors,” to challenge the worldview of the characters and improvise new solutions within institutions like healthcare, housing, and criminal justice. The concept really took off here.

Katy Rubin: Yeah, and TONYC has grown to present over fifty free performances each year, with two hundred and fifty community actors, for thousands of New Yorkers. The work brings policymakers into dialogue with community members, which can lead to concrete, creative civic change.

Meggan: After eight years, you decided to step down, and I was hired as the new executive director. Your last day at TONYC was about ten months ago now. What led you to the decision to leave?

Katy: In this new nonprofit, I was seen as the leader, and I adapted to the role. This meant I, a white woman, was often the main event or the subject when an article was written. However, our work centered people impacted by structural oppression, primarily people of color. It was clear to me that since the expressed mission of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC is to challenge power, then consolidating power in our organization’s white, middle-class leader was an explicit example of “mission drift.”

It made me think: the mayor of New York runs the city for eight years at the most; this is a safeguard against dictatorship and aims to protect the interests and needs of NYC’s residents. When I reached eight years, I felt my term was up.

two people posing for a photo

Katy and Meggan with a portrait of Dolores Huerta.

Meggan: Tell me a story about being given power in a very strange way, or a time when it just didn’t quite sit with you right.

Katy: In 2017, we sent out a newsletter with some stories of our recent work, and someone replied that they “love hearing what Katy’s up to.” It didn’t compute—the newsletters were about what the organization was up to! With dozens of facilitators—or “jokers,” in our terms—hundreds of community actors, a crew of amazing arts administrators… It felt so strange to me that someone on the outside could think that any of this was the work of one individual.

I started thinking hard about ways to challenge my own leadership. One clear path was to put the expiry date on my position. When I shared this decision with the TONYC staff, board, actors, and stakeholders—including our funders—I also expressed my hope that we could use the opportunity to be race-explicit, to name oppression and privilege, and to celebrate the many leaders who now make up the organization.

TONYC already had a practice of using its tools—interactive, problem-solving theatre—to address internal challenges and opportunities. This was simply another necessary improvisation, a way of saying every person is an actor, every person is a changemaker, and every person is a leader in this community.

What has been your experience of the transition?

Meggan: The interview process was why I took the job. It felt like not only did the organization understand where my challenges would be and wanted to hire me anyway, but that there was a real sense of support from top to bottom. I also appreciated that my hiring was not solely a board decision, as most leadership hirings are—it was clear that every staff and community member had a voice in the process. I saw the commitment to asking questions that were about mission and values, and about the process of working.

It gave me a window into the way this organization works. There are a lot of people who pay lip service to having a good, equitable hiring practice, but this was one that felt different. Every time I tell the story about how I was hired, it’s echoed again—from people’s surprise—that this was special.

It was clear to me that since the expressed mission of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC is to challenge power, then consolidating power in our organization’s white, middle-class leader was an explicit example of “mission drift.”

Katy: At the beginning of the transition journey, I posed this question to our stakeholders and to myself: Could an executive director transition be a joyful expression of the vision of our organization instead of a stressful, fearful, even shameful slog? Often when we heard about leadership transitions in other spaces, the news was shared in a whisper, with a tone of concern and sometimes judgment. Could our process be celebratory, even fun? “Fun” being one of the core values of TONYC: “If the revolution is not fun, people will not show up.” And what else is a leadership transition but a revolution on a small scale?

Meggan: That was carried over into the way I was onboarded. There were tools in place from the day I showed up, in terms of meetings with all the staff, with you. I was really impressed with the transition memo you walked me through, and how you and the staff had very thoughtfully planned my first six weeks on the job. Having meetings with so many of our funders during your last weeks; receiving a grant calendar that laid out the due dates of the next six months of applications; playing in a “joker workout” together and watching your last night facilitating a forum play as executive director—it all filled me with such joy to see how the parts of the organization were being tended to, with an eye towards transparency and evaluation.

I loved the fact that the staff evaluation, check-in process, and hiring process were all codified with clear parameters. And that everyone had such ownership when introducing me to how their part of the job worked. While you and I only overlapped for three weeks, you modeled the importance of celebrating each other, whether it was lunch with the staff, or a going-away party with the wider TONYC community. There was real care in walking me through the timeline of the last eight years and the lessons learned along the way.

