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A conversation with Lar'Juanette Williams, Memphis Black Arts Alliance

In the study, we explore this idea of “philanthropic redlining,” where essentially certain groups – primarily black- and brown-led organizations – are just excluded from traditional funding. Can you explain how you have experienced that with Memphis Black Arts Alliance or within the nonprofit sector?

I wouldn’t go so far as to say the organizations are completely excluded, but in my opinion, it seems that the funds are “limited.” I would use that word: limited. I say this as someone who’s sat on several grant panels – there was definitely a limited few groups that these organizations gave money to, and that is a tragedy – yet it did not stop Black arts. The thing about artists of color is that we’ve always found a way to do what we want to do! Get mama on the tickets. Get daddy to build the sets. We’ll find a way to make it happen, because we are artists through and through.

What do you think has been a critical piece in MBAA’s survival in this environment, given that some of the major avenues for funding may not have been available or been limited?

First, Memphis Black Arts Alliance was developed as a collaborative organization that had many African-American arts groups, arts organizations and artists that were under its umbrella. So it was easier to get support from certain funders, since they would give a lump sum of money and then MBAA would actually divvy that our amongst its members, depending on the grant, funding several different organizations with one amount.

The organization, over the course of time, changed drastically, where it shifted into a place of actually competing with the very groups that used to exist under that umbrella for funding.

If there was something that I would say was critical to our survival all these years, it would be relationships. My predecessor Bennie West was excellent at developing relationships with funders for the organizations that were under that umbrella. And those relationships never went away. Anytime I go anywhere, they know me because her – that being the case created a foundation for some stability. And also I think having the network of groups being funded was important, too.  The art of collaboration.  A funder is more apt to want to fund an organization that’s helping bridge gaps and is helping a lot of different people by collaborating with other organizations.

So now that the organization has shifted to more direct service and less of the umbrella, what do you think the challenges are with funding?

At the core, Funders want to see the community improve. But they also need to feel secure. They need to feel that if they’re going to invest a certain amount of money in you, that you can manage it well and you’re going to do what you say you’re going to do with it. So I think the trust component is huge. We have to establish relationships with the funder so that they trust us with their funding.  I think that because most funders have relationships with other organizations, white-led organizations, that they just have more of a tendency to trust them. They tend to trust that they will do what they say they’re going to do. That dividing line is there: relationship.  And it’s not that black or brown led organizations can’t be trusted – of course we can. But it’s all about the relationship, you know? Have we established trust with them?

How do you see that playing out and how do you try to address it?

Allow me to paint a picture for you:  There are some white dancers at a school, let’s say Germantown. They’re great. They’re very talented and very gifted. They approach funders about sending them to a community center in an underserved area like 38126. It’s in a choice neighborhood, recognized by the federal government as an area of concern. The funders like and accept their proposal and they are granted the funding. We see funders do this sort of thing all the time.

Now here comes another organization, let’s call it TriBar, and they have trained African American dancers for a many years and are equally as talented and gifted.  They desire to take their dancers over to the same community center, which is in their neighborhood, and need funding to do so.  So they apply.  “Well, we’re already sending dancers there.”  Unfortunately this happens a lot.

MBAA is going through a similar scenario right now. I think Ballet Memphis or New Ballet Ensemble is currently sending dancers over to a center in 38126 and we’re trying to get our ArtsReach program into that same center, but they have secured the funding for ballet and don’t have the funding for MBAA. So inevitably, we don’t get the funding and we don’t take our program to that center.  The tragedy is that the center has mostly African American children and by providing professionally trained African American artists to teach, versus other cultures, could possibly inspire the children to aspire to reach past their current circumstances in a way that other cultures could not.  So, how do we break that curse? How do we step in there and change this? I believe that it is literally just being present and developing relationships with our funders; but this is not easy.  We have to be determined.  We all have to be determined to cross those lines.  We have to want it.

How do you think MMI has helped you get over that gap?

I believe that MMI has afforded a lot of organizations the opportunity to show our worthiness. That we are capable of presenting great, wonderful work. We are capable of managing our resources. We are capable of developing strategic plans and sustainability models. We’re capable of doing all of that – all we needed was someone to believe in us, and help us by providing funding and the necessary training to package our work. I think that MMI has helped level the playing field, if you will. It’s still going to take determination to cross those lines, but with all of the things that we’ve learned, we now have what is needed to cross those lines. The upside to all of this is that we no longer cross the lines with nothing in hand anymore. Now we cross the lines, how should you say… “packing.” Now we’ve got something to show you. Boom. We’ve done this. Boom. We’re doing that. Boom and we’ve got this done and we’ve got that done. We’re going in with something in hand demonstrating our capability and worthiness to manage the funding, and that’s how MMI is helping to bridge the gap.

Lar'Juanette Williams is a native Memphian and executive director of the Memphis Black Arts Alliance. Prior to taking the helm at MBAA, Williams spent 25 years away from her hometown after earning degrees in arts communication and theater and arts administration. Her diverse career includes time in city government in Los Angeles, where she directed the Los Angeles Civic Leadership Awards; helping to reestablish the historic Bijou Theater in Knoxville, Tenn.; the creation of Knoxville’s “King Week” through her work with the Martin Luther King Commemoration Commission of Greater Knoxville; and program administration for KAATCH (Knoxville African American Tours of Cultural Heritage), a federally funded program that created East Tennessee’s first virtual tour through downtown Knoxville.