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Welcome to the second installment of Navigating the New Normal: Nonprofit Lessons Learned in the Covid-19 Era, featuring insights from leaders at several of our community partner organizations. Click here to read last week's series introduction, penned by MMI's Director of Grantmaking and Capacity Building, Rychetta Watkins. 

Today, we're featuring an interview with Lar'Juanette Williams, Executive Director at the Memphis Black Arts Alliance (MBAA). MMI recently spoke with Lar'Juanette about how MBAA has pivoted and evolved over the course of the pandemic, and what lessons she's carrying with her into the future. 

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MMI: Tell me a little bit about your career before MBAA. Did you work with the organization before you were Executive Director? 

Lar'Juanette: Well, actually, when I was a young adult, I had written a play. Someone who was part of the Alliance asked me about putting it on. I didn’t really have the money to put the play on at the time, and he said, "If you trust me, I’ll see if I can do something." He brought it to the Memphis Black Arts Alliance, and they went to Memphis Arts Council at the time, which is now Arts Memphis, and they helped to get funding for me to do my first production.

After that, I left Memphis and went abroad for a while, living the life of an artist. I moved back to Memphis in 2015 to be with my family. When I returned, I took a job working with the city comptroller's office. Bennie Nelson West, who was the founder of MBAA, was trying to retire, and she called me and asked me first to be one of the program officers. I said okay. Then, she asked me to take over—she said she knew I was supposed to do it. So I prayed. God reminded me how this organization helped me when I was very young, and I knew it was time for me to take some of that knowledge I’d gained in my career thus far and give it back to the arts and culture here in the city. So, here I am. 

MMI: Wow, that's a great story. You got to do both. And since coming on board as Executive Director, you’ve had a few years pre-pandemic to really dig into the work. What does a "normal" year offer at the Memphis Black Arts Alliance pre-pandemic?

Lar'Juanette: We were very, very busy. When MBAA was founded, we started out with 19 different arts organizations, working along with them or networking with them. Now, we have about 50. I like to say that the Memphis Black Arts Alliance is kind of like the grandmother to most of the African-American arts organizations in the area, because most of them have ties and go back to the original 19 people that started the Alliance to begin with, which is the coolest thing.

Before the pandemic, we had four different programs. One was called MemBAN, or the Memphis Black Artists Network, and they call on us for whatever—if they need dancers, we call a choreographer who has access to a dance company, for example. We connect in different ways. 

A second program we have is called ArtsReach. Through this program, we take actual artists, people that are working arts professionals, into underserved communities so we can offer arts to those children free of charge. Another component of it is our private classes. Every now and then people will call and say that they want to learn how to play piano or drums. 

Then, we have our productions. We believe that once artists are taught, they need to be able to showcase their work. We bring various artists together, and we work it out for six to eight weeks, and then we present it somewhere. We also have a summer camp, which is kind of a combination of ArtsReach and our productions, and every year they do a production as well. We bring different artists in every day to meet the kids. Kids get a chance to hear about their career and experiences, talk with them, and learn more about what they do. We usually go for major people, like Charles Streeter, who plays for Mariah Carey.

And so the final thing that we do, which is one of the most important things that we do, is we preserve the arts. We have a format called Jazz-A-Fire that was happening long before I got here. We’ve since added a component to it called the Living Legend series, in which we honor a local living legend and present them an award, basically saying, "Thank you for the contributions you've made to the musical fabric of Memphis, Tennessee, and for the future generations of music." We've honored over 20 music legends that are local here in the city. Last year during the pandemic, developed the Sankofa Living Legend series. Because we couldn't gather anymore, we had the children pick an artist that they wanted to get to know. And we set up interview calls, and they got a chance to connect with the artist and talk with them, learn about them. And then they developed a digital story, like a short-form documentary, about the artist.

So that's MBAA. We love the arts. We preserve, celebrate, and advance the arts. That's what we do.

MMI: So at MMI, when the pandemic hit, I think we all thought that we would probably be back in the office in two or three weeks. And then, of course, that did not happen. How did MBAA respond in those early days of the pandemic? Did you close down right away, and how did you pivot?

Lar'Juanette: Well, we complied with all the guidelines that the community leaders and  government leaders were asking us to follow, of course. When they asked us to shut down, we did shut down for the most part. But to be honest, this year has been a whole lot harder than last year, which is interesting.

Last year, we actually bloomed. I was like, "Okay, as the Alliance leader, I want the artists in the city not to feel like it's time to stop." Because when we, artists, don't do what we do, we get crazy. And so I put out on appeal, and I called a lot of the local leaders. We had about 16 or 17 of them come together and create videos to encourage other artists to use this time to create. That's what we called it, Time to Create. We featured digital artists, culinary artists, makeup artists, and more, and they all had something to say to the listeners: Don't sit down. This is not the time to sit down. This is the time for you to get up and get started on the projects that you were thinking that you wanted to do, but never had time to focus on before. We got a huge response.