That signaled to me that nobody should be expected to know everything when they walk through the door and that, truly, nobody is qualified for the position they hold until they hold it. Instead, my colleagues said: “These are the big challenges you’re going to have to tackle. These are some things we’ve tried—some of them have worked, some of them we’re still working on.” This is a generous place that wants to teach, that wants to help people level up.

It’s going to be an ongoing process until I leave it to somebody else; there is no destination. You can’t actually know how to be an executive director. For me it’s coming to terms with my own limitations and with how finite time is. That there will always be more work than there is time. And that’s okay. Because I can measure a day by the long list of to-dos that gets longer with every amazing conversation I have, the difficult decisions I have to make, the times I have to admit I don’t know something. I can also measure it by the badass spaces I get to be in, the joy and wisdom of the people in our community, and all the amazing things we do accomplish. It has helped me not feel like a total failure, even though this job is still really freaking hard. Every day it’s hard. It’s also a whole lot of fun.

a large group seated in a bookstore

Ali Forney Center Troupe. Foster's Home for Non-Imaginary Queers. March 15, 2019 at Bluestockings. Photo by Ali Garber.

Katy: We hear all these horror stories about “founder’s syndrome”—founders taking up too much space, founders who thought they had “ownership” of a project or concept and didn’t allow a company to grow and change over time. Or they officially stepped down but they kept inserting themselves unhelpfully! While I was at TONYC, especially in my last few years, I thought about the space my ideas and my voice took up, in a meeting or a rehearsal, as we articulated the intention of decentering whiteness and decentralizing power. It was a learning process, definitely.

Meggan: I’d be really interested to hear if there’s a story that comes to mind where the learning process was perhaps hard fought but shifted something crucial for you.

Katy: It’s more like a hundred daily actions and mistakes. One example is how sometimes, in articles written about us, press or partnering groups would speak about communities facing oppression in language that TONYC found offensive or patronizing, and I thought, I should have anticipated that; it was a blind spot.

Now that I’m outside, as a friend and fan of the organization, perhaps I’m thinking about it even more. I love being part of the TONYC community, talking about the tools, and continuing to brainstorm with you, deepening our relationship as friends and colleagues. Yet I’m super cautious about overstepping. I’m wondering what we’ve both learned about how to work together, you and I, and how I can be in community with TONYC in a useful way going forward.

Nobody should be expected to know everything when they walk through the door and that, truly, nobody is qualified for the position they hold until they hold it.

Meggan: You’ve done so much already! And you have also been really clear with me that I would find my own style, that you weren’t expecting me to be “The New Katy.” Something that you have done, I feel quite deliberately, is never offer unsolicited feedback, which at times has been incredibly helpful and has helped me manage my own stress. Because obviously you’re going to be able to see things in a way that I can’t yet.

Katy: One aspect of white organizational culture that I’m tired of is the idea that everything is an emergency right now, and that’s just not true. Not everything has to move at the speed of urgency; certainly in the transition process, we learned that slow and steady, and co-designing the process, was the way to ensure maximum participation.

And I’m thrilled at how the organization is doing right now! A few months ago, I went to a show by the Housing Works troupe—they are one of the longest-running TONYC performance groups, in partnership with Housing Works, an advocacy organization and service provider fighting the dual crises of HIV/AIDS and homelessness. The show was packed full of energized audience members. I could enjoy the feeling of a radically engaged audience in a way I never could when I was worrying about a million little things as executive director.

people seated in a bookstore watching actors onstage

A Knock at the Door. May 2, 2019 at the Housing Works Bookstore. Photo by Ali Garber.

Meggan: Maybe setting norms is something you and I can continue to do, like: This is the way we’re going to give feedback, or This is the way I’m going to ask for help. Our relationship has been particularly organic since I’ve started. I’ve appreciated that you offer a healthy balance—“I’m not going to offer feedback unless it’s solicited, but I’m also paying attention and will alert you if there’s information that I think you might not have.”

