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Chef, Author and Activist Bryant Terry is a Bad Ass Food Revolutionary

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Chef, Author and Activist Bryant Terry is a Bad Ass Food Revolutionary

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Bryant Terry is an activist, author, mentor, speaker, educator, chef, practicing Buddhist, daddy, hubby and a champion for social justice via the food liberation movement. Inspired by his grandparents' Memphis kitchen, his work with New York City youth, and the Black Panther's Free Breakfast movement, the Oakland, Cali resident is passionate about self-empowerment through healthy eating. He's a stand for folks in the lower economic stratosphere, especially people of color, having access to fresh food. He's also passionate about the benefits of growing, cooking and eating healthfully. Bryant is out to have communities mobilize to better take care of one another without having to rely on Wholefoods to come in and save the day.

Part recipes, part historical narrative - his latest cookbook, Afro-Vegan, shares Bryant's love for creating delicious meals drawing from across the African diaspora. I haven't received my copy yet but I imagine I'll be remixing some of my vegetarian recipes soon. I throw coconut milk and curry on everything

I got to hang with Bryant in his lovely home in beautiful Oakland and we chatted about how he found his path, the politics of food, and his evolving definition of activism.

What made you so interested in food? How did that begin?

The work that I do now as a food activist, chef, and cookbook author - the foundation comes from growing up in Memphis. My family came from rural Mississippi and had farms. For me it was second nature to grow up in community gardens…so when I started doing this work in New York I really thought it was something people were missing. You know, living in the concrete jungle, not having these green spaces, not being really connected to the process of growing food and making food. It was such a treasure for me. I really wanted to ensure that the younger generation were able to connect with our earth and know how to cook food from scratch.

Growing up with my paternal grandfather who cooked a lot as well [was important for me]. My grandmother had a stroke in her 50’s. He cooked the food, cleaned the house because she couldn’t do that on her own. Having a grandfather who really took care of the daily functions of the kitchen and made all the meals and was the nurturer of the home made it really safe for me. Growing up, I loved cooking. I loved baking. I felt very welcome and very safe in the kitchen because my grandfather was such a manly man and he was really buff and also so gentle, loving and caring.

For a lot of folks, cooking from scratch is sorta revolutionary.

And that’s why when I talk about my work I talk about it almost like an act of remembering, revitalizing, and celebrating the traditions of our ancestors. It wasn’t like they were eating local or sustainable. They were just eating the food they grew because that’s what you did.  So part of my mission is to help mobilize. To help push back on this perception that eating this way or cooking this way is 'white' or a bourgeois thing.

It sounds like you’re interested in the relationship between culture and food. What are your thoughts on this? I mean, I can buy quinoa in Bedstuy, Brooklyn now. That wouldn’t have been available before.

Well, I think a lot of it is about marketing to a certain demographic. When you think about the food corporations who are producing a lot of healthy or organic products, they’re marketing to people who they can charge a higher price to because that is their goal; to make a profit for their shareholders. I often talk about the way in which we can’t rely on food corporations as the solution for food injustice. We think about communities that have very little access to healthful food and it’s easy to say well, we just need a supermarket there. A Wholefoods or whatever.

If we’re going to address food insecurity or food injustice, the solutions need to be driven by people living in those communities. I think it’s more than just bringing food in. It’s about self-determination. It’s about economic empowerment.”

If we’re going to address food insecurity or food injustice, the solutions need to be driven by people living in those communities. I think it’s more than just bringing food in. It’s about self-determination. It’s about economic empowerment. I think about this quote Malcolm X said, about having businesses in your community that are owned by people who don’t live there. He said, when that man leaves at the end of the day he takes that bag of money out of the community. When you think of supermarkets, often times the profits are going to some corporate headquarters that are a long ways from that community. When you think about community gardens or urban food stands or farmers markets set up by people in the community who look like people in the community then those have lasting sustainable solutions. If you have the supermarket there and they leave, then people don’t have any food sources anymore. That’s what happens to a lot of urban areas that are now described as food deserts. I think we have to be careful when we talk about creating solutions. We don’t want to create that same process again.

Let’s talk about the past work you’ve done with youth. Tell us about your experience with Be-Healthy.

Well one of the first steps for me and the reason I write cookbooks and do a lot of speaking at community events and colleges is that I truly believe that one of the most important steps is making people aware of the issue and what’s at stake. I always talk about the three levels of making changes: as consumers, as community members, as citizens. We need to make sure our local elected official or state and our federal officials are creating policies that ensure that food is accessible to everyone. I think to go into a community and even get people to think about why they should be invested you have to make them feel invested about wanting to eat fresh food. I think people who are used to eating a lot of fast food, that’s a gargantuan task in and of itself. Like, this is something you should care about, this is something that’s your ancestral heritage, this is something that is your birthright.

I think people who are used to eating a lot of fast food, that’s a gargantuan task in and of itself. Like, this is something you should care about, this is something that’s your ancestral heritage, this is something that is your birthright.”

When I started the organization, Be-Healthy, I was like, why are these young people coming in here talking about ‘I don’t eat vegetables’ or, ‘I don’t drink water.’ So to even get them to a point where they’re like I want to be a food activist, I want to be active in my community, I want to be a peer educator, I want to get people in my community invested in these issues. They need to be invested. They need to feel like this is something they care about.

How long was Be-Healthy around for?

Five years. It was implemented with a group of people I know from cooking school, grad school and the artist and activist community I was working with in New York City. Because of the population of kids we were working for, many of who had very little resources or access to healthful foods, we didn’t just want to have a program where we were talking to them. We wanted to be tactile, practical and engaging. I thought, what’s more engaging then teaching them how to cook as a way to politicize them, as a way to engage them?

I thought what Be-Healthy brought to the movement was the emphasis and importance of cooking as a tool for liberation. We would get the young people and have Thursday and Saturday workshops and go to the community farms or urban gardens and have them learn about these foods. We would get in the kitchen and make a meal. What we found was that young people were so much more invested when they made it! The ones who would be like, ‘I never eat vegetables’ or, ‘I don’t eat that quinoa stuff.’ When they made it, they would be like ‘well, I wanna try what I made.’ The more they opened up there palate, it just broke down their resistance to trying different things or eating fresh foods.

It must have been gratifying to see some of the changes in the students.

We celebrated the small victories. I think, as an educator, you can’t get too caught up in the immediate outcome because you might not see it immediately. The impact may not manifest for years. I think that was a position we had to hold that we were just planting seeds and hopefully it would stick and make an impact. For a young person to come into the program like, ‘I don’t drink water, only soda’ and by the end of the year, come in with a water bottle or with a bag of dried banana chips they bought with their own money instead of cheetos…those were huge victories for us.

But one of the biggest successes was this young woman who was about 16 or 17 who had a 2 year-old at the time and she wasn’t into eating healthfully but she wanted to eat more healthfully for her son. She wanted to share this with other teen moms. So we did a workshop about prenatal health and postnatal eating and it went phenomenally well. The young moms requested more workshops and out of that we raised money and started this project called The Healthy Moms, Healthy Babies project which was about working with young moms. So for that to come about organically from one of the young woman in our project was a big deal.

What keeps you committed to this? What's your bigger vision?

One of the things that really moved me to do this work was learning that statistically, this generation of young people were at risk for having a shorter life span than their parents generation.

A large part of the vision is having the communities who are most impacted by food injustice or food insecurity, by the exponential rise in preventable diet related illnesses that we’ve seen over the past several decades, having them be in charge of not only bringing more sources for fresh affordable healthful food into the communities, but take the lead in reversing some of the chronic illnesses that have been rising in the community. It starts with what we’re eating and how we’re thinking and what kind of physical activity we’re engaging in andreally understanding it’s not about popping pills or going to some physician and having them take care of you. It’s having us take care of ourselves.  It’s not about the individual but it’s about communities coming together and communally ensuring we’re improving our public health. One of the things that really moved me to do this work was learning that statistically, this generation of young people were at risk for having a shorter life span than their parents generation.

That’s insane. I didn’t know that.

This whole idea of us advancing and having all of this technology…I grew up understanding that those things meant we’d live longer and have a healthy and robust life. So, the fact that younger people are at risk for having a shorter life span really bothered me. I mean I have Twitter, Instagram and all that and I have a complicated relationship with it but I do feel like they can be important tools for educating and organizing but I would argue that the most important work happens when we’re in person, face to face and connecting in real time. I think those tools are great in actually bringing people together in real life because I don’t think just sitting behind a screen is going to solve our problems. I think we need to exchange and connect and work through it in real life.

This is your fourth book. Did you always want to be a writer?

Well, it’s my third I have written by myself. I co-authored one. I studied English in college and history in grad school and it’s funny because I think my parents were a little concerned like, ‘ok you studied English in college and history in grad school and then you’re in cooking school, you’re kind of all over the place’ but I feel like the work I do now - and I think they get it – brings all of those things together.

You could find all the fast foods, processed food and bodegas but you couldn’t find fresh fruit. Those connections moved me to want to go to cooking school so I could use cooking as a way to get young people engaged around these issues and work towards their own liberation.”

In grad school, some of the research I was doing was about the Black Panthers and their projects in the late 60’s. Many had to do with providing low-income people of color with basic needs. The program that moved me more than anything was their free breakfast for children program. Having learned about that program and also doing work in partnership with communities that were dealing with some of the highest rates of chronic illnesses and seeing that these were “food deserts.” You could find all the fast foods, processed food and bodegas but you couldn’t find fresh fruit.  Those connections moved me to want to go to cooking school so I could use cooking as a way to get young people engaged around these issues and work towards their own liberation.

Your work seems to encompass so many different elements; writing, teaching speaking etc. do you enjoy working in that way?

It’s a great balance for me to be able to be creative and do things that move me and are creating beauty and interesting things in the world…but then also having that work be done in service of social justice, in service of creating a better world.

I love it. I get bored easily and I like the fact that I can be sitting here doing this interview with you and then I go pick up my daughter and just be a daddy for a while. Later I’ll be editing my book and then on Monday I fly out to Indiana and give a talk to a group of college students. Then, next week, I’m going to be flying to New Orleans and am being honored at this vegan gumbo fest. It’s a great balance for me to be able to be creative and do things that move me and are creating beauty and interesting things in the world…but then also having that work be done in service of social justice, in service of creating a better world. I feel like it’s just the ideal situation. I feel like I am blessed to be able to do that and sustain myself and my family. It’s been a long time coming. I’ve been doing this work for over a decade.

I mentor a lot of younger chefs, activists, authors and I will tell them, I was doing stuff for years for pro bono and there was a time when I was doing all these talks around NYC and the country for free. I realized that  I just wanted to get the message out. It wasn’t even about the money. It was like, this is something I feel needs to be shared and then also, I wanted to be able to sustain myself. You just gotta put that work in. Sometimes it’s just about people seeing your track record and that you’re committed to it and that you have interesting things to say. A lot of time you’re not going to get paid to do that. So for me to be at this point, I don’t feel guilty about it. I feel like I have put in years of blood, sweat, and tears to be at a point where people value my work and want to bring me out to speak or pay me to write a book.

Yeah, it sounds like what you’re hitting on is patience, dedication, commitment and actually having something to say. I like that you said you don’t feel guilty.

I had to get over feeling guilty when I started writing books like, ‘oh I’m not on the ground working with young people anymore’ but then understand that this work is equally important, feeling good about it and knowing that it has an impact too.

Well, the material manifestation of my ideas in a book is so rewarding. This is going to be my first hardback, full-color book so just that process is so rewarding. That’s why I love this balance in my life. I truly feel like I am an activist in my heart and re-imaging what activism looks like. I think I grew up with this narrow idea of what it meant to be an activist like, grassroots activism. I think that work is important and my work started as a grassroots activist working with young people but I also understand there is a need for people to have a national platform, there is a need for people who are shifting peoples attitudes and habits and politics in a larger way. I feel like that is a role my work has been playing and I think it’s equally important. I had to get over feeling guilty when I started writing books like,  ‘oh I’m not on the ground working with young people anymore’ but then understand that this work is equally important, feeling good about it and knowing that it has an impact too.

What are some of the challenges of finding your way?

Well, a lot of times I’m like, ‘I’m not where I want to be’ or, ‘this shouldn’t be my first full-cover hard backed book. I should have had that two books ago. I should have my own TV show on the cooking channel’ or whatever. I think just going back to my Buddhist practice and being present with what is and that it is perfect in this moment. If I’m stuck thinking about the future too much, I’m not being present. If I am present with my work and my family, then I am very happy. That’s what most important to me, that I am happy and comfortable and doing what I love and I have an amazing family. I think that is something we all need to remember: to be present when things are shitty and understand that that is part of the process and not getting stuck in it and sitting with it and letting go so I can move to the next moment.

Short film credit: Barry Jenkins

Interview by Jahan Mantin 

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Ryann Holmes on The Origins of Bklyn Boihood, Identity and Self-Acceptance

Ryann Holmes on The Origins of Bklyn Boihood, Identity and Self-Acceptance

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Ok, so what is a "boi?" according to Urbandictionary.com (a HIGHLY trusted source), it's a word used in "the lesbian community, a young transgendered/androgynous/masculine person who is biologically female and presents themselves in a young, boyish way." Ryann Holmes, the co-founder of Bklyn Boihood, whose mission is defined as "to spread love through community-building events, music and art while sharing our journey as bois of color who believe in safe spaces, accountable action and self-care" has a more interesting way to answer that question. 

In addition to providing physical space for bois to commune, chill, talk and party, Bklyn Boihood also produces a yearly calendar that slyly and geniusly pokes playful fun at annual firefighter calendars by using a similar format that instead, promotes beautiful, regal, stylish images of bois of color empowered by their image. Bklyn Boihood also host an annual retreat and conducts workshops at colleges and community organizations on "Un/Doing Masculinity" which champions "healthy masculinity, intersectionality of identities and anti-misogyny for bois of color all over the world." 

We spoke with the exceptionally down-to-earth, intelligent, and cool-as-hell Ryann about the origins of Brooklyn Boihood and its journey to becoming an international movement (at the interview, we were told the collective had just been granted a publishing deal for an anthology due out mid 2015), Ryann's own struggles with self-acceptance and the complexity of masculine and feminine identity.  

So, you were telling me that you’re a bit tired from hanging out with Nikki Giovanni last night at The Red Rooster in Harlem. That’s some impressive sounding ish.

Ha - yeah, my brother is in college in Virginia and became friendly with Nikki, she's a professor at Virginia Tech, and I met her last night. She is incredible. She said something really great last night. She said that she lives in Southern Virgina and the pollen is so thick that this room would be covered in no time. It comes through the window, and your house is so dusty. Every morning you wake up and there’s this dust. You dust it off, you wake up again, there's more. She really believes in pushing people towards what they can do, because you can only do what you can and if everyone continues to dust, that means someone else can do something. You do what you can, and you make it possible for someone else to do what they can. When I was with her last night, I was like what time does your day start? She's like 5:30am - I don't know how old she is but she has so much energy. We were there till' midnight and I was telling my brother, like, I gotta get out of here. I'm tired! But I think having that outlook is what keeps her going.

That’s a beautiful analogy. Is that what you feel you’re doing with Bkyln Boihood? Making room for the next person?

Yeah, definitely. Bkyln Boihood evolved from me - out of something I was so naturally called to. I’m from Maryland and was born in DC and have lived in NYC for almost a decade. Bkyln Boihood started in 2009 and we started gathering people together. Come January 2010 we had the website going and started openly promoting the calendar. I’ve always been a person who under any circumstance or situation -  if I feel injustice or feel like  people aren’t being respected - even if it isn’t myself, I feel it the same. So it was only natural that in my identity, I couldn’t actually stand walking through life feeling this way or not loving myself or being in places where I didn’t feel like I could discuss my identity.

