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Mod. 4.0 - Reflections on Critical Conversations

Who did you speak with? What were you seeking to learn? What insights did you gain? What ideas do you want to follow up on, people you want to connect with, books you want to read? Etcetera ...


Critical Conversation #1: Adel El-Huni

Leader Bio: Adel has lived and worked in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North America moving seamlessly between private, public and social sectors globally throughout his career. He has led efforts in public policy advocacy, socio-economic development, application of emerging technology trends, promotion of future foresight initiatives through experience in public affairs, design thinking, entrepreneurship, impact investing, and strategic philanthropy throughout the Middle East, Africa and beyond.

Focal Question: How have you personally applied the principles of social entrepreneurship you’ve shared with the Mackerels in this course?

Date: October, 2022


During the fall semester I was fortunate to have several conversations with Professor Adel El-Huni, who was generous in the time he gave to me, insightful in his responses to my questions on applying the lessons of social entrepreneurship, and generous in his willingness to introduce me to people in his network in support of my community capstone project. Our conversations led me to research Baltimore’s immigrant and refugee resettlement organizations and learn about the different people resettling in Baltimore and how I might be able to get involved with their work as part of my capstone and beyond during my time living here. I learned that Baltimore has become a hub for members of the Afghani community who have fled Afghanistan after the Talban took over the government there in 2021. Adel’s extensive international experience offered insight from his work abroad and familiarity he gained with different Afghanis. He was very supportive of my capstone goal and through his connections, introduced me to Sonia Anunciacion, a Program Leader at Alight, a Minneapolis based immigrant and refugee resettlement organization. Sonia’s work specializes in serving Minneapolis’s Afghani community and Adel’s introduction to her was a critical stepping stone in the development of my community capstone project.


Critical Conversation #2: Sonia Anunciacion

Leader Bio: Sonia is the Afghan Program Lead for Alight, a nonprofit org working closely with refugees, trafficked persons, and economic migrants to co-design solutions that help displaced peoples build full, fulfilling and meaningful lives. Not simply basic needs, but a life filled with joy, dignity, connection, and purpose. She began her advocacy work immediately after the Taliban's takeover of her home country in August by collecting donations to deliver to Fort McCoy, a military base in Wisconsin. She was later hired by Alight to set up housing for newly arrived Afghan families.

Focal Question: How would you recommend someone who is unfamiliar with both Afghani and refugee resettlement culture, begin to start learning about both cultures in a way that could lead to a small but scary capstone project?

Date: November, 2022


My conversation with Sonia Anunciacion was a very meaningful stepping stone in the development of my community capstone project. Her experience working with Minneapolis’s Afghani community gave me a more nuanced understanding of Afghani culture. For example, in Afghanistan the two major languages are Pashto and Dari. Dari is almost synonymous with Farsi (spoken in neighboring Iran), while Pashto has some similarities to Dari, but is largely different. Pashto is the native language of the Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, while Dari is the language of the Tajiks, the second largest ethnic group. While both groups call Afghanistan home, their respective languages are a reflection of their individual groups’ experiences and values. Sonia also encouraged me to get involved as a volunteer with Baltimore’s resettlement groups, validated my community capstone project idea, and offered to be a continued resource to me throughout the project.


Critical Conversation #3: Lauren Ruffin

Leader Bio: Lauren is an associate professor of worldbuilding and visualizing futures in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizone State U. Her research expertise is race, gender and accessibility ethics as well as economic justice in digital spaces. She is a co-founder of Crux Cooperative, an immersive storytelling cooperative that collaborates with Black artists as they create content in virtual reality and augmented reality. Prior to joining ASU, she led the Office of Movement Building at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and was co-CEO of Fractured Atlas. Ruffin has served on the governing boards of Black Innovation Alliance, Black Girls CODE, The Main Street Phoenix Project, and the advisory boards of ArtUp and Black Girl Ventures.

Focal Question: How do you convince the Board of an arts organization to invest in their staff’s ongoing education and development?

Date: December, 2022


In the time between my conversations with Adel and Sonia, I began a new full-time role as the Executive Director of the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra. In learning about the company and the board, I quickly realized how little education has occurred within the company’s leadership. I reached out to Lauren Ruffin, a guest presenter during our class with Tim Cynova, to learn from her experience at Fractured Atlas working with different artists and arts leaders. Her answer illuminated a key truth for my ongoing leadership journey: Sometimes you have to ask for forgiveness, not permission. It’s common for a company’s goals to get bogged down in bureaucracy and other priorities. If there is an area of improvement that can cut through political red tape, then leaders need to consider the pros and cons of moving ahead with it, even without the board’s approval. Lauren’s answers demonstrated another important truth about leadership that Sonia also modeled: a nuanced understanding of issues allows for more effective decision making.


Critical Conversation #4: Michael Mael

Leader Bio: Michael brings more than 35 years of executive leadership experience to his work on behalf of performing arts organizations. Most recently, he was Executive Director of the Washington Ballet, following nearly 10 years with Washington National Opera as Executive Director and nearly 5 years with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO) as VP of the BSO at Strathmore. Mr. Mael has also worked in the tech sector as Senior VP of Focal Communications, VP of Applications and Web Services for PSINet, and at MCI Communications. Mr. Mael has consulted for symphony orchestras including the Minnesota Orchestra, Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Buffalo Philharmonic. Mr. Mael received an AB from Brown University and an MBA from Stanford.

