Monday, December 19, 2016

Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative - 5 Tools for Building Non-Bureaucratic Organizations

One of my organization's core values is radical collaboration. We believe that partnerships build a stronger museum and a stronger community.

We work with over 2,000 regional partners each year to develop exhibitions, festivals, programs, and projects. But radical collaboration with our community only works if we also collaborate internally as a team.

Five years ago, this was easy. We were seven people in a room, laser-focused on making the MAH a community gathering place and cultural center. We all collaborated to develop programs, strategies, and community partnerships. We sat next to each other, pulled each other into ad hoc meetings, introduced each other to new collaborators, and got things done together.

Now, our staff is three times the size it was five years ago. This growth has strained our internal ability to collaborate in two ways:
  • Sometimes, we fail because we are too collaborative. The tools and techniques that worked for us when we were seven people in a room don't work for twenty. We can't invite everyone to the meeting. We can't get input from everyone on each decision. We waste time, increase confusion, and get less done.
  • Sometimes, we fail because we are not collaborative enough. As we grew, we built teams with distinct leaders and goals. Some staff spend all their time on project that are invisible to others. There are some community partners who are effectively "owned" by one staff member, which limits opportunities for that partner across our institution. 
So this year, we worked hard to build new tools to strengthen our commitment to radical collaboration--within the context of our larger, more mature organization. Here are my top five:

SLACK. In just one month, using Slack has had an immediate, significant impact on our team. Slack is a combination messaging/file-sharing tool intended to replace internal email and intranets. Conversations are grouped into channels (for projects, teams, initiatives, etc.). We've used Slack to completely eliminate internal email. It reduces email, increases clarity of who does what, and reinforces collaboration. Every channel in Slack is public by default. That means any staff member can check out what's going on in any of our teams or projects. You can pose a question to a channel without inducing reply-all headaches. It's impossible to accidentally leave someone out of a decision where their input matters. Frontline part-time staff are part of the conversation. We celebrate each others' wins digitally without clogging anyone's inbox. And from a workflow perspective, we can separate communication with colleagues (in Slack) from community partners (in email).

SALESFORCE. Like most museums and nonprofits, we have a donor database. For years, we had an expensive, clunky, black box that only some people had access to and fewer knew how to operate. It was like grandpa's car in the garage--you had to know all the tricks to get it to run. This year, we made the leap to Salesforce. Our data catalyst, Karen Bush, who ran grandpa's car like a champ, is leading our transition to a cloud-based, open database that feels like a fleet of shiny vespas. What does Salesforce have to do with collaboration? Opening up our database enables more of us to work together to solicit, acknowledge, and thank donors. And--crucially for us--we aren't just using Salesforce for donors and members. We're using it for creative collaborators too. Instead of each staff member tracking their own community partners, we're building a shared database of all the partners who contribute time, money, and talent to the museum. When I meet with a donor who plays in a jug band, I don't keep that information to myself or blast an email to the community programs team. I log that donor's talent in Salesforce, so our community programs staff can find him next time they are looking for musicians. Salesforce is part of a much bigger strategy for us around partner engagement. A shared database enables staff to share our partners' talents and interests with each other, so we can matchmake great opportunities for everyone.

SHARED GOALS. One of the hardest things for me as the director of a growing organization is learning how to lead a larger team. When we were a small team, I had direct access to everyone, and we could turn on a dime. I could stand up in the office, announce a meeting, lead a discussion on an issue, and we could head in a new direction immediately. Now, even booking that initial meeting would take time. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. I'm leading a bigger crew now, and we can get bigger things done. But it means we have to build goals and communicate clarity in new ways. We're about 6 months into trying a system for this called OKRs (objectives and key results). The basic principle is this: we set big objectives for the organization. Each team sets objectives that roll up into those big shared goals. We set "key results"--measurable indicators--of achieving those objectives. The OKRs are publicly shared, measured, celebrated, and discussed. We're still working out the kinks in the system, but the basic idea (that we set goals for a period and everyone can see how their work contributes to those goals) is powerful. And it's forcing me to be more disciplined in my leadership... which should enable us to accomplish bigger things.

OPEN OFFICE. Two years ago, in the midst of growth, we split from one office to two to reduce crowding. But the negatives of this split outweighed the positives. People felt disconnected from each other. We weren't celebrating wins together like we used to. So when we prepared to add three new positions in 2016, we made a counterintuitive decision: we moved back into one office. There are more people in it than ever, but it feels good. People feel empowered to put on headphones or go offsite when they need quiet focus, but when we're together, we're together.

HONESTY. For a long time, I had a split consciousness about our growth. On the one hand, I was thrilled about our ability to expand our community impact with a bigger team. At the same time, I feared that growth would mean bureaucratic sludge. I feared that growth would squash our creativity and community focus. That people would feel confused or left out. That I would not be a good leader to 20 people the way I was to 7. The reality is that growth has meant more structure. It's been critical to invest in systems like Slack, Salesforce, and OKRs to bring people together and keep us moving forward as a team. It's also been critical to choose to do things like the open office when we think it will strengthen our collaboration.

Being intentional and honest about growth has kept us strong. We keep reasserting our core value of radical collaboration and find new ways to live that value. At the same time, we're honest about changes in how we collaborate. Not everyone is part of every decision now. There's an org chart. These things help us do our work. They also diminish the sense of creative freedom that marked the MAH a few years ago. That's OK as long as we are honest about it.

The biggest mistake I made as we grew was not to proactively address my personal fears and hesitations about growth. I resisted building better structures. I didn't own up to their necessity, impact, and tradeoffs. Now, I own it. Now, instead of resisting growth, I'm learning how to make structure work for us--so we can continue to grow in ways that are gloriously, radically collaborative.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Let's Be Bridge-Builders

Two construction workers on the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, 1935When you hear the word "community," what do you envision? I see people of all backgrounds, ethnicities, ages, and income levels. I see them laughing together. Learning together. Taking care of each other.

Most of us don't live this dream--yet. Most of us experience community in isolation, moving through a small cluster of bubbles: Work. School. Neighborhood. Soccer. We spend most of our days with people who look like us, who share our culture, background, and class.

In the wake of the 2016 US election, I've been thinking a lot about the bubbles in which we live. Bubbles protect, empower, and insulate us. But they can also lock us into fear, judgment, and insecurity.

When we break out of these bubbles and build bridges across our differences, we build stronger communities. We bridge through experiences that bring together people from all walks of life, in shared celebration, respect, and learning. Research shows that social bridges decrease racism, increase public safety, and improve community health. Building bridges makes communities more equitable. Bridges shrink gaps in housing, health care, and quality of life. And they makes all our lives richer as we expand beyond the bubbles of our personal experiences.

That's why our museum, the MAH in Santa Cruz, focuses on social bridging. Rather than operating in a bubble of “art people” or “history people,” we strive to connect ALL people in our county. Our unique value is not in targeting people but bridging across differences. Our staff are matchmakers for unlikely partners across the county: engineers and folkloric dancers presenting at monthly festivals. Artists and activists exhibiting their work. Homeless adults and history buffs improving a historic cemetery. Business leaders and street performers designing a new community plaza on the museum's front porch.

These projects help people build bridges--and community. Museum visitors tell us that "meeting new people" and "being part of a bigger community" are two of the things they love most about our museum.

I take no satisfaction in the extent to which this election demonstrates how important and impoverished social bridging is in the United States. I take hope, courage, and perseverance from the knowledge that we can do it. More of us. More deeply. More often.

We've got some work to do. Cultural institutions, and museums in particular, have traditionally been bubbles of privilege. Our walls kept more people and ideas out as they let in. But we have the capacity to turn those walls into doorways. We have the potential to use the diverse, generative ideas within our walls as building material for bridges beyond our walls.

Building bridges doesn't mean capitulating or compromising. It means standing on one edge of a canyon and making a sincere effort to connect to people on the other side. Not to colonize them. Not to become like them, or ask them to be like you. Not to apologize for who you are. To build a bridge. To get to know them. To understand more about what life is like on their side. To cross over and intersect, on their turf and yours--until it becomes our bridge, and our canyon.

