Moving Forward — Experiments in Self-Organizing at NALAC


This op-ed was written by Contributing Writer, Claudio Dicochea and originally published on the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) blog.

Moving Forward: An Experiment in Self-Organizing

At a most immediate level, organizations –like individuals — are able to perceive and survey changing conditions in their environment through the passage of time. Given that NALAC is now in its 26th year, it is a natural phase of development and self-awareness to reflect critically on the kinds of growth we’ve experienced as well as the learning that has taken place during such time in order to plan effective ways of moving forward into our next 26 years. It’s therefore not difficult to see how participating in EmcArts‘  Innovation Lab for Arts Development Agencies –which is part of their continued work with the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation– would yield a tremendously beneficial opportunity to reexamine our core values alongside any underlying assumptions so we can then continuously adapt our practices in ways that indeed achieve our goals: to better serve our community of Latin@ artists and arts organizations, and further cultivate the Latin@ artistic and cultural field. The correlation was there, especially when considering the Innovation Lab “was created to assist nonprofit organizations in designing and prototyping new ideas and to launch real-life projects that address complex challenges facing their organizations and the arts and culture field at large.”

Casandra Hernandez and Gabriela Muñoz present at the inagural NALAC Pod gathering in Phoenix, AZ
Casandra Hernandez and Gabriela Muñoz present at inagural NALAC Pod gathering in Phoenix, AZ

So how can NALAC continue to explore and improve our efforts to better serve, reach, and engage a growing Latin@ arts field as we move into the future? Questions of this nature guided our work throughout EmcArts’ Innovation Lab. And these can be deceptively simple questions for reasons we will come back to further ahead. Going into this exploratory process though, NALAC was able to do so inclusively, with the involvement of truly dedicated individuals and generous members of different organizations from around the country. So, in that same spirit of inclusion, we’d like to share parts of this journey and some of the things we’ve found along the way that help us continue to serve our constituency in our best capacity.

Transformation and Future Challenges:

Let’s start by first recognizing that we are always in the midst of change(s) and that, a lot of times, these changes themselves can help us outline both the emerging challenge(s) alongside its solution(s). Furthermore, all organizations face challenges. We could even say that an organization is, essentially, a responsive relation to a certain challenge or set of challenges. But what happens when –inevitably- changes begin to occur in that scenario? And this could be changes in the organization itself, changes in the nature of the challenge(s) or, more frequently, in the environment that sustains either of these. As it happens, this situation is fairly common –whether you’re an artist, a cultural center, an offshore bank, or even a state agency- and part of what really matters has to do with how we can adjust to and approach the shifting meridians of the environment(s) we’re in.

But what are some of the most consistent markers of change being faced by Latin@ artists and organizations today? Are we able to identify the sources for some of the corresponding challenges and, if so, how does our ability to articulate the nature of such reconfigurations help us approach them with solutions in mind? One thing’s for sure: the environment that sustains both our artists and organizations along with the obstacles they meet is not necessarily a stable one. That is to say, the environment that our work takes place in now at the beginning of the 21st century is, in a lot of ways, different from what it was like during the Civil Rights Era, for example. This just means that social challenges, just like the people who face them, don’t remain identical as time goes by.

One example of a transformation that has taken place -and continues to take place- with the passage of time has to do with the demographic shifts our country is experiencing as a result of our increasing Latin@ populations. In a previous E-Boletín we looked at U.S. Census Bureau projections that expect our population to grow by 86% between the years 2015-2050 and, furthermore, how newer projections suggest our population will reach 119 million by year 2060. This steady shift in our demographic landscape brings about a complicated set of issues and opportunities not only for the more dominant or mainstream social order but for the internal dynamics of our own different Latin@ communities, which is precisely why NALAC sees it as a positive challenge -one that’s able to further actualize our approach to serve our broad field of artistic and cultural production. In other words, this particular changeability prompts our organization to be further effective in just how we work towards our goals to support and be more inclusive of our constituencies –through dialogue, trainings, grantmaking opportunities, and other programs.

Now, before touching upon a temporary-pilot approach that we’re exploring to help us better meet our goals, let’s consider an interesting challenge that further speaks to the effects of our growing demographics and, at the same time, places those effects within the context of our larger cultural networks -in this case we mean the increased diversity that the significant population growth of our Latin@ communities will bring about. Through the course of its work and most recently through the Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI) pilot at the end of last year, NALAC has been able to underscore the immense value of working, creating, and imagining interculturally. Driven by a similar ethical belief, our ongoing work advocates for and promotes an understanding of our multiple communities as multiple Latinidades. Together, these principles amplify the function of Diversity & Inclusion when it comes to a future that brings continued and welcome difference to our various communities, because, even though population forecasts announce the predicted increase of a Latin@ demographic, what is often left unsaid is just how diverse that forthcoming demographic will be. Quite simply, the future brings Latinidad, which has always been intercultural.

