Take Five with Vershawn Ward of Red Clay Dance Company
Take Five is an interview series that highlights Polk Bros. Foundation grantee partners who are taking impressive actions to overcome common challenges and who make a difference for Chicagoans most affected by poverty and inequity. We believe these insights are critical for Chicago’s future.
Red Clay Dance Company is one of Polk Bros. Foundation’s grantee partners focused on bringing ongoing arts learning into Chicago’s public school classrooms and giving Chicago public school students the chance to pursue their own artistic interests more deeply through out-of-school programs. Vershawn and her team at Red Clay Dance Company are working to awaken glocal Artivism through creating, performing and teaching dances of the African Diaspora. They are amplifying voices of the African Diaspora, seeking remuneration equity for artists, supporting Black women and creating accessible excellence.
We’re grateful Vershawn has agreed to share her insights in this post.
1. The pandemic and the growing movement for racial justice have prompted a period of deep reflection and action about how we all lived before March 2020, how our priorities are changing or need to change, and how we want to move forward from here. What has changed over this time that you most hope will persist into the future?
Vershawn: The flexibility and trust that funders extended to cultural workers and nonprofit organizations at the start of the COVID pandemic still resonates with me. Prior to that, I felt like there was not as much trust in the philanthropic world that nonprofits would steward the money well, so they would ask organizations to do all the things and then send them beautiful reports at the end.
But the increased trust at the start of the pandemic felt a little bit more like a true relationship between us and the person or the organization that was investing in our work, like they were really valuing our knowledge and expertise. I think I’m still wondering if that’s going to continue. There does seem to be a little bit more of a conversation between us, the cultural workers, and the funders or corporations to make sure that it’s mutually beneficial and there’s some reciprocity in it, so it doesn’t feel as transactional. But I am still nervous as to whether or not that trust will continue to build or if it will recoil back to where it was before the pandemic. Because I feel like there’s still a sense with some funders like, “Oh, we understand. We’re all kind of overstressed, overworked. Let’s make this a little bit easier for everyone.” I guess I’m just wondering if this is sustainable. Is this really a change or is this a temporary bandaid? How will those learnings continue to live, and will people continue to trust in the way that was extended in the time of a pandemic or an emergency?
The increased trust caused me to think about what is actually needed. Was all of that other stuff we’d been asked for before the pandemic just fluff? Is this really the bare bones of what’s needed, and can we just stick with this as what’s necessary rather than adding those other things back on? Because it just felt proven to me that maybe all of it wasn’t necessary, it was just a practice that we have been in place and we just kept doing it because we were doing it.
The increased trust has been meaningful to me. I know that there has been an evolution for me as both an artist — because I am still a creative — but also as a leader of an arts organization. There are definitely gaps and information and knowledge that I don’t have personally because I’ve studied and trained as an artist first. But I have realized those gaps over time and put in the investment into myself to evolve and grow in that knowledge and bringing in other individuals who have that expertise. And so when funders extended more flexibility and trust to cultural workers and nonprofits at the start of the pandemic, what I felt was trusted that I understood my organization, the work that we do, the impact that we were looking to make on the artistic side. But I also felt trusted that I had the business acumen to lead a business, which is what nonprofits are — they’re still businesses. Whatever format you have, nonprofit is a tax code. We are still small businesses. And so it felt like there was trust that, “Vershawn is a businesswoman, she understands the sector, she understands the industry that she’s in, and she’s built a team of individuals who are also working in excellence in their respective role.”
So, it just felt like there was more trust and agency. And there were also some conversations where funders asked me, “What do you want us to know?” Rather than it being prescribed and kind of dictated, they asked what I want them to know about my work, what I think is important about my impact. It felt more about relationship and conversation, and not so loaded with another agenda. But I felt the focus was really investing in the work that we believe is important and is in alignment with whatever the goals are of that particular foundation or corporation or individual.
The other thing that I am also thinking about is staffing. As a leader of an organization, how much am I asking of my staff and where are we thinking about care and support? It’s still that conversation on how we manage expectations, and still deliver on our impact. But again, where are the opportunities to do things differently and trust that the impact will still happen, the work will still get completed?
2. What changed for your organization the most since the start of the pandemic, and how has your organization responded to those changes? Are any of these adaptations remaining?
Vershawn: Prior to the pandemic, Red Clay Dance Company did not have its own facility. We had been housed at the Chicago Park District’s Fuller Park space for about five years as an arts partner-in-residence. There was definitely a plan and conversation with myself and the board to secure our own space. We just were still working through a timeline and we felt like we were close, but maybe not quite where we wanted to be based on the research we’ve done and the assessing that we had done organizationally about our needs.
