Monday, 20 July 2015 11:05

Fifteen Years of Learning Leaderships


2015NLI papelpicado


Fifteen Years of Learning Leaderships


The NALAC Leadership Institute (NLI) turned fifteen years old this month. In many ways, it seems kind of like a Quinceañer@. By that we mean it's gone through some heady developmental phases and grew wisely during its early formative years, it's got enough memories to fill an archive yet keeps dreaming of the future, and its attitudinal coordinates are very much a result of our surrounding time(s) and place(s). It also feels like a Quinceañer@ in the sense of event. For example, there's no one person or source that puts the whole thing together -it's a collective and community effort. Also, there's no global franchise or one-stop clearinghouse there to provide all our supplies -its materials emanate from excluded, dominant, neglected, mainstream, academic, and political areas of our culture(s). Most significantly for our purposes, it's an aesthetic expression and self-valorization of our Latinidades with the purpose of enhancing our reentry into the social field.  In short, what we are dealing with is the coming-of-age of a new thought, one that sees itself having a leadership role within a much larger, transformative narrative.


This year, we were incredibly honored to have our Graduation Keynote Address delivered by renowned American playwright, actor, writer, and film director Luis Valdez. For the first time, the Keynote portion of our program was a public event and it was held at The University of Texas at San Antonio Downtown Campus. Furthermore, we were also deeply fortunate to include a magnificent session where Congressman Joaquin Castro (Texas' 20th District) shared insightful views on the importance of Latino art and cultural production for him personally, as well as for broader policies that can affect the future of our various communities. The sum and combination of these crucial elements once again illustrates just how the NLI is produced through a set of coordinated, collective efforts.


The 15th annual NLI took place July 13-18 and we were graciously hosted by UTSA Downtown Campus. Through the generosity, dedication, and forthright community engagement  of UTSA, our program ran extremely successfully. No less crucial was the inspiring presence and indelible work of our always amazing participants who brought this summer's NLI to fruition. The multi-generational and multi-ethnic group of tremendous arts leaders constituting our Class of 2015 NALAC Leadership Institute fellows brightly represented ten U.S. States, including Arkansas, California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Texas -thus bringing our overall total representation to thirty-three states. Since its introduction in 2001, the NLI has nurtured an emerging cohort of 276 artists and arts administrators who are dedicated to sustaining culturally specific work at the core of Latin@ communities and dedicated to changing and shaping cultural policy. Similarly, over 184 organizations nation-wide have sent Fellows to our program and over 95 U.S. cities are currently represented. For detailed information on the NLI, including our Class of 2015 participants, the organizations they represent, and Faculty click here (PDF attachment).


At this point, it is also well worth noting there's three things we must ask in order to really proceed any further: what kind of experiential forum is the NLI, why is it important that it be available, and how does its ongoing development come about? Let's start with the first question.


The NALAC Leadership Institute (NLI) provides critical training to the next generation of Latin@ artists and arts administrators from across the nation by way of a comprehensive curriculum rooted in our diverse Latino cultural experience. An outlier among other leadership programs, the NLI employs a holistic pedagogical approach to professional arts management that not only equips emerging leaders with a fundamental skill-set, but perhaps more significantly, contextualizes said learning experience to promote responsive cultural stewardship. Our unique methodology is consciously based on the historic overview and corresponding analysis of Latin@ artistic and cultural production in the U.S., including the vital role of civically-minded community engagement. After all, leadership is but a type of professional development, one that answers a call which usually arrives from tomorrow. This lens provides the notional framework for all Institute presentations, discussions, and instruction. Given this situational approach, each year's weeklong, intensive training is customized to the leadership development needs that are specific to each incoming class and thus confidently adjusts the study of eight fundamental topics which the NALAC Leadership Committee believes central to the participants’ development and consequent success in our competitive national art scapes: Mission, Programming, Budgeting, Marketing, Fundraising, Governance, Evaluation, and Advocacy.


This is also why the NLI has served as a platform, inspiration, and at times springboard for the advancement of our programming. To that extent, NALAC has additionally had five Advanced Institutes consisting of thirty-six participants and five Advocacy Leadership Institutes (ALI) that include forty-four participants. We are also currently proud to be working on our forthcoming pilot Intercultural Leadership Institute (ILI), which is set to occur at the end of September this year. Our programming labors under the belief that it's good to invest in our constituencies, especially when one believes in the results of our joint work, which is why NALAC includes our Alumni in the form of staff, board members, partners, speakers, panelists, and faculty for example.


