Seeding Collaborations: Interview With Courtney Harge from OF/BY/FOR ALL
In this edition of “Seeding Collaborations,” we talked with Courtney Harge, CEO of OF/BY/FOR ALL. OF/BY/FOR ALL is a non-profit organization that is invested in the work of helping organizations connect with their communities in effective, authentic ways. Different sectors have been coming to terms with what “community” means to them especially as efforts in diversity and inclusion continue within various institutions. As the art world further defines and works with communities, Harge offers advice on what meaningful connections can look like—especially between institutions and communities.
The full OF/BY/FOR ALL team includes Lauren Benetua, Associate Director of Data & Memberships; Vanessa Ramalho, Director of Storytelling and Relationships; Andrew Aaron Valdez, Program Assistant; Jana Lynne Umipig, Associate Director of Curriculum; Siena Beacham, Storytelling & Content Catalyst; and Lu Aya, Community Catalyst.
Sophia Park (SP): What does OF/BY/FOR ALL do? What should readers know about the organization?
Courtney Harge (CH): OF/BY/FOR ALL’s mission is to create a more equitable, liberated cultural future by equipping organizations around the world with tools, resources, and experiences to become representative of, co-created by, and welcoming for anyone they wish to engage with. What that means is that we want to course-correct arts, culture and civic organizations from being sites of harm to becoming sites of genuine, reciprocal, mutually-beneficial relationships with communities they are connected to. We practically do that through the Change Network, which is a 12-month primarily online curriculum that allows organizations to work through the process of building a healthy relationship with one, what we call, community of interest.
There are a variety of reasons for this method. I often say we work with organizations for the benefit of communities. While we care deeply about the organizations and the institutions, we actually care more deeply about the communities they are impacting and are connected to. The power imbalance tends to favor institutions that generally have resources and support that communities don't always have. We think an interesting point of intervention is figuring out how to work with organizations so that they are engaged in a healthier relationship with a community—any community.
Our process is not just about how we get organizations to market to that community. It’s about recognizing the power you [as an institution] may have, the harm you have probably caused, and showing up to that relationship like it's a relationship, not like it's a transaction. Show up to meet these communities as an active participant in the things they offer. Don’t just show up in ways that are attractive or visible or harmful or for a grant that you think may be beneficial.
SP: How does OF/BY/FOR/ALL define “community” and how do you work with organizations to determine which communities to work with?
CH: Our working definition around community is groups of people who share any of these three things: identity, affinity, and geography. Identity is the “easiest” because it’s almost always a demographic representation. For example, I identify as a Black woman. I identify as a Black queer woman. I identify as a Black polyamorous woman. These are things that folks have identified for themselves as intrinsic to who they are.
Affinity is what people share in common. An example of this is that I'm a theater maker. I also like to knit. I belong to knitting communities and other communities defined by common interest.
And then there’s geography, which is between people who are located in a similar space. Sometimes it can be a digital space, people like Twitter users or Facebook users or in Mighty Networks. It could be a literal geography: these zip codes in this state, or these counties, or within five miles of our institution.
We ask our participants to use these guidelines to determine who are the people who want to be in their space or that they would like to invite into their space. Our program is set up in five stages over a 12-month period. As an aside, we recognize that building a relationship does not always fit on a timeline and the focus should always be building the relationship. Our program gives organizations—and the people within them—tools to help guide the relationship, but there's not a checklist that determines whether or not you’ll end up in a healthy relationship.
For example, I like to use romantic relationships as a metaphor because it’s a relationship that all of us know how to do—we know how to be in caring, reciprocal relationships. Whether those relationships are romantic or not, we have friends. We have folks we care about. Unless somebody is just living in a cave by themselves, they have at least a genuine connection with another human person. Yet, we get into institutions and we stop talking to people. We stop acting like people. We forget that we are human beings. Human beings with very specific and differing experiences. Though we are not the same person, we are all people.
But I digress, back to the program's timeline. Our philosophy is about having a [reasonable] timeline that says these are some things that you can do to progress your relationship. Nobody should show up to a first date saying, “Well, twelve months from now, this is what our marriage is going to look like. These are our wedding colors. Here is the venue.” A lot of organizations approach a meeting with communities who are new to them with that mindset. They show up with a binder and a plan and it says, “Hey, I know we just met, but this is what I've decided we are going to do for the next three years,” and then they wonder why people don't call them back. They wonder why they can't get an inroad into the community or they throw an ill-informed, “community-specific” event for that community and expect gratitude or reciprocity.