So, during the pandemic, obviously like most arts organizations, we tried to adjust as much of our work as we could to online and virtual because we couldn’t be in the space. But as we were coming out of it, we were trying to plan forward because we wanted to ensure Red Clay Dance Company still existed after the pandemic. That was the first thing. We still need to be operating as an entity. But secondly, we realized we had very little control over the timeline of our recovery because we were in a Park District space. So, there was only so much that we could do and plan, because ultimately it was up to the Park District whether we could reopen our office, reopen our program space. The feedback from the Park was coming in very slowly, which is understandable because that’s a huge bureaucracy that we’re talking about. But it was too slow for us, and it was going to become really a make or break whether or not we continued as an entity.
And so, I came to the board and I said to them, “We have to move forward. We have to find our own space. It may not be the space that we have been talking about, the scale, but it will be ours and it will allow us to really think about a future. Because right now I can’t. I’m sitting in my living room and there just was no guarantee that we would even be able to go back to the Park.”
So, I convinced the board to go on this journey with me to find a space for us, and we did. We built out the space over the pandemic in 2021. We’re in our second year now. So that was a major change for Red Clay.
But I will say it has given us an opportunity to dream bigger, to really set our own timeline. Because everything was based on what the Park said first before we could plan what we were going to do. So, now we can plan what we’re going to do. I think that’s also been a mindset shift. We can do whatever we want to do. We really have that flexibility. We’re open when we want to be open, we’re closed when we want to be closed. That level of autonomy has definitely shifted our ability to vision and dream.
And so I would say that’s kind of the byproduct of having our own space. How do you talk about liberation and freedom, and how do you really exist inside of those spaces, and how do you retrain your brain to think in that way? That was a new step for us and we’re still working through that. There are so many questions that we’re kind of like, “Oh, actually we can do that.” So that liberation in the visioning space has been transformational, truly. Definitely for myself as the leader and I believe for my staff as well.
We spent a lot of time during the pandemic really doing some evaluation of our programs and of our organizational structure. It did give us some time to really think about who we want to be and what we want to look like and what sort of structure is best to support that. We’re still in that process. We’re getting ready to go through an organizational strategic planning session later this year. It gave us the space to also think about how we have been functioning, some changes we want to make, some things that we want to hold on to, some things that may need to be tweaked based on what we’re seeing in the field and our industry and from our stakeholders. So it gave us some time to check in. And we’re still in that process now of evaluating, assessing. There are things that change also when you have a facility, so staffing, budget, all of that needs to be realigned.
3. What’s one thing that continues to stand in the way of your organization’s work to create a more equitable and just Chicago, and what can be done about it?
Vershawn: One thing that’s philosophical — and this is speaking to my community and the community that I serve — is shifting our focus, shifting our thinking from a scarcity perspective to abundance. To shift our mindset to a place of abundance and to expand how we view resources. Definitely working capital, that’s a real thing. But how do we expand our visioning and our ideas of what resources look like?
In the more practical sense, I will say that it goes back to how I started the conversation around seeing the arts as an investment. There are definitely so many returns that are sometimes not even visible in the immediate moment, in the present, but there’s a return that’s going to continue to give, and give, and give even after that investment.
And maybe the abundance isn’t coming just from your individual foundation, but collaboration is possible on the funding side, the same way collaboration is encouraged on the organizational side. I see so many calls for collaboration, collaboration. Well, there’s also a possibility in the funding space for y’all to collaborate, too. Share learnings, share what has worked well, don’t feel so siloed on that side as well.
And you know, just even greater transparency. There’s so much transparency I feel that’s asked of us that’s not always reciprocated in the funder. Transparency and real honesty in what’s going on.
There’s also definitely a gap in funding for BIPOC-led organizations or BIPOC-serving organizations. So, it would be good to continue that conversation and not to think, “Oh, it’s done. We did something.” It’s an ongoing need. It’s going to probably be much longer than a lot of people think it will be. It’s not a box checking. But it’s really a long-term investment in these very disenfranchised and disinvested communities. So, being in it for the long haul.
And continuing to listen, and trust. It goes back to what I said before, that we are the experts on what we do and really believing in that, standing on that and continuing to make space for that expertise.
4. In addition to financial support, what do you need most from the philanthropic community to advance your mission?
Vershawn: Authentic partnership, and I’m still wrestling with all of what that means. I feel like we’ve developed really great partnerships with some of our funders. I think a lot of that, though, has been because of a particular program officer. Those relationships developed because that’s just who they are, as people. I don’t know how much that was undergirded by the foundation itself. But those individual people went above and beyond. And so, how do you continue to bring those sorts of individuals into the funding space when you’re thinking about hiring? And how do you really look for those folks that are truly invested in the way you want the foundation to be seen externally? I’m not sure if those relationships would have developed had it not been for those people. So, knowing the people are very, very important and they really are gatekeepers. Knowing that, naming that, being very clear that they are gatekeepers. So, who you put in those positions is vital to how the support is equitably dispersed and shared.
And the main thing is just the less complicated the better. I don’t know how else to say it. It would be good to have funders self-evaluating and self-reflecting on what they really need in this application, what they really need in this report, how you continue to educate your board of trustees on what’s happening in the sector. That’s the role. I don’t know how else to say that. And making sure that the board of trustees is reflective of the community that you want to support, that those voices have to also be at the table. They can’t not be present. Otherwise, how do you really know what’s needed?