If you are curious about bridge-building, I encourage you to:
  • Read. Check out Bowling Alone and Better Together, both by Robert Putnam. These books frame the concept of social bridging and offer both inspiring and dismaying examples from different sectors. Check out social psychology texts on "intergroup contact." Follow any of the many wonderful online resources produced by bubbles that are not your own. 
  • Learn more about the divides in your community. Be honest about what ledge you stand on, and learn what you can about those on the other side. Don't waste your energy learning about divides that you can't or won't bridge. Learn about the ones you can affect. Learn about the people down the street about whom you know nothing. They read different news stories than you, go to different coffee shops than you, dream different dreams than you. Learn about them.
  • Figure out what you can do to join the informal union of bridge builders in your community. Who's doing the work? To what end? Do people in your community need bridges to celebrate together across differences? To tackle a big issue? To talk things out? To look each other in the eye without fear?
In our community, we build bridges through art and history. We bring people together in joyful art-making, celebrating simple pleasures of passing the paintbrushes and singing along. We bring people together in multi-vocal storytelling, listening to each other's tales of where we came from and where we dream to go. We bring people together through the creative friction that comes when one art form or cultural tradition rubs up against another. We curate diverse audiences the same way we curate diverse exhibitions--because it's ultimately the people and their conversations about the objects that matter most.

We build bridges in full knowledge that rubbing up against new ideas and people is uncomfortable. It's not as marketable or profitable as reinforcing the existing bubble. But our comfortable bubbles lie to us. They are mirrored on the inside. They keep us from seeing the whole world. They can make us selfish and fearful.

I believe that culture workers can be bridge-builders. It's not easy to step off your ledge onto an uncertain bridge. It's even harder to invite others to do so. But when we do, we see more clearly. We open our hearts to the beautiful, breakable world. We build the bridges that form the backbone of the compassionate, complex, collective communities we deserve.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Three Tips for Grappling with Insiders who are Resistant to Change

At every talk I give about The Art of Relevance, no matter the audience, there's one question I always hear. Librarians and museum directors, park managers and theater producers all want to know: how do you deal with insiders who resist change?

These insiders may be fellow staff members. Trustees. Longtime volunteers or donors. Insiders are people who feel ownership of the institution.

It's natural for insiders to want to protect the institutional status quo. They love the organization. They helped build it. They fight to preserve it.

Sometimes, insiders fear that inviting in new people for new reasons might break something. They fear that efforts for greater inclusion or relevance may destroy the institution they love. Sometimes insiders' fears of inclusive practice stem from privilege and entitlement. Other times, insiders' fears are not about inclusion but about institutional change. Many insiders want more people, and more diverse people, involved in their institutions. But that doesn't mean they are eager to assume the pain and uncertainty that comes with change.

Here are three techniques I've learned to tackle insider resistance. The first two invite insiders into the change, and the third gracefully invites them to opt out.

1. Appeal to their generosity. 

If insiders treasure the fact that the institution is "for us," invite them to share it "with them." The director of a historic house once told me about a trustee who was nervous about opening their institution to new people. As the trustee said, "this is my special place. I'm afraid it won't feel magical anymore." The director gently responded: "it's so great that you feel that this place is special. Don't you want to share that magic with others?"

Insiders may not feel generous in the face of change. They may fear for their own experience, wondering: Will I still have a job? Will I still enjoy volunteering here? Will it still be for me?

But everyone wants to be generous. Invite insiders to tap into the pride they have in the institution, their love for it, and invite them to share that love with others. Invite them to imagine that what is for us can also be for them.

2. Appeal to their bravery. 

Change is scary, and we don't always acknowledge that. Leaders of change proselytize about how great the change is and how exciting and fun the journey will be. But it's not all fun. To insiders, the path is uncertain, the leader of the pack is unreasonably cheery, and no one wants to talk about the dangers along the way. The fear is real. Uncertain insiders feel it--and they may also feel judged for experiencing or expressing it.

Instead of distancing insiders as fearful resistors, celebrate their bravery. Change is courageous work. Thank them for being brave in the face of an uncertain future. Thank them for casting their lot with you and the change.

Insiders may not feel brave in the face of change. But it's an attribute we all want to exhibit, especially when things get tough. If you can invite insiders to see themselves as courageous, they may embody it, helping tackle the change instead of feeling run over by it.

3. Bless and release. 

If you can't make it work together, you have to let each other go. In my second year as a change-making executive director, I struggled with a major donor who constantly called me to complain about how I was screwing up the joint. I would explain what we were doing to invite new people into the museum, she would explain why this wasn't what a museum should do, and we would both hang up frustrated. I couldn't make her happy, nor her me, no matter what we tried. I didn't know what to do.

Then Cookie Ruiz, CEO of Ballet Austin, taught me the phrase "bless and release." As Cookie pointed out, any major donor should feel great about an organization she supports. And I should feel supported by those who fund my organization. If we respected each other (which we did), we should stop fighting. We should be willing to bless and release our troubled relationship.

If an insider is truly unhappy, if they feel that they can't do their best work nor make their best contributions at the institution, release yourself and them from the pain. Tell them, "I have heard your concerns about this change. I respect you, and we disagree. We are moving forward with this change. I understand that doesn't work for you. We appreciate all your contributions here past and present. I truly hope that you find a place where you can feel valued as a contributor."

Life is too short to spend all your time negotiating unhappiness. Thank them for their contributions, bless their feelings of dissatisfaction, and then release them--and yourself--from your toxic relationship. You'll all feel a lot lighter, and you'll have more energy to put into making a difference. Like Socrates said, "the secret to change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new."

What other tips do you have for working with insiders who are resistant to change?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Quick Hit: Art of Relevance Video, Podcast, and a Google Hangout this week

I've been traveling a lot recently, exploring the ideas behind The Art of Relevance with colleagues around the US. Here are two artifacts of my travels... and an opportunity to join in on a virtual/real life meetup this Wednesday.


Want to join the conversation about The Art of Relevance but can't make it to a book event? The Minnesota Historical Society made a video of my recent talk there. The video is well-produced, including subtitles and the Q&A. I talk for the first 30 minutes, and then we're doing Q&A in the second half. Check it out.


Immediately after leaving the Minnesota Historical Society, I sat down with Levi Weinhagen as a guest on his Pratfalls podcast. Levi is an excellent interviewer, and he got me talking about lots of things I don't usually talk about: living off the grid, finding my path, learning from my parents, being a mom and museum director, dreaming of being a ninja warrior. It's an hour interview, and if you enjoy it, I strongly recommend checking out Levi's other episodes interviewing creative people about how they approach their work.


This Wednesday, I'm participating in an experimental Museumhive event. It combines a real life meetup (in Boston) with a virtual Google hangout. I'll be joining in via hangout to talk about distributed museums with Brad Larson, Ed Rodley, Paul Orselli, and lots of Boston area colleagues. You can participate virtually, or if you are in the Boston area, register (for free) to be there in person.

Enjoy the media, get connected, go outside!

Monday, October 10, 2016

What Does a Great Distributed Digital Museum Experience Look Like?

Museum technology nerds: this post is for you.

I've been thinking recently about distributed content experiences--ways for people to interact with museum content (art, history, science, etc.) as they make their way through the world outside the museum. There are a zillion apps for making your own tours, podcasts, maps, or QR code-infested games... but none of them are great.