“Why are you not coming to our space?”
“Why aren't you giving us access to your donors or your patrons?”
“We didn't ask you if you wanted it. We didn't even know this was the type of party you needed. But we spent a lot of resources to throw this party for you without asking you about any of it. And so, now, why don't we have a relationship?”
Institutions throw weddings without investing in the marriage and then wonder what went wrong.
SP: The part about timelines is important. The passage of time also relates to this question of an authentic approach for how to work with communities. How can an institution adopt practices that are ”more genuine, more authentic” in the work that they do? We all have seen the trope of publishing an empty statement and hoping for the best, but we know that doesn't work. So what does an authentic relationship look like? As you compare it to a romantic relationship, how can institutions think through this process?
CH: You can't fake authenticity. And the problem is, many organizations are trying to. They're trying to ask what the trick to being authentic is and take notes on it. But in reality, you actually just have to do it. I'm often guided and informed by the works of adrienne maree brown and Brené Brown. This is a summation I'm offering and not what adrienne offers, but she talks about being vulnerable to the intentions of the universe that the world can provide us with if we are open and present to it. And Brené Brown, her thesis is about being vulnerable to the intentions of the individual. And in between the two, you have to just be vulnerable and open to the idea that stuff is going to go in a way that you cannot control and you have to let it emerge. There is no trick to being authentic other than showing up with authenticity.
In my experience, there are two pieces of information that support showing up authentically—know who you are and know who you're talking to. You can't skip that.
Once an organization has decided who they want to be talking to, the next concern is that they don't know anyone in that space. And that's the learning curve: sitting in the discomfort of not knowing while being vulnerable enough to ask. That's why it takes a lot of effort, energy, and emotional regulation to build new connections. You either have to use your network, or you have to research to find out who you should be talking to. However, you have to talk to people: not just the “right” people. You also then have to show up in vulnerability without answers.
One of the things we say to organizations is to attend events hosted by the community they want to connect with and pay for tickets. Introduce yourself to who's there, whoever is at the front desk, whoever is organizing. Tell your board members to go to events that they paid for, not as VIP's, but as participants. Join some email lists and learn what people in that space are talking about. Not to be in charge of it or manage it, simply to listen, to be present, to be a participant in the concerns of the community you're talking to in specificity.
And then remember that, ultimately, you are a person trying to talk to another person. Show up with the vulnerability of “I'm not sure what our relationship could be. I'm also not sure if our organization has harmed you,” or “I know my organization has harmed you. Is there a conversation to be had? Is there a thing that you need to address?” And then say, “These are the things we can do. We may not be able to do all of it, but can we at least talk?”
It’s really hard to do any of that on a timeline, and that's where a lot of organizations get frustrated. Is it because you wanted to work on this timeline that you predetermined (without conversation)? adrienne maree brown talks about moving at the speed of trust and a lot of work isn't built to do that.
SP: Organizations are built to move at the speed of productivity, of capitalism.
CH: You have to shift what productivity means in this case. If you started saying, “I don't know anyone in this community and I don't know who I would even talk to.” It may take you six months to a year to identify the three people to call, and these are the two of them who will return my phone call when I do reach out. The other thing that people don't frequently think about is that relationship building is exponential. It requires so much work for very small gains in the beginning. The example I like to use is asking somebody for $5. It requires so much more effort and energy to walk up to a stranger on the street and ask for $5 than it does to look at your best friend or your partner. The only thing that anybody on the outside would see is me walking up to this person and saying I need $5. The reaction of the person I ask is fully informed by all the stuff we did—or didn’t do— to build our relationship before that.
Organizations frequently want to rush to the “asking for $5” moment. Asking questions like “where's the thing we can build together?” The community doesn’t trust you enough to build anything. They don't know you.
The place to begin is “can we have a conversation?” And then it can be, “can we have a meeting?” And then it's like, “oh, we found some things we have in common. We found some things we could maybe work on. Can we have a follow up meeting?” That's the thing you're just trying to do at that point. Then from the follow up meeting, maybe we can co-host a one hour event at some point, or maybe we can participate. We'll be active participants, maybe we can volunteer. How do we escalate the relationship at the speed of trust as opposed to jumping right to, hey, we had a meeting and now we should host a gala or a three-year intensive project.
SP: What you’re describing sounds like common sense because that's how we operate outside of work. But it's not something that we are taught to do inside of work and that tension is quite fascinating. While a lot of the processes of the professional world are built technically to protect the workers, they end up just being in service of achieving a goal—a return on investment. This can be very harmful to folks, especially if you're in service organizations or any kind of place that interacts with the public in a meaningful way. I think it's a tension that we don't talk about often.
