Forecasting Art and Social Justice*
On March 26th Rehan Ansari with George Bolster sat down Katy Rubin, founder and executive director of Theater of the Oppressed New York City to talk about their new space in Times Square and the politics of real estate in New York, their place in the community of social justice and theater, their impact, and about managing a nonprofit space in the era of the Trump administration.
Rehan Ansari (Rail): Your staff looks like they are actors, but like no actors I have seen before.
Katy Rubin: [Laughs]. About half of our facilitators who are on staff have been actors in our troupes, which means they’ve experienced homelessness or have been impacted by the criminal justice system, or are living with HIV and AIDS, or impacted by immigration. Those are our main issues. And about another half of our actors work for us part-time. You see Gariana there who facilitated and acted in the new Crown Heights Troupe. She’s on our staff. She’s wonderful and she’s 19, and she’s a joker in training.
Rail: What does this amazing new space enable for your programming?
Rubin: It means a lot for our capacity overall to have such a big space in Times Square. It’s changed our ability to program. We never had program space. We never had rehearsal space. So, it’s really changed our capacity even to the extent of training new facilitators from our troupes. We’re able to have actors’ advisory committee meetings. We’re able to have improv workshops with TV writers. We’re able to have this Rapid Response Troupe that meets every week and is turning out for shows and rallies and press conferences and hearings to support our advocacy partners (and their goals). Among our partners are Fair Fares Campaign, #CLOSErikers Campaign, the schools campaign . . . So we’re now part of all these campaigns, and all of that has really come about because we have all this space. We have actors coming in and out of here every day. It’s really changed our organization—Not to mention being in Times Square and being in the middle of the theater district. We had an interesting think-in. We had twenty-five people here a few weeks ago from the Roundabout Theater and the New Vic and Times Square Alliance and the 52nd Street Project, and law firms in the area and the New York Public Library, Lincoln Center Branch. Everyone was here. We had breakfast, and we broke into groups and people thought about how we can both benefit from being in the theater district and also support the theaters, maybe change the way that the theater community sees the kind of work that we do as part of the theater community and not outside it. And also support their goals for working on social justice issues. So that’s something that we’ve just started to think about—we’ve been here for three months in Times Square. But it’s been a big change.
Rail: How did you acquire this space in the theater district in Times Square?
Rubin: We’re sitting in a space that Theater of the Oppressed NYC actually purchased on September 12th, 2017, for $20,000, and then did a renovation for about another $90,000, which means that we’ve spent about $110,000 on the whole thing, which is incredible! And we’ve only raised about half of it, so we’re still raising it. But to back up, this space was part of a deal that the City of New York made with a developer, SJP Properties, in 2006, so that this developer could build more stories of luxury condo units in this building. And in a rare deal the community board demanded that, as part of the deal, they built this 3,000 square foot unit on the third floor that would be dedicated just for not for profit office space. SJP didn’t put anything special in the unit. It was sort of the back, vent rooms of the building and they left it like that and it has a sort of separate entrance. The elevator you came up only goes to this floor and we only share it with the maintenance guys, which is also great. And we’re able to have our sign on the door on the ground floor.
Rail: How did you find out about this space?
Rubin: It was really an interesting, eye-opening experience in terms of how real estate works, the power it has in the city, these deals that are made, and then, are they really being fulfilled to support the community? The building opened in 2009 and nobody had been in this space since then! We heard about it from David Diamond, the former chair of the community board who helped orchestrate the deal. He just happened to be an audience member of ours. He was pushing the developer’s lawyer to do something with this space. The city wasn’t holding the developer accountable in terms of making sure this space got filled. The public doesn’t know that this happens and I think there are other situations like this. And then the developer decided to sell it for $20,000, as opposed to rent it, which was the original deal. It took us about three and a half years of advocacy, pushing, calls, lawyers, and eventually a Village Voice article to get the city and the developer to actually move on it, because the developer really had no motivation to make it happen. They didn’t want to pay their lawyer’s fees. They had to amend the declaration with city planning. There was all this paperwork because they changed it to a sale as opposed to a rental.
When we heard about it, we were three years old and our annual budget was about $120,000. We would have had to take a loan just for the purchase. By the time it happened, we were able to do a renovation. We were seven years old and still small, but had more means. So, we purchased it for $20,000. According to the terms of the purchase, we’re able to rent out one of the three 700 square-foot rooms to another arts organization. This means, we won’t pay rent for the rest of our organization’s life, and we’ll have some rental income.