A healthy transition, and a joyful transition, can also be about outgoing leadership and incoming leadership having a healthy relationship. I can’t even imagine what kind of anxiety you must have in terms of handing over something you founded. But I also don’t think anybody should hold an executive director’s spot for a really long time. Just for self care.

Nothing we do is easy. And the more committed we are to honoring our values, the harder it gets. Because ethics require us to make time for the dialogue, make time to have dinner together, make time to come to terms with what didn’t work, and make time to plan it better for next time. For all of us at TONYC, we have made the agreement that the whole self does not mean the perfect self, and sometimes the most needed part of the work day will be dancing it out to Lizzo. I am so grateful to be in an environment that puts such high value in being human, and, just as we do in our forum plays, each day has opportunities for intervention, chances to do things in a different way.

It’s a truly bizarre sensation to be at work and have a moment where we are all laughing so hard, and suddenly I’ll get a burst of a “cop in the head”—I’m suddenly afraid I’ll get in trouble for having such a great time, only to realize that I’m the one who gets to decide that. Being in charge is super weird—I admit, I actually miss having a boss sometimes. But then I remember I do have a boss, lots of them. Every actor in our troupes, every member of the staff, and, of course, the board. They are all part of the decision-making here. But that’s only because of the precedents you helped set, and because our mission is so clear.

Even with the joy of this job, being in it makes me wonder how many people don’t have that in their work. It has made me almost horrified to understand just how much power executive directors have to impact other people’s lives. It’s such an unthinkable amount of responsibility, it really makes me think maybe there shouldn’t be any executive directors anymore. Imagine if we could get foundations to pay real endowments so we didn’t have to fundraise anymore, or just make the government pay for the arts and social services, if we paid more taxes.

We have made the agreement that the whole self does not mean the perfect self, and sometimes the most needed part of the work day will be dancing it out to Lizzo.

Katy: If we paid taxes, that would be great.

Meggan: Ha, right. And really, why is it so normal that the person responsible for the budget gets to decide how everything about an organization functions? It’s so much to hold, and making money should never be the reason you do or don’t do a thing.

Katy: And yet here you are, in this job. Knowing what you know now, what do you tell people when they ask how you are doing during this transition?

Meggan: I talk a lot about how the best surprise I had coming into this job was discovering just how much people love this organization. We get to pay people to act in the plays they create about their lived experience. We get to be wildly explicit about race, gender, class, sexuality, and the many, many systems that oppress people every day. Best of all, we get to dream together. Every day I get to talk about how to keep making our work better, keep moving issues forward, and amplify the work of our partners.

I really love the way training is built into our model. And I love that our systems are constantly evaluated and fine-tuned. I’ve been doing Theatre of the Oppressed work for as long as I’ve known about social justice theatre—reading the book is quite literally where my journey on this path began. And while I have been so excited about all the techniques and ideas I bring our troupes, I have been humbled and deeply inspired to learn so much about facilitation and the methodology from our joker team. The narrative about the transition has been about me transitioning into executive director after the founder left, but I have to say, in this case, what has become clear to me is that this is more people-led than anything else.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but when I left New York in 2008 to move to Colombia, I left because the organization I wanted to work for didn’t exist in New York yet. So far as I knew, it didn’t exist anywhere. I moved to South America because my instincts told me it would open a path for me. I wasn’t sure what the path would be, but I was certain a major change in my environment would lead me somewhere. At that very same time you were heading to Brazil to work with Augusto, which ultimately led to the founding of TONYC. I like thinking about us both on our journeys at the same time, not really knowing where they were going to go, but knowing we had to go out into the world to make something happen.

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Thoughts from the curator

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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It's wonderful to see this conversation among two of my favorite change-makers working in the arts for social change. I hope the type of transition they describe will become the norm in many of our organizations and not just an anomaly. TONYC is unique in that the organization models the kind of behavior that is vital to the work -- engaging communities and empowering them to confront oppression. Several years ago, Katy asked me to imagine what TONYC would be like 25 years down the road; in my most optimistic perspective, I thought about a New York City with TONYC troupes in every community, consistently confronting oppression in all its forms and sharing the joy of making theatre together. I'm excited that Meggan is working with TONYC and I look forward to seeing how we all grow and develop together.