We're Gonna Keep Making That Soup

September 29, 2020

Where We Go From Here

Taneshia Nash Laird, CEO, Newark Symphony Hall

When the coronavirus hit New Jersey, Newark Symphony Hall had to adapt its programs to serve its community, even as staff were losing family members to COVID-19. CEO Taneshia Nash Laird explains how she’s looking out for her staff and the community, how new initiatives like Embrace Newark and Symphony of Survival are bringing material and emotional support to Newark residents, and how an increased consciousness of race in nonprofit-funder relationships is changing how she and her work are seen and treated.

In this video:

  • Newark Symphony Hall’s shifting work in response to COVID-19 (0:48)
  • Laird’s response as a nonprofit leader, helping her organization grapple with the effects of COVID-19 (1:51)
  • The creation of Embrace Newark (5:05)
  • Why arts organizations are crucial in times of crisis (5:37)
  • Laird’s vision for the future of Newark Symphony Hall and the city of Newark (6:52)
  • How Laird keeps outrage and optimism in balance (8:19)
  • How the racial dynamics of nonprofit-funder relationships are evolving (9:25)
  • Laird’s hopes for her daughters and the future (11:17)


ANTONY: How’s the framing? Is this far enough?

TANESHIA: And sounds okay? One, two, three. One, two …

ANTONY: You know, we'd love to start just by hearing from you about, what's the mood in Newark right now in terms of everything that's going on. It does feel like there's so many challenges and so much possibility.

TANESHIA: I think the mood in Newark is definitely one of community. People have really bonded together in a way. And that’s I think what a crisis can do. A crisis can really bring people together and it’s all hands on deck.

ANTONY: And how is that showing up in terms of the way you’ve been able to shift your work?

TANESHIA: So, we had to really think about that. I felt a personal responsibility with respect to the pandemic because we had staff members, who very early on lost family members, and it was pretty devastating to be personally impacted that way. So thinking about things like discoveries in the building of pallets and pallets of personal protective equipment, of which, nine thousand where N95 masks when supplies were depleted, really, in the city – to be able to provide that, again, all hands on deck. We're now handing out food every day to the families of our children's performing arts academy which we're doing virtually and just the feeling of being able to provide these sort of essential supplies to the community has been, again, another rallying call for us.

ANTONY: I remember when this all started, I think I went on LinkedIn and I said to the community, how are you all doing and how is this affecting you? And you were one of the first people who wrote back and said, “Well, I just had a big event cancel that was going to be an important part of my revenue.” But I think you were really indicative of what I saw across our clients and partners, which was a lot of non-profit leaders seemed to be both haunted by what had happened and how quickly things had fallen apart, but also undaunted. And it certainly seems like pivoting in arts organizations to now be involved in the direct distribution of health equipment and food is part of that. But how does this challenge you as a leader? You certainly didn't show up for work on February 1 thinking you'd be in the business of food distribution and health equipment provision.

TANESHIA: The very first thing was the disappearance of a hundred percent of our earned income which was the majority of our income, right? And so, then faced with that as a reality, thinking about well what else can I do, you know, and losing that and making sure that I'm taking care of the wellness of my people – meaning the staff first and then the community. But, you know, especially if you're talking about arts organizations, we're used to being able to do a lot with a little. And then culturally speaking, being an African American woman, I mean, you know, that's our whole legacy. My mom was a miracle worker with whatever she had in the pantry. I joked with someone recently that I felt like I was taking leftover bones and vegetable scraps and making a soup, but we're going to keep making that soup. 

ANTONY: One thing I think about with this is in a way none of us were trained for this. Whether your training was in arts administration or in nonprofit leadership, this has been learning as we fly for all of us. What do you think you got right in that initial month as a leader and what do you now look back and wish you had done differently?