Rail: Won’t maintenance and renovation be a problem?
Rubin: Yes. The other interesting thing about the city that we’ve learned is that we’re not eligible for any city funding for this purchase or renovation, because the smallest project that you can get capital funding for, even though there’s millions of dollars in capital every year, is $500,000. So if you do a cheap project, you can’t get any city council member or city Department of Cultural Affairs capital funding. All of it is having to come from . . .We don’t really know. Or, you know, trying to get our foundations to give extra. We’ve done some individual campaigns, but our organization is very grassroots. We don’t have big donors.
Rail: Interesting that you don’t have big donors but you are in a neighborhood of big institutions and are trying to influence their thinking.
Rubin: Yeah, that’s right, and it’s just starting. Alvin Ailey was here. We just had a great call with them to follow up. We have a meeting with the New York Public Library For the Performing Arts on Thursday and then the Roundabout Theater. They’re interested in having us do workshops for their artists to think more about how they integrate social issues, how they encourage audience dialogue. One of the artists who was here for that think-in was talking about how, in all the mainstream theaters, there are plays about social justice issues, and then there’s what they call auxiliary programming, like a talk-back or something that no one stays for and that doesn’t have a lot of impact because it doesn’t feel like it’s part of the art.
Rail: How do you make the dialogue around social justice part of the art?
Rubin: The think-in forum is one of the ways to kind of flip that dynamic, that the actual dialogue, as you put it, is the art, though that is still rare in theater. One hopes that some amazing play about an issue makes people talk outside the theater, but there’s not that much of a way to track that impact, right? And here, we’re really trying to not only talk about it, but even get new ideas and see how they can be put into practice in the art process itself.
Rail: Please tell us about your process for creating theater and how you came to it.
Rubin: All of our plays are created by the people who are impacted by the issues. And performed by those same people. We don’t have playwrights. We don’t have professional actors. We don’t have directors. Theater of the Oppressed is a tool that comes from the ‘60s and ‘70s in Brazil. I trained with Augusto Boal in Brazil in 2008 before he died. I was working at the Center for Theater of the Oppressed in Rio, which is really—at least at the beginning—a model for how we created Theater of the Oppressed NYC in terms of the way they were really working with institutions. In Rio they worked with the government and prisons in the whole state of Brazil, and the work was critical of the government in the context of those prisons, and they brought those stakeholders together. And I was excited by that, really seeing this process being fun and exciting and to bring all those people together to have this creative process where we’re not accusing anyone, but we’re really calling everyone in together to create in a fun forum. This was really powerful to me in Brazil, and I felt that in the United States, Theater of the Oppressed was mostly being used in academic settings and not so much on the ground, in the way I experienced in Rio and throughout Brazil. And that was the spark for Theater of the Oppressed NYC. And we work that same way that we partner with other organizations, or sometimes city agencies like NYCHA or the Department of Probation, but often with organizations doing social services and also doing advocacy like the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, which is part of the Center for Court Innovation. It’s one of our key partners. Then there are partners like Housing Works and Fortune Society and so on. The plays are created by young people and adults who we’re working with and who experience oppression.
Rail: Tell us about the play about teachers and students.
Rubin: This play was created by teenagers between sixteen and nineteen. It was about their lived experiences—all the plays are. So, it’s put together from different people’s lived experience. A lot of these teenagers working on this play go to the same schools in Crown Heights so they have a shared experience of this story in particular. It started out with a street scene where there was street harassment, which is something that the girls are facing all the time. It’s almost all girls and one man in this troupe. They’re going to a party. And at the party, there’s the threat of gang-related gun violence that leads to a shooting outside the school of a teenager. And that teenager is a classmate of these students. There’s also the added detail that there’s this white substitute teacher who is totally unable to connect with the students: He is condescending to them and is a racist.
Rail: Who played the teacher?
Rubin: I played that teacher. It’s sometimes helpful to see the characters as they look in real life, and so I’m a white woman, so it works for me to play that teacher. The rest of the actors were young people. And the young people played characters that don’t reflect them, like a security guard. And there is a young woman who played a teacher after that.
