The Earthquake is Coming. How Do We Withstand it?

By    Feb 2, 2015

A soldier watches as a fiddler plays a tune in the ruins of Baalbek, Lebanon. A somewhat perfect juxtaposition and incredibly beautiful reminder. (C) Taylor Craig

Crisis is everywhere. We are surrounded by it. It’s in the news headlines, in the text we just got from a family member and even in the daily operations of our organizations. Crisis can be both internal and external, personal and public. Personally, it feels as if we are surrounded yet distant from this word and its meaning. When it is not taking place in our backyard, we often don’t think or feel the effects of a crisis so intensely.

The ways in which we react to crisis situations are shaped by our identity. I believe organizations have identities too. So, what does this all mean for arts and culture organizations and the people that work in them?

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Lebanon where I visited the ancient ruins of Byblos and Baalbek, drank Almaza and ate the most delicious hummus I have ever tasted, while overlooking the Mediterranean. (I know, you are thinking how does her lovely trip to the Paris of the Middle East relate to me and my work? I promise, it does.) I spent the evening dancing in Achrafieh and took in the fabulous city of Beirut from the rooftop of a good friend’s home. I also, for the first time in my life, saw the real and recent remnants of crisis – not memorials or over grown fields where a battle once occurred but, vacant hotel buildings with giant bomb holes, exposing their neglect. These physical reminders of the nation’s long civil war are tucked next to new homes and extravagant restaurants. This made the news stories real. It shook me up a little. It was like nothing I had ever experienced. This brought me to the (often set to the wayside) realization that crisis to this extent does happen, is happening and that crisis, turmoil and disruption can occur at any time.

I have never personally been in the midst of a crisis environment to the extent that my surroundings in Lebanon suggested. However, these reminders of war allowed me to reflect on the crisis situations that I have faced. Crisis causes disruption and uncertainty, leaving you in a volatile environment where often – you just react. We tend to be reactionary in these situations because our subconscious begins to take hold when the ground gets shaky. These beliefs are encompassed by our identity, which breaks down to our personal feelings in relation to inclusiveness and belonging – how we want to be seen. We choose sides and take stances during these situations based on this identity.

Do our organizations function in the same way during these times of crisis? What differences lie in the need to maintain structure internally while also engaging external stakeholders and their perceptions?

To explore this topic more in depth, I sought to speak with someone who deals with crisis environments constantly – Dr. Wendy Sternberg, founder and director of Genesis at the Crossroads (GATC), a Chicago based organization that uses art and education to facilitate peace building worldwide. While we are not all working at the forefront of war or social crisis, like much of Wendy’s work, it is inevitable that our organizations will be faced with (and likely have already) something unexpected and challenging. Wendy provided several important thoughts to keep in mind for when the ground does in fact start to shake a bit.

Have A Clear Mission and Vision Statement (And Know It!)

Wendy states that being aware of your identity for when these times occur is essential. She has found that it is important to be so incredibly clear about your organization’s mission and vision as well as who you are, what you are out to cause and what you are willing to walk away from. Wendy further shapes that a strong stance is necessary alongside the clarity, where no amount of money or notoriety can make you change your mind.

Approach the Public Eye with Caution

Notoriety was a large part of the conversation Wendy and I shared because being a public institution in a crisis situation inevitably catches the public’s eye. The public will quickly attach itself to a story to follow and they follow with a bias. Wendy recommends approaching these situations cautiously when the crisis you are facing is the highlight of a story as this can ultimately effect the reputation of your organization and therefore, its identity. Think of reputation here as the way you are seen – both internal and external. This can impact the views and feelings of staff as well as funders, artists, partner organizations and the community. As organizations, we have choices and we construct them, but we don’t always have complete control over this construction. Externally, our identity is not only shaped by our location, constituency and moral standing, but also by our portrayal in the media and word of mouth. Internally, we think of our organizational identity as that in which we as a brand create and choose to recognize as an organization – void from outside influence. However, even our chosen and desired identity attributes are fundamentally shaped by key stakeholders in our organization, their values, judgments and opinions and our need to respond to these areas.

Create Purposeful Partnerships

Wendy spoke of the importance of making purposeful choices when it comes to partners and donors where shared gains exist and aligned outcomes are discussed. Context is decisive and Wendy conveys that when partners start putting parameters on you, a polarizing agenda can be set forth and censorship can ensue. She states “the moment in which you allow things to become a slippery slope – this is the beginning of losing your identity.” If we begin to react to a crisis situation without thinking of our mission and our stakeholders, this begins to degrade the identity we have constructed and set forth. Choosing partners often comes at the beginning of a programmatic process, before the crisis has erupted. So, how do we ensure we are establishing strong and agile partners when the challenge is right in our face?

Come Together

One of the most compelling statements Wendy made during our conversation was, “In a time of crisis, don’t go into isolation, don’t retreat, come together, that is where you find your common humanity.” At the heart of this statement is the message: we’re all in this together; we can support one another and stand stronger together. This is where the relationship between maintaining structure internally and engaging external perceptions can play a role. In times of crisis (whatever that may be) it is ultimately more beneficial to go out and join the community rather than turn inward and shy away from those who support you, most notably your members and audiences. As arts and culture organizations, I believe we have a unique relationship with our communities that allows for these connections to be held throughout challenging times.

We all have remnants of past crises. We’ve all weathered crisis in some form. Crises are constant. How can we remain sure of the identity of our organizations and how our audiences respond to it during times of crisis where identity is particularly unsteady and consistently challenged? What unique roles do arts and culture organizations play in times of crisis?