Suzy and Kemi web

Sustainable Sisterhood: Suzy Myers Jackson & Kemi Ilesanmi

February 23, 2015

The Laundromat Project’s executive director Kemi Ilesanmi and Opening Act‘s executive director Suzy Myers Jackson discuss how they got involved in running their respective organizations, what inspires them everyday, and what #SustainableSisterhood means to them.

 

Kemi:

Suzy, I’m so happy we met at that Union Square Awards event two years ago! I so admire you and your work. So, how did you come to be Executive Director at Opening Act?

 

Suzy:

Well, I owe it all to Aly Sowers. Aly and I grew up across the street from each other in our tiny town of Rolla, Missouri and in the same week in 2003 that Aly set me up on a blind date with my now husband, she also sent me an idealist.org posting that Opening Act was looking for part-time teaching artists for its after-school theater programs. I was a year out of NYU Drama School and looking for work that mattered. Fast forward a year later and I was hooked. I told the founder that I’d love a bigger role in the organization and it just so happened that the Board had recently met and agreed that the organization needed someone to jump aboard to ‘take it to the next level’ (the founder was launching an unrelated venture and couldn’t devote as much time as she wanted to Opening Act’s growth). So I became our first ever paid part-time staff member. I’ve worn many hats in the organization since then and settled into my current role of Executive Director in 2008.   And you? How did you wind up at The Laundromat Project?

 

Kemi:

I love that story and I can’t believe how similar it is to mine! I met Risë Wilson, the founder of The Laundromat Project (The LP), at a mutual friend’s brunch, two weeks after moving to the city in fall 2004. We hit it off right away as she told me about this fab organization that she was hoping to launch shortly. A year later, she invited me onto the board of The LP, and I remained an active member for 4 ½ years. It was a wonderful way to support a young organization and artists of color. I also got to know New York City as our first programs took place across the city in many neighborhoods I was just learning about. After chairing our very first benefit, I stepped down to attend graduate school at NYU. But I loved The LP so I remained an enthusiastic supporter. When I received my Masters in Public Administration in 2012, I approached The LP board about coming back as a staff member. That fall, I became our first full-time and paid Executive Director, and it’s been a whirlwind ever since (in a good way).   So, what about Opening Act’s mission gets you out of bed in the morning?

 

Suzy:

Oh gosh, for me it’s always the people. I feel very lucky to still be able to teach one of our programs, so I’m in the classroom working with our students once a week. I get to actually be a part of the work that I’m also fighting to support and sustain with all the other work I do as an ED. So I’m seeing—through young people like Caleb, and Shania, and Willis—how theater really can be a game changer in their lives. How creating a safe and welcoming space that challenges and supports you can completely change your outlook on the world and your place in it.

 

Kemi:

I love that! Being in the work can be so invigorating.

 

Suzy:

Yes, our mission is to provide theater programs to students attending the city’s most under-served high schools, and through those programs, to give them a place where they can develop community and confidence and commitment. Getting to be a part of my students’ artistic process of creating original work about whatever THEY feel is important is also a continual source of energy and inspiration. This year, my students are creating a play around the topics of family, values, and police brutality. They are incredibly powerful young people. Tell me about The Laundromat Project. From the first time we met, I’ve been rather smitten with what you do :)

 

Kemi:

Aww, thanks and ditto! The LP had me smitten as well from the first time I heard about it ten years ago. Like Opening Act, we believe deeply in the power of creativity, arts, and people. We are citywide but anchored in three neighborhoods—Bed-Stuy, Harlem and Hunts Point / Longwood in the South Bronx. We work in laundromats and other community spaces like parks, schools, and libraries because that’s where people already are. Working on two sides of one coin, we commission and train artists to make new work in community spaces.

 

Suzy:

That’s the best part! What do they do in those spaces?

 

Kemi:

They’ve blown our minds with their projects—from pop-up performances, film festivals, portrait booths, and yoga studios in laundromats, to a beauty shop magazine created by the immigrant women who work there, and storytelling circles across all five boroughs. We also work with everyday people—amplifying the power of their own creativity through art workshops, after-school academies, and the like. It’s amazing when a parent joins their child in making some art and then re-discovers how much they like making art too! It’s fabulous when an artist learns something new about a neighborhood they’ve always called home through an art project that allows them to see home in a whole new way. That’s sustainable creativity!   Speaking of sustainable, what’s does sustainable sisterhood mean to you?

 

Suzy:

Our sustainable sisterhood has been a Godsend in my life. It’s one of those things that I didn’t realize was missing until I found it, you know? And now I can’t imagine navigating my life and work without this amazing group of women. I read somewhere lately that the most powerful words in the English language are ‘me, too.’ I’m sure there’s much to debate about that, BUT—for me, Sustainable Sisterhood means having women who can say ‘I hear you’ and ‘I’ve been there’ and ‘you’re not alone.’ And whether or not they have solutions for you, just knowing that we’re in it together makes everything seem so much more manageable. And I’m SO excited to meet more incredible, powerful, smart, vulnerable, fun people at our February 23rd event!

 

Kemi:

I know what you mean! Being part of this group of fierce, diverse women leaders has been eye-opening for me. I love that our group grew so organically, with each person pulling in someone else that inspired them. To me, sustainable sisterhood means celebrating our successes together (awesome press), supporting one another through the challenges (grants that don’t come through), and, my favorite, sharing resources and very practical tips (3-minute meditations, fundraising plans). Being the boss can be very lonely but this group makes it a lot less so. And our sustainable sisterhood means that I get to expand my own notion of success. I’m rooting for The LP and for six other amazing organizations making a real difference in New York City and beyond. Our collective success is my success too and vice versa. That’s the kind of world I want to live in & help create every day.

 

Suzy:

Hear, hear. And on that note, it’s a wrap!

 

This is the third conversation in the #SustainableSisterhood conversation. Be sure to also check out part one (featuring Chitra Aiyar of the Sadie Nash Leadership Project and Tracy Hobson, Center for Anti-Violence Education) and part two (featuring Brooke Richie-Babbage of Resilience Advocacy Project, Katy Rubin of Theater of the Oppressed NY, and Lauren Burke of Atlas: Developing Immigrant Youth.