But when we’re particularly trying to show a white substitute teacher there’s two things we do. Sometimes we don’t have someone outside step in. Sometimes we have the actors put a sign on themselves, which is also funny. We have a white guy tie that we’ve used quite a bit. It’s a big tie that says “White Guy” on it. [Laughter] The tie is also helpful when you need to play a landlord. We do that a lot. You need to signal what’s happening in a clear way. Or you have somebody like me step in, and the substitute teacher’s name is Mrs. White to bring out what we’re talking about, right? And we’re trying to be explicit about oppression and about race, about gender, about all the issues that are coming up. We’re called Theater of the Oppressed. The name is already explicit. And I think one of the things that’s important about what we do is trying to be explicit, and to start conversations in that way, but in a way that makes people laugh, because you laughed when we said Mrs. White, and the audience laughs too, because it makes them a little uncomfortable, that we’re talking about it like this, I think.
So the substitute teacher is there. The student leaves the class because it’s boring. He’s harassed by the security guard on his way in the school, on his way out of the school, and then he goes outside and he’s shot by the opposite gang, and he’s killed. And then the students find out about this on the news. All of these different pieces are part of their experience, but the story starts from the point when they talked about a classmate of theirs being killed. They found about it on the news—on a news report that was also racist and discriminatory about their neighborhood and about a young black man.
And then they go in the next day, and none of their teachers want to talk about it. They have to take a test. They’re being yelled at for not being able to focus, for not being able to talk about history, and one of them leaves the classroom and gets in trouble with the principal.
And that sort of spirals and escalates, that sort of trouble, in their lives. So that’s where the story came from. And so this play is an intersection of the school system, the prison pipeline, criminalization of students, gun violence in communities, racism, and trauma that’s not being addressed in schools among young people, around various issues.
There is access to mental health in schools but there’s also just the standard practices of principals and security guards and teachers. All of those things are coming together in this story and I think that’s why it’s interesting. You can connect from various angles. In every play, after the play is presented, we have what we call the forum. In this case—it was led by Gariana, who’s one of the young people in this troupe and is now, as I said, one of our jokers in training on our staff also—joker is our word for facilitator. It’s from the joker in a deck of cards. It’s an unbiased facilitator, so it doesn’t have a suit. It doesn’t give the answers.
So we ask the audience what problems they identified. We asked them who and what they can identify with. So first, what did they see, and then how do they identify with it. And this is where people identify in different ways. There were young people of color in the audience who identify as the students. There were teachers who maybe identify in one way with people’s mental health not being taken seriously. Maybe that’s personal, who knows. But in another way, they might identify with an antagonist, like the teacher character, who just has to get this test done, no matter what, and that’s their perspective, which is a valid and interesting perspective.
Rail: Who was the audience?
Rubin: The audience we had was pretty diverse in terms of young people, older people, people of color, white people, people who seemed like they’re working on this issue and people who seemed like they were just interested in seeing a play. And it’s important that we have that kind of audience because the audience starts talking to each other about the problems raised by the play, and you need them to be able to give feedback and check each other, which they certainly were doing in that audience.
Rail: That’s great! And how do your facilitators/jokers interact with them?
Rubin: Our facilitators ask people to get up and try ideas they have that can change the story, and they’re supposed to take on the role of the protagonist or the allies. We didn’t let the teachers in the audience become the teacher character, because that’s too easy. So we have to really say, “There are characters in the play asking to change a situation. What can we do?” And sometimes that means changing the rules, and that’s when we take this also to what we call Legislative Theater, which is trying to change policies and practices around issues. We understand that solutions lie at various levels, at the level of the individual: “What am I doing in this moment?”; community: “Are we doing community organizing?”; and political policy.
Rail: Please say more about Legislative Theater and its impact. What are you trying to move?
Rubin: We’re trying to move a few things. One, on the most concrete level, we are trying to move the minds of city council members and city agencies—and not just city, but we get a lot of participation from city—also state and federal, but city is where we see the most ability for movement. Also, city council members have more power than, let’s say, the federal agencies who do come. Federal policymakers are way up the food chain. You need elected officials to initiate new legislations, and so when you have city council members, they really do have that power. And their own constituents are directly in the audience. We have always had city agencies, commissioners, and deputy commissioners come as well. And they have a lot of power too because there’s policy, there’s legislation, but then there’s the way it’s implemented by each agency, so there is an institutional policy. Institutional policy is a kind of policy. So it’s not just about trying to create new laws.