What was it like for you growing up? 

I was so embarrassed, unclear and confused about what I was supposed to be doing and I wasn’t being affirmed at all. I didn’t disclose a lot…I was outed in high school, I didn’t come out. I didn’t have that many people super close to me to relate to. I didn’t have community. I was searching for myself and didn’t have enough confidence to really do me and not be looking around like, ‘is this weird?’ Just because of the nature of who I am, when I got to NYC, I sort of settled in and got comfortable and made a community hub. I’m that person who is like, ‘wanna come over tomorrow?’ and I met you two days ago. So my space really quickly started to grow...that was my nickname, ‘the hub’ and that’s how my mom was. We were that house on the block that all the kids were at.

Has your family been supportive?

It’s a weird thing. I don’t do the type of work that is easily shared. I don’t know that people get it – get the magnitude of it. My parents are proud of me, but they don’t fully understand what I’m doing but my siblings, they follow me and keep up with me online and they’re so supportive, my sister buys a calendar every year.

Was there a moment where you had this idea or did it happen over time?

It was probably a build up of things. I came to New York to really explore and embrace my identity. I started to present more masculine and I was meeting different people and connecting and sharing my experience. I was thinking ok, I’m not imagining that I feel this way. I really began to connect with people and recognize my power. With an old friend, we started Bkyln Boihood together. We had just gotten haircuts – and we were looking in the mirror and going, ‘I’m not bad looking’ and really feeling good and thinking, we should appreciate this.

We had just gotten haircuts – and we were looking in the mirror and going, ‘I’m not bad looking’ and really feeling good and thinking, we should appreciate this.That’s when the idea came to do something visual. Some kind of project that showcased different images of queer, trans, or however people identify because I realized I hadn’t seen any of those images.

That’s when the idea came to do something visual. Some kind of project that showcased different images of queer, trans, or however people identify because I realized I hadn’t seen any of those images. Other things were coming out but not in the way that I wanted it to be portrayed. If I saw things with boi’s of color, it wasn’t that professional or I wasn’t really diggin’ the fashion. It just didn’t translate. It was so bizarre, us looking in the mirror...we were like, people should see this and we should show them. We were like, why not start a project and take leadership? So that’s what shaped the idea of the calendar.

It sounds like you’re a natural community curator. Who were some of the people you were meeting when you first came to New York?

When I first got here I ended up meeting a woman who I ended up dating for four years. She was from Yonkers and we began exploring Brooklyn. As I met more people, I started wanting to be involved and started asking about an organization I could work with. I started volunteering with the Audre Lorde Project and that was sort of my entry into the activist world. It gave me a little more language to say what I was feeling and to identify who I was. It was an interesting environment but at the same time, it wasn’t quite right. I still felt there were things that were missing. It didn’t fulfill me enough and that led me to want to create another type of space.

I think lots of  high school students can relate to feeling isolated or trying to figure themselves out. Yet you’ve created a community where young bois of color have an alternative to that.

It’s so intense. We’ve gotten letters from people in different places. I remember getting a letter from someone in Kenya who had gotten the calendar in a really sneaky way and it meant everything to them to just know that we’re out here doing this...that they can exist in this and that they’re actually a person and affirmed. I get so emotional talking about this. I mean, we have our struggles but we live in New York City, I can walk from here to there. To  think about how much we do have...and be able to tell people about that…it’s completely changed my life.

It’s revolutionary.

Yeah, it really feels like that.

Within the queer community, I imagine there are a lot of sub-communities. Did you get any push back from other groups? 

Yeah, definitely. Neither of us [the co-founders] have activist backgrounds. I remember when I first got to Audre Lorde I was like, I don’t know what these acronyms are. It’s get a little academic. There are parts of that that I love but it wasn’t exactly for me. I felt like it could shut people out and isolate people that were like me and maybe not able to completely connect with it. When academia comes up there’s also this perceived class thing that starts to happen, like, so if I didn’t go to school am I not worthy of being in this conversation? We got a lot of push back and were told we were perpetuating this kind of good ol’ boys thing.

When academia comes up there’s also this perceived class thing that starts to happen, like, so if I didn’t go to school am I not worthy of being in this conversation? We got a lot of push back and were told we were perpetuating this kind of good ol’ boys thing.

That shifted when I went on a leadership retreat for the Brown Boi Project in 2010. I went out to Oakland and that conference shifted the course of my life. I didn’t even know what I was getting into. We stayed in this big mansion and had workshops and were inundated in everything from self-care and financial stability to breaking down gender justice and femininity and masculinity...and it wasn’t just queer and trans folks, there were straight black men who were part of the program. It was really transformative. At that moment I knew I had a bigger responsibility – it wasn’t just about visibility but about re-shaping the way we internalize masculinity when it comes out negatively and how that affects people in the world. I was able to recognize my power. Everyone in the collective feels like we have an obligation and a greater purpose.

What is the greater purpose?

I mean, it sounds super cheesy but it’s to spread love and that starts in the way we care for each other to how we choose to be a platform and to the way that we create space with people and in communities. Even if we have to do something that’s hard or controversial, we always try to come from a place of love.

At that moment I knew I had a bigger responsibility – it wasn’t just about visibility but about re-shaping the way we internalize masculinity when it comes out negatively and how that affects people in the world. I was able to recognize my power. Everyone in the collective feels like we have an obligation and a greater purpose.

Can you talk a bit about your work mentoring young people? 

I also mentor young people and we talk about sexuality and homophobia and the young girls, a lot of them have no problem saying, I love women but at the same time they say a lot of really negative things about gay men, femininity, and gay feminine men. If a gay man isn’t feminine, there is this disbelief that that can even exist. I tell them all the time, the society we live in hates femininity and we can’t support that. To me honestly, I feel like all it is energy. I feel like our spirits are ebbing and flowing with one another and we all have different ways that manifest. Some of us choose to express it more than others whether it be through how we present our gender, who we choose to love.

The society we live in hates femininity and we can’t support that. Everything is so fluid and we all embody femininity and masculinity but the femininity isn’t embraced unless it can be possessed or objectified...it’s not this black and white thing and it’s not directly related to our body parts. Our body parts aren’t necessarily related to who we choose to love.

Everything is so fluid and we all embody femininity and masculinity but the femininity isn’t embraced unless it can be possessed or objectified or there to enhance masculinity or serve the more negative aspects. It’s not this black and white thing and it’s not directly related to our body parts. There’s so many misconceptions. Our body parts aren’t necessarily related to who we choose to love. It’s so vast, the ways we can actually connect to ourselves and each other. We limit ourselves and we shun those who don’t...we shame them and make them think that they’re weird but actually they’re doing what comes natural. To me, this is the more incredible thing to do. I’ve always maintained a particular type of energy from when I was a baby and I was lucky enough to have a mom who was like ‘ok, fine, you can wear the baseball hat.'

I think folks who define themselves as heterosexuals have a lot of stereotypes or misconstrued ideas of “boi” relationships. Does the “straight” opinion even matter?

It’s funny because if you look up femininity in the dictionary it will say things like ‘weak’ or ‘nurturing’ ..if you talk to a young black man and ask him who is the strongest black icon in his life he will often answer his mother. To be cliché, I feel that people fear what they don’t understand. They have a hard time with someone threatening what they understand about themselves. It matters to me because it affects my life. If you feel a certain way, your actions may reflect that. That’s what leads to people being in violent situations.

That’s why I work with young people. I’m interested in talking to people who don’t get it - who are like, what? I’m not interested in sitting in a room with people who get it – I mean, it’s important to continue to analyze but I like to push it and talking to 16, 17 or 18 year old men who have been on the block their whole life, that’s what they know. I just feel like something has to happen to people...to have some relatable moment, where they see beyond themselves. If you think you know shit, that’s when you stop letting yourself learn more shit. That’s when you’re in trouble. That’s why I like young people. They don’t mind being told what you think you know may not be the truth.

What are your thoughts on boi relationships in which one or both people are mimicking masculinity in dominant and oppressive ways?

I think that’s a lot of what we try to do is offer another perspective. Here’s a boi who does not cheat on his girlfriend and just graduated from law school and looks like you do and came from where you came from.

That’s not a foreign experience. That’s the problem with a lack of visibility and a really short list of examples…people latch on to stuff. So if there’s this self hated and it’s internalized when it comes to not wanting to identify with certain parts of womanhood or perceived womanhood plus wanting to be affirmed in how they present and their masculinity...the reason men embody these negative things is the misconception that this is what makes you a man and a lot of that comes from this really false sense of what it means. It actually looks crazy as hell, especially in certain bodies, like how could you treat women this way and look at yourself? I guess that is what we push back on and I think it’s just a part of a lot of people’s process because they don’t have any other framework. I think that’s a lot of what we try to do is offer another perspective. Here’s a boi who does not cheat on his girlfriend and just graduated from law school and looks like you do and came from where you came from...just to provide another framework because if all you have to model is the men in your life or other bois who are mimicking that shit, then that’s what it’s gonna be.

Did you ever expect Bklyn Boihood to have blown up like this?

I always believed it could, somewhere deep down. We always spoke about it really affirmingly but we never expected it to reach overseas and for people to be ordering it from London, Nairobi, South Africa, Brazil…there’s a woman who takes 20 or 30 to Brazil and gives them to bois. We exist all over the world and all over the planet. That to me is amazing, for there to be no mainstream visibility and for people to be at home just like me, in the mirror, getting dressed, figuring myself out and coming to terms with who I am.  For the people on that journey, that just makes me want to keep on doing this work, keep affirming each other, it’s just amazing. I think the next part of our journey will be to not only reach but continue to expose these individuals and stories.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Feature image, photo credit: King Texas

Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot. 

Jo-Ná Williams on the Value and Importance of the Artist Entrepreneur

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Jo-Ná Williams on the Value and Importance of the Artist Entrepreneur

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The stereotypical music industry executive talks real fast, issue a lot of broken promises and make their money exploiting young naive artists who lack the skill or experience to know when they're being taking advantage of. Artist, entrepreneur, business coach and lawyer, Jo-Ná Williams, has built her business, The Artist Empowerment Firm, based on the exact opposite approach. A bubbly, warm, and no-nonsense type, Jo-Ná has a real mama bear type vibe - she's the kind of woman who expects you to eat your vegetables even if you don't like how they taste and can smell your bullshit excuses a mile away. 

Full disclosure: Boyuan and I have recently hired Jo-Ná as our business coach, so we're a little biased - but even before we worked with her, we were wowed by her impressive roster of clients (they include esteemed life + business coach/strategist Marie Forleo and vocalist Celia Faussart of Les Nubians) and had the pleasure of collaborating with her on our March event at the Brooklyn Museum for artist entrepreneurs. We were taken with her approach to genuinely ensuring artists are empowered financially and legally so they can do what they do best - create. We chatted with Jo-Ná about her start as a vocalist, the ever-changing climate of the music industry and how being an artist entrepreneur separates the kids from the adults. 

So you used to be an artist?

I’ve always been a vocalist and grew up in choirs. I played the piano at a very early age. I decided I was going to be a vocalist professionally. I never saw myself as being the next Toni Braxton or whatever, I always saw myself as being an amazing back-up singer. So, I met an engineer and he wanted me to work with some artists and I was writing lyrics and contributing vocals on peoples tracks. He told me I was going to get paid, receive credits etc. so I trusted that I would eventually have all of these things.

I was an artist and I still consider myself to be an artist - I still write – but I think having been an artist makes me better understand the artist mind. I have compassion and empathize with what it’s like for artists on a daily basis but I also hold them accountable to what it is they say they want.

It never happened. My voice ended up on tracks that ended up on the radio and shows but I was never credited or compensated. It kind of shut me down. I was like ‘I don’t want to do this if this is how it’s going to be.’ So I stopped and I ended up going to college. I still worked with artists but it took different forms. I was a manager for a little while. I started doing my own arts related events, I acted in some plays but I ended up being really good at putting on events. It was a skill-set I didn’t know I had. I ended up being the president of the board that did all of the campus programming for the university. Afterwards, people kept on wanting to hire me. It morphed into my business and I did that for 11 years and stopped at the end of 2010.

I was an artist and I still consider myself to be an artist - I still write – but I think having been an artist makes me better understand the artist mind. I have compassion and empathize with what it’s like for artists on a daily basis but I also hold them accountable to what it is they say they want. It’s different when you have someone who is a lawyer or a business coach and they’ve never had to go out and do what these artists do. Having gone through that myself, I know what it’s like. On the business side, they have someone who is an ally and who is not trying to take advantage of them. I think that’s the reason people feel really safe with me.

Is it ever a challenge for you to manage artists and practice your own art?

I think the way I express my art is different [now]. When I speak or conduct my business I feel like I am being an artist. There is a lot of creativity in being a CEO. I have always been creative and it’s just become expressed in different ways. I didn’t just have a dream of being a vocalist, I always wanted to be a great CEO and writer and speaker. So yes, I still get to be an artist.

I feel like part of my journey was created so I could do what I do now and I feel very fulfilled by what I do. I don’t have the desire to step on the stage in that way. I have the desire to speak on the stage and talk about this stuff and for me, that’s my version of singing. As a vocalist, you have a moment where you get to express yourself and have a platform and the audience gets to hear it and take that in and it means whatever it means to them at that moment. I think that’s what powerful speakers do. They get to express an idea or concept or personal story and you get to hear them on their platform and interpret it for yourself. You define what it means for you and I think that’s why storytelling is so powerful. So, being able to influence people in that way and helping artists express their art and move forward monetarily and in their personal power is to me, extremely powerful.

Do you consider yourself a storyteller?

I tell stories. I don’t know if I would define myself as a storyteller but I do think my story is weaved into what I do. I think that my story makes people want to listen to me versus me just being another music industry person. There’s an element of compassion that goes into what I do because I’ve been on the side of being an artist.

You often see artists being lambasted when they branch out and try different things – why do you think we’re often trying to put artists in a box?

I think it’s because we, as people, try to understand things. Boxes make us feel comfortable. People can look at you and define you and grasp what you’re about and say ‘I get you now.’ I think that’s the reason art makes people uncomfortable. You can’t jump into the artist brain and pull out what it is that they are trying to express. All you can do is self-interpret. When you are an artist, you’re fighting being put in a box and you can only get out of that by clearly expressing what it is you’re trying to express.

I think that’s the reason art makes people uncomfortable. You can’t jump into the artist brain and pull out what it is that they are trying to express. All you can do is self-interpret.

That’s the reason I think branding is so important. You get to decide what you want people to see and how you want the audience to perceive you. You get to curate the experience for them as opposed to people looking at you and defining who you are. Of course, there are going to be people who are going to do that - but it gives you a degree of personal power and control. To me that’s what’s important about the work that I do which is helping artists better understand themselves and what they’re trying to communicate. I think sometimes artists get frustrated when people try to define them but it’s because they haven’t become clear. So you end up kind of reacting instead of being proactive about your stance.

I think a lot of times artists have created a separation between the business side of things and being an artist. Like you can’t integrate the two. One of my friends said that I’m the bridge between these two worlds. A lot of artists don’t think of themselves as entrepreneurial and a lot of business people don’t think of themselves as creative. There’s this divide between both worlds. There’s no doubt that we live in a world where you have to have money to pay for things. You shying away from that or being mad at the man - how is that really serving you? The more you’re able to deal with the essentials in your life, bills etc. the more you can create great things in the world. My mentor says money just makes you more of who you truly are, it just illuminates what’s already there. If you’re already shady, you’re going to continue to be shady. Money is energy, that’s all it is. Of course, I want to make more money but I want to make money so I can create more awesome stuff for artists and help artists and do bigger and better things in the world.

