09: Kemi Ilesanmi

How do I reconcile the expectations of different stakeholders?


Here are just some of the stakeholders that come to mind when I consider The Laundromat Project’s work: artists, program participants, laundromat owners, institutional partners, community members, workshop leaders, staff, board, consultants, institutional funders, and individual donors.

Depending on the day, the activity or the existential question, they might move up and down the scale of prioritization. Our only constants are our organizational values. In spring 2013, we concluded a vigorous and collective process of self-examination and self-redefinition (also known as strategic planning) and came up with seven core values that animate our mission to amplify the power of creativity by connecting artists and everyday people in New York City neighborhoods. We thus define ourselves as creative catalysts, community-centered, neighborly, people-powered, active listeners and learners, collaborative and cross-pollinating by design, and propelled by love.

Since 2012, we’ve also been working with the amazing Ebony Noelle Golden, who has helped us ground our work in the principles of cultural organizing, especially that of deep listening and remaining accountable to the communities we serve. Cultural organizing can be defined in many ways, often foregrounding asking, listening, reflecting, and listening some more.

So, on those days when the staff and I are trying to figure out the best ways to serve our artists, engage our participants or partners, respond to funder directives, our fallback plan is to ask if this action reconciles with our values as an organization as well as being sure to check in with most affected by our decision for their input? How hard could that be, right?

Well, when running up against time (everything is due now!) and other factors, intention can be casualty if one is not vigilant. Early this year, we started a new commissions program that allows us to support the socially engaged practice of our professional development Fellows alumni. Our program director Petrushka Bazin Larsen and I came up with the idea during a subway ride and we would need to launch within just a few weeks. We quickly mapped it out and got really excited at the possibilities of investing in our Fellows and the larger social practice field. And then we remembered to take the time to listen. We held three phone conferences with alumni and chatted up the idea with them individually over lunches and drinks. We learned so much and quickly made the program more flexible (across NYC, not just our three anchor neighborhoods), inclusive (defining community flexibly), and relevant (allowing for networking and community support throughout), just by asking, “How would you make this better?” In a couple of weeks, we’ll be announcing our first two fabulous Fellow commission projects, and we are pleased as punch to have learned from them how best to serve them.

We are now in the midst of a strategic planning process solely around our arts education work. We are holding roundtables and one-to-one interviews and making sure we hear from students, parents, funders, teaching artists, colleagues in the field, and many more. The process is not as speedy as we might like, but it is thorough, invigorating, challenging, and grounded in all of our values. So, in short, we reconcile the expectations of our stakeholders by staying true to who we are in the most generous and open-minded way we can manage. It’s an ongoing practice, perfection is not the goal, and we are learning always.

About the contributor: Kemi Ilesanmi is the Executive Director of The Laundromat Project. With over 16 years experience in the cultural arena, she is inspired by the immense possibilities for joy and positive change at the intersection of arts and community. Prior to joining The LP, she was Director of Grants and Services at Creative Capital Foundation where she supported the work of American artists making adventurous new work. From 1998-2004, she was a visual arts curator at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. While there, she organized several exhibitions, including The Squared Circle: Boxing in Contemporary Art, and ran the visual arts residency program. An alumna of Coro Leadership NY, she also holds a MPA from New York University and BA from Smith College. laundromatproject.org