In our process the audience writes new laws or practices and sorts them with the help of all these advisors from advocacy groups, lawyers, experts that are at the performance with the city council members and other policymakers. We end up with three or four laws or practices inspired either by the audience’s ideas, ideas on stage, or written down by people on these cards, or by all of this, and sorted into three or four policies, which then everybody votes on. People can also vote no, and there’s dissent and there’s amendments.
Our goal is to bring lots of different stakeholders into the same room to create context around an issue that’s often discussed away from the people who are experiencing it. That’s the baseline. We introduce lots of people who may not feel empowered about the political process and civic life to actually participate in a really concrete way. We track our actors, audiences, as they call their council members, vote, go to rallies, participate in ways they didn’t before because they felt like their vote and their voice was heard in this process. So that is one way we measure impact.
On another level, we actually want those policies that we came up with to become real. So we ask all the council members or commissioners or city agencies that are there to commit to carrying those ideas forwards. We can’t ask them to commit to making them reality because it’s not just up to them. But we ask that they commit to proposing legislation. We also try train our audiences and actors at the event and after in canvassing. We get everyone to tweet at their own local council members after the event. We have little workshops after each event outside the theater, where audience members can learn skills to help us push the policies that they created and then we, with our advocacy partners find out there’s a rally about a related idea and we’ll invite our actors and audiences to come with us to the rally. That’s how we are part of all these campaigns. And then we’ll ask the council members who are there to push forward the particular nuance or policy that came out of our event. What we’ve found is that when there’s a policy in development or there’s an issue that’s already on the table we can move a nuanced aspect of that policy with our plays particularly because of how effective this process is, and because it’s art and theater and emotional and brings all these different parties and stakeholders together. We are most effective then, as opposed to creating a brand new policy because we’re not an advocacy organization.
Rail: Can you give some examples of wins?
Rubin: In 2014, we had a troupe from the Ali Forney Center, which is an LGBTQ and homeless youth shelter and outreach program. This was the second year of legislative theater with them. There was a play with a young trans woman who was experiencing domestic violence and the police came to her door. Actually, she didn’t even call the police; a neighbor called the police. Again, this was all from a lived experience—she had just been beaten up by her partner. The police asked her for her ID. Her ID had a different gender marker than her name and her presentation, and the police said she had a fake ID, and they used that as an excuse to search her apartment. They found syringes, which she used for hormones, and they said that it was drug paraphernalia and they arrested her and took her in. So this is a problem on many levels, the police handling of trans youth of color, but there was a basic problem about having the wrong ID that then snowballed.
So, Carlos Menchaca, who is a council member, was there for the event. He is the chair of the Immigration Council, and he had recently been developing the municipal ID, i.e. the NYC ID, which many of us have now. But it was in the works then. The audience knew about that because we also have these advocacy fairs before the show where we have all our partners tabling and sharing information about current efforts.
We try to get the audience and actors to be as prepared and knowledgeable as possible before they go in to a show because if you know what’s on the table you can write a better proposal. And we had all these policy advisors there from Bronx public defenders, Brooklyn public defenders, Amercian Civil Liberties (ACLU), New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), feeding information to the audience. By the way, we’ve had about 120 advocacy groups partner with us on Legislative Theater in the last five years, which is crazy. In 2017, over three days, we had 50 advocacy and social service organizations there.
The audience voted to be able to write either gender on the municipal ID that Carlos Menchaca was working on and was not law yet. Or, which was a little bit more radical, to leave it blank and not put any gender if you didn’t identify with M or F, and not have to show any medical evidence, which is what you had to do up until that point for a New York state license. Of course, that meant if you didn’t have money for a surgery or something you couldn’t change your ID. This was voted on. This became part of the legislation that you could put M or F or leave it blank. Carlos stayed to talk to the actors and the audience for like an hour after the show and he said on record later that he was directly impacted by this event.
That’s an example of a clear response to a problem at the play. If we’ve worked to educate our audience, we’ve brought together all the stakeholders, and then that was voted on in July. So it was like a quick turnaround between May and July that we could really push for.
Another example is from last April or May when we did a Legislative Theater event connected to the cultural plan. So the commissioner of Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) was there, Tom Finkelpearl, Edwin Torres, the assistant commissioner; and Stephen Levin, who was one of the council members who proposed the legislation to make a cultural plan.
