Jonathan Halsey is the new Managing Director of EmcArts, and will be leading the organization as it enters into a new chapter, with a new office in Winston-Salem, NC and an exciting new partnership with the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts (at the UNC School of the Arts). Jonathan comes to us from the Winston-Salem Foundation, where he served as director of both the Philanthropic Services and Community Engagement departments. I recently spoke with Jonathan to ask him about what brought him to this work, and what he sees for the future of EmcArts.
Tell us a bit about your background. What brought you to working in philanthropy?
I initially trained as a musician, and I have continued to lean on the conservatory-style training that gave me good habits in terms of rehearsing and perfecting a practice, which are applicable in any line of work. I made a conscious decision not to pursue a career as a professional artist, though, finding instead that I was drawn to the field of community development and how to support a balance of the building blocks that sustain healthy communities. Today there are great resources (such as the workshops offered by EmcArts!) to support people who want to pursue both an artistic and social practice, but at the time, I decided that the community development work was what I really wanted to be doing.
After a while working in community development as a grant-seeker, I was drawn to work on the other side of the table, primarily because I thought it would be easier giving money away rather than always applying for grants. I quickly learned that being a responsible steward of philanthropic resources is actually quite difficult, and regardless of size, foundations never seem to have enough money to do everything they want to do. It was a fascinating time to be working as a grantmaker, as we saw a continuing decrease in public support at both the Federal and State levels, and had to respond to those changes.
Also, there’s a strong power dynamic at play in the philanthropic field, and funders have to be careful not to get too swept up in it. The challenge is to know when and how to lead, while also being responsive to community-driven initiatives.
What did you find particularly rewarding about your work at the Winston-Salem Foundation?
My years spent working in community engagement at the Foundation were definitely the most rewarding, because through that work, I was able to redefine the traditional grantor/grantee relationship and make the Foundation more than just a financial resource for the community. One of my chief responsibilities was to expose the Foundation to new audiences and to form new community relationships that weren’t based solely on money, and my community engagement role enabled me to do just that. I found that community partners were so hungry and so appreciative for that type of relationship, which was based on the basic principles of community building and connecting people to different kinds of capital to advance their organizations’ missions.
Also, a community foundation is one of the only types of organizations that has a truly comprehensive community perspective because by design, it is funding across program areas and is not just focused in specific fields of interest.
How did you first start working with EmcArts?
I was first introduced to EmcArts when the Kenan Institute for the Arts approached the Winston-Salem Foundation about joining the planned Community Innovation Lab as a funder as well as a co-convener along with the Institute and the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County. I was intrigued by the idea of being able to bring matching funds from the Kresge Foundation along with the expertise of EmcArts into the community, and excited at the prospect of being one of two pilot communities for this visionary new program. Looking back, I think we all learned a lot over the two years of the Lab, and I’m happy to report that several initiatives that grew out of the Lab are still active and flourishing today.
What did you learn from participating in the Community Innovation Lab?
My main learning from the Lab was that the central challenge facing most communities is the lack of what I would call social capital – the lack of authentic, trusting relationships across lines of difference. I knew this before the Lab, but I thought we’d made more progress than was actually the case. Maintaining this social capital requires constant work – you can’t focus on it for a few years, then back off, and think that it will be okay. One aspect of a community can be thriving, while another is really suffering, but if they’re separated by a highway, or a political difference line, it can be very hard to bring them together.
Of course, you don’t want those who are doing well to swoop in and try to fix things, but you can work together and combine resources (not just financial, but also health care, education, access to the arts, etc.), sharing abundance, rather than having it concentrated in certain segments of community. And it starts with authentic connections and relationships.
What are you looking forward to learning more about in your new role with EmcArts?
I’m looking forward to learning about the creative ways that individuals, organizations, and communities tackle the complex challenges that they’re facing. There are so many ways to address these complex challenges, and I love seeing the creativity emerge in all the responses that people come up with in their work with EmcArts. There’s a beautiful, intriguing element of discovery in having those new pathways revealed.
What do you find exciting about EmcArts’ new partnership with the Kenan Institute for the Arts?
What I find exciting is the complementary nature of Kenan’s Creative Catalyst Initiative and the direction that EmcArts is growing. The two organizations really have a shared goal of promoting the concepts of adaptive leadership, design thinking, and the artistic mindset, beyond just the field of the arts. These concepts are useful in leadership and organizational development, as well as community change efforts, across the board. They help people open themselves up to new ways of living into their missions. We’re not about changing people’s missions, but we are very much about helping them discover that there’s not just one way to succeed, which is a different message than many people are used to hearing. Kenan and EmcArts are very much on the same page about this, and can support each other.
Both organizations are also at exciting organizational junctures right now, reaching new phases of maturity, and this partnership is a real opportunity to grow together. We’re not doing the same work, but our approaches are very much complementary.
What is your vision for the future of EmcArts?
My hope is that over the next few years, EmcArts can begin to share our intellectual frameworks and facilitation tools more broadly, with the goal of building capacity across the field to grapple with complexity and adaptive change. We have a great opportunity to make our ideas and resources accessible to the growing number of people and organizations who realize that traditional, linear approaches often aren’t sufficient for dealing with 21st century challenges.
A key element of this will be developing our “train the trainer” and capacity-building offerings, alongside our highly customized facilitation work. The demand for what we have to offer is far greater than we, as one organization, can provide, but we can make our tools available to others, and work to support a broad network of practitioners in this new field of adaptive change. We can be not only exemplary practitioners, but also ambassadors and champions for this work, and a resource that people turn to for help and inspiration. That’s really my vision for EmcArts.