In a recent edition of Thomas Cott’s “You’ve Cott Mail,” readers encountered a series of blogs and articles exploring the utility—and, in one case, the aftermath—of embracing a term like “emerging” in its application to artists.
It was earlier this year when Barry Hessenius, too, addressed in his blog the importance of identifying emerging leaders. “I wonder whether or not we are isolating these people by relegating them to their own niche as ‘emerging,’ and whether or not by confining them to their own ‘silo’, we might be doing them, and ourselves – at least in part – a disservice,” he wrote.
By identifying emerging leaders, the early impulse was to provide support and resources. But it was the majority group who defined this difference. The term does not apply to them, only to a separate group. A discrete category. Others.
Or, to put it another way, by creating “emerging leaders,” the term separated the field into two groups: “emerging leaders” and “leaders.”
Before continuing, three illustrations:
1. The term “hipster,” like its predecessor “yuppie” in the 1980s, has become inextricably linked to this cultural moment. Yet, who is a hipster?
“Hipster” is a term co-opted for use as a meaningless pejorative in order to vaguely call someone else’s authenticity into question and, by extension, claim authenticity for yourself. It serves no conversational function and imparts no information, save for indicating the opinions and preferences of the speaker. Suffice it to say, no one self-identifies as a hipster; the term is always applied to an Other, to separate the authentic Us from the inauthentic, “ironic” Them.
2. When the Emerging Leader movement began, it was a moment when a consistent talking point could not be escaped in the arts field: who would inherit the kingdoms built by the leaders of the 70s and 80s? The answer seemed elusive, and yet in the late 90s, at a convening of leaders held by Americans for the Arts, a group of young (?) leaders in entry-level and middle-management positions spoke up and said, “We will. We’re right here.”
The field, in response, embraced the label “emerging leader” to describe these professionals, signifying the hope it would be they who would rise into the executive directorships left vacant by the cohort of leaders nearing retirement age. To support them, the field developed specialized learning tracks, professional development programs, and even funding opportunities to spur skill development and networking within this peer group.
3. Americans are obsessed with nomenclature. To wit, consider the political evolution of our description of physical difference, of ablism: we first used “crippled,” then abandoned it when it became pejorative; we embraced “handicapped,” then abandoned it when it became pejorative; we embraced “disabled,” then began to abandon it when it became pejorative.
Now let’s return to the discussion:
These illustrations, while seemingly tangential, demonstrate why the problem isn’t the word “emerging.” The problem in any of these cases has never been our actual terminology—it’s the philosophy that we need a qualifier at all.
Consider the ruffling of feathers that has occurred when the field has sought to qualify that second category: “established leaders” seemed too institutional. “Seasoned leaders” felt patronizing and a little agist. “Experienced leaders” was redundant. After all, aren’t they simply “leaders”? Shouldn’t we just leave well enough alone?
Yet no corresponding ruffling of emerging feathers has ever created as significant a noise or change in our field’s vocabulary.
Let’s pause to take the temperature of this discussion: is identifying emerging leadership useful to both current and next generation leaders? Yes. Is its terminology pejorative? Yes.
The use of “emerging” to describe those we hope to rise into leadership positions has created a lesser class of arts professional, one that experiences any number of attitudes from those outside of it: for every person who supports the emerging leader movement by extending opportunity, funding, and mentorship, there is another professional ridiculing our experience, downplaying our contributions, or, perhaps the worst: asking us to unlock the mystical secrets of The Facebook, The Twitter, and social media communities.
Yet, those of us within the “emerging” class remain within it, relying on the network of peers, mentorship, and opportunities we need to move forward in our careers. We realize we must work within this frame. We see the benefits and do our best to ignore its shortcomings.
But it’s perhaps time for us to spur some evolution in this dialogue. This frame is not our frame. To put it another way, before we understood we were emerging leaders, we may have considered ourselves leaders with a lot of road ahead of us.
As Barry wrote in June, the emerging leader movement may have come from the right place, but it has created a silo isolating emerging leaders from the rest of the field rather than fully embedding us with in.
While the emerging leader cohorts are so useful to us, we should remember separate is not equal, that we may be ultimately doing our field a disservice if we cannot find ways for emerging leader networks and a complete field of multigenerational leaders to coexist.
But in order to coexist, we must sincerely regard each other as colleagues, not as separate classes. And that middle ground can’t be charted by either of us alone.