And it was a play by homeless adults about their lack of access to the culture in terms of funding and other formal opportunities to participate. One of the scenes was about people making art in Central Park, selling it, and getting arrested or getting fined for not having a vendor license, which are very tightly restricted in New York City—any kind of street vendor license is, but due to an old, old law only veterans can get street vendor licenses. There are no new street vendor licenses in New York City. You have to wait for someone to die to get a new one. There is a cap, and it’s a very low number. A lot of people are vending without licenses. The play was showed how also there are white people selling their art in Central Park who are not getting ticketed and fined, and black people selling their art in Central Park who are getting ticketed and fined. The cultural plan wasn’t about to include anything about street vending. I don’t know why. They said that was out of their purview. But Steve Levin was a council member there he could do anything he wanted. He went ahead and submitted a legislative request to the city council last fall to raise the cap on street vendor licenses.
That can take two years to come back and see what they think about it. That is the process. We can at least see that a council member went and introduced a proposal from the event. So those are some examples of what we’re trying to get at.
Rail: Just before you started on Legislative Theater, or kind of moved into talking about Legislative Theater, you were also talking about audiences and how you have different communities and stakeholders coming in. Do you have a sense of how audiences have developed for you? Have many more people from the community shown up from the immediate neighborhood, or many more people that you feel the issues directly speak to have shown up, or maybe more of a general audience have shown up, or maybe more of this or less of that. Since you almost have a decade of experience, maybe you could talk about changes in audience over this time.
Rubin: Our audiences are unique in some ways. First of all, we use the word spect-actor, and we say that in our shows, but we think of it that way too so since our audiences are never audiences. They’re not passive. We don’t want to say audience to them because it makes them feel passive. We want to say spect-actor, which means they’re going to watch and they’re going to take action, and they’re involved. And even if they don’t say anything they’re being asked to say something really rigorously throughout, and so they are saying things even if by not saying them. So there’s no way not to participate.
And we warm up the audience. It’s all about participation throughout. The quality of each performance is related to who is in the audience. We have to be really specific about who is in the audience, and in our development of our audiences or our spect-actors. I would say that over time we have thought more and more deeply and acted more specifically about curating our audiences.
We’ve set goals for ourselves that every audience should be 50% directly impacted by the issues in our plays, because what happens is if they’re not, then the audience can sometimes — even with the structure of our plays — end up having more power or negating the experience of the actors on stage. And it is important to us that that doesn’t happen, because then we’re not coming up with real and viable solutions for the problem.
If we have at least a 50% directly-impacted people in every audience then we have different kinds of shows. For instance, we have a troupe with the Red Hook Community Justice Center that were all young people. They’ll do a show at the Red Hook Community Justice Center that will be 100% directly-impacted people and that’s not open to the public. They’ll do a show at another CCI site in Harlem or wherever that’s also 100% directly-impacted people, so we call those internal shows. We have a lot of those shows. They’re not on our website. And those shows are very unique also in their forum because you don’t have to spend a lot of time unpacking the problems. Everybody’s already on the same page. People just want to jump up, they are ready to get up. They’ve seen this a million times before. Just the invitation to participate is like an explosion.
On the other hand, we have shows with a 50% general audience, which usually means less people of color, which is what theater-going audiences are by definition at this point in New York City, less people of color, more middle class people, they’re not directly impacted, let’s say, by homelessness, or systemic racism. We get a lot of caseworkers and staff from institutions, which have majority white staff. If you have an audience with a lot of those people in it the forum is different. You have to spend a lot of time talking about the issue and you have to give them a lot of time to think about how they are impacted by the issue. We don’t let anyone think they are not directly impacted by the issue. They just have to dig deeper into their own experience.
For example, in the play I was talking about earlier even if you’re not a young person of color in a public school in Crown Heights you might have trauma that is not acknowledged by your boss or superior because you have less power in a situation and you can identify with the problem because of that. But you have to get there in order to be ready to join and try to problem solve with us. And that’s why it’s also really important to us, coming back to the teachers who were in the audience, that we don’t let anyone come in and give advice. It has to be that you are taking the risk. That’s also why it’s important that they play the young person. They have to be in the position of the person without power in this situation. It’s a very good course in empathy. I mean, that’s what I felt in terms of witnessing it. It’s like, “Okay, you’re an active witness but also you’re part of the problem.” It’s also very interesting just in terms of how impersonal power structures can be and how victimizing they can be without even actively trying. And we try to think about the term solidarity even more than empathy, which is related, but solidarity means also that I recognize if I’m part of the problem, if I’m part of the solution, I recognize it and then I’m ready to take action, which is what we want from people.