Distributed mobile content experiences seem to suffer from two basic problems:
  1. Underwhelming entry points. It's extremely hard to get people to download a new app. Where and when does an institution ask you to do so? At the museum? At the historic site? While walking down the street? The impulse to download an app is driven by curiosity or an urgent perceived need. While museums may cultivate curiosity, they rarely offer sufficiently clear, urgent use cases to encourage you to go through the drudgery of downloading an app.  
  2. Unlikely reentry points. Once you download an app, are you really going to remember to (re)open it to find an interesting historical fact tagged to your geolocation? Are you going to use it to scan for public art near you? Most of these apps seem so niche, so useless for anything other than accessing semi-interesting content in a clunky interface, that they end up languishing in the Siberian outback of your phone.
In contrast, successful distributed projects seem to have one of two characteristics:
  1. Compelling and/or versatile mobile experience. What do we use our phones for most? Communicating, playing, exploring. Quality content experiences tend to piggyback on massive social media platforms apps that are already well-used (i.e. facebook) or create very compelling whole worlds unto themselves (i.e. Pokemon Go). 
  2. Prominent real world presence. One of the simplest, effective distributed projects I've seen recently is Walk [Your City]. It's a system for creating signs, zip-tied to existing traffic/lightpoles, that direct people to points of interest, special experiences, and surprising encounters. Some cities use them for straightforward wayfinding, but in many towns, the signs have a whimsical or poetic nature. It's amazing how much impact simple signs can have. I'd choose repeated physical presence over a fancy digital interface any day.
Thinking about these two characteristics, here are some highly speculative ideas and questions:
  • What is the most effective way to have lots of physical presence in the built environment? Working with cities and public property involves a lot of regulation (though if you can push through the red tape, a lot of potential impact). It's often easier to make deals with private property owners than to lobby the government for use of public space/sidewalks/streets. Projects like Little Free Library and the Peace Pole Project work this way; individuals choose to build them on their own land. How can we activate movements for people to participate in producing and sharing content on the land they already control?
  • What's the cheapest advertising money can buy? I generally assume nonprofits can't afford to compete in the advertising world, but there's so much advertising in our visual landscape, some of it in very odd (and affordable) forms. Could you give out free coasters at bars? Make beautiful bike racks? Provide your local coffee shop with thousands of sleeves for paper cups? Is there a distributed layer to life (in the form of advertising) that is hackable for good?
  • How can we creatively hack into mobile apps that lots of people already use? Of course you can create content for podcasts, twitter, instagram, etc. But what about apps where you don't have to build a whole media presence? What about creating geo-fenced Snapchat filters connecting people to art nearby, or making Tindr profiles for historical figures in the area? Are there other ways to piggyback on popular apps for content experiences?
  • Who's going to build the killer app for distributed learning experiences? Part of me feels like learning is just so low on people's priority lists that distributed museum experiences will always be niche... but then I think of the huge success of online learning platforms like Khan's Academy. I wonder if we just need one (or a few) powerhouse app to take the lead on facilitating quality distributed learning/augmented reality experiences. I think it's possible an institution could do this... but only if it was more focused on building an industry-wide solution than building something custom for their own museum or historic site.
I know that there are very smart people working on these problems. Who's tackling them? What are some of the most interesting approaches underway?

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here

And a note to readers in the Boston area: I'll be participating in a MuseumHive real world / Google hangout on these topics (and others) on October 26. Register today.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Temple Contemporary and the Puzzle of Sharing Powerful Processes

The first thing I noticed about Temple Contemporary were the chairs. Desk chairs and theater seats, sleek modsters and dilapidated stuffed things, a motley crew lined up on hooks around the room. They were charming, but puzzling. Looking closer, I saw that each seat had its own handwritten label, telling the story of the Philadelphia cultural institution from which it originated. The chairs were cast-off art, reclaimed as art, available for people to take off the hooks and use. They were there for artist talks. They were there for project brainstorming. They were there for chair races.

What kind of an art institution is this? That's what I found myself wondering again and again in the too-short hour I spent with the director of Temple Contemporary, Rob Blackson. Temple Contemporary makes strange objects and gorgeous documentation. It encourages process-driven performances and art projects. It is unfinished, unassuming, and whimsical, and at the same time, deadly serious. It takes the kind of risks that a university art gallery should take. It opens up new conversations about the work of art in our communities.

Temple Contemporary’s mission is to creatively re-imagine the social function of art through questions of local relevance and international significance. They live their mission, working in questions and projects rather than exhibitions and programs. Every other year, they convene TUPAC, a group of 35 outside advisors, including teens, college students, Temple University professors, artists, philanthropists, and community leaders. TUPAC advisors come together for one meeting, each bringing a question of local relevance and international significance--a question they don't know the answer to. The advisors share their questions, vote on the ones that they think have the most power, and set the direction of Temple Contemporary.

For example, right now, Temple Contemporary's offices are packed floor to ceiling with broken musical instruments from classrooms across the city of Philadelphia. One of TUPAC's current questions is about the state of art education. In Philadelphia, the budget for arts education has been slashed to pieces. The cuts were so deep that school music rooms are full of unplayable instruments. There's no money to fix them. And so, sparked by TUPAC's big question, Temple Contemporary decided to collect these silenced instruments - 1,500 in all - and commission a Symphony for a Broken Orchestra by a famous composer, David Lang. After the symphony premieres in 2017, Temple Contemporary will have all the instruments restored and will return them to their schools, new repair kits tucked inside the cases.

I left Temple Contemporary energized and inspired by their work. The work that Temple Contemporary is doing with their community is radical and impressive. Temple Contemporary is truly community-led. There is no formula. The community drives the question. The question drives the work. And the work takes the form or forms to which it is best suited. This makes Temple Contemporary excel at responsive, relevant projects. But it also makes their "front-end" experience incoherent. As a visitor, I'm not sure what I left with. My positive experience was 95% rooted in the tour that Rob Blackson gave me. Without him as my guide, all I had was fragments. A bunch of chairs hanging on the wall. Some students folding clothes. Empty pegboards. Half a car attached to the ceiling. Artsy journals. I saw slices of something interesting, but I had no idea how to piece them together.

I would never have learned about the Symphony for a Broken Orchestra if I hadn't been invited into the back office. I would never have known that TUPAC exists, who they are, or what they do. I wouldn't have drunk from the cup made from Pennsylvania oil field shale or read the book about the funeral they held for a row house. I would have walked in, puzzled at the white box's mysteries, and walked out.

This problem isn't unique to Temple Contemporary. It's a challenge in all process-driven work. Often the most powerful community work lives behind the scenes, in the brainstorming and prototyping and trying things out. The same is true of much artwork--the juice is often in the work's development, which dies a little bit when the work is "done." But that juice is fickle. It is powerful when you can experience it directly. It loses its flavor--or is completely imperceptible--when people don't understand what they are drinking.

How do we resolve this? The standard answer is to let the process stay behind the curtain and the product live onstage. Give people the exhibition but not the debates about content development. Give people the symphony but not the stacks of patient, injured cellos. This approach is straightforward. Leave the process to the collaborators and give the product to the audience. But there are two big problems with this approach:
  1. It's easy to get caught in the hamster wheel of delivering products to audiences. You start systematizing to deliver a program every week, an exhibition every quarter. You promise your audience quality and you hone your process to deliver it. You don't have time to convene the community. You don't have flexibility to imagine whether their questions are better answered with a symphony or a storybook. You don't have space to take the instruments. You can't open yourself fully to the possibilities. 
  2. It denies audiences the powerful opportunity to tap into the process. In most of these kinds of projects, the number of collaborators is finite. The collaborators themselves are often hand-selected or nominated. Visitors can't walk off the street with their own big question and join the scrum. While that's sensible, it's also limiting. How could Temple Contemporary (or any institution) invite each person who walks in the door into the biggest, meatiest work currently underway?
How can we invite people into the processes that drive our most powerful work?

I don't have the answers. I'm curious if you do--and what big questions this sparks for you.

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Coming to Your Town, The Art of Relevance in Hand

Co-pilot sadly not attending these events.
One of the basic criteria for relevance has to do with effort. The more effort it takes to attain an experience, the less relevant it will feel--even if you know it will be meaningful. When your favorite band comes to town, you'll buy a ticket and go to the show. But you probably won't be in the audience when they perform thousands of miles away.

Maybe you've been feeling this way about coming to an event related to The Art of Relevance. You'd like to participate, but it would have taken too much effort to attend the summer book launch events in Edinburgh and Santa Cruz. Fortunately, I'm hitting the road this fall, and I hope to be able to discuss this book with you at a time and place that hits your sweet spot in the effort/meaning calculus.

All the 2016 book events are here (and frequently updated). But here's a quick list of the conferences, public events and workshops where I'll be appearing in the next few months. I'd love to meet you there.

