In Practice: Stepping Back to Move Forward with Cherie Hill, Hope Mohr, and Karla Quintero

By Sima Belmar

September 16, 2020, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

 

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Beginning on September 13 and running through November 21, HMD’s 2020 Bridge Project presents POWER SHIFT: Improvisation, Activism, and Community, a festival that features the improvisational practices and diverse dance genres of leading Black/African American, Latinx/Latin American, Asian American, female-identifying, and queer improvisers and social justice activists from around the world. In a swift pivot to online and outdoor platforms, the festival organizers will offer art and activism workshops, improvisation practices for both rookies and old hands, and live-streamed performances.

HMD stands for Hope Mohr Dance, and The Bridge Project has been Mohr’s curatorial platform for ten years. But this spring, the organization announced a shift to a “distributed leadership” model, which might mean that Hope Mohr Dance goes the way of the Oberlin Dance Collective–from words to acronym.

HMD’s leadership is now composed of three co-directors: Mohr, Cherie Hill, and Karla Quintero. Quintero is HMD’s Director of Marketing and Development, and Hill is Director of Art in Community. Titles aside, the three women now work as a co-curatorial team. I spoke with them in July about what the shift to distributed leadership looks like in practice.

Headshots of Cherie Hill, Hope Mohr, and Karla Quintero
Left to right: Cherie Hill, photo by Robbie Sweeny; Hope Mohr, photo courtesy of Hope Mohr Dance; Karla Quintero, photo by Marco Prenninger [Image description: Black and white headshot of Cherie Hill. Cherie is looking off to the side, has her dreadlocked hair down and is framed in shadow and light. Headshot of Hope Mohr with her hair pulled back in front of a rocky background. Black and white headshot of Karla Quintero. Karla looks directly into the camera with her dark, curly hair down over her shoulders.]

Sima: What led to the shift to a distributed leadership model? And what is distributed leadership?

Hope: The Bridge Project’s programs have been social justice-driven for a long time. More recently, that engine has become more focused on cultural and racial equity, most specifically with Dancing Around Race (2017-2018), a Community Engagement Residency led by Gerald Casel. Through that project, I was in a lot of working and personal relationships with artists of color and involved in conversations where I was frequently hearing the need for white people to step back. I started thinking about what that would mean for me personally and what that would mean to apply that to the organization that I founded. I also felt like there was an increasing disconnect between our public facing programming and our internal organizational structures. I wanted to bring the internal structures into alignment with those values.

Sima: What did the social justice drive of the organization look like before Dancing Around Race?

Hope: The program was anchored originally in feminism and a commitment on my part to honoring and centering female-identified voices and lineage in dance. Over time that curatorial commitment became more intersectional.

Sima: A shift from second to third wave feminism.

Hope: I wore two hats for a long time: an activist outside the dance world and an activist inside the dance world. Within the dance world, my curating had been tied up in my own aesthetic lineage, which is white postmodernism. So when I started curating, I was bringing in people like Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown—all white women. All of the choreographers I’ve ever danced for professionally have been white. As an activist outside the dance world, my awareness and engagement was much more intersectional. I was a Latin American Studies major, I did fieldwork in the domestic violence movement in Central America. I had that awareness, but I hadn’t yet figured out how to implement it into curating.

Sima: When did you, Karla, come into the organization?

Karla: My first engagement with HMD was as a dancer in the 2016 Bridge Project, Ten Artists Respond to Locus (a multi-disciplinary response to the legacy of Trisha Brown). I started working as a dancer in Hope’s work in 2017 and then as an admin person later that year.

Sima: I’ve seen you in a lot of different admin spaces. And dance stages.

Karla: Yeah, I do a lot of different support roles for folks in the non-profit space. Before dancing, I used to work in transportation advocacy in New York, particularly in Spanish-speaking communities. I started working with HMD as an admin manager, mostly helping Hope carry out the programming in whatever way was helpful. It may not have been distributed leadership, but a lot of the work was collaborative. It’s interesting that “distributed leadership” is a buzzword now because there’s always a lot of collaborative leadership within non-profit spaces. Maybe it’s not acknowledged as such.

Sima: I’m always a little leery of the word collaborative because, yes, it means we work together but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we do so in a non-hierarchical way. Does part of announcing a shift to distributed leadership mean claiming a non-hierarchical relationship between the organization’s moving parts?