And our audiences have grown. They’ve grown with awareness of our program. They’ve grown with our ability to pay someone to write emails and do social media about our events.
And all our shows are free, and that’s really important to us. So there’s no income from our performances. Donations are accepted, but all our shows are free because we want to make sure that everyone can come in to every single event.
We have about 4,000 audience members a year and about 60 shows. That has grown, for sure. But the spaces we’re in are small spaces. But that small space is good for what we’re doing because you can have them wanting to make conversation.
Rail: Can you speak to how you choose the issues for the season’s programming? There’s incarceration. There’s gun violence. Is it all prioritized equally? Are things just close to your heart? Are you impacted by the news of the day?
Rubin: We don’t choose the issues as much as we build partnerships with organizations who are working with people are impacted by certain issues. By now we have a lot of partnerships and we don’t take on new partnerships lightly because every partnership needs an ongoing theater troupe. We try not to drop a relationship because we develop pipelines with those actors over time and deepen the relationships. But we do also start new ones sometimes.
In the beginning I would say that our topics were health, housing, the criminal justice system, all major problems that are related to institutional racism, institutional classism, institutional sexism, institutional homophobia. So when we’re talking with people who are impacted by these institutional oppressions those are the problems that they’re facing.
Rail:So these issues never go away.
Rubin: They never go away. We don’t choose those problems. We partner with organizations that are facing those problems and then we understand that all our plays are addressing those issues and we communicate about them in that way and we connect to advocacy groups or council members who are dealing with similar issues.
Rail: Is your Rapid Response Theater Troupe a tactic to dealing with these urgent issues that don’t go away?
Rubin: Our Rapid Response Theater Troupe, which is really the first one that we started separately and not with a partner organization, is alumni actors from all different troupes. We’ve just started it and haven’t found any funding for. We’re just doing it because we have this space and we’ve been asked so much to go do a scene at a hearing, at a rally, at a town hall, like to promote an actual movement or issue. We’ve been asked to bring our theater all the time, and then often on two days’ notice, which is why we’re calling it Rapid Response. And the problem with two days’ notice is that a lot of our troupes have limited mobility. They don’t have cell phones. It just was hard to mobilize. It’s taking all our energy to try to get the Housing Works Troupe out to a rally, whereas with our Rapid Response Troupe we have our own actors who are alumni, have better access to them, and are prepared to be turning out on that rapid basis . . . So they are developing a repertoire, essentially, of old scenes about a few issues. So if they get a call about housing, they could tweak this one. If they get a call about metro cards and provision, they can tweak another. If they get a call about police and schools, they can tweak that one. And that’s been really successful. It’s been really fun. They’ve only been meeting since February. They’ve already had three events.
Rail: How do you manage all these impressive programs and initiatives? And how do you feel about the management of your growth as you reach your 10-year mark? Your process seems to be scaling up considerably, especially in the context of a progressive organization with limited resources and not a large staff.
Rubin: It’s a difficult question because it’s an ongoing process, I would say. So we’ve grown between 66% and 100% every year in terms of budget size. Last year we were at $550K. This year we’re trying to hit $800K. The year before we were at $380 K. And then for instance, one of the things we don’t have is a reserve. Moreover it is very scary now that we own a space. That’s one of the big management challenges. Fundraising and management go hand-in-hand, because if you don’t have enough money you can’t have enough staff. And if you don’t have enough staff it’s very hard to think about management because you’re all just scrambling. And paying people well and health insurance and all that has been really important to us. We aggressively give raises. Right now our entry full-time salary is $45 K, which is pretty good. And our top salary is $75 K, so we’re also trying to keep all our salaries in a pretty close range. Yeah, so everyone’s between 45, 55, 65, 75 in salary. Transparency! And we’re also paying an allowance for spouses.
