I was always pegged as a “leader.” They pick them in high school. Or so it seems. And from treatment as such, you get to do wonderful things. Then you float around in the real world for a bit, working two jobs to pay rent while figuring out what you want to do with your life, and you are no longer a leader. You are a shmoe like everyone else. After that hiatus, someone at a reputable college sees from your records that you were a Leader, so of course, they invite you to attend, for further grooming. And you learn Leadership Skills (can’t think of any offhand), get to do wonderful things (like go to school for free), and in return, in all your wisdom, you Train Leaders before another stint as jobless shmoe.
Yes, I actually taught a course for the other first-generation, low-income well-doer Leader-types on leadership in community service. Seeing upper-class white kids invade the local community with their conceptual ideals and clumsy ignorance was like nails on a chalkboard to me, so I mostly focused on what NOT to do, which I hear is a poor way to Lead. Still, the people in the community were sad that I was leaving town after graduation (or perhaps scared). Come to think of it, I even interned for several years at an organization called “Grassroots Leadership Development.” They trained Leaders. I had a fancy well-paid fellowship in what was to be “my field” – public school reform. I was always wary of what these investors expected from me, from high school onward, hoping to be across the country when I’ve failed to be the Leader they expected.
Eight years later, I’m awoken from my slumber as contented, semi-actualized shmoe, when I get a long overdue promotion that means a nice title change and a wider scope of influence at my institution. “We want to know where you’d like this program to go. We’d like to hear your vision and see how we can make that happen. We need you to represent us in this field…” I found myself passionately writing a lengthy manifesto about my teaching philosophy – what I (which immediately transfers to We, as the institution trusts me on this stuff) practice and advocate for.
Hypothetical editorials spill from my brain where months ago I couldn’t really be bothered to think beyond my day to day program. Next thing I know, bam. Someone (I’m not naming names) comes along and dubs me “Emerging Arts Leader.” I ask a colleague over lunch “how on earth did I get here? ARTS leader? Me?” and I get this incredulous look like, “what are you talking about? It’s what you do! You are!” “Why are you on their side? Who put you up to this?”
So, what’s the deal? Are there others out there like me, who were going about their business in their art-related job and someone lassoed them into the ring? Or were others cultivated through what seems to be a more typical system of mentorship in other professions? Personally, I’ve been silo’d in an educational institution that for some time was not interested in developing staff – high turnover meant lower salaries. I just never left. During that time, my professional development in the field of art consisted of a couple of temporary managers who acted as great role models, a few books they left me on early childhood art education, and my own day to day experience. No conferences, no consortiums, no list serv.
Here I am, at the podium. Ahem:
Tap tap. Check one. Check.
Hello, fellow Emerging Arts Leaders.
How did we get here? Let’s skip that one, because it doesn’t really matter. Or perhaps what matters is that half of us don’t know how we got here, and don’t really feel like we belong here. That seems important, and we should remember it as we shape how The Field moves forward with Leadership Cultivation. I say: let’s have some, for the next generation. Because this is uncomfortable.
Where are we going? I have no idea. I haven’t really been in touch with the current Leaders enough to know what The Field is facing as such, which also seems important. Communication: let’s have more of that. I can’t name a single Leader in the arts that I know personally who is over 35. And we rarely talk about bigger picture issues – we are focused on supporting each other’s current work – more “survival mode” than “strategic planning” or advocacy (stupid kids).
How do we deal with this disconnect? For now, we tell the people we work with in the arts to follow this week’s blog-a-thon. We nudge them to join the list-serves we are on. We do the outreach we are expecting others to do, until we see this “field” everyone is talking about as clearly as folks like Edward Clapp and Eric Booth do. Speaking of which, we buy the 20 Under 40 Book: read it, and pass it on to someone we’d like to connect with.
Imagine: if every one of us Young Arts Leaders chose just ONE veteran figure in the field (pick one from responders in this forum, perhaps) and began apprehending them and claiming them as mentors, we’d have a bona fide, united, cohesive Field of Leaders with a full range of perspectives and wisdom. The Arts, as I see it, need some hard core, large scale, cooperative, all-hands-on-deck teamwork NOW.
Ok, go find your partner! (Can someone out there confirm that there is interest from the Wise Ones here? This is really intimidating.)