To be sure, these are but just a few of the unfolding narratives that organizations and artists are responding to precisely because the momentum of these forthcoming narratives can alter the course of our work. But that just means that calculated inflections on our behalf can help yield more sophisticated and coordinated responses. An initial modification could be for us to create a forum where it’s possible for us to engage our members and constituency in a different and more significant way, where it’s possible for them to go from being recipients of programs to being the driving force behind broad policy change and advocacy efforts. We can also approach things from a different point and focus on shifting the dialogue with which current and prospective stakeholders in the Latin@ arts field are engaged. One easy and immediate step would be further emphasizing the fact NALAC is not invested in merely raising support for NALAC as a single institution, but rather for the interconnected field of Latin@ arts our institution itself supports. In other words, our perspective leans towards movement-building.

Exploration and Testing Strategies

Upon initiating our process with EmcArts’ Innovation Lab, it was necessary to first articulate prominent challenge(s) to then convene a diverse group of individuals and members of different organizations from around the country in the form of an Advisory Working Group. Together with an EmcArts Facilitator and NALAC staff, members of the Advisory Working Group met to identify these markers of change, to question any underlying or corresponding assumptions, and to chart a course of inquiry and research to address those issues. Soon after, the Advisory Working Group met to review consequent findings and recommended specific exploratory work to launch a broader community campaign –a pilot campaign modeled on localized advocacy efforts, such as organizational satellites or pods, and very much chartered on forms of inclusivity and belonging. The sequence of our process then brought forth and convened an Innovation Team to plan an adaptive response to and a concise strategy for our complex challenge(s). The Team itself consisted of a diverse group whose participants represented an intergenerational, multidisciplinary, intercultural, multi-gendered, and geographically diverse social body.

As a result of this inquisitive and collaborative process, our Innovation Team arrived at a crucial temporary strategy to explore and test: the activation of two regionally-allied NALAC Pods to co-design and generate forms of local activity, networking, resourcing, messaging, advocacy and peer to peer mentoring. The idea is to intentionally activate, help train, and resource already existing NALAC regional networks undergoing different stages of development. This, in turn, may better amplify NALAC’s ongoing efforts in empowering the overall field, broaden communication between different communities, and foster support for Latina/o artistic and cultural production. The spirit of this approach holds that our greatest shared resources as a field of artists, arts administrators, and cultural practitioners are the human relationships and networks that have evolved through careful and intentional cultivation. In short, the maturity and resonance of meaningful relationships built for over 26 years indeed positions the greater NALAC base itself to further mobilize independently and collaborative, with an ethics of reciprocity at the forefront.

But what is a pod and why does it matter? Well, we could see them in two ways, both of which help inform and sustain each other. At a level of thinking, organizations –like organisms- have a tendency to arrange themselves in the form of a network, that is, as a set of different points that are connected around shared ideas or shared goals or even shared obstacles despite the fact that these points may each be in a very different location or region. This connection (connectedness) between each of the different points allows mainly for communication, which no longer requires being part of a cumbersome infrastructure or relies on cost-prohibitive engineering and so it’s become a bit more liquid. Once a point belongs to a bigger network of communication, it’s able to interact with other points through the exchange of ideas and information: movement-building. The term “pod” is just a name for an interactive point of said creative network.

We’re all completely familiar with the overt importance of network-building as a practice through which we create and nurture personal relationships that are generally based on shared professional affinities or projects, disciplines, and causes that each individual is engaged with. Yet what happens if we rotate our perspective a little so that we’re able to see the purpose of interpersonal networking as a way of bringing our many ideas together so they can network with each other? The function of that very interaction between different people is to create a platform where our own thoughts and perspectives get to network.

The second way to look at pod structures would be like a set of stations on a dial. This view suggests each station is a member of an overall spectrum or environment that not only helps make each individual station possible in some way but also provides an interface that lets us come into contact with or reach that station/pod. This is important because belonging to a bigger spectrum which includes the activities of other pods doesn’t dictate, micro-manage, or diminish the specific autonomy of any one pod. So let’s consider a couple of examples that are part of this social experiment.