I don’t really know how to answer this question. I would say a couple things. The nonprofit structure is very difficult. I spend a lot of my time writing grants and reports and a lot of them is answering the same questions with different words. We don’t have development staff because that’s been the one thing that’s too expensive for us. They are very expensive. They all charge more than anyone else, and we tried and we couldn’t find anyone we could afford who knew what they were doing. We have a great grant writer, so that’s good, but they’re freelance and they don’t work in the office. It’s the management of all this. And at this stage in our organization 100% of my job is fundraising. But I also need to do envisioning and I also need to do strategy. I also need to support our work. I need to make new relationships with council members. So, which one of those comes first? The more you’re doing the more money you have to raise. Money always coming first which is a bummer in terms of managing the staff, supporting them, celebrating them, overseeing. And also with a small staff almost everyone reports to me. So it’s hard to have too much structure. And we really think about trying not to be too hierarchical. So there’s a lot of sideways management. Everyone else collaborates with each other and we don’t have really strict lines.
We took a workshop with The Management Center. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them. They’re excellent. They train non-profits. They have a really boring name, but they’re really wonderful. They’re all about social justice organizations and how they work. And we got it paid for by a funder. We actually I took it with this group of other nonprofit EDs called the Sustainable Sisterhood that was just organically formed. All women, seven of us, are from Groundswell, Laundromat Project, but also not art, for example Sadie Nash, Center for Anti-Violence Education. We all pooled our resources to do a training with all our staff, so we also created networks with staff. Program staff now have meetings. Operations staff have meetings, which is awesome. These are all similarly-sized organizations. We’re one of the smallest. We took this Management Center training and they gave us a lot of really helpful tools for hiring, interviewing, check-in templates, to-do list templates. This check-in template that we use from them is really great. And we try to make space in our management for feedback constantly—so feedback on our work, feedback on each other, feedback to me, feedback to other managers, questions, feedback. If you have a cycle of questioning and feedback and support then that helps the organization. I would say the culture of our organization is very relaxed, a lot of chatting, a lot of hanging out together. Friendships can also be challenging in terms of management. But we just try to be really aware about how difficult this sector is and this job and the issues we’re working with and the hours and the fact that we have shows at night.
In short, I don’t know. My take is that you have to build an environment of fun and laughter in order to have some continuity and not turnover. Even if those are good salaries for a nonprofit they’re not great salaries for New York. I keep thinking It’s a very difficult question. I would say we are not winning at it. To me it seems almost impossible. Our work is great, but to communicate about it well, to support it well, to actually get all the people there, to evaluate it well, to write about it, to keep our website updated, to do all the social media, to manage this space, to oversee our staff, to give them feedback, to have metro cards in the office for all our actors, to have snacks available all the time, to order food for the board meeting tonight, to print everything out, things are just falling through the cracks all the time.
Or they’re not falling through the cracks. Ok so I wouldn’t say things are falling through the cracks all the time [Laughs], but it doesn’t feel seamless.
Rail: You went to Brazil and came back with a very different sense of how to do theater and how to think of a movement than anything that existed here. In that context, how much headway do you feel you’ve made? Do you now think you’re a movement?
Rubin: Yeah. It was both a very different way to do theater and a very different way to do activism. And that is an important thing that we understand about ourselves more and more. I think we’ve found traction in the ability to impact the world of activism and social justice movements.
I don’t know that the theater world is so open to thinking about a radically new way to do theater, and so we don’t push that way very hard. We don’t get critics to write reviews of our plays, although I think they should. They don’t consider us theater. We’ve been in American Theater Magazine a few times because there are progressive people over there, but we don’t figure much in arts publications. We certainly can’t apply for fine arts funding or theater productions. They don’t consider what we do their kind of thing. We are a part of the theater community. We connect with theaters. We go see other people’s plays. I don’t even see us as activists because we’re not just trying to impact the way that people think. But in terms of headway or impact, we have that in the world of social justice. We’re really trying to impact the way that problems are solved. I think that’s what’s new, somewhat new.
