How to Be Of, By, and for All: An Interview with Nina Simon

Nina Simon’s work as an author, change leader, and activist is all about creating more open, generous, community-focused organizations. She is the founder and CEO of OF/BY/FOR ALL, a nonprofit organization that provides tools to help civic and cultural organizations matter more to more people. Today, over 50 organizations are using the OF/BY/FOR ALL framework to build relationships, relevance, and impact in their communities.

In advance of her plenary during the Chorus America Virtual Conference, Simon spoke with Chorus America president and CEO Catherine Dehoney about what it means to hold space for change, the importance of getting specific about the communities that matter most to your organization, and what successful community-based cultural organizations look like in a post-pandemic world.


CD: I love that your job title includes the word “spacemaker.” What does that term mean to you?

NS: There are some times when we lead change from a mode of being a risk taker: being the one making the creative thing, getting out ahead, and trying things out. And then there's a way that we lead change by being space makers, by creating the supportive space and permissive space for others to bring their wildest ideas forward.

I probably spent all of my 20s identifying as a risk taker and really being proud to be the maverick that was kicked under the table by my boss when I came up with ideas and things like that. And then when I became a director—in my case, at first a museum director—I quickly realized that the most powerful way to make transformative change was by making space for others to bring their creative visions forward.

OF/BY/FOR ALL is an organization that exists to support others. It's never going to be that we made the change at a given theater, or library, or choral group in our network. But, if we're doing our jobs right, we're creating a space that is electrifying, that sets people in a direction of being able to make positive change. It's a different idea than servant leadership because it's not about just going anywhere our team or members want to go. It's about holding space for and creating conditions for a certain kind of creative practice and change to be possible.


CD: What led you to found OF/BY/FOR ALL? What is unique about your framework and approach?

NS: As I mentioned, I was a museum director of a small museum. We went through a radical transformation from a very traditional institution with a struggling business model to reinvent ourselves as a thriving and very financially sustainable community center. And just a couple years into doing that work, as I was writing about it and speaking about it, people started asking more about the how.

I felt like my next mission and the cause I wanted to devote myself to was equipping other would-be change makers and other organizations around the world not to follow our exact playbook, but to use the same principles we did. When we think about community work or equity work or inclusive work, there's a lot out there about the why and the what, but there's less available around the how. We wanted to create a program and a set of concrete tools that could help those who are inspired and energized in a direction of inclusion to really start doing that work.

If you want to become welcoming to people who have not felt welcome in the past, one of the most effective ways to do it is to become more representative of them and more co-created by them. And if you can become of and by a community, they are much more likely to be enthusiastically involved, and you're much more likely to be successful at sustainably becoming for them.

I'm somebody who really learns by doing. And I think, particularly for white people, we can be so nervous that we're going to make a mistake that we never try, and we plan forever. Yes, you need some concepts. But applying those concepts and learning from how you succeed—and also the experimental risks you take and the mistakes you make along the way—can be very powerful, both in doing the learning and in getting addicted to what is great and successful about this work.


CD: You started off in museums and place-based cultural institutions, but OF/BY/FOR ALL works with many different kinds of organizations. What similarities do you see in community-centered work across art forms?

NS: From the beginning we were always trying to make tools that were very flexible and adaptable to different contexts. One of the ideas that I think has been most transferrable as a mindset shift and a new focus is getting really specific about who the communities are that matter most to you. It doesn't really matter whether that is a community of choral groups of a certain size in a certain country, or whether that's a community of moms who like to sing to their children at night, or whether it's a community of people who live in this neighborhood and are involved with their church.

How can you take an asset-based approach to understand what matters most to those folks, what they're proud of, what they're good at, and then how might you build something together? That sequence of getting clear on community, getting curious about what matters most to them, and then building something based on your respective assets and interests can happen no matter what kind of programming you're doing.

I think that many people have that impulse of “How can I show up?” But in some ways, it's even more important right now to then say: “And where and with whom does it make the most sense?” If you don't start by getting clear about who matters most to you, you're going to be overwhelmed very quickly. You're going to potentially do amazing things and still feel bad about it because you weren't aligned with what mattered most.

Near the beginning of the pandemic, you wrote about how the urge to take the same things we’ve always done and quickly pivot to delivering them virtually can distract arts organizations from realizing their potential to deliver true community value. What do you see as the danger of this approach?

I wrote that piece not to wag my finger at anybody but to process my own immediate reaction of feeling this pent-up urge to do something. I found I really had to hold myself back and resist that impulse. And it was hard. If I were still running a cultural organization, it might have been impossible to resist it.