  • September 28, 2016: St. Paul, MN at the Minnesota History Center, 8-10am - Free! Register Now
  • September 30, 2016: Philadelphia, PA at the Barnes Foundation, 3:30-5pm - Free! Register Now
  • October 2, 2016: Brooklyn, NY for a workshop and book signing in partnership with Museum Hack, 11am-12:30pm - Ticketed! Register Now
  • October 18, 2016: Chicago, IL at Navy Pier, 3:30-5:30pm - Free! Registration info TBA
  • October 19, 2016: Denver, CO at the Ellie Kaulkins Studio Loft for NAMP Regional Workshop, 3-5pm - Free! Registration info TBA
  • October 20, 2016: San Francisco, CA at University of San Francisco, 5-8pm - Free! Register Now
  • September 26, 2016: Sacramento, CA for the Confluence CFTA conference
  • September 29, 2016: Duluth, MN at the Minnesota Library Association conference
  • September 30, 2016: Philadelphia, PA at the National Council of Arts Administrators conference
  • October 18, 2016: Chicago, IL for the Illinois Library Association conference
  • October 20, 2016: Denver, CO for the Mountain Plains Library Association/Colorado Association of Libraries joint conference
  • November 5, 2016: San Francisco, CA for the International Conference of Independent Libraries & Mechanics’ Institutes
  • November 11, 2016: Austin, TX for the National Arts Marketing Project pre-conference
  • November 17, 2016: Houston, TX for the National Trust for Historic Preservation conference
I'd like to pick up a public event in Austin and/or Houston around those November conferences--if you are a motivated Texan with a venue and a dream, let me know. See you on the road!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Our Museum: Extraordinary Resources on How Museums and Galleries Become Participatory Places

Six years ago, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation set out on an ambitious quest. They wanted to help museums and galleries across the UK make significant, sustained changes in the ways they engage community partners and visitors as participants in their work. The result, Our Museum, is an extraordinary funding program with a focus on community participation.

In its first five years, Our Museum yielded real change at twelve diverse UK organizations. Our Museum also produced a suite of online resources and reports that are impressive, honest, and comprehensive (though a bit tricky to navigate--I recommend using the search function). You could spend a day getting lost in the meaty, thoughtful writing and videos on the Our Museum site. I recommend starting with the final report, No Longer Us and Them.

Our Museum started with a clear-eyed assessment of community engagement funding and practices across the UK. Dr. Bernadette Lynch's provocative 2011 report, Whose Cake is it Anyway?, didn't mince words. While there was evidence of plenty of community engagement work across museums and galleries, most of it was funded project by project. Most participatory projects were short-term, siloed innovations, not institutional transformations. And in several cases, the projects constituted "empowerment lite" for participants rather than true collaboration, co-creation, or transformation.

Five years later, project director Dr. Piotr Bienkowski's final report for Our Museum tells a different story. No Longer Us and Them describes organizations that have changed dramatically, from top to bottom and across program areas. I strongly recommend you read the report. Extra credit if you read the Our Museum evaluation (or its summary) as well. Here are my three top takeaways.

Institutional Change is about Change, No Matter the Focus

The two big lessons from Our Museum that Piotr identified are not about community engagement per se, but about institutional change:
  • Small Changes Add Up. 
  • Participation is Everyone's Job. 
These two lessons are probably true of any major institutional change process (swapping the word "participation" with the focus of the change). Many of the barriers to participation identified in the report--lack of committed leadership, conflicting strategic agendas, silos, staff resistance, lack of capacity, fear--could apply to any change process. The evaluation additionally called out some faulty assumptions in program design about leadership and staff continuity throughout the multi-year process. Disruption can be confusing, destabilizing, and potentially derailing, no matter the focus of the transformation at hand.

Interestingly--for good and ill--this transformative funding program coincided with a national funding crisis in the arts in the UK. This made the work more urgent, fragile... and realistic. Most major change doesn't happen when things are going well. While a funder can have impact in directing organizational leaders to turn their heads in a particular direction, it's often negative externalities--financial pressure, political changes--that spur organizations to significant action. The financial austerity measures applied external pressure to the Our Museum institutions. While that was painful for the organizations involved, it also helped force the issue of whether participatory engagement could be core to a strong future business model for each organization or not. It upped the stakes on change--something a funder could not provide alone.

Different External Voices Bring Different Skills to the Table

Community partners, artists, peers, and funders all play different roles as collaborators and contributors to participatory institutions. My favorite section of No Longer Us and Them is the discussion of the specific value and roles of each type of outside contributor (scroll down in this document for a helpful visual representation). 

In particular, Piotr calls out "critical friends" as helpful external partners. Critical friends are trusted outside observers who may raise tough questions and uncomfortable truths that a collaborating community group cannot or will not share. Critical friends are positive, constructive, and able to tease out real challenges. As this video points out, critics make you swear. Critical friends can make you smile.

Piotr also notes that artists, while excellent at providing fresh perspectives on an institution's work, may not be the most helpful or well-received when it comes to providing more formal feedback or participating in reflection and shared learning sessions. While I don't fully agree with all the role designations in the report, I appreciate the nuanced insight that different types of outside contributors bring different expertise and value to the table. 

Watch Out for Things to Watch Out For

No Longer Us and Them's magic ingredient is honesty. That honesty shines through in the report's clear language, specific tips, and frequent bite-sized notes of "things to watch out for" when working to become a participatory organization. Indicated with a bold exclamation point, the "things to watch out for" are warning signs and traps to avoid. Some feel small and specific--"be sensitive to staff body language in meetings"--whereas others are more strategic--"be clear about your starting point when you approach communities." In all cases, I found these warnings to be refreshing, educational insights that taught me more than any success stories could.

In summary: read the report. Check out the Our Museum online resources. Consider your own path to institutional transformation. And consider sharing a comment here with a takeaway that is meaningful for you.  

If you are reading this via email and would like to share a comment or question, you can join the conversation here.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Does the Most Powerful Work Live Onstage or Behind the Scenes?

Let's say your organization has a mission to increase X (art, healthy kids, clean water, community cohesiveness, etc.). Is it more effective to produce X yourself or empower others to produce X in their own contexts?

The more my organization has become focused on community engagement, the more we've balanced being experience producers with being experience co-creators/facilitators. We still produce exhibitions, events, and educational programs for an audience, but that audience is just one of our major constituencies. The partners we work with--to catalyze projects within and beyond our walls--are just as important as our visitors to fulfilling our mission. Relative to other museums, I think we spend less time producing an "onstage" experience and more time collaborating with community organizations behind the scenes to empower them to produce.

I feel great about this approach. It enables us to authentically and meaningfully involve diverse people in the museum, empowering them as creative agents, building community together, and leveraging their passion to reach more (and more diverse) people.

But this approach leads to a strategic puzzle as we consider our future as an institution. Our museum is growing, and I'm always weighing different ways to expand our impact. Should we focus more on empowering and connecting partners behind the scenes, becoming more of a resource to creative colleagues across our community? Or should we focus more on what's onstage for our growing audience of participants--empowering and connecting them?

In behind-the-scenes mode, we could devote more resources to supporting projects beyond our building, content area, and program formats. I see how we extend our impact and build community through dedicated partnerships, thoughtful bridge-building, and advocacy work.  If we can help other sympatico organizations achieve their goals--while advancing our goals and mission along the way--that's powerful. 

On the other hand, in onstage mode, we could present more highly visible opportunities for people to be empowered and connected through art and history. I see how we ignite excitement, curiosity, and community pride through powerful exhibitions, compelling stories, and dynamic festivals. We could do the work directly with more people, achieving impact with those participants and serving as a model for others interested in this kind of work. If we can make our mission more overt for more people, that's powerful too.

I've been trying to think of examples of superlative organizations of each type. I think of Springboard for the Arts, Alternate Roots, and A Blade of Grass as leaders from behind the scenes. They all merge clear, radical visions with innovative work to empower other organizations to manifest those visions. They are funded primarily by foundations (or are foundations themselves). They exist to improve for their fields or their communities, but not primarily through direct service. We need more empowerment in this world, and these institutions offer it.

Leading onstage institutions are more publicly-known and recognized. I'd put the Exploratorium, the American Visionary Art Museum, and the New World Symphony in this category. All of these organizations provide mind-blowing audience experiences and serve as inspiring models for their fields. By being onstage as visible, powerful beacons of a particular methodology, they both engage audiences and inspire other institutions to consider adopting some of their approaches. We need more magic in this world, and these institutions offer it.

And then, of course, there are many organizations that do both. Some are huge institutions, publicly known for onstage work but flexing serious behind-the-scenes muscles; for example, the San Diego Zoo and Monterey Bay Aquarium are both best-in-class for visitor experiences AND for conservation research and advocacy behind the scenes. Children's Museum of Pittsburgh is a terrific place to visit AND a leading force in diverse regional projects to support youth development. There are mid-sized and smaller organizations--like my museum and many, many others--balancing a public visitor experience with community service behind-the-scenes.

Do we have to choose one or the other? Not exclusively. But I think it's an important strategic question--one that could provide real focus and direction to our future growth. If we had to choose, would we focus on engaging visitors or empowering partners? Would we manage more sites directly, or would we support others in getting their sites off the ground? How can we make these decisions in service of our mission and our vision of a stronger, more connected community?