Karla: Yes. There is that desire among the staff and also with the artists to figure out ways to flatten the hierarchy between all of us when we’re working together. What I’ve observed in the move to distributed leadership is that it’s tied to these macro questions that people have had in the dance community around how sustainable it is to run an organization, to put on a dance concert, to make work using the models and paradigms that have been prevalent for however many years. In part it’s a conscious effort to counter existing patterns of how we do things, the way that we fundraise, the way that we put excess value on production driven work.

Sima: How has your role in the organization changed since the shift?

Karla: My work is changing a lot because I have to change the way that I see it. Even though I felt that my contributions were acknowledged and respected, I was not hired to vision for the program. I’ve been thinking a lot about what that shift means because it seems like an easy shift, but it’s not. In particular, if I’m part of something I respect already, I’m inclined to support it in the way that it exists.

Sima: To suddenly become part of not just promoting but creating the vision.

Karla: Yes, that’s a very different thing even if you’ve already had a lot of autonomy in terms of the work that you were doing in the organization.

Sima: What’s your relationship to HMD, Cherie?

Cherie: A year ago I came on as HMD’s Community Engagement coordinator. I was mainly working with the Community Engagement Residency (CER) program, which I was really excited about because of its focus on cultural equity and working with artists. I’ve done a lot of work in equity in dance education. But I was interested in what that would look like in a dance company that wasn’t dance education focused. My long term goal is to start my own residency program in the Caribbean, so this was great field research for that. Then in January, I met with Hope to renew my contract and the idea of distributed leadership and moving me into a bigger role as Director of Art in Community surfaced. I didn’t know exactly what that would mean, but I was in for the ride.

Sima: Can any of you name the first real step HMD took toward enacting distributed leadership?

Cherie: All of us co-curated this year’s Bridge Project. The theme of improvisation was really intriguing to me as a creative dance and improvisation teacher and as someone who loves to put improvisation into my own choreographed work. I was also really happy that we could focus this Bridge Project on improvisational forms that come from the African, Asian, and Latin American diasporas and people of color who teach and perform improvisation because it feels like so much in the US focuses on improvisation from white artists.

Sima: What did the co-curating process look like?

Cherie: There was a lot of collaboration and shared decision making. We would meet to talk about artists we’d want to invite, share videos of their work. Hope was really supportive of who we were interested in bringing. The process felt really empowering to be able to make decisions and bring my vision into what the Bridge Project would be this year. We’ve been in intense distributed leadership training starting with hiring LeaderSpring as consultants to help us delineate what distributed leadership means for us and for HMD. We talk about power and decision making, and some critical questions that have come up around the relationship of HMD to The Bridge Project.

Sima: Karla mentioned bringing artists in to help flatten hierarchy. What role do artists play in the distributed leadership model?

Cherie: Something I’ve learned about HMD is that there is a high value for artists, paying them and respecting their time. We recently had three sessions where 10-15 artists were on a Zoom call with us and LeaderSpring, talking about what distributed leadership means to them.

Hope: And we paid each artist $100 for each community meeting they attended.

Sima: What are some of the things the artists said or asked for?

Cherie: One big topic was race. What does it mean for a white founder/leader who has been the head of this organization to embed cultural equity and distributed leadership? Does it mean stepping back? Does it mean training? There are a lot of questions we don’t have answers to yet.

Hope: An ongoing theme has been what combination of dismantling, evolution, and seeding new structures do we want to implement. Any time you structure or restructure an arts organization, there will be different questions and tools that are appropriate. Bringing artists into the process is absolutely crucial because a lot of organizations have multiple directors—that in itself is frankly nothing radical. This is a value-driven move on our part and because of that there’s a high bar. We need to implement the values not only in a structural way, but also on the level of organizational culture. It’s not just about creating a democratic workplace or horizontal power relations among staff. It’s also about changing how things get done. And distributing power to artists and bringing artists into positions of power over aesthetics and resources.

Sima: What’s an example of how one might distribute power to artists? Or what did it look like before you embarked on this process? What’s something you might dismantle?

Hope: Our board is now 100 percent working artists and that was not the case six months ago. After we announced our move to distributed leadership, three of the board members, in conversation with me, decided it was time to step down. There’s been an intentional transition away from a traditional nonprofit board that’s conceived as a fundraising engine comprised of people with connections to money and networks. I think that’s an outdated model. Value-aligning the board has been an important part of this transition. We’re also having former lead artists in the Community Engagement Residency program select the next round of artists in partnership with HMD staff and I am stepping off that selection panel. We’re also talking about a paid artist council with curatorial power or the power to hold the organization accountable to our stated and aspirational values. Things like that.