NALAC believes that our strategic programming brings together a wide range of Latin@ artists, organizations and individual communities in an effort to prompt artistic excellence along with incremental forms of social inclusion.  Connecting representatives of Latino constituencies to organizations in other diverse regions strengthens our collective knowledge(s), amplifies our local community’s contribution to this country, and creates a more engaged population. Moreover, this connectedness is critical in our pursuit for cultural equity, which will arise when diverse populations address social inequality together and work to create shared opportunities for access to resources, cultural participation, and artistic production.


So, why would it be important for this educational forum to remain available? A part of our answer has to do with specifically how culture gets made and, maybe just as appropriate, who it gets made for. Another part is directly linked to the status of education and the questionable political, economic, and ethical side-effects of our increased disinvestment in the prospect of learning which are all but impossible to overlook. Let's start with the latter point and how that ties into our program.


To be sure, participants along with faculty and all of us involved in creating the NLI are able to learn things we didn't know or didn't know as much of. And, yes, through a proper sequencing of sessions we interactively exert skills that could stand to be further exercised within our own individual day-to-day operations. In this manner, what we co-create is a site of learning: site in the sense that the Institute very much has a physical location and is quite there, en su sitio, except that its effects are not bound or confined by that specific location and are therefore irreversibly not only there. If we consider that scenario and if we consider learning as an action that results from our abilities to connect with the people around us and build consensus on what is perceivable and by what means, it's then easy to see learning is a social practice. The content of that learning (fiscal planning, marketing, board development and so forth) along with the formal channels through which we arrive at that learning also tend to develop who we are, who we see others as, and how we locate these positions on a more detailed spectrum (be it a family, a neighborhood, a nation, or hemisphere even). That makes learning a cultural activity, with some foreseeable political implications not too far behind. These aspects of what it means to teach and the tangible/intangible outcomes of learning were at the source of what we now know as the NLI, which began as a conversation between our former Executive Director, Pedro Rodriguez, and our now Executive Director, Maria López De León.


"At its origin, the NLI consisted of this idea to bring people together, of building a platform upon which convenings could take place where different people came together to share ideas, experiences, knowledges, and practices", Ms. De León recalls, "fifteen years later, through all of the changing differences and newness that have gone through the Leadership Institute, that original idea remains at its heart".


This idea had to be flexible enough to include existing pillars of knowledge in the field of arts and cultures, while strong and resilient enough to integrate emerging, less defined, sets of information that secure both the longevity of our project and its intentional goals. We knew it required individuals capable enough to embody such mission and transmission, individuals with unforeseen abilities to both teach and seamlessly learn the swift currents shaping our professional practice. So in comes our core faculty of nationally recognized professionals and leaders in the Latino arts and culture sector: Maribel Alvarez, Ph.D. (University of Arizona, Southwest Center -Tucson, AZ), Abel López (GALA Hispanic Theatre -Washington, DC), and Rosalba Rolón (Pregones Theater/Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre -Bronx, NY). The NLI has also been incredibly fortunate for the participation, overwhelming support, and astounding teachings of Dr. Tomas Ybarra-Frausto and Dudley Brooks. We think it's plenty fair to say that the NLI would be a great although inoperative template or format without our Faculty, Guest Faculty, and Keynote Speakers to catalyze its realization. Especially when, through the years, our Keynote Speakers include Dr. Arturo Madrid, Pablo Miguel Martinez, Raul Salinas, Jesse Borrego, Norma Cantu, John Philip Santos, Sandra Cisneros, Guillermo Gomez-Peña, Carmen Tafolla, Carlos Gallego, Christine Ortega, and now Luis Valdez. For these and many other reasons, at our fifteen year mark, we feel a remarkable gratitude.


Although both agile and nimble, this idea called NALAC Leadership Institute consists of a proper physical structure too: an operational place to interact, to house spatial activities. Quite simply, a material hub for the continual exchange of information and knowledge. Our first year, the NLI was held at San Antonio College and the following years it took place at Trinity University and St. Mary's University. For many years thereafter, we were so generously hosted by Our Lady of the Lake University. Suffice it to say, the NLI has also very much been a taut mobile structure -one often made into place via institutional partnerships. This goes directly to the question of how its ongoing development comes about.


