In retrospect, the career options we’re told about as children are so limiting. There are so many more options, passions, and paths than we are led to believe as kids, or even when we are graduating high school and picking colleges or majors. I wanted to be a lawyer for a while, only because it seemed flashy, dramatic. At another point I wanted to be a chef, and even had a paper toque. While I never pursued either of those careers, it is beautifully fitting to now be supporting chefs and independent restaurants at the James Beard Foundation.
I love learning, and as a first-generation college student, my time at Dickinson opened so many doors and so many new ways of thinking. I found such value in most of the classes I took and the professors I had, and found that even if I wasn’t entirely motivated by a particular subject, there was value in engaging with the reading, or the professor, making the most of the situation. Most transformative was my Introduction to American Studies course, taught by Professor Jerry Philogene during the second semester of my first year. It was a foundational course, and was my first glimpse into what would ultimately be my area of study. American Studies challenged me to think critically about so many things we take for granted in our day-to-day lives: art, media, pop culture, historical narratives, images, sports. There was a joke in the department that once you study American Studies you can never again just enjoy a movie or TV show, since you’ll always be watching through a critical lens. And that’s true! But that’s not a bad thing. It has made me observant. It helps me connect the dots. It’s made me a better speaker, writer, and analyst. And that’s been a huge asset in my life and career.
Rarely are high school or college students planning for a career in the nonprofit world, if they even know those careers exist. For me, I was introduced to the nonprofit arts world, and specifically to development work during an internship at Atlanta’s Woodruff Arts Center, with an alumna of my college. I was so drawn to the idea that I could work in a creative industry that has meant so much in my life for so long, but in which I never saw myself having a professional career. I wasn’t cut out to be a professional musician or performer, but music, art, theater have always been central to my happiness. Instead, I was now surrounded by this creativity and the people who did decide to make it their life’s work. Better yet, I was actively playing a role in supporting those people and enabling their art. What a beautiful thing!
When I pivoted out of a theater non-profit and into the James Beard Foundation (which celebrates, supports, and elevates the people behind America’s food culture and champions a standard of good food anchored in talent, equity, and sustainability), I realized that those fulfilling emotions of support extend beyond just the arts world. At JBF I can see the impact of my work on chefs, on restaurant owners, and on the industry. That’s what motivates me every day.
The most tremendous feeling is meeting the people whose work you are supporting. When I worked in theater that meant wandering from my desk into the dark auditorium to watch a meticulous dress rehearsal bring a new play and a new voice to life. At JBF it means meeting chefs, servers, owners, sommeliers, and others who the organization is advocating for every day. Because of COVID-19, there have unfortunately been few opportunities for me to meet these folks. But every time it’s been special. We resumed our annual gala in November, and the entire evening was so mission-centric in a way that shifted my perspective on what I do. With good food as the common denominator, each person in the industry and at that event had a separate set of goals and passions, from sustainability, community service, or entrepreneurship, to restaurant design, and fair pay. That night I had the opportunity to see so many chefs proud of what they do and grateful for the impact of the organization. It makes me proud and grateful in return.
Yes! It was great to meet so many motivated recent and upcoming PBK graduates, and to shed some light on life in the arts, culture, and non-profit worlds. My best advice would be to open yourself up to the opportunity of connection. Any place, any time. I strongly believe that as human beings we can gain so much from others, even those who play a fleeting role in our lives. Whether you are making small talk with someone at the grocery store, talking to a person next to you at a bar, connecting with a fellow subway passenger, or grabbing lunch with a coworker, we are blessed to have so many chances to learn from other people.
At the heart of these connections is discovery. And for me that’s manifest itself in job opportunities, producing partners, lifelong friendships, a good laugh, new passions, and so many other incredible things. My experience in life is limited to what I know, but opening myself up to others has only expanded what’s possible.
Lately I have been soaking up All About Love by the Black feminist culturalist bell hooks. It posits that love, whether familial, platonic, romantic, etc., true love is about extending one’s self for the purpose of nurturing our own or another’s spiritual growth. It’s both an intention and an action. She suggests that we’ve been taught a lot of incorrect ideas about what love is, and thus have unrealistic expectations of how to love and be loved. It sounds very new age in concept, but it’s actually a very practical book! It is shifting my perception of relationships, and I am a natural relationship builder (a blessing and a curse). Not to mention, relationships are at the heart of my career. Fundraising is about connecting with people, and connecting those people to the things about which they are passionate. That’s spiritual growth, right? At the center of the Venn diagram between organization, fundraiser, and donor is the mission. And those relationships are most impactful, most equitable, most organic when a donor cares so much about supporting something that they are willing to selflessly give something personally meaningful to them, be it $5 or $50,000. In that way, there’s more love than you might think in fundraising!
Outside of my day job, I dabble in creative producing for drag artists. There is nothing like the experience of seeing a drag show, especially in New York, especially in Brooklyn where I call home. Drag is such a beautiful representation not of any larger cultural trend, per se, like much art, but reflective of the persona and personality of the person behind the make-up and wigs. It’s simultaneously impersonal and personal: representing a mask or a character, while also offering a glimpse into the inner creative expression of the performer. In Brooklyn I am so grateful to see the vast spectrum of drag performance. Kings, queens, non-binary performers, trans and Black trans performers, dancers, comedians, storytellers. I am privileged to call so many my friends, and to experience their brilliance on stages large and small, any night of the week. It is great to see drag artistry represented on international stages lately, but local drag is the heart of the artform. You’ll always leave a show energized, loved, and changed. So whether you’re in New York City or a local venue of your own, see a show and always tip your queen!
Arts and sciences, a liberal arts education, these things have always mattered. Right now I think many of us are more secluded and lonely than people at many other points in history. We have and continue to be literally secluded from each other, at home, behind masks, or at a distance. And we are finding ourselves more and more politically and culturally isolated as well. At the same time, we are supposed to be more connected than ever. The solution, in my eyes, is a liberal arts approach to life. That is, an openness to the possibilities, to listening, to critical dialogue, to empathy, to discomfort. It’s a passion for betterment, not for ourselves but for a greater good. It’s a realization that our actions have consequences. And it’s a willingness to be interdisciplinary. Easy, right? Formal and higher education are not right or accessible for all people. But every day is an opportunity to expand our knowledge and deepen our empathy, if we open ourselves up to it. For me, college was a catalyst for that. The more we can widen opportunities for a mindset rooted in the liberal arts and sciences, the better we can be as people and as citizens.