Emerging Leaders of Color Connecting Communities with the Arts

Adrian Molina didn’t get into the arts to work in politics. The Denver-based poet, emcee and educator, who raps and records prolifically as Molina Speaks, is motivated by a creative forces — an impulse to make music, not policy.

Yet next month he’ll find himself in Washington, D.C., working the halls of Capitol Hill, advocating for the arts.

“It’s a chance to inform them, on a ground level, of what we’re doing as artists and people working in the community, of what we need and what we want,” says Molina. “I plan to speak up for and about the various organizations I work with, and make sure these elected officials know how important these organizations are to the community.”

“You don’t have to be an elected official or run for office, to make an impact, to claim power or to be a policymaker,” says Molina. “We are constantly creating policy in some regards, maybe not in a legislative level, but in the community and connections we make. We’re making policy on the ground, and we should see it as our responsibility to speak to the people who are supposed to represent us.”

Molina will visit DC as a member of the Emerging Leaders of Color (ELC), a network of young professionals from across the west who represent the next generation of leaders in the arts: young, energetic, ambitious, African-American, Latino, Asian. In Washington, they’ll join a delegation of advocates who will ask elected leaders to support the arts as an engine of social equality, as vital as any other right.

Founded in 2010, the ELC is the brainchild of the Denver-based Western States Arts Federation (WESTAF), which supports arts policy and research across the western region. The ELC’s 50-plus members come from different cultural backgrounds and artistic disciplines, from film and dance to hip-hop, literature and folklore.

The members share a common experience of working within a field where leaders of color are rare. As arts groups struggle to build audiences and meaningful connections among diverse communities, the ELC works to boost the careers and consciousness of future executive directors and nonprofit managers, advocates, activists and decision-makers.

“The ELC is a pipeline project to promote multicultural leadership in the field of the arts, and to support the continued work of diverse arts leaders regionally,” says Chrissy Deal, program associate of WESTAF’s Multicultural Initiative. “The overall goal is to promote arts and culture in an environment that can be enjoyed by all. To achieve that, individuals who are creating programs, setting policy and making decisions related to resources should represent the communities that they’re serving.

“When you look at the demographic makeup of these offices, they’re predominantly staffed by white men and women,” Deal continues. “They’re doing good work, and they care about their communities, but it begs the question: If your goal is to serve all communities, yet you perhaps lack and understanding of the needs of underrepresented or marginalized communities, how can you meet those needs?”

Arts as a right

Every year, a new class of ELC members meet to network, bond and explore everything from the nuts and bolts of arts funding to the burdens and rewards of leadership. Last November’s conference, in Denver, began with a reading of the statute that established funding for the National Endowment for the Arts in 1965.

“It’s right there: As a citizen of this country, you have a right to this experience,” says Deal. “So when they are going to the legislature or speaking to funders about the importance of arts education or with young people, they don’t have to rely on their passion or say, ‘This is important because the artistic spirit needs to live and thrive.’ They’re given information and facts that help drive home the idea that, as leaders, they can be a bridge that helps citizens gain access to arts and culture.

“We see that lightbulb go on,” Deal adds. “It’s like, until this experience, they didn’t understand their role as leaders. Now it’s like, ‘Well, I’ve got to step up. I have to answer the call. I can’t wait to use this information.'”

At the start of the Denver conference, Molina was skeptical. He’d been to a lot of “diversity” events where we was one of the few people of color, expected to speak for all Latinos.

“I was kind of like, ‘Okay. Another social justice/race/class conversation.’ I wasn’t really that excited,” says Molina. “Once I got into the space, during introductions, I heard where everyone was coming from, I knew it was going to be a really positive experience to be part of this cohort.

“It was unusual, not being the one who was there to provide the diversity,” he continues. “And it was genuine diversity, of every kind, not just racial: It was geographic, diversity of perspective, gender, gender preference. There were people from organizing backgrounds, people looking at the different sides, with different leanings. Everybody was there for the purpose of gathering knowledge and taking it back to their community. Within two hours, I was like, alright, ‘I’m gonna be here.’ It was really exciting.”

“It was a very powerful experience to be with a group of like-minded, motivated, young professionals who have shared experiences and similar backgrounds,” says Alexandria Jiminez, program director of PlatteForum and a member of the 2015 ELC. “Yet, we all brought something different to the table that made for dynamic discussions. It was also amazing to have that much energy around issues that directly impact the Denver creative community.

“ELC gave me time to be present and soak in all of the amazing things that are happening locally and nationally in the arts,” Jiminez adds. “It helped me look beyond my own hang-ups and assess how to take the next steps in the work I do.”

The long view

ELC members stay in touch professionally and creatively to share resources and follow-up on goals. Molina is working on a musical collaboration with fellow artists he met at the Denver conference. Opportunities, like the upcoming visit to DC, part of a larger group of WESTAF delegates, are a chance to sharpen and deepen skills and connections. While there, ELC alumni will plan next year’s conference, which will bring past participants together for an intensive three-day symposium.

WESTAF sees the ELC as a model for other state and regional agencies; last spring, Deal presented the program at Colorado Creative Industries‘ annual summit. This year, she’ll address the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies.

“It’s really a practical, simple program in many ways,” she says. “We’re helping people network, understand terminology. We help participants understand how they can make changes, in whatever position they’re in. And that’s what we want to share with the broader field: the fact that people feel powerless at their organizations. And that valuing people of color should be an institution-wide effort, not a task to be checked off.”

“I know the program has made an impact because others and I engage with an increasing number of ELC alumni in policy conversations at higher and higher levels throughout the region,” says Anthony Radich, executive director of WESTAF. “We have a long way to go, but seeing the program’s graduates starting the populate the significant forums and discussion bodies is a great start.”

This story is part of a series on the impact of arts and the creative community in Denver. This partnership with Confluence Denver and Creative Exchange is underwritten by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation. This is part one of a two-part story on racial equity in the arts. Read part one here

Bonfils Stanton