I'm curious how you're approaching terms like “diversity” and “inclusion”. Things have shifted obviously greatly in the past couple of years in cultural organizations. I am curious from your vantage point in the year end of the year 2023, what is the role of acronyms like D.E.I.A.?
CH: What's funny to me is that I'm engaged more thoughtfully in this than I ever have been and I work in the least diverse space I've ever worked in. Partially because our current staff is small. We are mostly Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks. I think our age range is maybe ten years, maybe. I love my team. It's really brilliant people doing really great things across the globe. It's just really powerful work. I've said to my team that working for us by far is the least interesting thing on any of their resumes. They all do really dope stuff.
Our current membership stretches across nine or so countries: through OF/BY/FOR ALL’s brief history we’ve worked with over 150 organizations in at least 15 countries. So we are dealing with the diversity of our membership. What do people mean by diverse? Because people use “diverse” to mean not white, which does a disservice to both diversity and anti-racist, anti-oppressive efforts. For me, I tend to use diverse to mean a variety of experiences, locations or identities.
Instead of “diversity,” my focus has been on healthy working environments and healthy working relationships. And yes, I think we need race-conscious, gender-conscious, ability-conscious policies. I think there is definitely a place for a D.E.I.A. in all of this. It is important. And I don't necessarily care about the acronym; however, it is important that we really focus on the power of caring for folks, individuals, and humanity. And I am explicitly not saying I don't see color because we're all human – that's not what I think. I'm saying, how can we have humanity-centered policies that see the identities, affinities and geographies of the individuals involved? How do we make things that are specific to who is working? Working with us, who we are trying to work with, who is in our space. That means if there is an organization that is, frankly, going to be hostile to BIPOC people, I don't want it to recruit more BIPOC people. I don't want to invite gender nonconforming, trans, or nonbinary folks to a hostile space. I'm not necessarily for representation or inclusion for representation or inclusion’s sake. I’m not excited for people to show up to a space to be actively harmed just to say that we have these types of folks here.
How do we engage in healthy relationships? That's why our program really doesn't say you have to go find people of this race or of this identity or in this community. It can be people in your space who you need to build a healthier relationship with. For example, we've had predominantly white institutions who are located in Canada want to talk to French speakers, which is a very real community in a lot of parts of Canada that doesn’t necessarily have to do with a particular race. If that's who you want to build a relationship with, these are still the tenants that you can use to meet somebody where they are and to understand better what their needs are.
Something that happens to a lot of our members is they choose a community they want to work with: they've even written it down. They start talking to people and then find out that the community doesn't define or organize themselves in the way the organization thought.
We had an organization who spent a lot of effort on bilingual signage to engage with the larger Filipino community. They wanted to work particularly with young people in the Filipino community, like 25 or younger. However, the signage didn’t work because the folks in that age range weren’t necessarily bilingual. The organization learned that bilingual signage was very important to the parents of the 25-or-younger crowd, but not the young folks themselves. And while the young folks loved seeing Tagalog signage, it did not compel them to be more active with the organization. The organization realized that they were dealing with a first-generation identified group, not necessarily an age-identified one. That’s not the first time people have experienced a disconnect between the monolithic idea of a community and the community itself. They were actually using tactics that would have worked for older members of the community who wanted this type of representation, but that wasn’t working for the young group that they were looking for. This is why we stress specificity and that's where affinity factors in. These communities had a shared identity of being Filipino, but their affinities were different. They wanted different things.
What the organization needed to build a genuine connection was that specificity. Answering, “What does the Filipino community need?” is an impossible task. But what does the Filipino community of this age group in this location need? becomes an easier question to ask and engage with in a healthy way because you know who you’re speaking to and about.
SP: In order to get to the specifics, you have to engage in practices of care like giving attention and doing things together. I'm curious about the role of care in facilitating change. How does one approach change in institutions in a way that centers care, that centers this kind of humanity centric approach that you're thinking about? How do you also care for yourself while doing this work?
CH: I have a lot of things to say about this because I care deeply about care. We just actually hosted a workshop we called “A Culture of Care” because care is important and necessary. I view my job as CEO as the holder of this institution. And while I do not do this by myself, it is my responsibility to take care of my team and make the things as easeful as possible. Because the thing we're doing is really hard. We are trying to interrupt institutions. We are trying to redirect harmful practices. We are literally trying to stand between institutions and communities and say, “You [institutions] cannot continue to stomp on the people who are nearest to you.” And I cannot change that dynamic because I cannot go back and rewrite the history of hundreds of years of institutional harm.