The music industry has turned into this do-it-yourself industry and artists are expected to be entrepreneurs. I have a friend who is a singer and told me 90% of work is taking care of business matters instead of doing what she really loves. What are your thoughts on how the industry has changed? 

You have to make a choice. The way the music industry is now is that it forces artists to make a choice. You’re either going to dedicate your life and your everything to your music and getting it out in the way you want to get it out or you’re not. I think that has really forced people to say am I doing this as a hobby? Or, do I want to enter this industry and actually make a living being an artist? Even in my own business a lot of my time is spent helping another people, coaching people, doing legal work…I have to consciously make time to create my work. It may mean late nights, it may mean working on a Saturday. It showed me how committed I truly am to what it is I want to put out into the world.

You want the body you want? You have to go out and work out. You have to put in the work. It’s the same for an entrepreneur. Ok, I really love this part – but I don’t love doing this part. Who can I hire out? Who can I get to help me build this piece so I can spend my genius time here? It’s like Jay-Z said, you put all your creative time into creating this beautiful work then you have to go to the business side. How are you going to market it? How are you putting out your launch schedule?

There is a breakdown of guidance in learning how to be an incredible artist and learning how to be an entrepreneur. Even when I was in law school, they teach you how to be a great lawyer; they don’t teach you how to run a law firm.

The issue is that there is a breakdown of guidance in learning how to be an incredible artist and learning how to be an entrepreneur. Even when I was in law school, they teach you how to be a great lawyer; they don’t teach you how to run a law firm. The great thing is that there are business coaches. That’s part of your personal power to say, you know what? I don’t have all of the answers and I need someone to help me.  And if you’re not willing to do that you’re not willing to go that route. I think the industry now separates the kids from the adults. You really want to do this? How badly do you want to do this? Step it up. It’s time for you to step outside of your comfort zone. Entrepreneurship is not easy but it’s rewarding. I work a lot to get on stage for one hour. I work for months to have that moment and it’s what we all kind of got to do.

There are a lot of artists who are frustrated and feel like they’ve been victimized. I chose to take my power back. I didn’t choose to live my life as a disempowered artist that had been exploited. The past does not define my future.  It’s just a part of my journey.

You’re so clearly passionate about artists being protected and about the power of art. What do you think is the role or the purpose of art? 

I heard Will Smith say this and thought it was perfect: 'the entire purpose of art is to uplift humanity.' It’s so simple and it’s not easy to be committed to that all of the time but it’s simple. That’s what it’s meant to do. It means to show us our own unlimited potential, to provoke us, to see who we truly are and be able to interpret our own experiences. To help you relate better to the world or to rebel against it – to become more of who you truly are.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot. 

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James Bartlett on MoCADA, The Fear of Failing and Beating the NYC Grind

James Bartlett on MoCADA, The Fear of Failing and Beating the NYC Grind

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James Bartlett has a lot on his plate but you wouldn't know it. His calm coolness suggest he's often the laid back dude among the late night revelers, observing the chaos without being overrun by it. As the Executive Director of MoCADA, The Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, James is constantly visioning and implementing, along with his tight staff, to showcase new and innovative work within the African Diaspora and create a space that values community outreach and interaction. 

In addition to his work with MoCADA, James is the co-founder of MVMT, "a collective of artists, entrepreneurs, and organizers whose missions align to promote the arts, social entrepreneurship, and collective empowerment." We spoke about the paradox of the New York grind, his epiphany on his last trip to Ghana, and why the process and the present is all we have.

You’re from the South right?

Well, I’m from Louisville, Kentucky, born and raised. My father is, and was, a musician and singer but it just felt like it was a regular job to me. So in hindsight I had a lot of exposure to the arts but it didn’t feel like it growing up. It was just my dad’s job, he played piano and he sang.

Do you play any instruments?

I don’t. I just recently started dabbling on the piano.  Growing up my dad didn’t discourage us from getting into music but he didn’t push us. I think secretly or subconsciously he didn’t want us to go into music because it’s a tough life. I like music but I wasn’t drawn to playing. I was drawn to basketball and played in high school and college. I  came to NYU for grad school and got my masters in magazine publishing and I was bit with the entrepreneurial bug. I liked the magazine world but it was just one potential form of artistic and entrepreneurial expression and I was more interested in the arts in general, so I started exploring the business of the arts.

I stared a company with Terence Nance and Rolando Brown called MVMT. We had our own internal artistic projects and offered consulting services to arts organizations. On our own artistic projects, we settled into music and film. I worked and managed Blitz the Ambassador for about five or six years. I executive produced his first album and worked with him over the course of the next several years. On the film side, I worked with Terrance on his first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty.

I did the MVMT thing for about six or seven years but we started working with MoCADA as a client about four years ago. I fell more and more in love with the mission of the museum and even developed some projects from scratch like the MoCADA journeys program, a travel program I conceived and produced. Our first trip was to Ghana was in 2012 for about 35 people and I produced a concert featuring Blitz the Ambassador and Les Nubians; about 2000 people came out to the concert. The people that came on the trip from the states loved it. We’re actually planning a trip to Kenya next year.

MoCADA is kind of the intersection of the majority of my personal passions and interests. It combines so many things - from visual arts to performing arts etc. I also realized that in the six or seven years of doing MVMT, I‘ve always been the person who supported others artistic vision.  I found that a skill I have is getting peoples artistic visions out but also being the museum director gives me the opportunity to create my own end vision as well. At the end of the day I set the tone, direction and the programming so for me it’s the perfect balance of facilitating the creation of art by others but also having a vision of my own that is very specific.

A museum is a very Western concept. It is the idea that art and culture needs to be housed in a building. I like to look at art and culture from a more African context. In Africa art is about community, connections, interaction, creativity, preservation of historical traditions, etc.

Can you talk a bit about the work MoCADA does with marginalized groups of folks in New York City? You're one of the only museums I know taking such a hands-on approach to working with residents of lower socio-economic neighborhoods. Museums typically have a really high-brow/elite type of aesthetic. Why is it important for you to change that ideology?

MoCADA really tries to reach people where they live, rather than insisting that they come to us. For that reason we put art programming in public schools, parks, small business, and public housing.  We believe that art has the ability to transform lives and communities, and that it shouldn't be confined to a box, or reserved for the elite.   The fact that we are even called a "museum," for me personally, is just to give funders a general box to put us in for grant purposes. We are much more than that.  A museum is a very Western concept.  It is the idea that art and culture needs to be housed in a building.  I like to look at art and culture from a more African context.  In Africa art is about community, connections, interaction, creativity, preservation of historical traditions, etc.

Obviously you work with many artists, do you ever feel like there's an artist in you that wants to be expressed?

I’ve always been very content with helping other people get out their vision. I’ve always felt like I was an artist in the sense that everyone is an artist. I always feel creative. I guess when I think of artists, I think of someone with a very specific vision that if changed, is compromised. I always think of my vision as very malleable and flexible and that my vision is bigger than anything I would have the capacity to create. I inherently have to enlist the support of others in creating their visions that are part of my overall vision. My personal artistic creativity is more just being a whole human being in the sense that art and creation is just a part of being human.

I always think of my vision as very malleable and flexible and that my vision is bigger than anything I would have the capacity to create. I inherently have to enlist the support of others in creating their visions that are part of my overall vision.

You have so much on your plate. How do you stay in the process, especially in a city like New York, which is constantly moving and going?

When I first came to New York I was super focused and driven and singularly focused on ‘making it’ and being successful - whatever that means. I worked constantly - to the point that even when I wasn’t working, my mind was working and I had zero down time. I went through years of that. It wasn’t a bad thing - it got me a lot of places. I think it was a period I had to go though. But I had this epiphany in Ghana. I realized being in Ghana that I had largely, on my own, produced this trip for 35 people and these 35 people would not be in Ghana had it not been for a random conversation I had had 18 months prior. Combined with that was the fact that for me, it was one of the most fulfilling things I had ever participated in in my life. The people were so amazing, and it was Blitz’s first concert in Ghana ever – his family was there.

It was a very rewarding experience and the epiphany was that in the process of doing the planning for that trip, for me, in the ranking of priorities that year, I don’t even think it cracked the top ten. I was doing it on the side of the million things I felt I had to do. And so in the process of it, I was not at all present. I was just used to working constantly and doing a lot of things and this was just another thing. Then I look up and I’m in Ghana and I was like ‘wow – this is one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I have ever done.’ As I was planning it, I did not value it on that level at all. It was just, ‘let me get it done because I have to do it.’ It really made me rethink my priorities and how I prioritize things and think about what I want to be doing, what I need to be doing, how I spend my time and how I want to spend my life. It made me much more selective with the projects I take on and more present to the process.

It sounds like you started choosing quality over quantity. What do you think was driving you to take so much on?

I had to be really honest with myself. I think a large part of that period of my life was fear - fear of failing, fear of not accomplishing and when you’re afraid of that you kind of just throw everything at the wall like ‘ok I’m not going to sleep, I’m just gonna work. Who cares about relationships. I’m gonna make it.’ But you only do that if you’re afraid there’s a chance you’re not going to make it.

I think a large part of that period of my life was fear - fear of failing, fear of not accomplishing and when you’re afraid of that you kind of just throw everything at the wall like, ok I’m not going to sleep, I’m just gonna work..but you only do that if you’re afraid there’s a chance you’re not going to make it.

Now I’m more confident and secure in myself, my abilities, the direction I’m going in. I can further enjoy the process and it’s not all about the end goal or the end result. The process is all you have. If you’re always striving for goals, you’re never going to be satisfied. For the majority of my life I lived in the future, I defined myself not by where I was or what I was doing but where I was going and where I wanted to be. I think that is a coping strategy for being a young struggling artist or entrepreneur. You kinda have to justify the struggle like ‘I’m doing this for this because next year I’m going to be here.’ But all we have is right now. So, if you don’t fully embrace the now then who cares about the future.

Right, and then when we get what you want, we don’t fully enjoy it because we’re on to the next thing.

Right. Even though you accomplished that future you envisioned a year ago, you’re now in a new future.

For the majority of my life I lived in the future, I defined myself not by where I was or what I was doing but where I was going and where I wanted to be. I think that is a coping strategy for being a young struggling artist or entrepreneur.

And then it’s never enough.

Right, it’s never enough.

Do you have any tools you use to stay present and in the process?

I would still very much consider myself a novice but I’ve started meditating more and pursuing more practices that aren’t geared towards a specific end goal. Like, I’ve started dabbling on the piano or I started learning French. Not for a specific goal just to explore different ways of expression, different ways to use my brain. Again, I think it’s just about being more comfortable with myself and where I am. You’re less concerned about getting to the future when you feel that momentum carrying you there. It reminds me of a rather interesting quote I heard, ‘fall in love with the process and the results will come.’

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Jahan is an OG of pre-gentrified New York. She is a traveler, book nerd, creative coach, music lover, editor and the Co-Founder of Project Inkblot. 

Liz Maxwell: An Artmonk's Take on Social Innovation

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Liz Maxwell: An Artmonk's Take on Social Innovation

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Liz Maxwell is just one of those people who you'll meet once, and never forget. Her hearty and unselfconscious laugh, and general exuberance and joy, are kind of too contagious to ignore. You won't stand a chance. She's one of those free spirits who has done more in a few years than most people do in a lifetime. After college, she bought an around-the-world ticket, landed in Italy, fell upon a bunch of "hippies" at The Art Monastery Project where she served as the Artistic Director, and stayed for three years. I met her a few months ago at The Feast Social Innovation Conference, where she was one of the core organizers. I wanted to know how she went from a modern monastic lifestyle in an insular community, to being involved in a rapidly growing social innovation scene in one of the biggest cities in the world. This was our conversation:

How did you find out about the Art Monastery?  

I found it on Google. I’m pretty good at identifying the thing that I want in the world, and then searching the internet. [laughs]

What was your story before landing there?

I grew up in New Orleans. I went to college and majored in theater. After that I bounced around the country doing some regional theater, and then an internship in Cincinnati. I’m also a performance artist, I acted a lot in college, but I got more interested in directing in this "devised collaborative ensemble thing" around the U.S. I kind of decided that traditional regional theater was bullsh*t. I was seeking something more. As an actor, the traditional track is really laid out where you just audition a ton, and sometimes if you’re really lucky the right person sees you and puts you in a show, or you intern for years and years. It’s so hard. As a female director specifically, the track is to assistant direct enough times, probably for a good decade or two, until you get the chance to do it yourself. It's not like there's a casting call for directors. It’s all very networky.

I always imagined that I would end up in New York. When I was in my early 20s, I considered moving here, but thought, "okay, once I’m in New York, I’m going to settle in there, but before that, I want to see the world!" So I saved up a bunch of money and went on an around-the-world trip. Before I left, I was just looking for different opportunities and alternative ways to travel, and found this great website called Workaway, which I highly recommend to travelers, because you can find work/trade arrangement where you can live and eat for free, or whatever the arrangement is. The Art Monastery was listed on that, and it seemed pretty cool, and we set up that I would go there for a week to volunteer, a few months into my trip. I did, and I never left. I showed up for that week, and I ended up there for three years. I entered the organization at the right time, as they were at this particular stage of growth. They had a really small team, and I quickly became more involved on every level with what they were doing, like programmatic initiatives, and then eventually becoming Artistic Director.

How did you go from being a volunteer to the artistic director? 

The Founding Artist Director couldn’t come back to Italy the second year and I was next in line, so I just stepped up. It was exciting and I learned a bunch by just doing, almost immediately. I became so deeply involved in so many ways.

What is the concept behind the Art Monastery? 

The Art Monastery Project is dedicated to personal awakening and cultural transformation through art, contemplation, and community. So those are the three really big pillars. We investigated all kinds of questions relating to "art," "monastery," and the idea of a "project." We really examined those three words. It’s a real monastery, and there’s a deep connection with the old world there, looking at what it means to be a monk today, such as what does contemporary monasticism actually mean? We threw out the traditional monastic vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, and created our own: Gratitude, Resourcefulness, and Fidelity as our three Artmonk vows. Those may change in the future, but at the time when someone joined the monastery, we asked them to take those vows with us.

What kinds of people are involved with the monastery? 

All kinds of people: travelers, international volunteers who were just passing through,Many professional artists from a variety of disciplines and international backgrounds, and then the core team who happened to be are all Americans. A lot of them were from San Francisco. We had our own network of artists who had heard about Art Monastery, and the word just kind of grew. The project was in Italy for 5 years. Now we shut down all Italian operations and are now back in the U.S. to figure out what the next stages look like. There are some core concepts and values that we’ve identified, but the idea is to spread the Artmonk values in a more decentralized, organic way. That’s the next phase.

What did the programs in Italy look like? 

In Italy we ran residency programs, short term and long term. Short term artists would come for one week to do their own thing. For all residents, we all ate together. We had a monastic schedule that we would try to keep together. We sang Gregorian Chant together and would try to keep some of the monastic rituals together and active. The experiment was to see how that would affect the creative process and the products that came out of it. In the shorter programs, the artists would share their work with the Italian village that we lived in, which was often stuff that they had already developed. Residents who stayed three-months would work with the core team and create projects in that setting. That’s when we really got to dig in the monastic stuff. The whole time you’re living with one community, where you have a lot of people, and a lot of opinions. There were between 5 and 25 at any given time. The summer was when we could host the most people because it was pretty outside, and people would camp on the grounds.

Going by the monastic schedule that you created, what results did you see?