Where do you start in considering these questions?

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Art of Relevance Sneak Peek: Rock and Roll Family Edition

Yesterday, the local paper in Santa Cruz published a great article about my new book, The Art of Relevance. I loved the piece... but I wished it could have included more of the conversation reporter Wallace Baine and I had about my father Screamin Scott Simon's experience as a rock musician in the band ShaNaNa.

I've learned so much from my dad about making art, putting on a great show, inviting audience participation, and navigating celebrity. When writing The Art of Relevance, I knew I wanted to share a bit of his story and the ways artists negotiate the relevance of their own work. Here's that chapter.


Most of us aren’t steering whole institutions and mission statements. We’re working on a smaller scale, with specific content or programs. But the changing tides of relevance that affect institutions affect content too—sometimes even more acutely. While an institution can pivot, presenting different content for different times, the content itself does not change. The painting is what it is.

In the nonprofit arts, administrators maintain a polite silence about the reality that certain artworks, plays, composers, and stories fall in and out of favor at different times. No museum puts up a label that says: “Our last curator thought this painting was lousy and kept it in storage. Our new curator thinks it speaks to contemporary issues and put it front and center.” But we make those decisions and changes all the time. Institutionally, this is a question of moving around assets, elevating some stories and archiving others. But for the artists and objects involved, and for the people who care for them, these shifts can be dislocating. The work is the work. Sometimes it’s hot, sometimes not.

I saw this when we hosted the Princes of Surf exhibition in Santa Cruz. Before the MAH exhibition, those historic surfboards rested deep in the collection storage of the Bishop Museum in Hawaii. As royal boards, they were sufficiently relevant to the Bishop’s mission to be collected—but not compelling enough to warrant exhibition.

The boards were in storage for 90+ years before historians discov- ered they were the boards in the first known record of surfing in the Americas. The boards became rock stars in Santa Cruz. We paid a small fortune to have them conserved and shipped here for exhibition. Our community showed up in droves to honor them.

The surfboards were powerful in our community. They made magic at the MAH. But that power didn’t follow them back across the ocean. After their “blockbuster” run in Santa Cruz, the boards went back in storage at the Bishop Museum, where their relevance warrants preservation but little adoration. We sent them off on the journey home with a blessing and a sigh.

The shifting relevance of these surfboards is emotional. But they’re still just hunks of wood. They don’t have feelings. People do.

What does it feel like to watch your own relevance ebb and flow? I grew up with a front row seat to this shape-shifting as the child of a rock musician. My dad, Scott Simon, joined the band ShaNaNa when he was 21. Forty-five years later, he’s still with the band. It’s the only job he’s ever had.

ShaNaNa was a breakout group at the Woodstock festival, playing ’50s songs at breakneck pace in gold lamé jumpsuits and grungy under- shirts. They went on to build successful careers as “oldies” musicians before the term existed. They were defiantly anti-relevant in the early 1970s, a counter-countercultural throwback barreling through two-minute pop songs in the era of twenty-minute jams. At the end of every show, my dad thumbed his nose at crowds of tens of thousands, yelling: “I’ve got one thing to say to you f***in’ hippies. ROCK AND ROLL IS HERE TO STAY.” And the hippies cheered, they clapped, and they accepted ShaNaNa as part of the rollicking youth culture sweeping North America.

By the 1980s, ShaNaNa was mainstream. They were featured in the movie Grease. They hosted a TV variety show for four seasons. They became massively relevant as cultural icons, but more sanitized, less relevant to the youth culture that drives pop music. I spent school vacations in casino showrooms in Reno downing Shirley Temples while ShaNaNa entertained middle-class, middle-aged couples twice a night. In the 1970s, Bruce Springsteen opened for them. By the 1990s, their opener was an elephant.

Their audience aged with them, and they slid from hot to nostalgic. In the 2000s, ShaNaNa played state fairs. Then county fairs. Pops concerts at symphony halls. At one outdoor venue, their contract ended when the venue owners explained that ShaNaNa was attracting huge crowds of families and baby boomers… but not the 30-somethings who buy beer and generate profits. Their music was relevant to the crowd. Just not the right crowd.

Behind the scenes, ShaNaNa’s relevance splintered and bubbled up in ways no one could have guessed. In the late ’70s and ’80s, heavy metal rockers and punks showed up at ShaNaNa’s door, inspired by their early hard-driving music, anti-glam wardrobe, and street tough attitude. The Beastie Boys name-checked them as influences. They played birthday blowouts and political events and anniversary parties for long-time fans. And perhaps strangest of all, ShaNaNa’s most persistent household relevance seems to be as a crossword puzzle clue (___ Na Na), fitting in a convenient box for hapless puzzle creators.

We can’t fight the reality that relevance shifts over time. But we can empathize with the dislocation, the highs and lows, that comes with those shifts. Spare a thought for a humble artifact in storage. Give respect to a hardworking musician. Their power is always there to be unlocked.

Learn more about The Art of Relevance and get your own copy here.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

What Does Audience-Centered Look Like? It Looks like Glasgow Museums.

KelvingroveWhen we say we want our museum to be "audience-centered," what do we mean?

Over the past decade, I've seen two distinct versions of this term:
  1. the user-centered museum, in which visitors are active participants, invited to contribute to and co-create the experience
  2. the customer-centered museum, in which visitors are valued guests, invited to enjoy personalized experiences that cater to their specific needs and interests
It will be no surprise to hear that I fundamentally align with the user-centered model. However, I have enormous respect for the customer-centered model when it is executed in ways that truly invite visitors in on their own terms and deliver satisfying experiences. My career first got moving at a brilliant example of the customer-centered museum: the International Spy Museum. Many of my favorite museums, libraries, and zoos are customer-centered places. They care about visitor comfort. They deliver learning experiences at many levels, engaging many senses. They are responsive to visitors' needs and interests, and they are willing to tailor their offerings to better satisfy those visitors.

To be clear: I'm not a fan of all aspects of customer-centered museums. At their worst, instead of human-centered, they become commerce-centered institutions, overly focused on the shop, the restaurant, the spectacle, and the highest ticket price the market can bear. But at their best, they focus on the humans walking in the door, providing them with value on their own terms. One hundred years ago, John Cotton Dana, founder of the Newark Museum and godfather of modern museums, famously said: “A great department store, easily reached, open at all hours, is more like a good museum of art than any of the museums we have yet established." I believe that Dana's department store museum is best exemplified in the customer-centered museum. The customer may not always be right, but she deserves to have an experience that brings her comfort, satisfaction, and joy.