Exhibits are great in art, but for us it’s not just an exhibit in terms of who will go there. It’s in terms of where it is and in terms of its goal. We’re really focused on the creativity and fun, and first-person telling storytelling in problem solving efforts around these issues, which includes advocacy and awareness-raising. That’s where most political art begins and ends: in terms of awareness-raising, storytelling, advocacy. We’re looking at how are the problems being solved differently because we are a part of it. And I think we’re seeing—that’s part of this rapid response thing—all these advocacy groups, like Just Leadership USA, Writer’s Alliance, calling us up to show up. That’s the headway we are making in that they understand that directly-impacted people need to be a part of their movements. And those people are having fun—and I think that’s very serious. That’s a big part of art. It’s not the only thing but pleasure, enjoyment, fun is key. If people are having fun I think they’ll show up. Everyone wants people to show up for their movement and it’s not easy. With us, A, they’ll show up. B, they’ll be more open-minded. If you have a structure for radical, creative ideas, you’re actually going to get to things that people haven’t come up with before, which I think that is what all these movements and politicians and political processes need. Is that a good answer?
Rail: That’s a very good answer! Now kind of switching to a different topic: We looked at the board and we thought it was impressive. How did you go about building it?
Rubin: I would say their skills and expertise and lived experiences is directly related to our mission. They’re not a fundraising board because of that. We’re a grassroots organization. I mean, maybe they want to be a fundraising board, but they don’t bring in a lot of money—which is also interesting in terms of the management and the structure of nonprofits, because every funder wants to know how much your board brings in. But they don’t necessarily ask you how directly impacted board members are by your issues. Or if they ask you that, because now they have this chart of the racial breakdown of your board and all, they still want to know how much money they’re making, and they don’t offer any space to kind of think about the contradiction of that. I find that interesting. In terms of the lessons we get about what a board should do, like I would say all the external training I go to about boards are all about how much money they should be bringing in, is a bummer because I always feel like my board is not doing what I’m told that they should be doing and I can’t rely on them to help fundraise very much.
I mean boards are very complicated. They are volunteers who are supposed to have all this responsibility, and I find it very complicated. Especially when they’re movement workers or they’re part of the field they’re really over-strained, which leaves me usually feeling alone. I think we need more board members, at least, if we’re supposed to have a board as a support structure. Our board chair is part of the #CLOSErikers Campaign. He’s really busy. Our secretary works at the Sex Workers Project Urban Justice Center. She’s got a million clients. There’s all these things that they’re doing that are really important and they’re committed to our organization. So, I would say I think our board directly reflects the issues we’re working on. If you are asking how we found these board members, they’re not my friends first. They’re our audience members first.
Rail: This is a question about the larger context that has changed. When you began it was the Obama years, and now it is what it is. How are you thinking about things now? Does the situation demand more urgency?
Rubin: Some are urgent for sure. What little support there was for our actors is being threatened. People are having more stress, more worry about their food stamps, their healthcare, the things that they need, their housing. In our plays, the possibility that all of the social services are going to fall apart has gotten more real. In terms of the school to prison pipeline, Trump rolled back some school practices that Obama had implemented. We just signed on to a letter to try to get the Department of Education to reinstate them, in terms of security guards and policing in schools. Last year we did a School to Prison Pipeline play and during the forum the policy discussion was about security measures in school and building better trust.
I think in terms of the nonprofit world it’s scary too. The city doesn’t know how much money they’re going to get from the federal government. That changes things. I think foundations are feeling like they need to reach new people, and so then the money that we get is less sometimes. Also, our audiences and donors are stretched thin. Our audiences have to go to more rallies, more events. There are more talks. There’s more going on at night in New York City, and that’s great. But everyone’s exhausted and overwhelmed. Our staff, our facilitators and actors - everyone is seeing the news and feels traumatized and it affects our actual ability to work.
Rail: Do you feel PTSD sometimes? Compassion fatigue?
Rubin: I think that, for instance, there is a time limit on how long I should be leading this organization. Because if you’re relying on compassion I’m a person who has a lot of privilege, and I’m sort of tired of nice white ladies with a lot of privilege leading organizations that are dealing just with issues that are mostly not affecting them. I think it plays into the way the nonprofit structure works and the things you need to do and the skills required. I think there has to be a time when we say this organization is going to survive and thrive better if somebody who’s leading it is more personally motivated all the time, and one is not just talking about compassion fatigue because the leadership is directly impacted. This thinking reflects the way we think about power needing to change in our whole work. So, I think that, to turn your question around, I don’t want our organization to rely on compassion, because I think that is problematic.
Rail: Thank you.
* Forecasting Art and Social Justice is an interview series sponsored by The Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation to feature institutions and individuals whose work centers on art and social justice.