Alternate ROOTS: Innovation Through Membership and Memory

Introduction Process Impact


We are pleased to present our new publication, Innovation In Action: Three Case Studies from the Intersection of Arts & Social Justice in EmcArts’ Innovation Labs. In this blog post, we will explore the innovation story of Alternate ROOTS, one of the three organizations profiled in the report. You can download their case study here.

This case study on Alternate ROOTS follows the journey of a regional arts organization that started the Lab with one question – What is the membership structure that best reflects the central values of ROOTS – connectedness, participatory democracy and anti-oppression – while also positioning ROOTS as the organization of choice for community engaged artists in the 21st century? From its inception in 1976, ROOTS has been at the forefront of community-based art and social justice in the south, providing its members with various resources that help sustain and grow their artistic and activist practices and skills. Entering the Innovation Lab with a Membership Innovation Ensemble already in place, ROOTS was grappling with repurposing their membership policies to make their resources more accessible while also affording their members more flexibility in deciding their level of involvement and responsibilities in the organization.

Sketch by Ariston Jacks, ROOTS Innovation Team Member

In 2013, EmcArts launched its national Innovation Lab for Arts Development Agencies program to service organizations that provided support for the ongoing development of the arts. The Lab provides such organizations with the space to research and assess their complex problems and prototype new strategies that foster adaptive change.

Download the Alternate ROOTS case study here. 

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The Innovation Lab takes an organization through 3 phases – researching and assessing the organisation’s current challenges, providing an environment to push decision making and finally creating and testing prototypes. Staying true to one of its core values of inclusivity, ROOTS always made sure to engage a diverse group of people in each of the stages. This not only helped with gaining the current perspectives of new members, but also institutional memory from founding members and the elders of the community. In fact, ROOTS had significant breakthroughs during one of their Lab meetings thanks to Ariston Jacks, a member and visual artist. Jacks was doodling in his notebook in order to break down some of the complex issues being discussed, and his illustrations threw a new light on the issues. What started so casually led to the formal integration of his work into the innovation process.

Ariston Jacks sketches during a ROOTS Innovation Lab meeting

ROOTS was assisted through the entire Lab with a dedicated facilitator that helped synchronise the different voices, and stay on track. After the deliberations of the first phase, ROOTS members took the first step toward adaptive change by hiring Carrie Brunk, a community organizer and friend of ROOTS. Taking charge of “Campaign for Change”, the internal name given to ROOTS’ membership restructuring efforts, Brunk systematically reached out to and collected feedback from all members about proposed policy changes. Because a constant feedback loop was maintained throughout the planning phases, members felt like their voices were being heard before the proposals were put to vote.

One of their biggest discoveries was that they didn’t have to do a complete overhaul of their existing policies. Instead, they looked back into the orhanization’s history to realign and re-energize their strategy. With the aim of making membership more inclusive and accessible, ROOTS made the following significant changes to their membership policies:

1. There were now two member categories for individuals – General and Voting. General members can be based anywhere in the US, but still have access to ROOTS’ resources. Voting members have to based in the South and have access to the same resources, but also become Board Members with fiscal and legal responsibilities to ROOTS.
2. A new category for Organizational membership was made, which allows non-profits, companies, ensembles, co-operatives community centers, and other organizational structures across the US to be aligned with ROOTS.


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One of the biggest outcomes of ROOTS’ membership re-modeling is that it has dramatically changed their organization’s culture. It now attracts many more members because it gives them the flexibility to decide their level of investment in the administration and decision making, without taking away their access to resources. It also became much easier for artists to access its resources with the year-round online voting in of new members.

A still from Ariston Jacks’ video in collaboration with EmcArts

ROOTS is using the momentum built-up from the Lab to make changes to staff configurations, work-planning, recruitment pipelines, member-led personnel evaluations, and staff’s relationship to members. Specifically, they are leveraging the momentum, inspiration and organizational will generated through the Lab’s membership restructuring project to catapult ROOTS into expanded organizational growth and stability. There are impending questions around changing staff configurations, work-planning, recruitment pipelines, member-led personnel evaluations, and staff’s relationship to members.

“The Campaign for Change experience helped with right-sizing and reorienting the relationship between staff and membership in a positive way,” said Carrie Brunk. “Staff had certain habits before that benefited from a different kind of engagement with membership through this campaign. Now that ROOTS is restructuring staff roles, they will be able to use the Lab process as a guide in proactively reshaping the staff- member connections across the organization.”

ROOTS also received a large strategic grant to expand their programs, create more events, and hire new staff. The impact of ROOTS’ work in the Lab has spread beyond just their membership policies and has helped energize broader areas of staffing and strategic organizational alignment. In many ways, the Lab has enabled more congruence between ROOTS membership structures and its core values and ethos, and this alignment translates into better systems in other areas
of organizational life.

With its new membership policies, ROOTS is now more strongly positioned as a modernized, formidable network that is on the leading edge of the entire field of arts and activism. “ROOTS
holds a big space for artists in the South—nobody else does what we do,” said Ashley Minner, Chair of ROOTS’ Visual Arts Ensemble. “Increased access to ROOTS means increased access to justice.”

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