Karla: When I came on board, the CER program supported one lead mentor artist and a number of mentee artists. In a recent meeting a couple of artists brought up dismantling hierarchies within mentorship as well so it can be bidirectional. That already started happening in the CER program in 2019 where we transitioned to three lead artists who have collaborators they work with. The CER also transitioned from a mentorship program to a capacity building program. We’re still asking questions about what it means to shift, share, cede power within a program where you have an organization that’s regranting money to artists. That program could radically transform over the next few years.

Sima: You write the grants that get the money to support your programs? Is there a disconnect between how you get the funds and how you distribute them?

Karla: The CER is funded by the California Arts Council Artists in Communities program. This application supports organization/artist partnerships for sustained residencies in community settings. For many CAC programs, artists must partner with a nonprofit in order to be eligible and competitive for the funds. In terms of how we distribute CAC funds, initially the majority of the money from the grant went to one lead artist with the rest divided among the mentee artists. Now that’s more equitably distributed among the three artists for three different projects.

Hope: We’ve also started implementing financial transparency practices regarding how we communicate internally to each other and with artist partners about budgets and funding. A lot of historically white-led organizations have positioned themselves as regranting organizations. They regrant funds to artists of color. That’s problematic for a lot of reasons because the regranting nonproft 501(c)3 retains control over the money and over the relationship with the funder. Often this can disempower the artist because they don’t have the direct information or direct access to the money. If there’s poor communication, too often the artist pays the price. So the question is, how can nonprofits step away from that gatekeeping role and provide more direct access to resources?

Sima: What kind of problems do artists run into in that model?

Hope: Sometimes it can happen even in the application process. If an artist is relying on a nonprofit for a foundation opportunity because the foundation only accepts 501(c)3 applicants and the nonprofit messes up on the application, the artist pays the price. Or if the nonprofit fails to be transparent with the artist or fails to honor their agreement, the artist pays the price. Funders need to shift as well. If foundations made applications less burdensome, accessible to artists with no staff and less time, and if fiscally sponsored artists were eligible for all funding opportunities, that would help level the playing field.

Cherie: HMD is also connecting artists we partner with to foundations and program officers that they didn’t have a connection to previously and might not even know of. Hope’s connected a couple of our CER artists to people at Hewlett or CAC so they can start to build their own relationships with them. As an artist, no one ever introduces you to the foundations even if you’re working with a 501(c)3; they keep those relationships to themselves. That’s another way that we’re being more transparent with the artists we’re working with and also helping them establish their own foundation. A lot of artists have expressed the need to know more about fundraising and how to think about long term sustainability.

Hope: That’s another aspect to this commitment to distributing power. White artists who move in circles of power and have relationships with funders, donors, and program officers can directly connect those folks with artists. This is one way of bringing new voices to the table. Instead of saying, “I’ll get that grant for you,” say, “Meet this person, you can apply for this grant directly.”

Sima: This sounds like a sideways movement. Unblocking access. Stepping aside rather than stepping down.

Hope: I just published a blog post about stepping back. White folks shouldn’t withdraw and disengage as a way of avoiding the structural work of antiracism. What does it mean to stay in the work while also making space for other voices? Sometimes it’s appropriate for white people to step away entirely and that might be what I do eventually, but I also feel like there has to be capacity building, a transitioning of relationships and resources, and an engagement in difficult conversations. Just saying “I’m out of here” may not always be the best thing to do. In dance, there’s a dominant model: the founder starts the organization and puts their name on it and then all the programs are tangled up in the founder’s personality. It’s crucial to disentangle the cult of personality from the public programs. It’s crucial to separate curating from the founder’s ego and lineage.

Sima: So what’s the plan for the relationship between HMD and The Bridge Project?

Hope: It’s a work in progress.

Karla: I think people in general undervalue what it takes to build enough trust to get a bunch of people in a room to share how they think with each other, in particular when they’re coming from different places and backgrounds. The trust I’ve seen grow through the distributed leadership meetings with the community, between the organization and the artists we work with, and how it keeps growing, is a real tangible thing we’ve been striving for. The things that come from this place are reflective of equitable practice. Many programs that aim to advance cultural equity reflect a savior mindset: we are giving something over, or up, for you. This change we are seeking can’t start from this place. It has to start from a place of conversation and maybe what emerges from that doesn’t serve everyone that was there, but at least everyone’s perspectives are acknowledged, heard, and taken into account. More and more we’re starting from this place of dialogue, and more and more we’re able to because we’re building trust with artists.