For instance, I’m a theater director, but because I lived with a composer, a visual artist, a writer, etc. for years, we would naturally build things collaboratively. The show we did at the end of last summer (Ad Mortem) had this electronic rock score that utilized this live looping, which is not artistically where I would have thought to bring it, but that’s what the composer was experimenting with at the time. That’s just an example of what happens when you are living in a rich community together. Just over breakfast, you would hear, “listen to what I created last night.” And it totally affects you in this cellular way, it affects your deep roots of creativity. And the contemplation: it was something that we struggled with because of religion. We’re not a religious organization, we're secular. There was always a large percentage that kind of self identified in the category of Buddhist, but wasn't ever officially incorporated into our values. The Gregorian Chants are of course from Christianity, and in Latin. They were really beautiful, but when you start to really translate the words, none of us--in that space--really believed that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, but it’s still really beautiful. I grew up in the Catholic church, I have love and respect for it, but I don’t consider myself Catholic.

That ends up affecting the content too. We did a lot of chant concerts, and we were in conservative rural Italy, so, we often were asked to sing in church on Easter Sunday. We always thought, "we are a bunch of weird experimental hippies, but sure." They didn’t know how radical or experimental our conversations got, but there was a balance of engaging with the local community there. It was a balancing act and a challenge. We were just so far from any major city that no one spoke English. The core team learned Italian bit by bit, and we had lessons together. It was the only way to survive out there, outside of our little bubble.

How did the Art Monastery start? 

It was founded by a two Americans, Betsy McCall who is a visual artist, and a synchronized swimmer, and she’s in San Francisco now. Christopher Fulling is another founding member, he’s the Founding Artistic Director who’s a ritual theater director and a classical tenor, and he now lives in LA. We don’t say this on the website, but it also very much grew out of the Burning Man community as well.

Why did the founders pick Italy, and such a rural obscure part of it, at that?

It’s where it was possible to happen. That wasn’t necessarily the ideal location. It turned into the ideal location. When the founders first started the project, they didn’t know a lot of people in Italy or connections over there. They went over with a friend who ran tours in Italy, that was her job, and she introduced them to a lot of people. For the first two years, they were in a different small Italian village outside of Rome. The deal there, they were always looking at the monastery to be renovated, and asked them to be there and produce events in the town. They were given a place to live nearby. The place never finished getting renovated, and finally that became too much. At that point, we already had an extensive network in Italy, and we put the word out, and a friend of a friend knew of the mayor in Labro.

How did you sustain your programs? 

The Art Monastery ran on a remarkably small budget, but continued to work for a really long time because so much of it was built on trade, and sharing. We survived off of that. Where we were in Labro. There's a monastery, called Colle di Costa, it was a monastery for a thousand years, and now has been renovated into a four star hotel, so it’s a funny place. It has a special vibe to it because of it’s ancient roots, but you feel like you have to dress up a little bit to be there. They never really wanted us to live in the monastery. I totally understand. No one wants the experimental hippies to live there all year round. For a while we lived there next door, but they would give us space for residencies. But then they let us stay because we produced cultural events. There’s a European value on culture, where I’m not sure that an exchange like that in the U.S. would work like that.

What were some of the great things that you witnessed while being there? 

About two years ago, the Art Monastery got looped into a wonderful partnership with about seven other organizations from around Europe, called the Lifelong Learning Partnership, and we got funding for all of the organizations to go visit all of the other ones, and I got to see a lot more of Europe that way. There’s an organization in Budapest that we got plugged into, and this is how I got connected to the social innovation scene. We produced the  first ever ChangeMaker’s Festival in Sweden that July. That partnership of all of the organizations is still living on. It’s now called the International Partnership for Transformative Learning (IPTL) and they are doing the Change Maker festival again next year.

Why did you leave after so long? 

I still have very strong ties with everyone there, but I was part of an intentional community for so long, and I now have to step away to find my own identity again a little bit. I’m pretty happy to be a solo artist now, but I definitely want to have a company some day. At this point, I’m in New York seeing a lot of other people’s work, following people, and developing my own style. At the moment, I'm really loving the social innovation scene, and became involved with The Feast--the annual social innovation conference--for the past few months.

How does your newfound interest in social innovation relate to your experience at the Art Monastery? 

It's exciting to me because I’m interested in how for-profit companies can do good in the world and have a positive impact on society. I believe in that. The Art Monastery is an American non-profit. We did the "ask for donations thing" for years, we did Kickstarter, we cultivated our patrons and donor database and all of that, and I kind of just got bored of it. I think the model is broken and unsustainable for any organization in the long term. I think it’s very old world, and sets up a system in which some people have a lot of money and they generously give it to those who are less fortunate, who will always be the artist, and we gratefully take it and do some things with it. But I’m more interested in a mutual exchange, such as you should give me money because I’m going to give something back to you and the world that’s really of sustained value. That’s the thing that I’m thinking about before I start my company; I want to have really concrete answers to that, like what is the value that artists produce in the world today, and how do we articulate it in a way that the world is excited and wants to fund? We’re in a capitalist system right now, but how can we create the sharing model of: what can I give you that you need, and you give me that I need so we can both sustain?

What have you learned about that in the social innovation scene so far? 

I’ve only been in New York for a few months, and I feel very lucky to have so quickly gotten involved in another amazing and small team of really passionate people who are really doing something very meaningful in the world. Most recently at The Feast, I was helping to develop their Worldwide initiative. What’s really interesting to me is that my life is just all funneling into itself with all of these different projects where it feels like what I was getting paid to do at The Feast, was really the same thing that we were trying to address with the Art Monastery. The ChangeMaker festival is similar: how can a global community centered around these ideas self sustain and create things all year round that really serve these communities? Getting to answer those questions at The Feast, that was really valuable to me after leaving the Art Monastery.

What were those questions specific to The Feast

To me, it seems like The Feast is all about talking + action, and how do we create a hub to gather a community around specific challenges and shared values and agree that something needs to be done in an area and actually do something about it? It’s about making connections between people and not necessarily managing projects from a top-down perspective, but matching people together who can really collaborate.

What similar processes were present at both? 

No one has anything figured out. Everything is a work in progress. You can always change it. A wonderful woman recently said this amazing thing to me, which was: “the word ‘organization’ comes from the same root as ‘organism’ and ‘orgasm.’” Organizations aren’t fixed, static things but have to live, breathe, grow, be alive like anything else.

There are things that I think are so clearly the future: sharing, collaboration, innovation, and all of these things that are buzz words right now, but it’s incredible to me that the old corporate structure doesn’t see that, or even if they do, don’t know how to activate it.

What would you attribute to your ability to finding work that’s completely aligned with your passions, aside from Google?

The Viewpoints Book: A Practical Guide to Viewpoints and Composition is a book about the process of acting and theater making that was developed by Anne Bogart, co-founder of the SITI companyin New York. At the most basic level, this company puts forth that the Viewpoints are a way to categorize Space and Time. They say that at any given moment on stage, there are a few different ways you can look at it, and they’ve identified nine. Some examples are: you can break down Time into Tempo (how fast or slow something is moving), Duration (how long things last), Space can be seen through lens of architecture (what else is on stage, props, etc). So all of these things are present all the time, and this is the philosophy for making work for an actor in a play, or for creating new work. I think this philosophy doesn’t just apply in the theater, but in our everyday reality in life--as a performance art piece--these things apply.

From the nine big Viewpoints, the other philosophy is embedded as well, such as: in improvisation something will always happen. Picture a blank room and two actors will enter the stage. This is how a lot of devised collaborative work is built, through putting some people up there to do something, then I, as the director will cut and shape that, rewind, and do it again. When I was training with the SITI company a couple of years ago, they ask you to trust yourself, trust that something will happen, where you make the next motion, and then the next motion. It’s really important that you not think too far ahead, because if you are planning too far ahead, and the other person is planning too far ahead, you’re not actually in the moment and responding live to what’s happening, and the whole work looks like a mess. You can tell when people are present together, or planning a thing at the end of the improv. It’s very apparent when you watch. I think that applies as a philosophy in your life, and it’s totally difficult to put into practice! I love to plan ahead and strategize and map things out, but actually you don’t know. You can make all of the plans in the world, and you have no idea. I mean everyone knows that, but you just do the best that you can.

What are the biggest lessons you learned while at the Art Monastery? 

When I was in Italy, we never had any money, and everything was really hard to do, we had a really small team, and we were always trying to push forward. We had a really great core community of friends along the way, but because we were faced with such obstacles and moving mountains together, we got really close. So you learn how to do big things and learn how to do it together, and I think it’s important to remember the struggle & the success - and to hold both equally. I mean I also have this gift now of being new in New York, and I feel like I’ve been reborn in some way, and I can look back and tell the story of Italy like it was so amazing. I have perspective on it now, and some of it is really impressive, and I see areas where we totally could have done better, but we did the best we could. I also think that everyone is doing their best. No one knows what they are doing.

People pretend that they have the answer, but no one really does. Experimentation is totally part of the future--people admitting that they are just f*cking around. I feel hyper aware of how I tell the story now. It’s such a privileged position. We romanticize the past a lot. We should romanticize the present, man! It’s way more important.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

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From The Stage to the Farm - The Likely Path of Emily Simoness

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From The Stage to the Farm - The Likely Path of Emily Simoness

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I met Emily a year and a half ago through a friend and was invited to a fundraising event for her newly formed not for profit, SPACE on Ryder Farm, a retreat space for artists to cultivate their work. I said yes to the fundraiser, but wasn’t really quite sure what I was saying yes to. Adam Rapp one of the presenters spoke at the fundraiser about going to the farm and being ‘transformed by the experience.” Being a cynical city-slicker, I thought, “ok, you wrote some good stuff.  There was some grass and some trees. Take it down a notch, guys.” 

 And then I was invited to the farm for a visit.

 An hour north of New York City, touring this 139-acre expanse that abuts a lake and wooded area, I was transported and a little transformed for the mere few hours I was there. Eating a wonderfully fresh, farm-to-table lunch with a group of theater artists who were in residency to develop a new script, I learned more about the history of the farm and the retreat’s vision. But I became more curious about Emily, the executive director and former actor’s path to the farm. How did she get here? And why?

This is a snippet of our hour-long conversation.

When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?

Well I was sort of a super kid, meaning my mother had me programmed to the hilt. I was doing piano and dance and volleyball and soccer and basketball. And somewhere around sixth grade, I tried out for the school play but until then my background had been singing and dancing. And I was like, “oh this is fun. This is delightful.”  And meanwhile, I was doing the sports thing and then…

You had to choose.

Yes, and the theater prevailed...I grew up in Minneapolis so close to the Guthrie Theater and the children’s theater company and I started to plug-in downtown. I grew up in the suburbs south of the twin cities and I think that is what turned the corner for me.

So is that why you decided to major in theater?

I actually really liked musical theater. So if you asked me at that time if I want to be a musical theater star…yes. Singing has always been my favorite of the three. But I’m a better singer than I am a dancer but I’m a better actor than I am a singer. Does that make sense?

Yes.

So, I got my BFA in Acting at North Carolina School of the Arts.

And then you come to New York.

Right, but I went to Williamstown Theatre Festivalfor the first time as an apprentice the summer between the Guthrie and North Carolina. I felt like it was the first time I felt really validated as an actress and I felt like I had a community of people. One of them was Susan Goodwillie, who is now a really good friend and we started SPACE together but that was a lovely touchstone. They have you do everything from mopping the floor, to hanging lights to getting cast in main stage shows with Terrance Mann and Lewis Black which happened for me. I lucked out and that was magical because that really wasn’t supposed to happen.

So I finish with the school of the arts and in 2007 I come up here to New York and I did a lot of regional theater and I did some downtown stuff.

Did you have a definitive experience where you said, ‘I’m an actress now. This is my job, what I’m going to do?’

I think that was always hard for me as an actor. They want you to say this is what I do but my favorite experiences were musicals that were just like sort of right for me.

Yes. I have huge issues with authority. Being an actress wasn’t a good fit because you are definitely not in control, you are being told what to do, you are reading someone else’s words. I’m probably going to piss some people off but you’re an interpretive artist.

Did you think at some point you would take a divergent path?

Yes. I have huge issues with authority.  Being an actress wasn’t a good fit because you are definitely not in control, you are being told what to do, you are reading someone else’s words. I’m probably going to piss some people off but you’re an interpretive artist.

You are a vessel.

Exactly, you are an incubator for someone else. I don’t think I knew it but I was sort of understanding it because it pissed me off all of the time. I was really angry.  Well, I’m still pretty angry but I’m a lot less angry than I was. (Laughs.) Because I was like, ‘where am I in this?’ ‘What’s going to be right for me in this?’

And how small is the box I have to fit in so that you can cast me.

Yeah. And that’s the really confusing thing to be18 to 26 years old and being told that you need to shrink and shrink and to minimize and to be less. And be this thing and be that thing. I just got really fed up with it. And at the same time, was really sad that I couldn’t be those things for those people and ‘why could those other people do it? Why, was I not suited for it?

But, when I track back I was always producing things...finding a way within the actor life to have some sort of agency.

But, when I track back I was always producing things, When Hurricane Katrina happened, I did a benefit for it, Or when we graduated, we had a New York showcase but we didn’t have an LA showcase. I saw a missed opportunity, and produced that.  We raised the $25k to do the LA showcase. So, I was producing along the way finding a way within the actor life to have some sort of agency.

I completely relate to you because it wasn’t enough for me to wait,I too started to have to figure out how to make something.

And how to have a life while you’re waiting for something to happen.

What was your defining moment? Was it finding out about the farm?

I think it was a culmination of moments. I was working but it wasn't working out for me. I wasn’t happy. I was doing the regional thing and I was leaving a lot to do shows.  And I would rarely get excited because most of the roles I would audition for I’d be like, ‘are you kidding me?’ I was sort of like, ‘this is all there is?’ But I wasn’t ready to give up. Everything I had done up to this point suggests this is what I’m going to be doing so I can’t possibly not like this. I can’t possibly need to change direction or want to change direction. It must mean I haven’t auditioned for the right part or the right agent….

It’s like dating.

Exactly.

You were like, ‘maybe it’s me.’ Or “I haven’t met him, yet.”

Yeah, or mostly likely you do meet them and you’re like.  ‘Oh, this is it?" (Laughter)

There was this legend of a Farm when I grew up on my mother’s side. It’s called Ryder Farm and it’s been in my mother’s family and my family since 1795. l literally called her up one day and said, Hi, I’m Emily I’m related to you and I’d really like to come up and check out that Farm that’s been in our family.

And then the Farm?

There was this legend of a Farm when I grew up on my mother’s side. It’s called Ryder Farm and it’s been in my mother’s family and my family since 1795. And as a kid, I remember we’d get a yearly letter from the farm because it’s a corporation and all of the shares belong to family members so we were kept abreast of the farm’s goings on. It was like folklore as a kid. I still don’t know what made me call my fourth cousin once removed, Betsy Ryder, whom I never met.  She runs the organic operation on the farm but l literally called her up one day and said, ‘Hi, I’m Emily I’m related to you and I’d really like to come up and check out that Farm that’s been in our family.”  I really don’t know why, maybe I thought the organic thing was sexy.

Was it like, you’re looking at New York Magazine and you wanted to read the Michael Pollan book and you were like, ‘wait, I have a farm?’

Yah… farmer’s markets have been in vogue for a long time.  I think I was like, 'I got one of those I think I should go check that out.'  I was expecting a 10-acre farm and there was a 10-acre farm but it was within a 129 acre expanse of woodland and pasture and a half-mile of lake frontage and it’s like a piece of property that I think its, objectively, sort of astonishing.

I think if someone hasn't grown up on a farm or used to being around some spots of land… you think they’ll be chicken and goats but not the lusciousness the property has abutting it. The landscape is gorgeous.

