Before I came to CounterPulse, I had a dream job that can be roughly defined by this checklist:
- A supportive space for experimental, anti-institutional art.
- A critically thinking and politically engaged community.
- A platform that is both accessible and uplifting of marginalized voices.
It feels surreal that I had found a place like CounterPulse that is not only built upon these values—but throughout the span of my fellowship—has expanded on my expectations.
Surprisingly, the admiration isn’t because CounterPulse is the most accessible or socially conscious space; but rather, CounterPulse actively listens to the ways in which their presence—as individuals, an institution, as collective instigators— can be more complicated than expected.
Defining and Re-Defining Equity and Representation
This Fall season, CounterPulse was beautifully experimental, political, and intentional with the artists they brought to the space: from Jess Curtis/Gravity’s’s (in)Visible, which highlighted blind and visually impaired performers, to Performing Diaspora 2019’s- stunning works that explored eco-feminism and faith within Black narratives.
Outside the theater, CounterPulse maintained that intentionality through community-centered Block Fest activations, such as Ramekon O’Arwisters’ Crochet Jam and the Tenderloin Women’s Holiday Party, an annual neighborhood event that centers women and provides free food and clothes.
Overall, I was in awe of the space and resources CounterPulse gives to historically-marginalized artists to share their own ancestral stories, and for surrounding communities to have access to art.
Yet there were more complexities beyond any performance or an event. If an organization has an external demonstration of POC artists and communities, there are inevitably questions of how these values surrounding representation are reflected internally within our team. It became clear to artists, staff members, and myself that CounterPulse’s mission values for diversity and equity (or any organization for that matter) will never have a clear cut, flawless execution. At the same time, it is important to critically examine CounterPulse’s role in the Tenderloin district, with a predominantly black population, as our team still consists mostly of non-black folks.
This conversation, however, wasn’t just an internal musing that I was having with myself. Instead, our team held ongoing, open conversations. At CounterPulse, “equity” isn’t just a word on page four of an organization’s diversity statement but means actively learning and discussing what white supremacy practices look like in the workplace, and responding. And to be clear, CounterPulse is definitely not perfect; no organization will ever reach a point of having done “enough” within equity work. Acknowledging ways in which we perpetuate white supremacy culture institutional systems isn’t inherently radical (enough), and it shouldn’t be.
I haven’t been here long enough to see the change reflected on our team, but I have a strong belief that CounterPulse will embrace the discomforts and complexities of these new transformations. How will the staff navigate future hires? How can artists engage with the community for direct social change? They have collectively brought up so many crucial yet radical questions, and I am excited to see CounterPulse find new directions to answer them.
Surviving as an Arts Non-Profit
While it was very clear that CounterPulse was showing and producing transformative work for the community while evolving its internal structures, it was also apparent that the immense feats required to run an arts nonprofit in SF is in itself a miracle, a juggling act; and at times the work being created becomes at odds with the capacity needed to keep an entire organization running.
When I first learned that the entire staff was just three full-time and four part-time members, I thought they were joking (were they hiding more staff members on the first floor?) Looking at the scope of productions, residencies, and operations that happen each year, it seemed impossible that this immense breadth of work was being built and sustained primarily on the shoulders of just seven people.
As I talk to other artists and other non-profit workers, the worries and trends seem to continue: SF arts nonprofits continue to close, forcing artists to leave a tech-dominated city and try to create a more affordable practice in LA instead.
This “Art nonprofits are not meant to survive in San Francisco” theme was not new or surprising, But it seems to be an ongoing warning call that tests and endangers the sustainability of any arts institution.
As I got to know the CounterPulse team, it was very clear that every person on staff is incredibly driven, focused, and uberly talented—but also way beyond capacity. It was worrying to see CounterPulse and surrounding arts nonprofits doing brilliant and culturally-relevant work taking a toll with staff burnout and the toxic effects of a capitalistic system.
I began to wonder, “Is this it? Will all arts nonprofits become victims in the city’s upheaval of unstable arts communities?” In response, CounterPulse heard and listened to these concerns, creating space to mend this precarious work environment. We had set aside time for a two-day, Equity and Liberation Immersion Workshop where we talked openly and willingly about radical ways to create a truly liberated work culture (“What are the consequences of taking things off our plate?” “What does our freedom dream look like as individuals and for the organization?”)
It was so freeing to talk about work so holistically, through the political, institutional, and personal lens that affects our everyday. I found myself inspired to see people take their work emails off their phones, scheduling time for clap-ins and rest, and normalizing restorative rituals (fucking yes to naps at work!). It is so difficult for arts nonprofits to have sustainable work practices, making CounterPulse’s efforts that much more essential.
What has impressed me most about CounterPulse wasn’t the organization’s values according my oversimplified checklist, but rather their willingness to confront the changes needed within the organization. Ultimately, CounterPulse has shown me that a small group of people can collectively continue to move an entire organization’s stagnancy, tradition, and permanence of structure toward a future that simultaneously acknowledges its flaws and works to be responsive to the needs of its community.
In my desire to find clarity at CounterPulse, I found that I was able to find more questions than answers. Ironically, as the Communications Fellow, it strikes me how difficult it is to truly articulate what it means to be a part of this profound, ever-evolving organization. Looking back at my checklist, CounterPulse is a supportive space—but for both experimental art and experimental thinking. It is critical of how they engage with the community, and how they can continue building a transformative and affirming platform for new audiences. My inability to fully express CounterPulse’s impact speaks to their continual dedication to expand, adapt, and reimagine their legacy and creative future— an uncharted time that will undoubtedly be groundbreaking and imperfect.
Demi Chang was the Fall 2019 Communications Fellow at CounterPulse.
Photo of CounterPulse by Scott Fin