I was also able to get my colleagues and friends to do virtual workshops for artists here. I've got some friends from New York that are on Broadway, friends from LA that are television and film stars. I’ve got friends who are local and involved in the arts, of course, but I called on people from all over the country to offer their insights. At one point, we got in contact with Dr. Harold Middlebrook, who was one of the civil rights leaders along with Dr. King. He was essential when they came here for the sanitation workers strike. And so for MLK 50, we asked him to come into town and he spoke at Clayborn Temple, standing room only. It was amazing. So I called arts leaders. We had the Orpheum, we had Playhouse on the Square, the Iris Orchestra, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Black people, white people—everyone. They all came and listened to what he said about us needing to take the baton and move toward real collaboration and diversity. He said, "It's up to you."

We did just that. Since then, we’ve collaborated with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and we’re talking with Opera Memphis now about a collaboration for next year. At the Levitt Shell, we’re currently in the process of doing opening acts for their Evolve series. 

And then I had the nerve to think that I can do a production with people in different cities to see if it could work—and it did. I have a friend in Los Angeles who is the artistic director of By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, Ensemble, which is kind of like the West Coast version of the New York Negro Ensemble. We decided on doing Doubt, which is a four-person cast. And we did a virtual production. We bought backdrops, and everyone had the same backdrop, of course. If one character had to give another character tea, we would get a tea set and send it to the different people so that it looked like one person was handing the cup to someone in the same room. It was like the coolest thing. We did it again this spring, and as a result of that production, Playhouse on the Square called and asked us to do something similar. . 

So you see? The actual year of the pandemic, we made it work. This year has been another story. I’ve had a lot of personal challenges, for one thing. And then obtaining funding is always difficult. It’s just been next to impossible this year—everybody kind of clamped down on things for obvious reasons. We did do a concert with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra at the Levitt Shell, which was a three-way collaboration. We're working with the Levitt Shell now, and hopefully that will continue. Now, we'll be able to present all of the different artists of color as pre-shows or opening acts. And we are getting ready to do a collaborative effort with Playhouse on the Square for Christmas. 

But to be honest with you, we couldn't do ArtsReach because no one's gathering. Because of what I've gone through personally, I hadn't been able to really get the children ready to do any more culture videos. We did start out thinking that we were going to be able to do the summer camp, and with the Delta variant, we had to kill that. 

MMI: It just keeps going, right? I keep waiting for it to kind of clear up, but it just feels interminable, sometimes. But it sounds like, at least early on, you had some big wins. I wonder, are there elements of the programming that you implemented, especially that first year of the pandemic, that you think you want to keep doing or retain even after this is in the rear-view mirror?

Lar'Juanette: Absolutely. I’m into this television/film stuff now, so I'm a woman on a mission. We’re getting ready to hit it hard. I bought a drone, too! I don’t know what to do with it yet, but I have it. But it's a process, and it does take money. But the lights are still on. 

MMI: It's tough, and I think that a lot of people who aren't in the nonprofit space, especially when businesses started opening back up again and it seemed like things were headed that direction, I think the average person probably doesn't understand how different it is for nonprofits to keep operating through times like this.

Lar'Juanette: Exactly.

MMI: So how has your approach to your work changed if it has at all, as you look toward the future of MBAA? 

Lar'Juanette: Well, I'm always trying to be in a better place, but I think to some extent it's the nature of the beast. We're artists, so we're always trying to think of what's new on the horizon. We're always trying to find out what best suits what we do, pulling together our own personal creativity and creating something new. That's just being an artist. We can't be too complacent, because we get crazy when we're not creating. 

MMI: Very cool. What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the last couple of years?

Lar'Juanette: The lesson that I've learned—and this was a hard way to learn it—is that I’ve got to learn how to better seek funding and not depend on what I thought I could. I've got to think further, think bigger, and that's a hard lesson to learn when you're sitting here trying to figure out how you're going to keep the lights on. We can't do what we do without money, and if you don't have it, you can't do it. You know what I'm saying? So that's my newest thing, sustainability.

I still haven't totally figured it out, but it hasn't stopped us from doing work. It hasn't stopped us from doing good work. But things keep changing. You think you have it nailed? No, you don’t. You think you have it nailed in. No, you don't.

Another lesson I've learned is that I've not learned enough. I have not learned enough about what it takes to actually sustain an organization like this. I've asked a mentor, "Are we relevant?" Because of course you start asking yourself that question in tough times like these. And we all have our moments of, Do I just fold and forget it? And he said, "Yes, you are relevant." I should have asked him why, because maybe that would have given me some insights into what we need to do, but sometimes you just need to hear that. 

MMI: Yeah, absolutely. So it sounds like you're in kind of a learning and rebuilding time right now.

Lar'Juanette: I am. Learning, rebuilding, and continuing the work. 

Editor’s note: Check out MBAA’s brand-new website to stay up-to-date on events, programs, and more! And be sure to follow them on Facebook and Instagram.

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Tune in next week for our one-on-one interview with Stephen Lee, founder and Executive Director of the Memphis Jazz Workshop