It is. That day when I went up, the structures were not in good shape and we were there in the dead of winter but it was clear to me that they really hadn’t been inhabited and kept up for quite sometime. My wheels were already turning about what this could be.  I just kept thinking about it and I was in the midst of this community of artists and I wanted to make something with this community and for this community and I think those two impulses just crashed together.  In June, I brought some really close confidants (to the farm.) One of them was Susan, who is now my co-founder and asked them if I’m crazy. I’d already had this half-baked idea of an artists workshop-art space-residency-retreat and Susan thought, ‘this is awesome. You should totally do this.’ And we did.

I remember asking Betsy if I could take some of her time at the Union Square green market. (Because the farm was the first organic farm represented at the Union Square green market in 1978.) Anyway, I remember being so nervous and we sat in the middle of the Greenmarket and I couldn’t look her in the eye. I pitched her on this idea of an artist’s retreat space.

I’m having the anxiety moment that you must have felt…

Oh My God. Just loaded. Like a loaded gun because a) who was I to ask for something like this, like what a crazy idea. She just met me.  But bless her, she was like, ‘that sounds like an interesting idea. Let’s do that.’ The initial conceit of Space was that we would make capital improvements on the structure because they were not ready to house artists.  So we basically did that for a summer and a half.  We make literal and figurative capital improvements on all of the farm’s structures.

Do you have an idea what was driving you? It’s not like you have a carpentry background.

Nope, but I do know my way around the Brewster Home Depot. I’ll tell you that. I do now.

Was it divine?

Maybe? I mean I’ll tell you. I have got will in spades. I. Will. Make. Something. Happen. So there’s that. So that is something to know about me. I’m going to freaking do it. But, and Susan and I talk about this, the other part of this is, can I actually do it?

So, like a challenge?

Yeah, it’s like the biggest challenge in the whole freaking world (to me.) Here’s this 126 acre property, with these structures that need a ton of work and I have no expertise there. Here’s this not for profit that needs to be formed and I have no expertise there. Here are a lot of relationships that need to be negotiated. I’m gonna try that. But like…so there is that. But I do think in a way that life put me there.

And the Farm had a need too from what I understood because not only the failing structures but...

I mean it’s like great fodder for a novel. They want to keep ownership and tenants within the family. I didn’t realize it but in the life cycle of the farm I’ve come at a perfect time in that Betsy doesn’t have any children.

So the legacy…Betsy is the last arm working on the farm?

There are a lot of shareholders but now I’m on that Board and everyone there has me by 30 years. I’m 30 and the next person is like, 65. It’s a really interesting. It’s taught me a lot about family.  I never would have had the opportunity that I have if my mother didn’t have my name. If that name wasn’t in my DNA they would have never granted me access because this is a family.  We are the only family in Putnam County to have the same ownership of the same piece of land in 1812 and in 2012. Because Putnam Country was actually founded in 1812; the Farm was founded in 1795 so it used to be part of Duchess County and then Putnam County was founded. And they became part of Putnam but they held on to that land. And they will continue to hold on to that but they need help holding on to that land so we rehab the structures and created revenue streams that didn’t exist because we pay rent. So we were literally contributing and supporting the viability of the farm because it’s a small organic operation. It’s not like they’re making money hand over fist or anything. They’re making money off of the rent but…

so I don’t know what was driving me. It probably was bigger than me. Some may say it was sort of a dare but I don’t actually think that’s true. I think I was really compelled to make this thing and put this into the world. And I scrapped together the people that would do that and the small resources that were going to make that happen.

They’re living the farmer’s life, which is hand to mouth depending on the season.

Yeah, totally. So I don’t know what was driving me. It probably was bigger than me. Some may say it was sort of a dare but I don’t actually think that’s true. I think I was really compelled to make this thing and put this into the world. And I scrapped together the people that would do that and the small resources that were going to make that happen. It didn’t seem like there was another option. And it hasn’t since. It hasn’t seemed like there would be another option but to do this.

Do you feel more creative now than you have had as an actor?

Definitely, because I get to actually do it. Because being an actor is being creative once whenever someone let’s you be creative. It’s a different kind of creativity. You know, there are some days that I miss the little corner of the script that an actor occupies because being an Executive/Artistic Director you have to have your eyes on everything which for me is very creative for other people that’s overwhelming. My creative muscle turns out to be a broader brush.

I wanted to ask you this. Your self-esteem in 2009 when you were acting, your self esteem now? Don’t you feel that that is directly contributed to and, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, your sense of creative output and reflection?

Oh hell yes. Totally. I call it I’m in the pocket. I was out of the pocket and I didn’t know it. I was in this free fall. But when you’re in the pocket, you know it. It’s just not as hard. And people are like, what do you mean it’s not as hard, you’re running a not for profit it’s gotta be hard. Yeah, but it’s not as hard as the other thing was. But that’s personal. You’re sort of vibrating at a frequency that is just working, instead of something that is dissonant.

Interview by Tanisha Christie

Tanisha Christie is a producing filmmaker/performer and creative strategist. A certified spinning instructor and yoga enthusiast, she loves the beach and her white Specialized road bike.  She’s hard at work on her next documentary project and too many other things. www.tanishachristie.com @tanishachristie

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Outside of the Colour Box with Amie Batalibasi

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Outside of the Colour Box with Amie Batalibasi

Stereotypically speaking, walking around most urban areas means you're faced with the requisite dilapidated building, an abundance of rats and lots of street art (Lower East Side anyone?). While the majority of us pass by edifices that have long since retired without so much as a second glance, some of us wonder how the burnt down pizzeria on our corner might look as a cultural center or a restaurant or even an art gallery.

It takes a keen eye and a desire to create something new to take the time and energy to re-claim a space. Amie Batalibasi, Australian filmmaker and the creator of Colour Box Studio, wanted to create a place for artists to promote their work, exchange ideas, and learn new skills. In 2012, Amie decided to turn an old tattoo parlour into  just that. Working with a dedicated team of volunteers and an exceptional drive, Amie createed a space that has turned into a communal and artistic hub in Footscray, a diverse and artistic inner city suburb in Melbourne, Australia. CultureFphiles spoke with Amie about the process of creating something out of nothing, why Footscray is such a special place to live and the importance of promoting your work.

You created Colour Box Studio in late 2012 after noticing an old tattoo parlor you wanted to change into a community hub/creative space. What sparked your interest in reclaiming that space?

The tattoo parlor was pretty awesome – it had skulls and roses painted on the outside! And although the interior was dull and dark, as soon as I stepped inside the building, I knew that it was the right space. It had a shop front, a large room in the back and a courtyard outside. In my mind, I immediately saw these three spaces filled with art, creative workshops, pop up shops, events, community and creative people! So in one month on a shoe string budget, with the help of an awesome team of volunteers, we plastered, sanded, painted, knocked things down, built things and transformed the tattoo parlor into Colour Box Studio. It was such a wonderful show of community spirit and we opened with a bang on November 7th 2012 – 140 people through the door in one evening!

I know that as an artist, there are challenges to generate income and find support, a lack of opportunities to showcase work and a need to network with like minded people. So I guess I hoped to fill some of those gaps...it was really important for it to be set up by artists and creative people for artists and creative people.

Why did you think it was important that Colour Box Studio exist? What sort of need did you envision it fulfilling? 

Because I have a creative practice myself [as a documentary filmmaker and community arts practitioner], I know that as an artist, there are challenges to generate income and find support, a lack of opportunities to showcase work and a need to network with like minded people. So I guess I hoped to fill some of those gaps and address some of those issues with Colour Box Studio. And it was really important for it to be set up by artists and creative people for artists and creative people. In the short time that we have been open [8 months], I think that we have achieved some of this vision.We’ve showcased over 100 artists through our programs and enabled artists to gain an income through our Pop Up Shops and facilitating workshops. We’ve also run events and exhibitions that are free and accessible to the broader community.

For folks unfamiliar with Melbourne, Australia, what is Footscray like? What makes the neighborhood so special to you?

Footscray is unlike any other place I know and it’s a very unique suburb of Melbourne. The most notable thing is that it's rich in cultural diversity...I’ve lived here for over 6 years and can’t imagine living anywhere else in Melbourne. The thing that makes Footscray special to me is the sense of community – it’s not just a suburb, it’s a community of diverse people and cultures...sometimes a walk in Footscray can feel like you’ve traveled to another country.

As an Australian Solomon Islander, coming from a diverse background myself, I feel really comfortable here. Also, there’s a bit of a rising art scene – there are quite a few galleries and artist run spaces and we’re happy to be one of them! I just hope that with all of the recent gentrification and new development in the area that Footscray can hold onto its unique character. The building where Colour Box Studio is at the moment will actually be knocked down next year to make way for 12 Storey apartments – so we have to relocate at some point.

Most people who see a space and have a dream to create something from it are stopped by a number of challenges. What inspired you to move forward on this idea? What were the first steps you took to make that a reality?

Yes, I would agree that there are so many challenges in terms of following your creative dreams whatever they may be. I knew nothing about setting up a creative space – all I knew was that I had an amazing creative network that would be able to use and benefit from Colour Box Studio so I just jumped right in. I am a pretty determined person – once I have my sights set on something I give it everything I’ve got. I am lucky to have had strong women role models in my life to look up to. The first steps I made were to educate myself – I researched other creative business models and I spoke to a few people running them.

The most important thing I did was to consult with my creative networks...I think that for me, the three key elements to setting up Colour Box Studio were persistence, team work and listening to my community. These are still key to how we operate.

The most important thing I did was to consult with my creative networks, invite them to the space in the middle of construction phase and ask them over a glass of wine, what they could see happening in the space and how it could benefit a place like it. From there I ‘rallied the troops’ (volunteers) and promoted like crazy. I think that for me, the three key elements to setting up Colour Box Studio were persistence, team work and listening to my community. These are still key to how we operate.

What have been some of your challenges and how have you overcome them? What keeps you moving through these challenges? 

Running Colour Box Studio is a volunteer position for me and everyone involved and it seems that everyday a new obstacle presents itself! One challenge would be that everything we do is for the first time, so we are constantly learning! We have run four completely different programs accessing very different artforms and creative communities - an Art & Craft Program, Digital Media Program, Ethical Fashion Program and a Writing and Performance Program. Our next program will be Music and Sound...the good thing is that with every program, we increase our networks for the next time.

It has sometimes been hard to find media opportunities in more mainstream media – especially with one big Australian newspaper stating that we’re 'not newsworthy enough.' We don’t have an advertising budget so we have to think creatively about how to promote our artists and programs for free. So we’ve really tried to focus on local newspapers and bloggers who have been very supportive. And we’re really trying to grow the Colour Box Studio blog with quality content written by our volunteer blogger team. Of course, we’re all over social networking! I think that the small successes along the way keep me inspired – whether it be someone coming in to buy a locally produced item in our Pop Up Shop, seeing a local musician perform at an event or attending a creative workshop by a local artist. This is why we’re here – to provide a platform for artists to pursue their creative passions and that’s the vision that keeps me inspired.

It’s been really tough starting out and getting our name out there – and it’s been a big learning curve personally. I think what has got us through, is the community around us – the amazing volunteers and our creative community. This year we ran a Pozible crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to keep our doors open. Thankfully, we were successful! It was so humbling and awesome to see that our community really wants us to be here!

How do you manage the responsibilities of running Colour Box Studio and other areas of your life?

Finding work/life balance is tricky for me. Apart from volunteering to run Colour Box Studio I am a documentary filmmaker, media trainer and community arts practitioner. At the moment I am making a documentary film called Fishing for Culture about people from diverse cultural backgrounds who like to fish; and I’m also volunteering for a group called the Australian South Sea Islander Secretariat – a group that works to be a representative voice for the descendants of 62,000 Pacific islanders who were brought to Australia in the late 19th Century to work on the cotton and sugar cane fields as laborers. So I am busy - but very happy and lucky to be busy! The truth is that I work a lot (people often get emails from me sent late at night!), but these are the things that I am passionate about so I am driven to do them! And I can say that I truly love the work that I do.

You've gotten a lot of folks on board as volunteers for the project. How did you manage to do that? What do you think was the draw for people to get involved?

Colour Box Studio is 100% volunteer run and operated. I think that this helps us to build a sense of community around what we do and it means that everyone who is here, really wants to be here and shares the vision of supporting our creative community. At first I used my own networks to get people on board, and now through word of mouth and social networking people are coming on board. Our most recent volunteer found us on Twitter! I think that people want to be involved at Colour Box Studio because it's a chance to give back to community and we provide hands on experience...but also I think that our volunteers like to be a part of our community, they can network and meet other creative people here.

When we started in November 2012 I had no idea what I was doing and no experience in setting up a creative space. It was like starting from scratch again. I had no business plan and I had no processes and procedures in place!

How has creating Colour Box Studio differed from the creative process of making a film? How has it been similar?

I think that some skills from my filmmaking practice like project management, managing people, producing skills, organizational skills, teaching skills etc. comes in handy. [In other ways] setting up Colour Box Studio and running it, is entirely different to my filmmaking practice. My film work is quite diverse – sometimes I am making documentaries for other people, sometimes I am teaching/sharing filmmaking skills with diverse community groups, sometimes I am producing community film projects, sometimes I am working on my own film projects. I have been developing my filmmaking practice over the last few years so I feel like I have been able to hone my creative processes a bit and I have certain ways of working. But in terms of Colour Box Studio – when we started in November 2012 I had no idea what I was doing and no experience in setting up a creative space. It was like starting from scratch again. I had no business plan and I had no processes and procedures in place!

Basically we have been learning as we go, making lots of mistakes and then fixing them. I basically just try to make sure we can keep our heads above water in terms of covering costs and then I try to keep the overall vision of Colour Box Studio strong in my mind and keep moving forward.

Folks tend to have lots of romantic notions of the "life of an artist" or being an entrepreneur. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions?

Hmmm...I’m not sure who thinks that about artists! Maybe because all of the people I know are in creative fields and we all know that it’s a tough gig – especially in the beginning. I know a lot creative people and artists who have to work at another job (that they don’t like that much) to sustain their creative practices. In Australia, it is really difficult to do the creative things that you love full time, and make an income from it. I’m not saying that it can’t be done but it is challenging.

The other thing that I have experienced, is that if you want to be an artist and make a living from it, you have to become a business person as well...the most important lesson was not to be afraid of promoting your work – because basically, if you don’t do it in the beginning no one else will.

That’s part of the reason why I wanted to set up Colour Box Studio – to allow creatives and artists to pursue their creative passions and make a bit of income from it. If we can at least be a stepping-stone for someone on their creative career path, then I am happy...if you want to be an artist and make a living from it, you have to become a business person as well. After university, I did a business short course and found that it was invaluable to have the basics of how to write a business plan, how to do your own accounts and the most important lesson was not to be afraid of promoting your work – because basically, if you don’t do it in the beginning no one else will. And this is probably why we try to promote our artists at Colour Box Studio as best we can.

What legacy are you looking to leave with your work? 

Wow – this is a big question. The word ‘legacy’ is scary especially since I am only 32! Much of my work is collaborative and centered around community, culture, creativity and storytelling. I feel very privileged to work with the people I work with - whether it’s the volunteers at the studio, participants and collaborators in film projects, or the audiences and communities around that. I think that with whatever I do, I can only strive to give it 100% effort and 100% honesty in terms of setting out to achieve my aims and objectives. If by doing that, my work can help to create a little bit of positive change for people and communities, then that's an added bonus.

