I’m writing from our West Seattle office where I can hear music and muffled laughter coming through the huge open windows as our team sets up in the parking lot. Masked shouts of love are coming from folks who haven’t seen each other in person for over a year. The energy is contagious, the rhythm is palpable. We’re giddy, maybe even a little awkward, we’re just happy to be together. It’s a much needed salve for my heart.
Today’s a special day. Our Program Team and veteran Teaching Artists on staff are welcoming new teaching artists to the Arts Corps faculty. 11 new teaching artists will join our robust roster of 25 this fall. Among them are poets, writers, storytellers, music producers, visual artists, theatre artists, and even a puppeteer. As we gather in masks outside on a chilly August afternoon to make art, learn together, and share a socially-distanced meal, it’s clear that these are our people. Artists. Creatives. Educators. Folks who thrive off of sharing ideas. It feels like a rebirth of what it means to Make Art Anyway.
This school year we plan to hold 60% of our classes in-person. We’re also planning to continue virtual classes. Online learning breaks down access barriers for youth across King County, widening the reach of Arts Corps’ classes. We anticipate that we will assemble and deliver over 5,000 art kits, each of which are unique to each student and their curriculum.
After walking the tightrope of a global pandemic, a major leadership transition, and navigating the ever-changing education landscape, our organization has taken the last nine months to reflect and build.
In January, we began the year with a period of intentional deep reflection, beginning with an organizational assessment that helped us learn about and lean into our strengths, identify our warts, and supported us in deciding how to move forward as we begin to search for a permanent leadership solution.
After three months of exploration, we learned that we have a team full of passionate staff and teaching artists. We have a collective commitment to the youth in our programs, to anti-racism, and to our community at large, and that despite the pandemic and other challenges, Arts Corps’ programs have continued to offer the highest quality of creative learning opportunities. It was also clear that we value shared leadership.
We were also left with some questions:
How is Arts Corps creating a sustainable life for teaching artists? What is our compensation philosophy? How do we manage conflict? To answer these questions, we started at the root. We centered our values of community, equity, and creativity to closely examine how we want them to show up in our daily work.
Community: Our team has been talking about the community we want to build together. What makes a community strong, a place for authentic belonging, where each identity and lived experience is valued, and where each person has a place in important decision making? We know that begins with trust. So that’s what we’ve been building. In addition to programming, we’ve been working to establish radical honesty. In March we began working closely with Praxis Essentials, run by our own Co-Director of Arts Education, Olisa Enrico. Olisa is leading us through team building rooted in equity.
Equity: An important theme at the heart of our staff conflict in 2019 was inequitable pay. It is a critical piece of who we are at Arts Corps to make sure we lead our region in equitable business practices. We need to ensure that our incredibly talented team can not only afford to live and work in King County, but that our families can thrive and have a healthy quality of life.
This spring we collaborated to draft and pass an equitable compensation policy as part of a more inclusive budget process. Now we have transparent salary bands. This new plan ensures that no Arts Corps staff member will ever earn less than 50% of the median wage for their particular position in King County. Our highest paid staff member makes no more than 2x that of the lowest paid staff member. We have clear pathways to promotions. We also offer a small bump in compensation for every year folks have been in their role, as well as a COLA every other year. In the years without a COLA, we reevaluate salary bands to ensure we are still offering leading wages in the nonprofit industry.
We took time to reevaluate the way we compensate teaching artists. Some of the feedback that we heard was that there was too much of a gap between our classroom assistants and our most experienced teaching artists, leaving our newest and often youngest teaching artists most vulnerable. Now we offer 3 bands of flat rate wages that not only exceed national industry norm, but are some of the highest paid teaching artists positions in our region. Arts Corps teaching artists now receive access to a 401K with a match from Arts Corps, access to dental insurance, accident plans, and other benefits.
Our entire team of staff and teaching artists receive a personal and professional development allotment to use as they choose because we know that having a healthy well-balanced life leads to creative expression.
Creativity: We’ve all learned to expect the unexpected, so we will continue to do what we do best. We are here to make art together. We make art at our team meetings, we play theater games, we do scavenger hunts, and show-and-tell on Zoom. This summer, my biggest source of joy were the pop-up performances that we did at four community housing sites — drumming, singing, and dancing with youth and their families is what we all needed. Creative collaboration and expression is where joy comes from.
As we start another unprecedented school year, we’ll learn and grow with our partners as we navigate the pandemic together. We’ll take high level safety precautions to keep each other safe. We care about our community. We care about our students and we can’t wait to make more art.
— CARRIE SIAHPUSH, Acting Executive Director