I felt that comfort, satisfaction, and joy on a recent visit to two museums in Glasgow: Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and Riverside Museum. Kelvingrove is an encyclopedic museum, the kind where pachyderms, mummies, and Impressionists rub shoulders. Riverside is a museum of transportation, packed with trains, bicycles, and motorcars. Both of these museums delivered incredible experiences for me and my husband. These museums were terrific examples of customer-centered institutions because:
  • They engaged our curiosity. The objects were interesting, the stories surprising. At Kelvingrove, a display of knights, swords, and shields (one I'd usually skip) was peppered with animals whose skin and scales formed body armor, drawing me to look closer and better understand the connections between how living creatures defend ourselves. At Riverside, a torn-up Ford Escort explained how car thieves cut up and weld together stolen chassis, displaying the ingenuity and dangerous implications of chop shops. These displays were memorable. They taught us something new. They prompted dialogue and a desire to keep looking.
  • They catered to different audiences. Kelvingrove in particular was impressive for embracing an eclectic, "we all belong here" approach to gallery design and display. You could come for the Scottish first peoples or the World War II art or the dinosaurs or the collection of funny shoes. All were given value. I never felt like I stumbled into the gallery where no one else dares to tread (as I often feel when I enter the dioramas in many natural history museums, or the period rooms of art institutions). And they did a good job calling out and tailoring areas for families and young ones without making those spaces feel segregated from the overall experience.
  • They offered immersive, powerful environments. Both institutions made good use of their very different spaces. Kelvingrove is in a hundred-year-old palace of galleries around a central court in a park, whereas Riverside is a 2011 Zaha Hadid open-plan warehouse on a riverfront with a dramatic contemporary exterior. In Kelvingrove, we strolled easily from gallery to gallery, through open thresholds that encouraged exploration while maintaining distinct character from room to room. At Riverside, we wandered from display to display around the open floor, again, feeling comfortable, accommodated, and stimulated by bicycles racing around a velodrome overhead and 1920s buses squatting on the concrete. The objects in both museums were varied, and the display techniques incorporated movement, varied sight lines, juxtaposition, and humor to keep us intrigued and engaged.
  • They offered genuinely interesting learning experiences. In each museum, we saw thematic displays and labels that surprised and engrossed us. At Kelvingrove, we were particularly taken by Looking at Art, a gallery that invited us to check out a painting in various stages of restoration, to look at the backs of paintings and the things that were crossed out, and to learn more about the stories and influences behind specific artworks. I'd seen each of these kinds of elements in other museums, but never in such a clear way that respected visitors' intelligence and provided us with genuinely new information. At Riverside, I was impressed by the consistent integration of community voices in label text, and the very human take on a genre (transportation) that is often presented strictly in terms of technology and provenance. There were displays about the terror of motorcycle accidents, the freedoms public transportation affords, and the ways vehicles can enable people to enjoy places that are otherwise inaccessible to them. I'd heard before about Riverside's development, which involved many community focus groups, workshops, and talkbacks. That work showed in the human voices and stories throughout the museum. Of course, these are tools of user-centered institutions! It was lovely to see their integration into such strong customer-centered experiences.
  • They acknowledged our desire for comfort and variation. One of the best bits of our trip to Kelvingrove was taking a break to enjoy the free pipe organ concert in the central court. We took a break from the galleries, had a drink, and listened to the music as we chatted about our experience. This kind of accommodation in museums is nothing new, but it was made special because of how it fit into the flow of the building. We didn't have to go outside or to some segregated area to have coffee. It was there, in the heart of the museum, where we could gaze up at the galleries we'd been to and the ones we'd skipped. It wasn't a destination or a set-aside place of respite; comfort and social activity were at the very center of the building.
It's interesting to note that Kelvingrove and Riverside, like all the Glasgow Museums, are part of a public charity called Glasgow Life. Glasgow Life oversees libraries, museums, arts events, music venues, sporting events and fields, and community services on behalf of the City of Glasgow. Their vision statement is "to inspire Glasgow's citizens and visitors to lead richer and more active lives through culture and sport." In pursuing this vision statement and this diverse work, Glasgow Life recognizes serving a community means being both user- and customer-centered. Sometimes we are customers and sometimes we are users. Sometimes we are watching the match and sometimes we are kicking the ball. Sometimes we are enjoying the music and sometimes we are playing it.

Glasgow Museums include other institutions--notably, Glasgow Open Museum--that are far more user-centered. (Glasgow Open Museum, which co-creates exhibitions with and in community spaces across the city, served as a case study in The Participatory Museum.) But as a tourist on a summer day, I didn't seek out that user-centered institution. Instead, I walked into Kelvingrove and Riverside--two fine department stores of humanity--and walked out a satisfied customer.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

The Art of Relevance Sneak Peek: Part Ex-Con, Part Farmer, Part Queen

For the last time this summer, I'm sharing a chapter from my new book The Art of Relevance to celebrate its release. Read more online and buy your own copy today.

This chapter, from the last section of the book, is very personal to me. One of the nonprofits that inspires me locally here in Santa Cruz is a youth empowerment and food justice organization called "Food, What!?" FoodWhat's staff and teens have taught me a lot about what it really means to be relevant to people who are often overlooked or ignored. I firmly believe that all people have something meaningful to contribute to our communities, cultural work, and society at large--including youth. FoodWhat reminds me that it takes real work to unlock that meaning and invite teenagers to step into their own power. 

Part Ex-Con, Part Farmer, Part Queen

Each spring, Doron Comerchero walks into Pajaro Valley High School. The farmer-turned-activist is ready to sell struggling teenagers on something they may want in their hearts but don’t know how to access: a ticket to a meaningful life.

Doron runs a youth development program called FoodWhat in Santa Cruz County, California. FoodWhat empowers teens to change their lives through farming and food justice.

Doron doesn’t work with A students or B students. He works with kids who rarely show up to school. Kids with no food in the fridge. Kids on probation, kids struggling with addiction, kids whose lives have detoured off every map to a brighter tomorrow.

Doron believes in them. Doron supports them. And they turn their lives around.

But on day one of recruiting at Pajaro Valley High School, it is not obvious this will happen. Today, there are thirty kids fidgeting in a classroom, talking to their friends, messing with their phones. Doron’s wares, on the face of it, are a tough sell. Come work in the fields, grow organic vegetables, do leadership exercises, and eat healthy food. Most of these youth have bigger issues on their minds: addiction, gang violence, social anxiety, the possibility that they may not graduate from high school or get a good job. Many of them are desperate to avoid the exhausting, low-paid farming jobs their parents hold. Why would anyone want to sign up and be part of FoodWhat?

It starts—every time—with relevance. Doron knows that if his words aren’t relevant, the kids will shut him out. Shut themselves down. So he starts at the front door, with things that are obviously relevant to them. When Doron visits schools to invite teens to apply for FoodWhat, he gives a five-minute pitch on their terms.

First, Doron throws fruit to the crowd. It wakes the kids up, builds energy, and is relevant on a basic level to anyone who is hungry. Then, he establishes credibility with stories from real kids about the program. He shows a big board of photos of FoodWhat youth at work. Farming. Cooking. Eating. Hanging out. He strategically includes images of students from Pajaro Valley High, so when he asks, “See anyone you know on here?” the likely answer is “yes.” When there are FoodWhat alumni in the room, he asks them to share testimonials on the spot.

The easiest way to establish relevance—especially to something foreign—is to show that people like you, people you know, are involved. This is the front door. All you teenagers—this is the place for you.

Doron shows them the front door. Then he sets up the youth. He gets them to want to open the door. He answers the question on every teen’s mind: “what do I get if I participate in this program?”

Doron doesn’t answer this question with sweeping statements about personal transformation. He focuses on concrete things he knows are relevant to the teens in the room—especially the struggling teens who have the most to gain but are often the most reluctant to commit.

FoodWhat participants get four things. First, they get two school credits. While this may not matter to an A student, many struggling youth are miles away from the 200+ credits required to graduate. Those two credits matter to them. Second, participants get a $175 stipend if they successfully complete the program. It’s not a lot, but still, money is a huge motivator for these teens. Third, graduates of the spring program get first dibs on summer internships—real jobs paying a real hourly wage. Fourth, it looks good on your resume to complete a program like this. Many of the kids in the room may not know what a resume is, but Doron explains how it helps you get a job. He explains that FoodWhat graduates get jobs all over the community—that pretty much any place you might want to work, there’s probably FoodWhat alumni there. He says he will write a killer letter of recommendation for you, and when an employer is looking at two applications, that letter will move you to the top of the stack. And especially for those kids who know that their job prospects may be shaky, that sounds really good and useful.

Each of these four items is a potential key to the FoodWhat door. After offering up these four keys, Doron energizes the classroom with a challenge. He tells the kids: Don’t take an application if you aren’t serious. And if you are serious, make an impression on me when you turn in the application. Stand out in some way. This is a competitive program to get into, and the competition starts now.

He does all of this in five minutes. And kids come up to him, kids who were reassured that his program relates to them on the surface, kids who want to believe in themselves and have the slightest inkling this might help them do it. FoodWhat’s waiting list is always a distressing mile long.

The recruitment phase is just the start of FoodWhat’s relevance challenge. These are teenagers. When you talk about establishing relevance, teens are the holy grail. They are fickle. They are constantly distracted. They are self-centered. They have finely-tuned bullshit meters. They are not afraid to turn off their attention if something doesn’t seem to apply to them.

Teenagers don’t just need someone to help them open the door once. They need it again and again. For Doron, relevance is a process of constant reaffirmation and reconnection.

At the beginning of the FoodWhat year, it’s all about getting kids to show up. If they show up at the program, they’ll have a good day. Doron’s team spends the first few months helping youth open the door again and again. Texting kids to remind them to come. Picking up kids when they need a ride. Reaching out to kids who seem to be fading away. If they open the door enough times, they’ll figure out how to get into the room, and why it matters.

And that’s just getting in the door. Once they’re in the room, Doron’s team has a whole stack of techniques for going deeper with youth, helping them step into their own power on their own terms. He’s managing a mansion of opportunities for relevance and meaning.