 

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Feature image by Rachel Main

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Pierce Freelon on Creating the International Beat Making Lab

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Pierce Freelon on Creating the International Beat Making Lab

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I was first put on to the Beat Making Lab through a friend of mine who thought I would find the project interesting. She was right. I was energized, inspired, and straight up wowed by the work professor and musician Pierce Freelon and his partner, co-teacher and producer/DJ Stephen Levitin (aka Apple Juice Kid) had created. 

Founded by Apple Juice Kid and Dr. Mark Katz at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and described as an "electronic music studio small enough to fit in a backpack" Beat Making Lab was first designed as a course for its students to learn the art of beat making. After Pierce took over for Dr. Mark Katz, he and Apple Juice Kid realized their curriculum had the potential to have a global impact. Through a crowd funding campaign, Beat Making Lab set off for Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo working with youth in community settings to teach them how to make beats and songs. 

Currently in collaboration with PBS, episodes are aired every Wednesday and detail the adventures in beat making as youth from Panama to Senegal to Fiji co-create songs using beat making technology as taught by Pierce and Apple Juice Kid. The results are beautifully shot and transportive episodes, dope beats, a real sense of community, and what looks like a whole lotta hard work and fun. 

How did you come up with the idea for the lab?

The Lab started as a class at the University of North Carolina where I've been teaching in the department of African and Afro American Studies since 2009. Over in the Music Department, Dr. Mark Katz (who is currently the chair of the department) and producer Apple Juice Kid founded the class as a 3-credit hour music and technology course in the Fall of 2011. Dr. Katz went on leave the following semester and he and Apple Juice asked me to co-teach the class instead. That's when the seed was planted for Beat Making Lab to grow into something bigger.

On a daily basis, Apple Juice Kid and I discussed the possibilities of taking the class and the curriculum off campus and into a community. We were in the midst of planning to build a community studio when our colleague in the department, Dr. Cherie Rivers Ndaliko, told us about an amazing community center in Democratic Republic of Congo. We had initially thought about building our community Lab locally, in Durham or Chapel Hill, but were intrigued by the prospect of taking the grassroots initiative abroad. There was no money to pay for the experiment, so AJK and I crowd-sourced funds through an Indiegogo campaign, with donations from the Department and the community. Once we hit the ground in Congo - we knew we'd started something that wasn't going to end anytime soon.

Why was this idea important to you? What impact were you hoping to make?

In the beginning, we didn't know what impact we were going to make. Check out our fundraising video. We called it "Carolina to Congo: a beat making lab experiment" because we literally didn't know what to expect. We knew that we had a wonderful resource and curriculum; and we knew we had a community that really wanted to learn how to make beats. Music is a great tool for dialogue, healing, expression and building community. I hope we were able to do some of that.

What has the process been like building the Beat Making Lab? What have been some of your challenges and successes?

Challenges have included cultural sensitivities around sampling, logistics of organizing large groups of students for 2-week sessions, language barriers and political conflicts in some of the countries we've worked. The experience has been humbling. In the past 6 months I've worked with students in five countries I've never been to before. I'm learning Swahili, Wolof, Spanish and French; and making beats with radically different demographics, from groups of all-women rappers, and traditional Fijian musicians. The process has been challenging, inspiring, fun and exhausting.

What similarities and differences do you notice from teaching students at Chapel Hill to students in the DRC or other areas you’ve traveled to? Are there cultural differences to learning these new skills?

Every group brings its own nuance to the table. In Congo, we were surrounded by rappers. It seemed like everyone could spit in several different languages and dialects. Our song Cho Cho Cho features emceeing and singing in English, Swahili, French and a fusion of the three. Panama, on the other hand, was very different. Many of our students were percussion players, and part of a live carnival band called Barrio Fino. They brought a different  atheistic, skill-set and approach to beat making. In Senegal we were working with an all women's ensemble of rappers, singers and producers called GOTAL. Unlike previous groups, they all knew each-other years before the actual workshop - so communication and collaboration was a walk in the park. Chapel Hill groups vary from semester to semester as well - demographically, skill-wise and culturally. You never know who you're working with until the first day of class.

Both of you worked together as co-teachers at Chapel Hill. How did traveling together expand your relationship? How have you two grown in your working relationship and friendship?

I've known Apple Juice for years as a musical collaborator but now we're business partners as well. We have a very different but complimentary skill sets that work well together; ie. I'm a rapper, he's a DJ - I'm a professor, he's a producer - I'm a writer, he's drummer. It's worked very well for us so far. We founded a company called ARTVSM - to merge the worlds of art and activism. This is the soul of Beat Making Lab and a common thread with everything that we want to do in life.

How has the process been of working on BML as partners? How similar/different are your working/creative style?

Great. The most important thing is that we're both on our grind. We both put in work - all the time; and that's exactly what it's taken to pop Beat Making Lab off.

What have you been most surprised by and inspired by in your travels?

Most surprised: the music. We've made some incredible beats and songs over the past several months and I couldn't be prouder of the work our students - many of whom are first time beat makers - have put in.

Most inspired: the model. We're attempting to build a sustainable community space, where the students teach each other and the music funds the workshops. Sometimes when I step back and access the implications of what we're trying to do, I'm inspired. And its not something we came up with on our own. It's been a community effort and we're proud to be a part of it.

A musician we interviewed in the past was quoted as saying, “I was working at a digital production school. It was so technical and digital that there wasn’t too much feeling in the music. They had open lab where students would come and work on their music, but everyone has headphones on. I would catch myself a few times looking around in the room and everyone is staring at their laptop and all I’m hearing are mouse and keyboard clicks. And this is music now!? I’m not sitting in a room where people are actually working together in a circle. There are no string players staring at each other trying to vibe out. Everybody is in their own little box, staring at their own screen, and it just seemed fucked up to me.”

What are your thoughts on this? From the web episodes, you’ve clearly succeeded in building a creative community. 

Two thoughts on this: 1. We encourage collaborative beat making. On the first day of class we make beats with our hands, beatboxing on tables, and creating sounds organically in a cypher. This sets a tone we like to maintain throughout the Lab. Students work in groups, sometimes 3 or 4 to a computer. Its not quite as individualist as he describes. 2. our best friend is the splitter. Five headphones inputs per computer. They come standard in every Beat Making Lab.

In one of your webisodes, you mention you are teaching the students but that you are also learning from them. What have these students taught you about the creative process?

How to improvise, how to listen, how to communicate effectively without sharing a native language with someone, the value of good leadership and collaboration.

How far do you see BML expanding? What is your vision for the future?

We hope to put our curriculum online for free, for anyone who wants to learn how to teach what we do. We want to create our own open source beat making software so anyone with the will can gear up and start making beats without paying for an expensive new software. Ultimately - we want kids everywhere to be able to make beats if they want to. That's the ultimate vision.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: Saleem Reshamwala

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Zebi Williams' Lil Raggamuffins

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Zebi Williams' Lil Raggamuffins

When I think of my childhood, trees and grass aren't the first thing that come to mind. Growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City, my Summertime childhood memories tend to invoke the stuff of urban 80’s movies including, but not limited to: the jingle of the impending arrival of the ice-cream truck, the gorgeous smell of spoiled garbage and hot pavement, Big Daddy Kane blasting out of boom boxes,  my brother and I playing exhilarating games of freeze tag with the neighborhood kids, catching fireflies and examining their florescent glow, and of course, mothers yelling out of their windows, “time to come inside"! - their shouts echoing off massively tall buildings.

As Zebi Williams, founder of the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica says, “ [in Jamaica] the earth is alive around you. In the city, the earth is not alive around you. The people are alive around you.” Zebi's childhood involved more of Mother Nature than mine and her desire to return to her beloved hometown spawned by memories of her idyllic childhood, resulted in the creation of a summer youth camp.  At only 19 years old, and as a new mother, the Jamaican/Washington DC native started the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp ten years ago as a way to create a space for neighborhood children to learn about the arts and entrepreneurship in a fun, creative, open environment that teaches self-development, self-love, and the power of community. The humble and brilliant Zebi spoke with Project Inkblot about the effect of our environment on our creativity, her incredible volunteers/teaching artists, her vision for the camp, and why following your dreams as a parent is just as important for your children as it is for your soul. 

How did the idea for the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp start?

It started because I really wanted to go back to Jamaica. I was born in DC. My dad is Jamaican and my mom is American. I’m multicultural and biracial. When I was in third grade I moved back to Jamaica for a time and that’s the part of my life I remembered I love the most. From 8 to 13 years old I lived in this village up in the Blue Mountains. We had no paved roads, no light…and I lived in a house with 20 of my cousins and most of that time was spent outside. It was a small house, two bedrooms. I loved all of the imaginative play. We’d roast cashews, make our own fires, and I just loved it.

When I came back to America, I felt homesick. I always knew I would go back to Jamaica and that that would be a big part of life.  In college, I studied cultural anthropology with a focus on sustainable development for the Caribbean. I decided during my sophomore year that I wanted to go back to Jamaica and volunteer but I couldn’t find any volunteer opportunities. My mom was like, ‘well why don’t you start your own thing’? I always loved summer camps because I had my time in Jamaica where I was always in nature and then I had that time in America where I would be in summer camps. I felt like that was something I could do. I could create this summertime experience for kids in my hometown. I was 19 when I started the camp and I was feeling rebellious and going through my existential crisis -  reading Malcolm X and watching Life and Debt. I thought, I need to be out in the world doing something.

There’s a line in the film that always stuck with me. It’s something like, ‘if you’re a tourist, and you come to Jamaica, you can get a break from your regular life but the envy from the locals is that they don’t get a break’. The reality is that wherever you’re from, life isn’t always easy but we get a chance to have a break and a lot of people in Jamaica, they don’t get that break.

What’s Life and Debt?

Oh, you have to see it. It changed my life. It’s a movie about the IMF and the global economy and how the economy in Jamaica is basically owned by the IMF. Tourists come to Jamaica and all they see is this glossy image like, ‘yeah mon, no problem’. There’s a line in the film that always stuck with me. It's something like, ‘if you’re a tourist, and you come to Jamaica, you can get a break from your regular life but the envy from the locals is that they don’t get a break’. The reality is that wherever you’re from, life isn’t always easy but we get a chance to have a break and a lot of people in Jamaica, they don’t get that break.

From that film, I saw all of these big problems that were systematic and big and I thought, I don’t know how to affect those problems but what I can do, is I can offer a break. I can offer a time for the kids to step away and just be kids and have that same enjoyment. That’s basically what the camp is for them, a week vacation. I feel like that will have an affect on their development and their well-being.

How many kids do you accept into the program?

It’s in my hometown, where I grew up. We have 125 children so basically all of the children come. We’re basically raising a whole generation of children. What’s special about this is that everyone is getting the same education.

How did the vision for the camp develop?

The first year I went down, there was no real vision. I took a break and I came back five years later and at that time I had more of a focus. I knew the focus would be the arts because I knew all of these artists in Brooklyn and we really wanted to create a movement but I’m also an entrepreneur so it was like, arts and entrepreneurship. We have children from the age of 5 – 17. When they graduate from the program they become junior counselors and they go through a rite of passage. The oldest kids right now are 19 years old.

We place them in different African named tribes. A lot of Jamaicans don’t love their blackness or their Africaness. They’ll bleach their skin or think black is ugly or that being African is negative so I want them to know more about what African is. They get to know parts of the culture and it’s about loving yourself and all of the different layers of what that is; loving your history and where you came from, loving your flaws, and loving your talents. We have the tribe time when the kids are with counselors who are doing self-development activities with them and also taking them on hikes, going to the river, and having mentor time with them. They also get to go to art classes. The younger ones get to test out different art subjects. Maybe today they’ll do drumming and tomorrow they’ll take dancing. If you’re not exposed you may think well, I only like doing this because you haven’t tried enough things, you don’t know what your talent is. So we give them an opportunity to expand their horizons.

That sounds like such gratifying work. Is there a particular example that sticks out with a student?

There is this area in the community where people are kind of shunned. The community wouldn’t touch the kids from that community, they wouldn’t hold their hands, the kids weren’t really going to school. But with the camp we brought everyone together and we were like, you’re going to treat everyone with respect. There was this one girl who was from that community who was an amazing writer. She was ten years old and during lunch one day she came to me and said, ‘Zebi, I want to show you my poetry’. She was really quiet and the kids were always picking on her and so she felt down about herself.

This little shy girl broke out into this big character. She just blossomed in that space. The other kids heard her performing and she was able to share that talent with us...all the kids know her as this amazing poet, she’s not shunned anymore. The kids have so much hidden talent and now there is a platform for them to show that talent. So much gets hidden because they learn to hide themselves as they grow up.

She read her poems to me. Her poetry was amazing. This little shy girl broke out into this big character. She just blossomed in that space. The other kids heard her performing and she was able to share that talent with us and we were able to show her that it was an amazing talent, by being her audience. We had a talent show that year and she got up on the stage and the adults got to see her perform. Now she’s our poet laureate. She’s written more books of poetry, she’s writing plays, she's writing songs. All the kids know her as this amazing poet, she’s not shunned anymore. She’s going to a boarding school on a scholarship. And the adults were like ‘whoa’ they never got to see how talented their children are. The kids have so much hidden talent and now there is a platform for them to show that talent. So much gets hidden because they learn to hide themselves as they grow up.

Why do you think that is?

So many reasons.  I’m always having conversations about this. Why are we hiding our lights as adults? Why are we hiding our lights as children? Even this little girl, I see so much of myself in her. She’s at this stage where she knows herself but she’s not able to experience herself and I feel that same way. So sometimes it’s me feeling like I’m not a leader but knowing that I am a leader. You know you have a bright light but you’re not always able to experience your bright light. We have to learn to surround ourselves with people who see us. I’m grateful that as an adult I’m able to be around people who see me and want me to be myself because they believe in themselves.

When it came time for me to actualize my dreams, a lot of my family was like, you need to just focus on her. But I’m not here to live just for her. I have a purpose as well. It doesn’t feel right to just throw that away to be a mother, solely. What kind of lesson is that teaching her? Who knows when she will have a child and then she has to forget who she was supposed to be?

You have a ten-year old daughter, Zia. How does being a mother affect your work as an entrepreneur and your vision for the camp?

I’m learning the balance of being a mother and following my dreams but also respecting her vision of what she wants in her life. What’s great is that she’s a really bright, communicative, creative child so she loves it. She gets a lot of one-on-one attention from our teachers and volunteers so they’re like her aunts and uncles. She’s always raising her hand in meetings and contributing her viewpoint as a child. I had her so young and I was really career driven and have been since I was young. When it came time for me to actualize my dreams, a lot of my family was like you need to just focus on her but I’m not here to live just for her. I have a purpose as well. It doesn’t feel right to just throw that away to be a mother, solely. What kind of lesson is that teaching her? Who knows when she will have a child and then she has to forget who she was supposed to be? That’s a conflict that happens within my family and with the elders around me. Wanting me to be solely present to being her mother.

Being an entrepreneur and creating this program takes a lot of my time. It’s long hours and she has to be at the meetings and it’s a commitment that I’ve made. Maybe she’d rather be at the park playing with her friends or at home and she has to be at this meeting with me. But it’s important that she sees me following my dreams. It’s important for our future relationship because our relationship is going to be very long. When she wants to be her own woman, I don’t want to be there like wait - you’re all I have.  I want there to be a respectful and balanced relationship between the both of us. I see that as the long-term vision even though right now it can be challenging. She and I have a great relationship and she sees herself as the person who will be taking over the camp when she gets older and being the future director [laughs]. She looks up to me and that feels really important to me. And I look up to her! She’s around women who are transparent in their own development. She sees our struggles, she sees what we go through, and it’s not perfect. It’s very real. She’s surrounded by so many confident women so I feel good about that.