Focal Question: Would you be willing to act as a source of counsel and a listening ear during my tenure with BCO?

Date: March, 2023


By March of 2023 I was working between 75-90 hours a week between my new job, an ongoing project, and the MACL program. Being the only full-time employee at BCO, I knew I needed to find someone with industry experience and awareness of BCO to serve as an external and objective sounding board to help me stay focused on the company’s most pivotal priorities and not get too bogged down in the weeds of correcting poor records and daily minutia. I was very fortunate to have connected with the former Executive Director of the Washington National Opera at The Kennedy Center when I interviewed with him during the fall of 2017. While I didn’t get the job, we remained in touch in the years after the interview, and it turned out that he is connected to BCO’s largest donor. Michael’s insights into both the Baltimore arts market and experience as an Executive Director at The Kennedy Center has proven to be an invaluable resource for me since I began working for BCO. With Michael’s proximity to Baltimore and industry experience, I realized there was an opportunity for me to help fill in some of the expertise gaps that exist in BCO’s Board by creating an Advisory Board filled with various leaders with skills and experience that would be of value to BCO from time to time. I would create clear expectations with each member and their perspective would be received by Board members as peers and external experts, rather than coming from the Executive Director. While my voice and experience is valued, the external perspective of other leaders would be received with renewed energy and attention, thus serving as a valuable resource in my ongoing goals during my time at BCO.


Critical Conversation #5: Jonathan Martin

Leader Bio: Jonathan is the President and CEO of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Jonathan has held this position since September 2012. Prior to that, he was the President and CEO of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra from September 2012 to August 2017, President and CEO of the Charlotte Symphony from April 2008 to August 2012, and General Manager of The Cleveland Orchestra from February 1999 to April 2008.

Focal Question: What do you see as the benefits of a Strategic Plan? Would you be willing to write an email to BCO’s Board Chair to encourage her development of a Strategic Plan for the company?

Date: April, 2023


My conversations with Michael Mael opened up new opportunities and by consequence, new areas of concern for me to address. BCO’s Board President shared with me her desire to craft a Strategic Plan to frame and guide the Board’s priorities for BCO over the next few years. I responded with immediate enthusiasm, but the rest of the Board was less enthusiastic about the idea, which derailed my Board President’s energy and prioritization of making a Strategic Plan. Before her energy completely evaporated, I was catching up with Diane Ragsdale and the topic of BCO’s Strategic Plan came up in conversation. She offered to introduce me to Jonathan Martin, the President of the Cincinnati Symphony to get his counsel on how to encourage my Board Chair to not give up on the Strategic Plan. I also used the time with Jonathan to ask about his own experience with crafting Strategic Plans and their value to him as an arts leader. His perspective confirmed the value and importance of a Strategic Plan in providing a foundation and a reason for the Board’s priorities and how those translate into support for the company’s initiatives. What I learned was that a company’s Strategic Plan is one of the best ways an arts leader can “manage up” to the Board of Directors/Trustees. Since the design and implementation of a Strategic Plan would come from the Executive Director, it offers a chance to apply ways to address ongoing challenges and build support for ongoing goals with the Board’s buy-in.

August 2023 Update: While I am still in the process of working with our Board President to craft a Strategic Plan, Jonathan Martin’s message to her proved to be very inspirational and reaffirmed her commitment to the Strategic Plan. We will be meeting with the Board’s Executive Committee on Saturday, August 19th for a half-day visioning session to begin forming the building blocks for a Strategic Planning meeting and process. Jonathan’s lessons in managing up to the Board also served me during the spring when I was charged with designing and executing the executive search for BCO’s next Music Director. By designing the process myself, I was able to apply within the design the values I hope to see applied within BCO more broadly.


Critical Conversation #6: Douglas Clayton

Leader Bio: Douglas is the Co-Founder and Managing Collaborator at Creative Evolutions where his driving purpose is to create more equitable and effective ways for creative people to be successful in society. Prior to founding CE, Doug was a Senior VP at Arts Consulting Group, served as General Director of Chicago Opera Theater, and as Director of Programming and Operations for LA Stage Alliance. Doug has worked as a stage director, playwright, and performer and has experience as both an artist and producer with a range of theatrical unions in the United States. He holds a bachelor of science from the University of Southern California and an MBA from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA.

Focal Question: How do I balance the responsibilities of managing BCO’s daily operations alongside the task of designing and overseeing the company’s search for a new Music Director?