What makes teenagers such a tough crowd? Developmentally, teens are in the midst of a huge shift of agency and self-knowledge. They wrestle to assert their identities and what is relevant to them in a sea of hormonal change and uncertainty. Before their teen years, children are sponges. They have very little agency, and as long as they are in supportive environments, they are mostly okay with that. They go where adults tell them to go. They are open to learning whatever someone else tells them is important. Relevance is not so relevant to them.

Adults, in contrast, have a lot of agency. They go where they want, choose what they want, learn what they want (within or in defiance of societal norms). Relevance is a heavy guiding hand in how adults live their lives. It is the internal voice suggesting what they might and might not want to do.

Teenagers are in the middle. They are developing self-knowledge, setting new boundaries, gaining a stronger sense of what they want and where they want to be. At the same time, their agency is still limited. They feel the friction of limited agency more acutely than their younger or older compatriots. Whenever they have some agency, they struggle to decide: is this relevant for me? Do I want to buy in? Or do I want to peel out?

In this way, teens are no different from adults who are trying something new. Think of the last time you brought something new into your life—a new activity, a lifestyle choice, a cuisine. As you sat there munching sushi for the first time, as you sweated it out in kickboxing, as you slid on that pair of skinny jeans, you probably asked yourself: is this me? Do I want this to be part of my life?

Teenagers ask themselves these questions all the time. But while most adults have a somewhat fixed sense of identity, teens’ identities are in constant flux—which leads to a more complicated calculus of what is relevant, and why.

Because teens are still developing of their identities and goals, they don’t just care whether something is relevant to them now. They care whether something is relevant to who they may want to be—to their idealized perception of their authentic identity. For teens, every photo they share, every activity they opt in or out of, every outfit they wear, is part of establishing their desired identity. And so even as they seek relevance, they seek relevance to a shifting target. To the person they want to be, not necessarily the person they are.

FoodWhat does this in a deep way, providing teenagers with keys to safe spaces where they can explore their potential. As one FoodWhat alumna said at the 2015 graduation: “I used to steal cars. I was going down a bad path with the wrong people. But since my time at FoodWhat, I’m living differently. Now, I have purpose. I guess you can say I’m part ex-con, part farmer, part queen.”

These personal transformations start small. They start with relevance. Each week, Doron re-anchors the teens’ time together on their terms. He reopens the door to the work they do together, ushering youth deeper into the opportunities before them. Each session starts with something that comes from the heart—not his heart, but the hearts of the kids in the room. Those starters don’t have to be complex. One day, the kids sit in a circle. Doron asks each teen: take a minute and think of a word that is most important to you. Then one at a time, the youth share their words and why they chose them. I’m Maria. Family is a word that matters to me. Michael. Loyalty. Jose. Happiness. Tawnesha. Trust.

Even farming tasks start with relevance. Instead of saying, “let’s go weed the onions,” Doron will say, “in two weeks, we want big fatty onions to put in the boxes that you take home to your parents or guardians and that we distribute out in the community.” That gets them excited. They want those fatty onions for their families. They want to be proud of their work. And then Doron might layer in some science: “Onions are shallow rooters, and so are these weeds, so if we take out the weeds, we give the onions more room to get big.” So now they know why they are weeding.

In a regular job, teens just get told, “do this.” But by providing twenty seconds of context, the task becomes relevant. Inspiring, even. And it communicates respect to the youth involved.

Doron and his team have shaped the room of FoodWhat into a safe space for youth to step into their own power. FoodWhat’s program- ming is relevant to the teens’ struggles and dreams. This isn’t superficial relevance. It’s not “let’s talk about celebrities” relevance. It’s “open up your heart” relevance. The program invites youth to explore what matters most to them and who they want to be.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Art of Relevance Sneak Peek: Whose Room is This?

This month, I'm sharing a few chapters from my new book The Art of Relevance to celebrate its release. Read more online and buy your own copy today.

One of my biggest aha moments while writing The Art of Relevance was moving away from the idea that there are "traditional" audiences and "new" audiences and instead thinking about people in terms of "insiders" and "outsiders". Here's a chapter from Part 2 of the book, Outside In, that explores the differences in how insiders and outsiders perceive institutional change. 

Whose Room is This?

I was a new parent, having lunch with a lesbian activist, when she told me the best-kept secret of hipster parenting in Santa Cruz: the Elks Lodge.

I knew the Elks Lodge as the weird building on the hill with an overabundance of wood paneling. The Elks, or the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks as they are officially called, are a fraternal society of do-gooders founded in 1868. For over one hundred years, they accepted white men only. It took until the mid-1990s for women and people of color to be eligible for membership, and even then, most Elks Lodges stayed white, male, and aging.

But funny things were afoot at Lodge 824 in Santa Cruz. By 2015, the Elks Lodge had become a haven for LGBT parents of young children. I didn’t get it. I thought of the Elks Lodge community as a bunch of elderly guys at the bar. Then my friend explained: it was all about the pool.

The only public pool in the city of Santa Cruz was closed in the 2008 recession for four years. During that dry spell, a few enterprising families sought another place to take a dip. They noted that the Elks Lodge had a great pool, plus cheap drinks and a barbecue. So a few of them got sponsored by existing members, swore to believe in God and fight Communism, and they were in. Over time, they became a dominant force at the Lodge, taking on leadership positions and advocating for more active community involvement. They had trouble getting all the way in the room; elder Elks stuck to traditions like weekly board meetings during the workday that made it hard for newcomers to fully participate. But still, what was once a bar for old men expanded to become a community center for young families, led by a group of lesbians who only twenty years ago would have been shunned and excluded by the Elks.

You can read this story at least two ways. Is it a story about an old room made relevant for new reasons? Or is it a story about change and cooptation of someone’s sacred space?

In any situation where you are trying to make something relevant, what you are really trying to do is make it relevant to new people or more people. Unless it’s a brand new endeavor, you aren’t starting at zero. It’s already relevant to somebody. There were already Elks. There were already opera lovers. There were already insiders.

We all have our own personal Yellowstones, the insider places we want to protect from change. Embrace your inner insider for a moment. Think of something you love just as it is. A restaurant. A fictional character. An art form. A park. Now imagine someone saying publicly, “We are going to make X relevant to new people. We’re going to make some changes and open it up to new folks. We need to be more inclusive.”

When you are on the inside, this doesn’t sound like inclusive language. It sounds threatening. It sounds like the thing that you hold dear being adulterated for public consumption. Insiders often know the totality of an entity (or have constructed their own version of it). They have a clear story about what the entity is—and isn’t. And so reaching out to someone new doesn’t look additive. It looks like a shift away from what was. A dilution of services, a distortion of values. That shift means loss, not gain.

Outsiders have a different view. They can’t see the change the way insiders do. For them, relevance is a brand new door, an outstretched hand. It’s OK if at first only one part of an entity is relevant to someone new. The exhibition that speaks to their interests. The paved walking path around Old Faithful. The pool at the Elks Lodge. The entity wasn’t relevant at all previously, so if even a slice of its offerings are now relevant, the outsider has gained something worthwhile. Outsiders don’t want the room rearranged in their own image. But they do want to see reflections, expansions, and distortions of their experiences in ways that allow them to form new connections.

Anytime you look at an organization and think: “They’ve gone too far. They ought not to do that,” it’s worth asking yourself why. It’s rare that an entity adds something to their programming that is so divergent, and so powerful, that it injures other aspects of the institution. It may injure your idea of that institution, but it’s worth asking whether it really injures the entity itself. Is the room still intact? Is there still a place for you in it? That’s what matters.

To be relevant, we need to cultivate open-hearted insiders. Insiders who are thrilled to welcome in new people. Who are delighted by new experiences. The greatest gift that insiders can give outsiders is to help them build new doors. To say, I want you here—not on my terms, but on yours. I’m excited you think there might be something of value in this room. Let me help you access it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Introducing: The Art of Relevance

Kid-tested, nonprofit-approved.
It's official. My new book, The Art of Relevance, is now available and ready to move from my computer to your hands.

I suggest at this point that you stop reading this post and go buy it. Right now.

Not convinced? Here's more about the book and what you can expect.


I've been simultaneously energized and mystified by how often the word "relevance" comes up in the nonprofit world. Is it a fad? A core value? A revelation?

My institution has been waving the flag of relevance for years now. Relevance is one of our five engagement goals. We put a lot of work into developing ways to expand local relevance--to make meaningful connections with diverse people in our community. And yet, the more convinced I became about the value of relevance, the more unsure I was of what it actually means. I wanted to get beyond the buzzword. I wanted to learn more.