It sounds like you’ve created many lasting relationships with the volunteers. What it is about Jamaica, and the camp specifically that attracts so many teaching artists?

I think environments speak to who we are. There are environments that we’re made to be in so when you go back, it resonates with who you are. It’s like we’re a tribe of people who are not in our home. And then you gather and you’re like, ‘oh this is where I am supposed to be’. That happens a lot with my volunteers. They find their home in that space. It’s cool because I have a lot of volunteers who are from New York. They have such a desire to be in the county. A lot of my volunteers have been coming for five, six years because it becomes their community. They can really feel like they’re connecting to the environment and the people they want to connect to.

A lot of them are bringing their children and so their children now have a second home. I really enjoy seeing my friends’ children come down and seeing that they can have what I had. I had America but I also had this safe special place in Jamaica that kept me innocent and connected and rooted.

You speak about this sense of connection. What do you think they’re connecting to?

I hear over and over again that people feel like they’ve grown after their trip to Jamaica, like they have had an accelerated growth spurt. There’s an aliveness to the environment. At night, everything is talking and moving. The trees are singing and the stars are bright and you’re in this living organism. The earth is alive around you. In the city, the earth is not alive around you. The people are alive around you. You really slow down and you’re so observant. The volunteers go back to New York regenerated and able to give.

You really have to be present when you’re there. When I’m in New York I’m in planning mode a lot of the time. I’m living in the future and getting things done. When I’m at the camp, there is such a demand for me to be present. There’s the children, the unpredictability of the environment, and the lifestyle...you’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re thinking about the here and now even if it’s just those seven days.

I imagine that has an impact on them creatively.

Exactly. You really have to be present when you’re there. When I’m in New York I’m in planning mode a lot of the time. I’m living in the future and getting things done. When I’m at the camp, there is such a demand for me to be present. There’s the children, the unpredictability of the environment, and the lifestyle. It’s not America – there’s a more unpredictable, fluid rhythm. You’re not thinking about tomorrow, you’re thinking about the here and now even if it’s just those seven days.

What do you envision for the future with Lil’ Ragamuffin? How big do you see this growing?

We’re building an arts and entrepreneurship center. Right now, we’re a center without walls. We don’t have a structure. Trees and rain affect our classes but we’re committed to the work. But we’ll have this arts center and the center will have year-long programming [instead of just one week] so it will be a space for other arts program in Jamaica. It will be a place for artist residencies. If you have a project you are working on, you can come down and work on that for a month and take that project into a space that encourages that creativity. I am also going to be working as a consultant for people to start camps where they’re from. I’ve had people from places like South Sudan, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic who want to create this camp model in their hometown. My one factor is that I want it to be someone who is from that location, so that it’s a local initiative supported by an international community. So those are the projects we’re looking to create but the Lil Raggamuffin camp is the engine that got that going.

It sounds like there's a part of you truly at peace with the process as opposed to just focusing on the end result.

I recently got the land to build the center and when I got that title, I had this huge feeling of accomplishment like, this mission is going to be accomplished and I will be able to step away at some point from the daily grind. Maybe that’s an illusion, maybe there’s more work that comes with it. It feels like a game. I’m really enjoying this whole process of problem solving and meeting people and having these serendipitous encounters – it’s such a part of my life.

I want to build it so there’s income coming in so I feel financially more at peace. Sometimes I think, sure if I would have chosen another path it would be easier. I would be making a lot more money and I could use my brilliance to make someone else money and have a simple 9- 5 and have weekends off but that’s not my path. I also feel like we have lots of lifetimes in our life. We’re not going to be doing one thing forever, especially now, when things are changing so fast. I see it as right now this is my life. I’m doing this in part of my lifetime and next I’ll be a film director, and next I’ll be a consultant traveling all of the time so it’s like, learn to be patient and play this part out.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Images provided by the Lil Raggamuffin Summer Camp

 

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Chris Guillebeau: The Dusty-Footed Traveling Entrepreneur

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Chris Guillebeau: The Dusty-Footed Traveling Entrepreneur

AoNC

When Projet Inkblot reached our first reader in Brunei Darussalam, we were floored, but first we had to look on a map to see exactly where that was. So imagine our utter amazement when we were first introduced to the work of Chris Guillebeau, a traveling entrepreneur, New York Times' best selling author, and blogger, who as of a few weeks ago, completed his goal to visit every single country in the world that he had the ability to visit. That's 193 countries in total! Chris connects with audiences in far reaching countries daily (that most people can't even pronounce, let alone know how to locate on a map), and offers readers brilliantly simple advice about running a business, living authentically, travel hacking, and the art of non-conformity--which is exactly what his blog is called.It's easy to envy someone with so many enormous accomplishments under his belt, and not see it as being attainable for oneself, but the truly inspiring thing about Chris is how much he cares about helping others achieve similarly bold goals. He does it by being transparent about his process, vulnerable to his loyal readers, and being an optimistic, accessible, and encouraging leader. He also gives pragmatic and action-oriented advice that is easy for even the most fear-ridden person to follow. Reading his blog posts and highly personalized newsletters, it's impossible not to be invigorated by his infectious spirit.

We were lucky to catch Chris right before he took his trip to his last of 193 countries, Norway. We were hoping to uncover his big secret to success, but what we found instead was the story of just a regular Portland dude who stayed persistent, consistent, and focused throughout the years to yield the results that he is able to show for today. Below is a mix of our Q&A, some of our favorite resources from his blog, and opportunities where you can also become a cyber-mentee of Chris' (like us), and join his international community of nonconforming adventurers. 

Did you have lots of people around you living unconventionally that you modeled yourself after, or who helped you identify the way that you wanted to live?

Not really, at least not the first part. I think you have to find people who see the world in a similar way as you. Fortunately, once you go looking for them, they’re not usually hard to find.

Was there a website, or websites that inspired you to create an online community for entrepreneurs and travelers?

No website, but I knew there were plenty of independent people out there who wanted something different. I hoped to contribute something positive that didn’t currently exist, at least not in the specific way that AONC became.

A must-have guide to starting your very own website/online platform:

279 Days to Overnight Success

How did you know that online was the format that you wanted to reach the world and inspire people?

Well, online is the only scalable way. I used to live in West Africa and had a great experience working individually with people, but if you want to reach people all over the world, you need some kind of platform. That's what I love about blogging—anyone can connect with a wide and disparate audience regardless of geography.

Here's a taste of what Chris covers on his blog

I reached out to you personally and asked for your help in asking for help, and being vulnerable. You basically told me to fear not! Which was both a good and bad answer for me. Bad because I wanted you to tell me a magical answer that would kill my fear, but good because you were absolutely right.  Did others give you tough love when you were just figuring out your direction?

I didn't mean it as tough love; I just meant you needn’t be afraid in asking for help. Most people are good and most people will provide whatever help you need, when you need it.

Are there ever periods where you don’t have sustained bursts of ideas and energy, which lead you to question your path?

Yes, and those are frustrating! There's no easy answer to this problem, but it does help to create a certain structure for your work. Knowing what you need to do but needing help getting started is a lot easier than not knowing what to do.

Deadlines help too: if I know I have to post every Monday and Thursday, I'll be sure to do so. If I know my book is due on a certain date and there are numerous people at the publisher who have scheduled time to work on it, I need to honor my commitment to them.

But as mentioned, I too get stuck sometimes.

Wait, he has an entire e-book to answer this question.

The Towe,

a guide to creative living

Everyone has a team. What does yours look like?

I have no employees and my team is pretty small. I do work with a couple of great designers and a genius developer. For the World Domination Summit, our annual event in Portland, we do have a growing group of part-time staff and volunteers that meets bi-monthly throughout the year, and then more often as we get closer to the big weekend in July.

Here's how to join Chris' 'small army of remarkable people'

When you first started out, did you have a target demographic that later changed as your work evolved?

No, I’ve never had a demographic at least in the traditional sense. Instead I have more of a psychographic, or people that identify based on shared values and ideals. They are all ages and backgrounds and come from more than 100 countries.

Chris just beta launched "Adventure Capital", a 12-month online teaching program for creative entrepreneurs

It seems like more and more people are taking the plunge and choosing to live ‘unconventionally’ now. What is special about our time where people are mustering up the courage seemingly more than ever before?

People have always been somewhat dissatisfied with traditional paths, but what's changed is that now there are far more alternatives than ever before. At the same time, there are also a lot more role models. Most people won't change their behavior based on something that an author or celebrity says—but when they see their friends, colleagues, or neighbors doing something new, some of them will feel personally inspired to make a change for themselves.

Unconventional guides to work, travel, and money

The $100 Startup is like a less cheesy, entrepreneurial Chicken Soup For the Soul, in that it uses so many great examples that anyone can refer to and feel reassured that the dream is possible for them. Was that book a one-shot deal, or will there be more like that to help people get their work off the ground?

I’m glad you liked it. I love writing books and hope to write many more. :)

Check out The $100 Startup, and explore the resources that accompany the book

Read Chris' debut book: The Art of Non-Conformity (based off of his blog)

What is one place in the world (that you traveled to) that you identified the most with, not necessarily culturally, but where you learned the most about yourself?

I like the qualification you included. Of all the places where I learned about myself, I'd certainly put Sierra Leone and Liberia (both in West Africa) at the top of the list. They aren't easy countries to travel in, but I had a great experience as a volunteer on a hospital ship. I continue to think of those places almost every day, even as I'm pursuing very different projects and doing different kinds of work.

Check out Chris' travel goals, and how he achiev

ed them

Do you plan on setting new travel goals for yourself after you reach 193 countries?

Yes, but they'll be different. I'm not interested in revisiting all 193 countries or going to the moon or anything like that. What I want to do is work much more closely with our community of unconventional people from around the world. I'll keep traveling, in other words, but in a more focused way than before.

Read Chris' reflections after his final country: "How Does It Feel To Visit Every Country?"

What is the single most memorable thing that a fan/supporter has ever expressed to you?

In different ways, people often express that reading AONC or The $100 Startup helps them to see that they are not alone. The first time I heard that statement, I knew I'd be doing this kind of work for a long time.

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Chris Guillebeau

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Alyson Greenfield: There's No Shame in Failing Up

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Alyson Greenfield: There's No Shame in Failing Up

AG_1

If you've ever created any kind of movement, you know the dedication, resolve, humility, confidence, determination, and resourcefulness it can require. And while everyone looking through the sidelines marvels at how effortlessly you pull things off, they often remain unaware of a single truth.That ish takes a lot of hard work. 

Alyson Greenfield is one of those people who gets things done. Inspired to create her own music festival after noticing the lack of artistic platforms for women musicians, Alyson created The Tinderbox Music Festivalin 2010. Debuting at Southpaw in Brooklyn and featuring 19 women artists on two stages, Tinderbox continues to expand. Last Fall, they featured their biggest show yet -  37 artists from around the world rocking out on three different stages at NYC's illustrious Webster Hall. 

In 2011 I had the opportunity to work with Alyson on Tinderbox's second show, at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, and was often inspired by her relentless energy, resourcefulness, sharp business sense, honesty, kindness, and creative vision. Almost 5 months after their Webster Hall event, Project Inkblot spoke with Alyson as she and The Tinderbox Team excitedly geared up for 2013.  Ever the truth teller, Alyson spoke with me about how important it is to take care of yourself when you're creating something of such magnitude, how success can sometimes feel like failure, and how Tinderbox forced her to come to terms with what really matters.

How did Tinderbox start?

It started in 2010. Lilith Fair had come back on the scene - it was big in the 90’s – it’s a whole festival of women artists. I moved to NY in 2009 and I was thinking, I would really love to play this. I was a women’s studies minor and I was on the Chicago National Organization for Women’s board and it just made sense for me as a musician to do this. I had just moved to New York and I had been talking about starting a blog. A friend of mine said, 'well, your blog has to have a focus.' So, I started a blog pitching myself to Lilith Fair and every entry started with, Dear Lilith Fair. I really like to be creative and it was a big outlet for me. I didn’t get to play Lilith Fair but it was a great experience. I had helped run some unofficial showcases at SXSW that year and I had never done bookings or promotions before but I booked a bunch of acts and I thought oh, I can do this.  I thought well, I’m not going to play Lilith Fair but I know a bunch of women who are amazing musicians. It seems like there was a desire for women to have a platform not only in the music scene but to be around other awesome women. I thought, well I have this music and business sense, why don’t I just create my own event instead of trying to be a part of someone else’s? Within a few months, we got ASCAP and Bust Magazine on board and had the event at Southpaw on two stages with 19 different artists. We just kind of pulled it off. We had this awesome community vibe. The venue said they’d never had such well-behaved artists. What was so great was that so many people were coming up to me like ‘wow, we heard so many great artists.’ They hadn’t heard of most of them. Every year the artists fall in love with some of the other artists and collaborations come out of it. I’m really excited about Kalae Nouveau and Charlene Kayewho met at Tinderbox and are collaborating now. I love when that happens.

That must be so gratifying.

Yeah, it’s kind of crazy. In some ways I’ve created something that is bigger than me. Sometimes I’m like, I don’t know how much of my life this can be because I have other responsibilities. At Webster Hall, so many people kept on coming up to me telling me how inspired they were. That was the word of the day.

We went from a 500 capacity venue at The Knitting Factory to a 2,600 capacity venue with three stages and 37 artists from four different countries. We blew the roof off from where we were before. It was really exciting and challenging and the event itself was amazing. Performing at Webster Hall as an artist was incredible and otherworldly.

What I finally learned this year is that delegation is key. It is so important. No one can do it by themselves. You have to trust the people you’re delegating to. It was really scary for me, because I don’t like asking people to do things. You can’t do things without other people, or you can - but you can’t do them well.

How did you get all of these people on board? 

There were a few people who came on board last year who, without them, Tinderbox would not have happened. Nasa Hadizadeh, Rebecca An…they were just instrumental. Then I brought on an assistant, Alexandra Martinez. These women were invested in Tinderbox like it was theirs. They came with great ideas and busted their butts and there were tons of other volunteers. They just took it on. I would ask them, why would you do this and work so many hours? And they would tell me what they were getting from it. I would feel bad because I didn’t have the budget to pay people or myself. The way people worked just astounded me. I would have conversations with people and they would share the value of Tinderbox with me. I felt uncomfortable asking people to do things especially when I wasn’t paying them. It was difficult for me to not feel guilty about not giving people paychecks. I had to understand that this was a reciprocal relationship. I’m getting something, they’re getting something and we’re working together to create things. I delegated and these women really took things on. What I finally learned this year is that delegation is key. It is so important. No one can do it by themselves. You have to trust the people you’re delegating to. It was really scary for me, because I don’t like asking people to do things. You can’t do things without other people, or you can - but you can’t do them well.

What are some of the changes you noticed in how you were running Tinderbox?

I felt less alone. I even had people say to me that when I first started Tinderbox I would refer to it as ‘I have to’ etc. That changed to ‘we’ as in, 'we need to' and people were like, that’s a good thing you’re saying ‘we.’ I learned that it’s important to trust people and to identify to people what they’re best at and let them do that. Once they did that, they would come back with results. We had meetings all of the time and I had to learn how to negotiate and deal with different personalities. People have different ideas and they feel strongly about them and this year we were dealing with different sponsors, and so many more people. I also learned how to be more diplomatic and honest. Everyone worked so hard. People were invested with their heart, as well as their time.

But after Tinderbox this year you realized you needed some time off from the project.

Tinderbox kind of took over my life. I had to pay my bills and I didn’t know if this was the thing that could do that. I couldn’t put my life on hold and not be able to take care of my basic needs any longer.  We were working with artists and venues that were a lot bigger than what we had dealt with before. I’m good at negotiating, connecting and networking but there was a learning curve. I held it down but we didn’t have the capital at the ground level. We’re still young and we didn’t have the funding, and everyone was volunteering.

