Today I’m writing from my desk in Brooklyn, as the founder and artistic director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC). TONYC, 2+ years old and growing, partners with local communities including homeless adults, immigrants and LGBTQ homeless youth to create and tour original plays inspired by real‐life struggles. Our interactive performances engage audiences in creative problem‐solving and transformative action.
Back in the summer of 2010, I was working as a freelance teaching artist. One of my employers, a girls leadership initiative, was funded in part by Eileen Fisher, the women’s clothing company. All I knew then about EF was that zen-looking women wore flowy clothes in the NY Times ads that my mother and I had always admired. Then I got a call asking if I’d come up to Westchester, where EF’s headquarters are located. The EF Community Foundation had heard that the Theatre of the Oppressed course was very popular down in the city, and invited me to teach in their pilot Leadership Institute, modeled after the same program they funded in NYC. I immediately noticed a special vibe; the first day I walked into the EF headquarters, the janitor whispered to me: “I love working here: shhh, don’t tell anyone.”
I was excited about the work Eileen was doing around girls’ and women’s leadership (being an emerging leader myself, as well as a young woman). The company was similarly excited by the Theatre of the Oppressed methodology I brought, and how it connected the young women to each other and to their communities, through identifying and transforming collective challenges. At the performance I facilitated that summer, Eileen spoke about the importance of investing in the confidence and creativity of young women, sparked by the challenges she faced when starting the company 30 years before. I didn’t know yet that I’d soon be running a growing arts-and-social-justice nonprofit, and that I would sometimes struggle to find my own confidence as a young, female leader.
A few months later I was directing NYC’s first homeless forum theatre troupe in its inaugural performance, “It Could Happen to You,” in a shelter on the Upper East Side, and I invited the EF staff. That fall, I wrote a proposal and received a grant from EF’s Community Partnership program for my little fiscally-sponsored project. At that point, an ongoing relationship began in which I continued to facilitate and advise for their summer Leadership Institute, and the Foundation became a steady supporter of TONYC, which was born that same winter. The early support from EF tells part of the story of how our organization came to exist.
The partnership continued to grow in late 2011, when Antoinette Klatzky, the Foundation’s program director, joined the Board. There have been some surprises: a high-schooler from the summer program, Aliyah Hakim, fell in love with our work and interned with TONYC in 2012. Aliyah’s excitement inspired the Foundation to pilot a “Gap Year Fellowship” for young women to work on a social justice project and earn a substantial stipend; we were the first organization to receive a fellow, and Aliyah’s work was integral in our spring 2013 LGBTQ Homeless Youth Forum Theatre Festival. Other young women from the Leadership Institute, as well as staff, have become regular audience members and volunteers at our events.
In Theatre of the Oppressed NYC’s mission, arts and social justice carry equal weight. It’s incredibly important that any business we’re partnering with demonstrates a strong sense of ethics and social consciousness in all of its practices. I believe that both organizations have learned from each other over the past two years, and I have appreciated the opportunity to witness, from the inside, responsible business practices and effective women leaders.
Next week, on Tues, Oct 22nd, we’ll hold our 2nd annual ACTIVATE benefit event (tickets still available!), raising funds for our 2014 programs while growing our community and celebrating our actors and partners. We’re very happy that the Eileen Fisher Community Foundation is making a gift in honor of the event and challenging our supporters to match it, and that many of their staff and community will be there to celebrate with us.
(This post is one in a weekly series highlighting The pARTnership Movement, Americans for the Arts’ campaign to reach business leaders with the message that partnering with the arts can build their competitive advantage. Visit our website to find out how both businesses and local arts agencies can get involved!)