We did a strategic planning and strengthening program with another Chicago funder. I bumped into the program officer the other day and I was really sharing how beneficial that program was for us at the time, for where we were as an organization. And unfortunately, I don’t think it exists anymore. What was great about that program is it allowed us to vision our own scale and size, and it wasn’t a cookie cutter where everyone comes out of this looking like this. It was very much about all the possibilities and providing us space to consider where we feel like we want to land and how they can coach towards that. And so, even in a cohort, it felt somewhat individualized, which was really amazing to have that experience. Really thinking about your growth and how you are going to strategically do that. And not in this comparison model where in order to get funding, everyone has to aspire to look like this. That makes no sense to me. I need to aspire to be the type of organization that supports the impact that we want to make and whatever that looks like is valuable and should be honored just like any other entity. So, I think that was what was the most eye-opening moment for us going through that program. Whatever scale, whatever size, it is all valuable and needed and none is greater than the other.
Because Red Clay sits in a few different spaces within the industry, one thing I didn’t really talk about is the arts education space and I’m a little bit removed from it just because there’s other staff that actually handles the day-to-day. But I also teach dance at Loyola University and what I’ve been thinking about in that space is really, “How are we as educators preparing these aspiring artists for the field now and the future, not from 20 years ago?” And so I’m really challenged sometimes when it comes to the arts education space as to how long it takes for a curriculum to catch up to what’s happening in a field. I feel like I bring in so much that’s not in the books or not in the thing because this is what’s happening in real life in the studio with my dancers. So, I need you all to understand that, and how that even goes back to a younger 7- or 8-year-old coming into a dance training program.
I’d also like the philanthropic community to know there’s so much learning that happens in community spaces and not always inside of our traditional educational systems. So how do funders that support that space understand the intersection of it? And so that’s just kind of where I’ve been thinking. One is like the structure overall of arts education and kind of how it sits and where young, aspiring artists come into learning about their craft honestly, rarely is inside of public schools anymore. It’s just not. I’m not saying that that’s not their work to do, but opening it up so that learning happens in so many other kinds of spaces and those need to be supported in terms of funding, just like you would support arts education in schools.
And so I think that’s just where I’m kind of challenged a little bit in some of the funding streams, it’s like everything has to happen in school or after school and in the actual physical school building. And that’s not the case. And that’s sometimes not the best case for every community either. So, you really have to look at it more holistically because some schools just don’t have the resources, but the space around the corner down the street does have it. So how do we get those young people to that space to get what they need. Broadening arts learning is important — what does that mean? Where can that happen? Who can best facilitate that, and how do we provide gateways that will grow that rather than staying so rigid in our thinking about that?
5. What has given you the most hope recently?
Vershawn: Well, during the transition we did make a rather radical shift in one of our program models, and I wasn’t quite sure if the community would go along with it. It honestly was the original vision I had for our dance training. But I think I was nervous as to whether or not families and communities would invest at that level both time and financially. So I went with a different model that I felt was something more people are used to. I thought it’d be an easier lift, and we’d just go that route. But it wasn’t actually fulfilling the need and the impact that I wanted Red Clay Dance Company to make in the dance training space.
So, we went through a total rehash of that program last year. We launched it this past fall, and we didn’t get as many participants as we were hoping for. But it was affirming to see that someone also felt like, “Oh, this is amazing. This is something that I understand and want to invest in for my child.” On one hand, it wasn’t what we thought it was going to be. But it wasn’t that no one responded. And so I had to see value in it and there are people in our community who see value in it as well. And so that was a small win. Because whenever you shift a program like that, you just never know how people are going to respond, or how the staffing is going to need to be. There are still a lot of learnings we are trying to process. But I know in my past, this was a space and a program that I always wished existed and didn’t. So, I was like, “We’re going to make this and we’re just going to hope for the best.”
That continues to give me hope that there are other folks — and specifically in our community that we’re serving — that also are value-aligned and understand the importance of it for their families and for their young people. So that gives me hope.
And every day the artists that come into the studio with Red Clay Dance Company and our professional company also give me hope. Just the curiosity that they continue to bring. I feel like curiosity is so underrated. To be in a space with people who continue to be curious about things and want to explore that curiosity through the body and through dance, I think continues to give me hope. Because our lived experiences are in these vessels that sometimes we become disconnected from. So, to be able to witness that and be able to witness people still wanting to be curious and explore through movement continues to give me hope for us as a society. That we want to continue to find the best versions of ourselves and that dance is a part of that for not only those artists, but the people that come in to take our classes, too. There is a desire and a need to stay connected to oneself, and to connect with others in a shared space. Because that was also something we were nervous about. And it’s not back to where it was, but the fact that people are missing that visceral connection with another human being and that they’re finding dance as a vehicle for that also gives me hope.
Vershawn Sanders-Ward, MFA (she/her/hers) is Artistic Director & CEO of Red Clay Dance Company