But I will say that the ideas that we've been able to develop because we gave ourselves a few weeks to get clear on who we cared about and to have conversations are so much better than the initial ideas I had. And if I'd gone for those ideas, I would never have had the time to develop the things that I believe are going to be more useful that we're now doing.

It's not so much that delivering digital is bad, but I think that this crisis is going to last for a very long time. We owe it to ourselves and the futures of our organizations to really think about where we want to go. How can we devote some time to think about who we want to be on the other side of this? What do we think is our best, most strategic attack? And how can we get really creative about what that looks like?

The tools OF/BY/FOR ALL is building right now are predicated on the belief that for many, this will be a summer of reinvention and a summer of reimagining. And I hope that people get to a place where it's like, “Ok, we know what these next few months are going to look like. Now let's give ourselves some permission to dream.”


CD: What are your thoughts about what cultural organizations and community-centered work look like in a post-COVID-19 world?       

NS: We’re all being forced to change to some extent now. Something we have to all ask ourselves really honestly is: Who among us just kind of wishes we could go back to what we had, and who among us wishes we could create something different?

If you come to the conclusion that reimagining is necessary, but you do not yet want it, you need to make space to mourn what you had and to commit to creating something new. Because if you're speaking the language of rethinking, but you're secretly hoping somebody could wave a magic wand and restore you to what you were, you will not be successful in rethinking.

I think that organizations that have just tried to hunker down and then come back—some of them will come back and some of them won't. Those that do come back, I think will be less relevant, which will make them both less appealing to potential participants as well as to potential funders. But those who mourn what they've lost and give themselves permission to dramatically reimagine—those organizations are going to look ways that we can't imagine right now, but they are going to be well-funded, and people are going to be enthusiastic about participating.


CD: So what are the biggest challenges ahead? Is one of them resisting this hunkering down?

NS: Here are some questions that I think could either accelerate reinvention or could be real barriers. Can you get a team together that is willing to re-envision the future? Can you come up with really creative ideas about the possibilities? Can you push yourself? Can you be courageous and outside your comfort zone? Can you let go? Can you do that grieving and that unlearning?

Can you structure all these great ideas you've come up with into a focused kind of plan? Can you build alignment around that plan? Can you sell that plan?

I think one of the most pernicious questions is: Can you stay focused on change even as things start to go back to normal? Because the impulse to go back to what was, if it's available to us, is going to stay very seductive. Even a leader who is very oriented towards change will feel pressure from others around them who are asking, “Couldn't we go back?” I think that that is a huge leadership challenge at this moment.


CD: What about the biggest opportunities?

NS: The thing I encourage organizations to do is to figure out what their assets are. Are you a team that's really creative, that always has a million ideas? Are you resilient? Some organizations have been through a real crisis before and know that they could do it again. Do you have a strategic plan that really guides you? Do you have strong community partnerships? Thinking very broadly about the assets we have beyond just cash in the bank and how we can creatively deploy them—that's where I start to go from feeling overwhelmed and stressed to feeling some agency and some excitement about what's possible.

There are good things getting uncovered right now—like, for example, the idea that when people are in crisis, one of the ways they love to heal together is to make art. One of the ways they love to heal together is to sing. I'm sure you've been saying that forever. But that's not been in the news the way the balcony singing from Italy is in the news right now. Many people are using art as a way to connect and heal, and maybe there's an opportunity to build something out of that.

The other thing, just on a very practical level, that I've been thinking about is what are some of the first steps we imagine might happen as we move forward? For example, are we going to be able to get together in groups of 10 before we can get together in groups of 100? And what might that mean about how we set ourselves up?


CD: OF/BY/FOR ALL helps "civic and cultural organizations matter more to more people.” What could choruses do right now to matter more?

NS: I come back to what I said before: When I think about mattering more to more people, the place I start first is, which people? Which communities matter most to us? What matters to them?

If a chorus said, “The people we care about are kids who don't have enough to do during the day,” or “The people we care about are people who are feeling even more isolated and lonely,” or “The people we care about are health workers”—I can think of a million very different things I would do if I chose to focus on one of those communities or another. And you don't choose to focus totally in a vacuum. You might say, “Which assets do we have that could serve one of these communities versus another?”

Now is a time that generosity and creativity are redounding to a perception of greater relevance and value. That's always true. But especially now, when it's harder to be generous, it is even more distinctive when you see those who are doing it.

There are two negatives of hunkering down. One is you rob yourself of the ability to envision something truly transformative for the future. But two is you become invisible. Many organizations, as we were talking about earlier, are trying to demonstrate visibility with digital activity. But I think that the visibility that's going to be most apparent is the visibility that is highly relevant. And that matters to somebody.