In its nascent phase, the NLI was and very much continues to be shaped by the values and coexisting needs informing NALAC as a service-based organization with transformational purpose at core. In other words, it's part of our understanding of the organization itself as a social function. Its inception was also based on the several yet limited tangible or concrete resources that we had access to. Over the years, and perhaps most important to note, these initial resources expanded, yes, because of the entirety of NALAC's evolving programs, but, they also grew out of the precise activities and relationships built through the NLI (the production of culture, knowledge, affects, communication, informational infrastructures, codes, services, etc ). We cannot gloss over this part because what it says is that unquestionably tangible or material resources (be they funds, space, supplies, and so forth) can be generated through seemingly intangible or immaterial kinds of work -like the production and exchange of understanding that constitutes learning, network-building, leadership development, conviviality, and so on. These being, to some degree, all forms of pliable currencies. After all, the inscription of new knowledge into our lives -a primary benefit of learning- is seldom accompanied by hard, physical evidence: education is by nature an investment on some future return.


There is also a substantial need, one that's not easy to articulate, that prompted the creation of the NLI and, to this day, fuels its ongoing development. It has to do with providing an efficient service to the field of Latino arts and culture which, in turn, strengthens the field overall. Such training of Alumni and Fellows is indeed an investment in our field as a whole, one that goes beyond the spheres of our immediate Latinidades and quite often extends even further into multiple sectors, unrelated to the arts, as crossover talent. Nonetheless, the fulfillment of our service first means that we must produce a space through which the necessary experiences -discussion, inquiry, learning, inventiveness, solidarity- can take place. In some very obvious ways, many Latin@ artists, arts administrators, and culture bearers aren't offered these experiences through the dominant circuits providing professional development and career networking tailored to the arts and cultural sector. These often more traditional consortiums seem inherently capable of overdetermining our work and discourse (which is many times connected to themes of social justice, equality, and the several political dimensions of culture) in ways that, if left unchallenged, can minimize our efforts. Despite their variegated renditions, they can be surprisingly oversimilar. That is to say, our work and research is prone to the failures of re-presentation. And quite often, when it is present in these settings in the shape of first-voice, it is prone to be included in isolated or tokenistic quantity -like an offshore subplot. Other times, the ticket for inclusion demands such rigorous decontextualization that our work gambles with the risk of coming across as stereotype, or simply gets 'othered' enough to appear incoherent and frankly unintelligible.


So, sometimes, we take on the challenge of tactfully shifting the public conversation of how our artistic and cultural work intervenes into an unfolding American narrative. In that sense, the NLI is an ever-evolving strategy for the kind of cultural interface that is modeled on equitable inclusion, a substrate interface that joins together different voices and stories as peers, as intercultural colleagues with a knack for creative problem-solving and a principled commitment to building better leaderships.


Of course, by now it's become exceedingly common to reference the premises of rhetoric that have defined either the limited scope or, according to some, the uncharted possibilities of our present social/cultural/economic realities. Sometimes it's useful to bear in mind that the very need to make and constantly repeat such arguments is a symptom (or syndrome, depending on who you ask) of how they haven't been properly absorbed or assimilated by dominant policies or servile efforts in the field. It is also a healthy reminder to expect various forms of disengagement from entities whose role is precisely to creatively pursue the preservation of our cultural status quo or unapologetically serve the interests of stillness. The fact is that our trajectories of mixed histories and social movements do not have a monopoly on progress. And awareness of this fact is a feature that only activates our imaginative capacities to render learning a sign of equality, and the development of new leaderships throughout our communities as an act of freedom.




The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) is a legacy organization investing in the Latino heritage of this nation. For over 25 years, NALAC has built a strong foundation for the promotion of Latino arts and culture and its advocacy efforts have advanced issues of cultural equity and raised the visibility and understanding of Latino artistic and cultural expression. The National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC) is the nation's leading nonprofit organization exclusively dedicated to the promotion, advancement, development, and cultivation of the Latino arts field. In this capacity, NALAC stimulates and facilitates intergenerational dialogues among disciplines, languages, and traditional and contemporary expressions. NALAC serves thousands of Latino artists and hundreds of organizations representing a national and international community of multiple Latinidades; a network that crosses many cultures across the Latino Diaspora.

For more information visit our website at  or like us on Facebook at

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