Date: May, 2023


BCO’s Music Director Search required about 15-20 hours a week of my time on top of my usual work responsibilities coupled with the MACL program. I found myself feeling very overwhelmed with the challenge of managing all of these areas and sought out the counsel of a dear colleague, Douglas Clayton. Doug has not only served as a General Director of an opera company, but has also led numerous executive searches. His knowledge of both areas offered me reassurance to stay focused on the big picture and immediate priority of the search and encouraged me not to allow myself to get caught up in the daily minutiae that will still exist after the search was completed. He encouraged me to take a step back and consider what areas of daily responsibility could be paused or at least given lower priority, so I could meet the more immediate need of completing the search. The relief I felt from Doug’s counsel allowed me to evaluate the amount of time I was spending on concert promotion and future season planning and gave me the perspective I needed to refocus those goals in more realizable ways. Doug has a long term client based in Baltimore, so our conversation was not just a one-time occurrence, but provided an opportunity for ongoing accountability and reflection with a trusted colleague.


Critical Conversation #7: Laura Brown

Leader Bio: Laura is the Executive Director of Asylee Women Enterprises, a Baltimore based refugee resettlement support organization emphasizing community and providing a space for forced migrants, asylum seekers, foreign-born trafficking survivors, and other forced migrants to learn, share, and support one another. AWE offers a holistic approach to provide their clients with services to navigate the immigration process, begin to heal from past trauma, and rebuild their lives in Baltimore. Laura has a Master’s in Political Science from the University of Edinburgh.

Focal Question: In what ways could I as both a private citizen and resident of Baltimore and the Executive Director of a small orchestra be a benefit to you and your work?

Date: June, 2023


The time required of me during BCO’s Music Director search, coupled with my challenges connecting with different leaders and staffers of Baltimore’s immigrant and refugee resettlement groups proved to be too much for me to overcome within the amount of time allocated for my community capstone project. While shifting gears to a different project, I wanted to make sure I honored one of the principles that Adel taught us during the fall and was echoed by Nina Simon’s capstone preparation sessions, to not simply engage with a community or organization for personal and/or educational gain to only walk away once the project was completed. My desire to help immigrants and refugees resettle in Baltimore goes well beyond the impetus provided by the MACL community capstone project, and so I was very glad when Laura Brown from Asylee Women Enterprises (AWE) in Baltimore reached out to me to meet for coffee. In many ways our conversation was much more productive than it would have been if it was oriented around my capstone project, because I was able to speak with her about ways I could get involved long term both as a private citizen and leader of another area nonprofit. We discussed ideas like using BCO’s concerts as a drop off hub for essential supplies AWE collects for their clients, offering complimentary concert tickets to their clients to provide an opportunity to engage in Baltimore’s cultural scene, and setting up a table with information about AWE’s work in the lobby of Kraushaar Auditorium where BCO performs so concert attendees can learn more about their work.


Critical Conversation #8: Sanjit Sethi

Leader Bio: Sanjit has over two decades of experience as an artist, curator and cultural leader. He received a BFA from New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, an MFA in Ceramics from University of Georgia, and an MS in Advanced Visual Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Sethi has been awarded numerous grants and fellowships, including a grant from the Robert Rauschenberg foundation, and a Fulbright Fellowship to India. As an artist and curator, Sethi’s work has spanned different media and geographies including the Kuni Wada Bakery Remembrance; Richmond Voting Stories; and the Gypsy Bridge project. Recent curatorial projects have included Spiked: The Unpublished Political Cartoons of Rob Rogers and the upcoming exhibition, 6.13.89 The Canceling of the Mapplethorpe Exhibition. Sanjit is the 19th President of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Focal Question: What methods or tactics do you use to manage the challenges and stress that can result from reporting to the college's Board of Directors?

Date: August, 2023


My final critical conversation occurred during the week of residency in Minneapolis only a week ago. I was very privileged to have 30 minutes of time with MCAD’s President, Sanjit Sethi, to discuss the ways he manages the various challenges and stressors that result from serving in a leadership role. During an earlier Zoom session with Sanjit, he described his position as MCAD’s President through a metaphor of human cartilage, bearing the brunt of the impact or damage the body takes on to protect the internal organs so their critical functions can continue to operate and heal the rest of the body after withstanding external impact or damage. This metaphor reinforced an important truth about leadership, which is the often unseen, unnoticed and unappreciated sacrifices leaders make for the greater good. It also demonstrated just how lonely leadership can be. I have often thought of leadership like being in the center of an hourglass. Having staff and others in the lower half in a pyramid structure all looking up to you with the impression of an easy and glamorous life while bemoaning their own position in the corporate ladder, meanwhile, the Board of Directors form the top half of the pyramid and are all peering down at the singular leader with their individual focuses, goals, judgments, and priorities for the company which they want the President to execute on their behalf. For Sanjit, this means being very careful not to engage too closely with or become overly friendly with his staff so a professional distance is maintained that will support him if/when a difficult conversation has to be had. It also means retaining some distance from the Board to ensure any potential danger in social scenarios with Board members is avoided. A third lens I hadn’t considered was that Sanjit can’t even reach out to other Art College Presidents for counsel or to relate in their shared struggles, because there’s a competitive element to their relationship that could also potentially compromise Sanjit’s role as President. What he shared was that these three groups and the limitations they each present have reinforced the need for him to have individual time focused on himself and his own artistic practice and values, and to also seek out different people he can connect with separate from MCAD who do not pose a professional risk and can serve as a sounding board without compromising his role and work.

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