by Kiesha Davis

I’ve been pondering over a challenge posed by Susan Taylor Batten during the opening plenary of this past ABFE Annual Conference – The Fierce Urgency of Now, held here in Memphis a few weeks ago. When detailing the themes for the conference, she made reference to “investing in the leadership versus the labor of black people.” That charge resonated with me immensely as I reflect on our work here at the Memphis Music Initiative.

Our work, featured in the recent study Toward the Future in Arts Philanthropy is centered on the low risk investment in community empowerment through arts funding. The study explores the funding and programmatic practices of MMI in the context of arts funding, arts education, and youth development to offer a framework for others committed to equity in the arts to consider when building out their work in this space.

The effects of race and place on access to funding and resources – which is coined in our study as “philanthropic redlining”– illustrates patterns of exclusionary funding practices which all too regularly confront black and brown led arts organizations and their missions of serving often marginalized communities. These practices are illuminated even more in comparison to analysis of public funding for the arts. As public funding for the arts has declined at the state and federal levels by as much as 10-30% in the last ten years, the situation for racialized organizations becomes even more precarious as they most often depend on public funding to pursue their missions. Our commitment to combat this phenomenon through a proactive, and corrective, approach we call “disruptive philanthropy” are crucial aspects of our analysis.

In addition to operating direct programs that are tailored to expanding access to music engagement opportunities for black and brown youth, we also support the local arts ecosystem, often the front lines in community extending opportunities for black and brown youth to gain access to music programs. We believe that investing in black led organizations is an investment in long term community sustainability. We invest to build strong and efficient organizations through operational grant funding as well as supports to foster sustainability and improve the quality of their programs. Our support aims to enhance the capability of nonprofit organizations to deliver programs and to secure funding and other resources beyond those provided by MMI, so that youth always have access to high quality music programming. We aim to build a pipeline of community based leaders and recognize their brilliance, commitment and skill to move conditions forward for black and brown youth.  Our approach aims to give black leaders the space and time to learn and grow towards their greatest heights in meeting their missions.

In our direct programs, we also take that investment to an even higher level through building the leadership skills of black and brown youth through MMI Works which creates paid summer opportunities for high school students to work at arts organizations and gain equitable access to career training as well as professional/personal development. We also invest in the region’s creative economy by employing and pairing local musicians to Memphis schools, impacting more than 4,000 students through instruction and mentorship in our In-Schools Fellowship program.

And again, I think about Susan’s words as I recently accepted the nomination to chair the board of a local nonprofit management service organization charged with building the momentum of the nonprofit sector to drive equitable, measurable and lasting change here in Memphis.  Her words become more poignant in light of the fact that I will be the second woman to chair the board of this organization within its 25 year history, but more significantly the first African American in a city that has been majority black for decades. What that reminds me is that as far as we’ve come, there are harsh realities for the black community that still grip this city on a daily basis.

Undoubtedly, as Susan’s remarks from the conference espoused, black people are more than just the laborers of this nation, but the creative force behind so many innovations that have propelled this country forward. We are not just physical frames to accomplish menial tasks, but we offer a brilliance of spirit that will continue to carry us through. Through MMI’s work to invest in black leadership, we create space for the kind of community we deserve and will allow us to thrive.

As Director of Grantmaking and Capacity Building, Kiesha Davis leads a team responsible for the stewardship of Memphis Music Initiative’s (MMI) investments to build strong and efficient organizations. She leads the team in the development of strategies to foster organizational sustainability and improve the quality of music engagement programs for black and brown youth. Kiesha’s passion for creating equitable opportunities for communities of color is bolstered by her membership on the boards of Star Academy Charter School and the Momentum Nonprofit Partners in Memphis. In 2015, was named a member of the 10th ABFE Connecting Leaders Fellowship Program class.