 Testing Pilots: Platforms for Dialogue and Innovation

The prototypes for testing our Pod strategy involve Pod liaisons within each community, which means both of the NALAC Pod Prototypes have a few things in common as well as a strong uniqueness that results from their organizers, their geographic regions, and their vital cultural ecosystems. Let’s start with some of the commonalities. Each prototype is designed to convene different individuals around key ideas and values that hold meaning for the region they’re taking place in. Because both revolve around the act of convening, they are very much an exercise in self-organizing meant to foster and increase relationship-building among artists, arts administrators, and cultural practitioners from the surrounding communities. Furthermore, the core values helping to guide this exercise are deeply connected to NALAC’s vision and mission statement: advocacy, empowerment, equality, and ethics. These set of values, when taken altogether, seek to refine our constituents’ leadership skills, sharpen our aesthetic/critical thinking, help amplify our community’s exposure/visibility, encourage a sense of advocacy geared towards equity, support paths to economic empowerment, and create as well as promote unified messaging in support of Latina/o arts and cultures.

Our initial NALAC Pod Prototype took place in Phoenix, AZ, at 40 Owls Pop-Up Gallery on December 29th of 2015. The convening was the first of a sequence which will be organized by Casandra Hernandez, Arizona State University Art Museum Curator of CALA Initiatives (Celebración Artística de las Américas) and NLI Alumni, in collaboration with Gabriela Muñoz, Artist Programs Manager for Arizona Commission on the Arts and NLI Alumni/Guest Faculty. The event was hosted in a “nomadic gallery” run by amazing artists and brothers Gabriel & Isaac Fortoul -Gabriel shared a tour of his work which was currently on exhibit. The incredible sound environment that evening was produced by the always phenomenal DJ Musa Mind. We began the evening with a presentation on NALAC’s ongoing work by Adriana Y. Gallego, our organization’s Deputy Director, who was assisted by Claudio Dicochea, our Strategic Communications Associate, and then became a forum where the many individuals present shared the nature of their creative work or the work of the organizations they are affiliated with. In this example, the most prominent feature is how a large gathering of tremendously diverse, talented, and intergenerational attendees organically turned into a platform where so many new relationships were created and preexisting ones were strengthened, where all manner of aesthetic disciplines found ways to converge, where all sorts of viewpoints and social projects were in dialogue, where so many people who didn’t know each other were happy they now did. Simply put, the outcome of this exploratory Pod suggests the emergence of a new and complex network of active Arizona Latin@ artists.

Without divulging any spoiler alerts, the upcoming iteration of our NALAC Pod Prototypes will take place in Bronx, NY, during the first part of 2016 at Pregones Theater. This event will be organized by Lisandra Maria Ramos, Assistant Director of Administration at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at NYU, which is a collaborative network of institutions, artists, scholars, activists and cultural creators from the Americas and NLI Alumni, in collaboration with Arnaldo Lopez, Development Officer at Pregones Theater and NLI Faculty. The Pod’s project seeks to activate and organize our NLI Alumni of the Northeast region through a two-tiered process. The initial phase includes surveying participants as part of an asset-mapping and resourcing strategy intended to make Latin@ arts and artists more adaptable, effective, and successful with the work being done in the field of arts and culture. The second component consists of a first-time regional peer meeting that will help connect, organize, and energize alumni as well as NALAC and potential partners around actionable strategies that would propel the efforts of the group forward and influence the national agenda.

In the end, these are but two examples that speak directly to this idea of an emergent network of artists, arts administrators, and cultural practitioners working within very different and separate regions throughout our nation yet in conversation with each other. Is the possibility of all of us belonging to a much vaster platform based on communication and interaction somewhat aspirational? Sure. And that’s precisely the point. We are at our most creative, thoughtful, and sentient when our ideas or yearnings can circulate and exchange freely, when they learn from models and struggles from other regions, when they recombine in some unforeseen way to solve something we didn’t know how. Of course, all pods on such network won’t be the same -by that we mean they’re not identical and so very much possess their own identity. What they can be is a hub for the distribution and production of knowledge –a clear point of contact between all the crucial work and policy approaches generated here, there, and elsewhere through alternate strategies and other localities.

The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) is a legacy organization investing in the Latino heritage of this nation. For over 25 years, NALAC has built a strong foundation for the promotion of Latino arts and culture and its advocacy efforts have advanced issues of cultural equity and raised the visibility and understanding of Latino artistic and cultural expression. The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to the promotion, advancement, development, and cultivation of the Latino arts field. In this capacity, NALAC stimulates and facilitates intergenerational dialogues among disciplines, languages, and traditional and contemporary expressions. NALAC serves thousands of Latino artists and hundreds of organizations representing a national and international community of multiple Latinidades; a network that crosses many cultures across the Latino Diaspora.  For more information visit our website at or like us on Facebook at