(Cohort members-Miguel Martimen Jozer Guerrero and Archie Villeda. Photo by Arnold King. This post is a part of the Audience (R)Evolution grant program and blog salon.)
Failure. Su Teatro’s biggest organizational lesson of the last fifteen years is to embrace failure. Our best learning and true organizational breakthroughs have hinged on failure…Cultural organizing is not for the weak willed; we are always testing and tweaking.
I design a lot of the outreach and audience development work that takes place at Su Teatro, and I am on the front lines of all of our community building efforts. I designed our Audience (R)Evolution strategy with a strong conviction that the project I designed – as I designed it – could work, and even, although I should probably know better, that it would be seamless and easy.
The goal for our project is to engage our newest constituency, young people, aged 14-18 and young adults aged 18-25, many whom are recent immigrants, or the children of recent immigrants from Mexico. DREAMers. These young people are the future of our organization and our country, and they possess real leadership qualities.
We are experiencing the largest such immigrant wave in the 41-year history of our organization. Our opportunity to engage with this extraordinarily committed, tenacious and talented segment of the population (a microcosm of the national experience) is partially the result of a migration wave that carries a long history of U.S. imperialism, Cold War Realpolitik, Reaganomics and the distortions of globalization and its undercurrents.
Our original project design was simple: we would involve a cohort of ten young people from our target market in a traditional market research project – but place the youth leaders at the helm – in the research design and in outreach and co-authorship strategies.
It has been difficult to carry out the project the way we originally envisioned it. It was hard to involve young people in designing market research when they lacked a marketing background; and, when querying their peers, we learned that many of them did not have sufficient experience with theater to speak authoritatively about what more they would like to glean from that experience (e.g. the project was putting the cart before the horse, a little bit). What’s more, my idea of building crossover between our quickly growing school programs and the theatrical season wasn’t tenable (at least for now) because, so often youth are not the decision makers about attending theatrical performances (given the age group we are courting, though, this is an issue I believe we can address over the long term).
In spite of the challenges we have encountered, our organization is primed for this project, and in fact, the desired change–nurturing ownership, investment and participation is happening quickly, almost in spite of us–in fact, I would say, our cohort and their peers are changing us as much as we are changing them.
We are revisiting the group cycle and there has been a convergence. Our staff, youth members, theatrical company and to a lesser extent, our donor and patron base, is thoroughly populated by this next generation of culture-makers. We have been able to reexamine our process, thoroughly integrating our cohort and their peers into our process. Reflecting on and analyzing our marketing, outreach and audience development strategies has meant getting back to basics. For the good of the organization as a whole, not just the cohort, we have returned to carefully reviewing the fundamentals of copywriting (for example) and working together to thoughtfully craft our messaging and visual design (our team slogan should be, “we want tasty chicken,” so often has the catch phrase been used by our fearless leader, Tony Garcia, to describe catchy advertising copy).
We have recommitted to the essential work of connecting one-on-one, directly, with our most dedicated and devoted supporters. We have done this work together, listening mindfully, and integrating the insights and observations of our cohort, staff and artists into the process. And so, we have become radically more inclusive over the last year, and we have built our capacity together.
When I started working for Su Teatro in 1997, there were only two full time staff members and the organization was powered largely by work- study students. We’ve spent some time over the last decade or so, creating a few anchors and a deep middle, where a middle never before existed. Today that middle–the core that keeps the top and bottom from collapsing inward–is made up of staff members aged 18-30, a burgeoning youth program, and artists aged 16-30. In 1997, commitment to the work resided with senior staff. Today, commitment, passion, energy, insight and focus are distributed across the organization. The best ideas, willingness to experiment, take risks and to learn is coming from the segment we seek to cultivate.
In the past six months we have learned that our cohort and their contemporaries understand animation, Latino pop culture, cosplay, and video games better than I ever will… But they share our understanding of the Chicano aesthetic and its context. They bring new skills and ways of seeing the world to an endlessly relevant conversation. Their experiences are a part of a long, deep root that connects Latinos in the Southwest across many generations. Their point of view brings relevance, poignancy and intensity to the issues we are dealing with in our plays.
Over the next several months (and beyond) of this project, our goals are: to codify our group cycle – which will allow us to collect the insights of young people to inform our messaging, outreach and audience development; to tweak an inclusive process that will support co-authorship and audience engagement (with an eye toward engaging DREAMers); to utilize the insights from our cohort and their peers to build the visibility of our youth participation and leadership – our arts and education programs now rival our other programs in terms of size and budget allocation – but few people know about this evolution of our organization; and finally, to create truly broad and deep participation from this important constituency.
As difficult as we found it to get traction with this project initially, it has been a joy to remake our approach into a capacity-building endeavor that supports the growth of every member of the organization. Even though we initially attempted to design a project that youth would steer, it was still weirdly top-down… our re-vision truly opens the gate to a new reality that is far less orchestrated, but more profound: Our future was already knocking–we just needed to open the door.
Tanya Mote, Associate Director: Tanya has been with Su Teatro since 1997. She received her BA in Mass Communications and Spanish from the University of Denver in 1989 and holds an MA (1991) and a Ph.D (2009) in International Studies from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. She has served as a board member for the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training (GIFT) and the National Performance Network. She teaches courses for DU – University College in Arts Management and Global Studies and hopes to write more for the field in 2014.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.