I felt like I had run into a brick wall. I am just crazy driven and don’t stop to breathe sometimes. If I have ideas, I will accomplish them but sometimes it comes at the risk of my sanity.  I had devoted my life and sacrificed things like a regular income. I was focusing on it all of the time and you know how it is, you can work on it day and night and still never be done. I was still doing little things here and there to provide for myself but at the end, I just felt defeated.

I wore myself out. I think the expectations we have for ourselves are so high. You don’t let yourself breathe... I didn’t have a life and at the end I felt like I was left with nothing and had done this huge thing that seemed to benefit other people, but at the end I had no energy...I started resenting Tinderbox.

Can you speak about why you felt defeated?

A lot of things came down on me because in these types of circumstances, things come down on the founder. I wore myself out. I think the expectations we have for ourselves are so high. You don’t let yourself breathe. I don’t know if it’s a do-it-all mentality or what. I’ve always liked to work. Ever since I was a kid, I had projects and would organize and set these structures. I was a perfectionist and I would just do and do and do.

I was like, I don’t know if this is going to happen again. I kind of felt like I had lost myself. I was living in this fantasy land where I thought if I worked my ass off, it would come back to me but it didn’t matter because it didn’t come back. It is coming back now – but at that time, it wasn’t. I didn’t have a life and at the end I felt like I was left with nothing and had done this huge thing that seemed to benefit other people, but at the end I had no energy - and I have a lot of energy – I was just done. It takes a lot for me to be done. I started resenting Tinderbox.

I think that happens to a lot of people.

Of course! Because if you don’t feel like something is giving back to you and you’re putting everything into it then that’s not balanced. There were incredible things that happened but I was almost mad at it. I didn’t want to talk about it. Pretty soon after the event, people were like ‘when’s the next one? I want to apply. What venue will you do it at?’ I was like, I don’t know if there will ever be another Tinderbox again. I cannot talk about it. Then I realized I had to get back to being a human being. I needed to provide for myself. I’m going to be the best at providing for other people when I’m setting an example and providing for myself. This is a key thing with women. Women are so good at providing for others and not always themselves.

Compassion for yourself is huge. I go to a lot of Buddhist talks and it’s so important. We think it’s an indulgence or something for leisure time. If you care about yourself you can be compassionate towards others.

Compassion for yourself is huge. I go to a lot of Buddhist talks and it’s so important. We think it’s an indulgence or something for leisure time. If you care about yourself you can be compassionate towards others. One of the Buddhist teachers says, ‘you know when you talk to yourself in your head and you’re being really mean to yourself, well would you talk to a good friend like that?’ And usually the answer is heck no. You’d rally for your friend instead of throwing punches. Having compassion is so important as well as realizing that things will happen on their own time. I think for me, also, there was a lot of thinking that things have to happen now. I spent so much time and energy on Tinderbox and I thought, things have to happen now! I have to prove this is real. I’m so over that now. In the second year we got press from TheNew York Times but it wasn’t enough. It was like, no – this year it’s going to be at Webster Hall. I had this unrealistic expectation that it had to be a certain way.

There was a sense of attachment?

Yes. It becomes really stressful because you say that it can’t be any other way. I think collectively, over the last two years, I’ve been doing a lot of yoga and meditation and really looking at myself and being honest. I realized I was being pretty mean to myself when Tinderbox was over. I felt like a failure. From the outside it wasn’t that way but from the inside, it felt that way. I started thinking I have worth because I am here and I’m human. I had gone camping in the summer with some friends and I was by the ocean and I thought: this ocean doesn’t care about Tinderbox. The world is so big. We make everything such a big deal.

After Tinderbox, I took a couple months away from it and I looked at our sponsorship deck, which is a compilation of our press, mission, goals, artists etc. and I thought, whoa - this is really successful. I kind of blew myself away. I had never really thought of that before because I was just working and doing and feeling like it wasn’t enough.

...it was always like, we’re not here with this we’re not here with that – all the things that we’re not. And looking at that was like wow, we met a lot of our goals and even exceeded some of our goals. And I thought, I have worked really hard and I am successful and success doesn’t have to be financial. There isn’t one way to be successful.

You didn’t realize how successful you had been before?

Sure, I had little glimpses here and there but it was always like, we’re not here with this we’re not here with that – all the things that we’re not. And looking at that was like wow, we met a lot of our goals and even exceeded some of our goals. And I thought, I have worked really hard and I am successful and success doesn’t have to be financial. There isn’t one way to be successful.

I reconnected. I genuinely like people and I finally realized I have something to give that doesn’t necessarily have to do with the music industry or being a musician or having a MFA. How can these gifts manifest? Maybe it’s something I never thought of. I let go of what I thought I should be or had to be to feel worthy. I thought, my priorities are: I need to pay my rent, I need to provide for myself and I haven’t been focusing on that. Now I have a few different jobs and I like them. They bring out different parts of my personality. And that’s nice to know. Things have been coming my way. When you’re open, the world gives you answers. Now I feel like the world is reaching out to me. I am also acknowledging now – I have always had this little thing on my shoulder that’s like ‘you’re not there yet. You better keep working’ but it’s like hey – I’ve done a lot of things. I don’t think I really thought that. I just let go…and it was hard. I opened up space so that things could come in. When you’re not making space for things to come because you’re always trying to get and go somewhere…when you can sit and be still….things can happen. All of these opportunities keep coming to me now. And the thing is, is that nothing seems like such a huge deal. It feels like ok yeah, let’s try that out whereas before everything was such a huge deal. Also, not taking yourself so seriously, that’s really important. Hitting that brick wall – it almost took that to build myself back up. At the time you think it’s the worst thing in the world but it’s really beautiful. Sometimes you have to go to the bottom in order to take those baby steps back up.

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Feature Image credit: Jasmina Tomic

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The Twins Who Used Art to Rule Aruba

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The Twins Who Used Art to Rule Aruba

Ira and Ayra

Ira and Ayra are a special pair. Not only are they business and creative partners, but they are also twins. Ira is the dreamy and somewhat elusive creative, and Ayra, the smart talking, sharp-minded business woman. Ira is a theater director, and Ayra, a marketing strategist. Ira lives in Brooklyn, Ayra, in Amsterdam--but for some time before that--London and LA. The duo grew up in Amsterdam. Their identities as "Black women"--had a much more pluralistic meaning in The Netherlands, as their family originated from where many people-of-color from Amsterdam emigrate from--the Caribbean. Having spent a short, yet significant part of their formative years in Aruba--where arts education was limited as compared to the abundant access that they had in The Netherlands--inspired them as adults to bring their creative expertise and international art networks to Aruba.This is the story about Art Rules Aruba (ARA), the two-week-long summer arts program in Aruba that Ayra and Ira dreamt, organized, and implemented; despite being told that they couldn't, despite not having any money, despite being criticized for their organization being "too black." Just having officially announced their 4th year (this summer), ARA has brought the best-of-the-best art educators from around the world to teach Aruban youth about performance, dance, visual and multimedia art.

*Interview conducted with Ayra*

You guys are twins. Did you both love the arts equally as kids, or was one more into it than the other growing up?

As far as I can remember--equally, but it wasn't so much a case of loving art or loving dance.  We started at the age of three and it has never left us, which means it's all we know. It's part of who we were, and who we are today.

Where are your cultural and ethnic roots?

Aruba and Curacao on our mother's side, and our dad is from Suriname. We were born and raised in Amsterdam, so culturally there is also that aspect, but our South American and Caribbean roots have always been more prevalent in our household.

Did you guys always know since you were kids that you would someday create and run a business together, rooted in the arts?

We always knew we would work together. The business side--The Pancake Gallery--was not actually planned. It just made sense when the time came to make our work official, become professionals in it, and give it a name.

How was Pancake Gallery born, and what was the initial objective?

I had my own company, Taboo Management, which was more an avenue to take on freelance marketing and PR jobs. When it came time for Ira to establish her work, she came up with the company name--Pancake Gallery--and a personal objective for her work. I soon decided, why not do all our work under one umbrella? And decided to combine forces with Ira's company. It just made sense.

After the merge, we started thinking seriously about the overall objective of what we wanted to do. This was some time around 2007. I was living in London and Ira in New York, so we thought about ways to connect the cities where we lived, adding Amsterdam in the mix as the city where we grew up, as well as the Caribbean, our family's roots. As we made our personal connections internationally, we we so many like-minded people with the same idea's and ambitions as ours, which then led to the idea to create something that would link all of these people to each other. The vision to take people with us on our journey, and through our work was born. That is what became the foundation of our work with Art Rules Aruba.

...when we moved to Aruba at the age of twelve, with little-to-no place to continue practicing dance at the level we were used to, that was really difficult for us. It really felt like artistic suicide. Later when we left the island to go back to Amsterdam, we also left with a sense of wanting to go back to Aruba to bring something meaningful to the community there...

At what point did you come up with the idea to bring a comprehensive teaching artist program to Aruba?

The idea to do something in Aruba started about 20 years ago when we were 12 years-old, living on the island. We were those kids that we created the program for--bored in the summer with not much to do.

Like I said, we grew up in Amsterdam taking dance classes our entire lives. So when we moved to Aruba at the age of twelve, with little-to-no place to continue practicing dance at the level we were used to, that was really difficult for us. It really felt like artistic suicide. Later when we left the island to go back to Amsterdam, we also left with a sense of wanting to go back to Aruba to bring something meaningful to the community there, involving education and the arts. Honestly, for years I thought about bringing books. I had this very vivid vision to help build a library in Aruba.

When you walk into the local library, even today, it reeks of old books. I had this idea in my head that I wanted to send new books to the schools and library's every year. When we went to school in Aruba in 1993, we were using books that were over 20 years old. Almost 16 years later, something clicked that showed us it was time to return with something to give back. We decided that the best gift was to share our artistic knowledge and experiences. What made it even bigger than we imagined was bringing the people who we ended up enlisting to come with us.

Why was going back to Aruba necessary for you guys personally? 

Personally I just wanted the youth on Aruba to have what I had: access to information, an international education, and experiences that could shape the ambitions of these young people beyond what they envision for themselves. Also, there are too many unheard voices and hidden talent across the Caribbean. Aruba will always be our home in a sense, because we spent part of our childhood there. That's where this journey needed to start for us in our careers. Suriname is another home, and it's our next destination for this work.

Did you plan on Art Rules Aruba (ARA) being a one shot deal, or did you want to see it as a staple of the arts education in Aruba?

It was not a one shot deal at all, but we also didn't orchestrate a structured plan for it to be a staple program either. Maybe somewhere I hoped it would become a staple and I knew it would have that potential, but we weren't sure if the 'powers that be' and even the local arts scene would allow the program to have play such an important role on the Island.

To a lot of people on the Island, Art Rules Aruba was initially seen as a threat. As crazy as it may seem--since we had not lived in Aruba for years--there were people who were not comfortable with the idea of "outsiders"-- as they would sometimes call us, coming to the Island and 'taking over the art scene.' Nor were they comfortable with us developing the biggest youth based arts program on the island. There was an aspect of competition that was a challenge for us when we first began.

To take that conversation even further, the scope of challenges we faced were often unpredictable. We knew we had no money, so we knew it was going to be hard already, but we did not foresee things like discrimination, or having our team of teachers be considered "too black". The journey came with a lot of strides, but also many set backs, and honestly, in the beginning I had no idea where this ship would dock. In the end, because we had a vision, and mostly because we worked hard (and maybe had a little bit of luck and knew a few amazing people), Art Rules has become a staple program in Aruba, and in hindsight, I am truly thankful for the journey that it took to get us there.

...the scope of challenges we faced were often unpredictable. We knew we had no money, so we knew it was going to be hard already, but we did not foresee things like discrimination, or having our team of teachers be considered “too black”...

What were parts of the process that were most challenging, in getting the project off the ground the first year?

Money! My mother put €1000 euros in my bank account, of which half was spent on a flight from Amsterdam to Aruba to get myself to the island in December of 2009. When I got to Aruba, all I had left was a little pocket money just enough to rent a car and eat. The rest was smartly spent on some heels, a few sharp outfits from Zara, and my 40 page proposal under my arm. This was truly all I had at the time.

As far as selling the project, I did not see this as a challenge. I knew in my heart the way Ira and I wrote the proposal that it would sell itself!

This was not a dream for us. It was a vision. It already existed. All we needed was to get the people there involved.

Did you guys have any personal challenges as siblings or as business partners? Do your ideas for the organization ever differ?

We have the same vision for the company, yet the execution is a very different thing. As much as we are the same, at the end of the day, I am a fierce business person and Ira is an artist. I cut the deals, Ira edits the videos. I organize the production, Ira mentors the kids. In the beginning I had this crazy idea that my sister and I would have the same work approach. Through experience I have learned that we truly are two different people.

What is your working relationship like? Who runs what?

Our work relationship shifts with time. Whatever we have in hand at the moment, we take a look at the work and decide who is good at what. We select our tasks based off of our strengths. If there is a time we can't handle the pressure, we then ask for each other's help. Since 2010, we've also had an amazing web designer by the name of Justin McKenzie (a.k.a Toprock) who has been able to translate our ideas visually in the most creative ways. Then there is our our Latina sister, Mariaelena, from New York, who accidentally became our project manager. Mari was visiting ARA in its first edition and ended up becoming our stage manager at the closing of the project. She has been with us ever since.

How does Pancake Gallery use Arts Rules Aruba to “Integrate and connect international arts communities” as you suggest in your mission?

Simple. We have 18 teachers from New York, London, Amsterdam, Aruba and in between. All of these people aren't only representative of different places around the world, but they are all connected to a local arts scene, which they represent when they bring their knowledge and expertise to ARA. If you were to zoom in on their personal background, we can add that our team consists of Haitian, French, Bajan, Dutch, Sudanese, Surinamese, British, American, Nigerian, and many more cultures around the world. That in turn, connects us to people from all these places. If we want we can do Art Rules Barbados, or Art Rules Sudan, it can now all be possible. That's what we have accomplished from integrating and connecting with one another.

How do you select the multidisciplinary artists from around the world to teach each year?

We do not have a format. In the beginning we looked at people that we knew personally or who were recommended through personal friends. By the third year, we learned not too work with too many friends and to set higher standards to our criteria of selection, which include: the ability to teach, the experience of working within education, the experience of working with youth, and having the right type of personality. It is very important to work with people who are flexible and can be open to the idea that ARA comes with a certain ethos.

What is the lasting impact that the two-week program has on the participants?

I think this is more of a personal question for them to answer, but from what we have seen and experienced, some of what we've heard from the kids were: they felt like ARA shaped them, opened them up, inspired them, got them to lose weight. There were so many different things that we've heard. The main impact that I believe Art Rules Aruba has had on the participants is that it has given them a sense of identity, and has empowered them to feel that they have the complete right to freedom of expression.

One student said "When Art Rules is not here, we are all like weirdo's, but when you guys come, we can feel normal again".

Do you ever feel a sense of completion?

Business-wise no, I always want to continue to do more and accomplish more as an organization. Personally, there is a sense of completion after every year, but as soon as November hits and we start thinking of the next year, we know our work has just begun, and there is a lot more work to do.

What (if at all) is the end point? 

I do not know if there is ever an end point. Education is a way of growing, and art is the purest form of expression to your identity. We definitely bring the two together. I also wonder, when do you ever stop growing or being who you are?

Interview by Boyuan Gao

Photos courtesy of Art Rules Aruba + Pancake Gallery

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