I can change—or, at least offer care in—every other aspect of the job. We have super flexible schedules. We have six weeks of PTO for full-time individuals (three weeks for part-time) and unlimited sick time for everyone. I ask myself, what are the ways I can use institutional policies and procedures to make it easy? Or, at the very least, make it so that my team can do the hard job without having to fight any of the other aspects?
My big soapbox idea is that as a world, we are largely in a space with a lack of emotional regulation. I think a lot of our problems are due to the world having a bunch of big feelings without tools or time to manage those feelings. And it's not about not having the big feelings because we are going to have them. We are humans. Humans have big feelings. But for a variety of reasons, we are at a moment where we do not have resources to manage them.
We get things like the January 6th attacks on the Capitol where people were feeling deeply frustrated and scared. They’re experiencing a (perceived or actual) loss of position and status. They don't know what to do with those feelings so they try to overthrow the government. Or people who are banning books because those books are showing them ideas or concepts that they don't actually have the tools to understand. And we're all scared because the world is covered in diseases that we don’t understand that came out of nowhere. We don't know how to be outside anymore and that is terrifying. So we just act like it isn’t happening or we act like we’re somehow making things worse by naming what is going on.
My team and I work really hard to hold space for big feelings and to invite care. If you are emotionally dysregulated, you cannot face anything reasonably. If the body is in fight or flight mode or catastrophizing everything, you can't make reasonable decisions. And so for me, this isn't even about just equity–– you can't do your job (or be present in the world) if you’re stressed.
This is about who we are as people as well as about the institutions we care about. This is about our culture and whatever it means to hold culture in an institution with deeply emotional experiences. This is partially why we work in arts and culture, because art is an emotional experience. Even if there are practical, tangible objects, we are there to emote, to evoke, to incite.
In the cultural sector, we have to hold space for big feelings that we're asking people to have. We have to acknowledge that those feelings exist. We have to offer spaces and invitations to take care of both the people and the feelings. It's made me and my team better workers, actually. We have to stop acting like humans aren't the ones making these things work. We have to offer care. It's not an option. It's not a luxury.
I think one of the ways organizations can do this is to create policies that allow folks to pick the care they need in the way they need it. There are things we can offer that would not take too much time. Why it's so hard is because many of our institutions, particularly capitalist institutions, are set up on a foundation of distrust. They are built with the idea that managers are trying to exploit workers and that workers are trying to get away with not working. The policies that people are familiar with all assume that either side is going to take advantage. You're dealing with two adversarial groups of people. As an aside, we need labor protections – I'm pro-union and pro-worker. In relation to this, we also have to build policies on trust. I believe it is the institution's job to take the first risk because they have all the resources; they actually determine the rules of the game. If you are hiring people you can't trust, that is a huge problem you built that you have to fix. People applied to work with you. If they go through every rule you set and jump over every hurdle you placed and get to the point where you offered them a job and you still don't trust them, that is your fault. Now you have to create policies that undermine your growth because you don't trust your workforce.
One of the things I did—and I have the benefit of a very small team—is that we made space for both autonomy and care. We share consequences. We prioritize communication and consent. We operate with as much trust as we can.
I had the opportunity to rebuild the infrastructure of OF/BY/FOR ALL in a way that assumes everybody who works here has the best of intentions. And, even if they don't, there are ways in which some people could take advantage. I know that. And we're still going to assume good intentions. My job as the institution is to know and hold those risks and still step forward with trust. Many organizations have just shifted risk onto the worker. But, the whole point of being an institution—a collection of resources, labor, and ideas—is to hold more of the risk.
To learn more about OF/BY/FOR ALL, please visit their website. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
About Sophia Park
Sophia Park (she/her) is a writer, curator, and arts administrator whose interests lie in how intimacy, communal care practices, and support systems influence curatorial and art practice. She is based between Brooklyn, NY and Gumi, South Korea. She received her B.A. in Neuroscience from Oberlin College and M.A. in Curatorial Practice from the School of Visual Arts. She currently works as the Director of External Relations at Fractured Atlas and teaches entrepreneurship and the arts at New York University. She is part of slow cook, a curatorial collaboration, and is a co-founder of Jip Gallery. You can also find her running some silly distance, trying to get back into tennis, or dancing somewhere.