Hope: It’s interesting to think about the implications of distributed leadership work for art making. Many choreographers and directors claim to work collaboratively in the studio, but typically that ethos only goes so far. The pressures for authorship in the studio are different than in administrative and institutional contexts. In antiracist and equity-driven work, I don’t think we should let artmaking off the hook.

Sima: It’s important to take the temperature on how local dance communities feel about your organization. Whether or when you can make a practical shift, if the community feels the organization is there for them, that’s a huge difference already.

Hope: There are a lot of organizations doing surveys right now of their “community.” A survey’s good—it’s better than not doing a survey—but there’s a difference between having artists weigh in as some sort of ancillary unpaid or underpaid focus group, whose input you cherry-pick according to your comfort level, and actually bringing artists to the table and giving them a stake in the future of the organization.

Sima: What I’m hearing about the definition of distributed leadership is inviting other people, more people, different people, large amounts of people to the table, even if it becomes harder to determine what everyone needs, and then the three of you are in constant communication about the decisions you make based on those conversations. Is it that simple?

Hope: No, I don’t think it’s that simple. I resist defining it. This work is emergent, iterative, and dynamic. And in our case it’s value-driven. It’s not a business decision. We’re not doing this because I’m leaving town or I’m dead. The more we do, more reveals itself as needing to be done.

Cherie: I agree. I don’t think we have a definition yet because it’s still in process and we’re at the earlier stages of it. I think distributed leadership in general is unique to whomever is doing it. I think the things you said are parts of it, at least where we are with it now. A year from now there could be a lot more components. I would also add that stepping back is a big part of it too. I’ve seen Hope step back in a lot of ways—being more cautious about time, sharing decisions with Karla and me. I’ve even stepped back, just listening to the artists and what they need, rethinking curation and who that should come from. It’s been about sharing responsibilities and giving up power at times.

Sima: In an older paradigm, I’d think it would be more efficient because you would delegate tasks.

Hope: It’s less efficient.

Cherie: And more work.

Karla: In particular when we’re talking about partnering with artists. It’s about providing the resources and information artists need to take ownership or leadership over something. If people don’t know the structure that’s currently in place, where things come from and what the thinking is behind them, then it’s a really tall ask to say, do you want to share leadership over this. A lot of it is about how we communicate information with each other and the community. That’s where the focus of distributed leadership is right now. Also, it’s revealing that what is most scarce is our time.

Hope: For me, distributed leadership is not just structural. It’s cultural. The culture of the organization needs to shift and that takes time. It’s about unpacking the layers of power. It’s about relationships. It’s about shifting how the organization relates to time, efficiency, and control. Those deeper organizational shifts get at white supremacist culture, which pervades nonprofits and philanthropy. Just changing who’s inside the system is not going to change that much.

Sima: What can In Dance readers do to support HMD’s new adventures?

Hope: We want to bring more working artists onto the board, so if people are interested in being a part of this work, reach out to us. Also, I’m interested in being in conversation with other organizations who are doing this work or navigating similar shifts. To normalize these shifts, I think it’s important that the learning doesn’t happen behind closed doors. We need to share our learning curves, our mistakes, and our vulnerabilities.

Karla: We’re calling for organizations to be more transparent with the artists they work with.

Cherie: We want people to check out Power Shift, The Bridge Project that’s coming up and join us. That’s a step toward engaging in equity and supporting diversity for our community in dance. People should read HMD’s blog. Folks have asked that we publicize our process and decisions more, so keep an eye out for that.

Learn more about the artists: https://www.hopemohr.org/bridge-project-upcoming

[Image description: graphic image with a grid featuring headshots of participating artists in orange/purple tones. Bottom right rectangle contains the words “power shift.”]
[Image description: graphic image with a grid featuring headshots of participating artists in orange/purple tones. Bottom right rectangle contains the words “power shift.”]


This article appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of In Dance.


Sima Belmar, Ph.D., is a Lecturer in the Department of Theater, Dance, & Performance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and the ODC Writer in Residence. To keep up with Sima’s writing please subscribe to tinyletter.com/simabelmar.

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