Last summer, a powerful encounter with two 130-year-old surfboards spurred me from curiosity to action. I dove into research and talked to dozens of people doing inspiring, surprising work around the world. I worked feverishly to translate their stories into a tight, poetic, enjoyable, useful form. The result is this book.


The Art of Relevance is about how mission-based institutions can matter more to more people. By "mission-based institutions," I mean museums, libraries, theaters, parks, churches, synagogues, afterschool programs, informal science programs, zoos, aquaria, symphonies, historic sites, dance companies... all these and more are featured as case studies.

The Art of Relevance is not a how-to. It is not a definitive guide. It is the field notes from the quest I've been on for the past year to understand relevance and its ability to open new doors for new people to powerful, big, valuable experiences.

The book is separated into five sections:
  • What is Relevance? - definitions, delusions, and reality checks on what relevance can and cannot do
  • Outside In - exploring the different expectations and interests of insiders, who already love what you do, and outsiders, who are excluded or unaware of the value you offer
  • Relevance and Community - getting to a clearer definition of who you want to be relevant to and what they value and desire
  • Relevance and Mission - using your institutional mission as the foundation for making more meaningful connections with your community of interest
  • The Heart of Relevance - measuring relevance at the front door and at deeper levels of connection
The chapters are short, the stories are punchy, and there's a central metaphor that ties it all together. While the book focuses on institutional relevance, there are a lot of personal stories in the book too, and early reviewers commented on how much they found themselves reflecting on their lives as well as their work as they read the draft.


Almost a year ago, I took a risk. I ended my 8+ year streak of blogging at least once a week. I did it to free myself to be able to spend time on more speculative or ambitious writing projects--projects like this book.

I am continually grateful to all of you who read, share, and comment on this blog. Whether you've been with me since 2006 or are just getting connected now, you've inspired me, motivated me, and shaped my thinking and work. I was incredibly nervous when I stopped blogging weekly last year that it would mean a slow fade away from writing and reflective practice. But you gave me that permission, and it opened up a whole book full of exploration I didn't know was inside me. You gave me the roadmap to write this book.

I hope you will read The Art of Relevance. I hope you'll like it. I hope you'll recommend it to others. I hope you'll tell me what you love and where we disagree and how these thoughts could be pushed further. Most of all, I hope you will continue to inspire, mentor, and motivate me in my work. Thank you for constantly doing the work of relevance by unlocking new meaning for me and for each other.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Art of Relevance Sneak Peek: How the London Science Museum Became More Relevant to Deaf Families

This month, I'm sharing a few chapters from my new book The Art of Relevance in advance of its release. I wrote this book because of a fundamental curiosity about what relevance is and how it works. Here's one of my favorite stories about the London Science Museum and their work to make their science shows relevant to families with deaf or hearing-impaired family members. 

This chapter appears midway through the book. The Art of Relevance has a central metaphor that relevance is a key that unlocks the door to meaningful experiences (which live in a room). To get into this chapter, imagine that your institution/program/art is a room. There are doors through which people enter your room. This chapter explores the difference between connecting with new people by building new doors vs. connecting with new people by changing the content of the room.

Build a Door or Change the Room?

Once you understand your community of interest, you have a choice. You can build relevance by constructing new doors. Or you can change the programming within the room itself. Or both.

How can you decide when to build new doors, when to change the room, and when to do both?

Building new doors is a form of marketing. When you build a new door, you invite someone new into a pre-existing room. This strategy is successful when you have an existing room with a compelling experience and a credible sense that that experience will be relevant to your audience of interest. Remember New World Symphony, the Miami orchestra that used night club marketing techniques to attract young urbanites to classical music? Or the promotores at the Waukegan Public Library sharing their offerings with Latino immigrants? They are in the door-building business. Building new doors, wider doors, or doors that are open different hours of the day works when you think you have the right programming to offer your community of interest—you just need to find them and invite them into the room in a welcoming manner.

Changing the room means changing programming. If you think the experience you have to offer will be challenging, confounding, or off-putting for your audience of interest, you can’t just build them a door and hope for the best. You are going to have to change what you actually offer to make it relevant, as opposed to just changing how you market it. Think of the Subjects to Change teen program, or the free lunches at the Cleveland Public Library. These new programs fundamentally altered their institution’s offerings. When communities of interest avoid your programming regardless of your marketing investments, you need to change the room. If people attend once and don’t come back, it’s probably a problem with the experience and not the marketing.

It’s not always easy to make these distinctions in the real world. There are many times when we need to change the room but focus only on the door—or we embark on a room renovation and ignore the fact that the existing door doesn’t give people a sense of what has changed inside.

Imagine two institutions in an ethnically-diverse city. Each decides to invest in providing content in English and Spanish as part of an effort to increase relevance to their communities. Institution A makes all its marketing materials bilingual, but changes nothing about the languages spoken inside its walls. Institution B recruits new Spanish-speaking staff to offer programs in both languages, but makes no changes to its monolingual marketing materials.

A is working the door. B is shifting the room. Each has made remarkable strides towards their goal, but each is limited by how far they’ve gone. Will Spanish-speaking outsiders walk into A expecting experiences en espanol and walk out disappointed? Will outsiders ignore B’s programming entirely, not knowing it is para ellos?

The obvious answer is that you need both A and B. Many times, we find that we need both new doors and changed rooms, but we don’t know how to sequence them for the greatest impact.

That’s what happened at the London Science Museum as they worked to make their science shows relevant to deaf audiences. The museum’s science shows are family-oriented presentations by high-energy performers, full of surprising experiments and explosions. Museum staff knew the shows appealed to diverse families, and they wanted to reach deaf families in particular. So they started with a new door and a slight shift to the room. They marketed the shows to deaf families at the door, and provided a sign language interpreter at the presentations in the room.

The new door and shifted room were a start, but they weren’t enough. Only a handful of deaf families walked in the door, and what they got wasn’t satisfying. The marketing and the changes to the science shows weren’t working. For hearing audiences, the high energy of the presenter, combined with the visual and audial bangs of the experiments, made for an exciting show. But for deaf audiences, the experience was frustrating. The sign language interpreter was off to the side, far from the scientific action. That placement made it hard for deaf people to both see the fiery displays and follow the interpreter’s information. The interpreter was not a high-enthusiasm actor like the presenter, which dampened the overall energy of the experience. And any loud audial bangs were either completely inaudible, or in some cases, distressing, for people who were deaf and hard of hearing.

The Museum had made a real commitment to deaf families, and they wanted to get it right. They decided to try again. They took a step back and asked deaf families to help them. The Museum recruited deaf families to come in, and they did some special pilot shows for deaf families only. Hearing staff members couldn’t identify the issues that made the shows unappealing for deaf families—but deaf people could. The focus groups helped the Museum understand the need for sign language performers, not just interpreters. They helped the Museum consider the varied needs of their families, which often included both hearing and hearing-impaired family members. They helped the Museum understand that word of mouth was the most important form of marketing in their tight-knit community, and that that community wanted more opportunities to get together socially. The families gave loads of feedback, which prompted the Museum to change their approach.

The Museum moved away from the idea of sign language interpretation as an amenity to layer onto individual science shows. Instead, staff created a monthly Saturday afternoon event called SIGNtific, geared specifically to deaf families but inclusive of all. At the door, SIGNtific days are not solely about science programming. They are about deaf-led community experiences with science. SIGNtific’s new door is more relevant to deaf families and their expressed interests.

And then inside the room, they changed the shows. Instead of offering sign language interpretation as an add-on, SIGNtific shows flip the roles of presenter and interpreter. The presenters up front doing the experiments are deaf performers, supplemented by off-stage performers who provide voiceovers for hearing guests. While having sign language interpreters off to the side was a barrier to comprehension, voiceover interpretation causes no such problems. Hearing audience members can fully participate in the shows, watching the deaf performers onstage and listening to voiceover interpretation. Furthermore, the staff designed SIGNtific shows to ensure that audible bangs or noises are not essential to the scientific concepts conveyed. Which means the whole family—and anyone else who happens to visit the museum on SIGNtific days—can have a relevant, enjoyable experience with the science shows.

The Science Museum didn’t need to have a brilliant sense of the needs of deaf families to become relevant to them. They just had to be open to feedback and guidance from their new audience. They learned from their community of interest. They fixed what was broken. They changed the door and the room.