TANESHIA: That's such a great question. So, I think checking in. I think that was the most important thing to do, was to be able to check in with the staff. But, you know, the situation in this environment, things took on a different meaning. How I found out about the first deaths was, “Oh I trust that you had a good weekend,” which is sort of the standard way that you start conversations. “Well, no, I didn't because my uncle died and my aunt and my cousin,” you know, one after the other in one individual. And same thing with another staff member and having staff meetings and finding out that we lost three former staff members, and this was the early days. So I think taking care of the staff, I'd like to think I did the right things, which included hiring a therapist to come in and do group sessions with us and to make sure that we were taking care of our wellness and our well-being. One thing that I found is that the staff was actually working longer hours, which is something that I really did not expect nor want. And so, it's still – it's evolving months in – but it's months in now, now that we have something to really focus on. And one of those things being EmbraceNewark, there's sort of a different mood and it's one of collaboration, excitement, being able to hand food out in a different way, you know, feel good about that. So I like to think that what I did well was just keep us together.

ANTONY: I was talking to a funder last week who said, “Don't talk to me about supporting your work in the arts. I'm about getting people who need hospital care and food because right now that's what people need.” How do you respond to that critique and say, actually, the Symphony of Survival and Embrace Newark is an essential need in our community alongside those material needs?

TANESHIA: So, without a doubt a material need is a job, right? And so there's all kinds of studies around what the arts does in terms of economic activity, in terms of the numbers, and all that. So I'm not going to repeat those because clearly they know those and still think it's a luxury. I'll go to something by the Urban Institute that the Knight Foundation funded, which found that the arts are what hold a community together, and it's actually one of the most valued of low-income people and people of color. So, give food, but eliminate hope? That doesn't sound like you are really treating the total wellness of a community. A community is not just having the adequate amount of calories to sustain you. It really is about quality of life as well, and it should not be something that only the rich can have.

ANTONY: If you had a funder who was saying, “Tell me what your aspirations are. We'll meet those needs. We'll give you unrestricted support, we won’t hoard control because you know better than we do; you have control.” What would you be able to dream that you're currently constrained from dreaming?

TANESHIA:  So, I have a dream right now. My dream is to leverage the renovation of Newark Symphony Hall for the restoration of that entire neighborhood. So, yes, we're going to be creating jobs on site, but I want to do more than just create jobs. I want to create careers. So, the idea of using what we're doing to then go out, which is culture and construction – so creating jobs in culture and construction – and then also being able to fund additional development – incremental development – in the neighborhood. The fact of the matter is, in communities of color, people that have access to capital, that can employ other people, tend to hire those people from that community that look like them. And so, again, what I really want the funders to think about is more of a systems approach. The model that I have, and I gave it a name, I call it Symphony Works. I was thinking about after the Great Depression and the New Deal and the Works Progress Administration, later known as the WPA, and I really think that stuff was really innovative. That's what I'm seeking to do with Symphony Works at Newark Symphony Hall. 

ANTONY: I don't think there's any lack of reasons to be outraged these days, but how do you find both from a personal perspective with your family, as a leader of an organization, as part of a broader movement – how do you keep your outrage and optimism in balance?

TANESHIA: How I balance now is to make sure that I stay true to my own values and have that value set and that set of values includes not compromising. I'm very direct and I think it's uncomfortable when people and organizations are not used to a person that looks like me being very direct and speaking from a point and a place of being empowered. And I think if you're asking about what's different, I think I've always had it, but now I probably sit up a little bit straighter. I probably speak a little bit more forcefully. And I'm also willing to walk away when I don't see an organization walking the talk.

ANTONY: Is that because you've gotten older or is just something that's happened in the last few months? Because I've observed that exact dynamic. We have partners at NFF, specifically a good friend of ours and a partner, who – we had a proposal in front of a major foundation in February that said we're going to work together and implicitly it was exactly that: it was dynamic, Black-led organizations with lots of community connections feeling a need to work with Nonprofit Finance Fund because we're larger and more established and the money would flow through us, but ultimately the work was to support those communities. And to his credit, I'm so excited about this, my friend who leads that organization said to me, “By the way, we're not doing that anymore.” We now feel because of what's happened the last six weeks in America, it's our turn to step up and we're not going to use this partnership to help build your platform. We're going to build our platform and we’d love if NFF can help support us make that happen. And that is from a proposal we wrote in February to the conversation we're now having. It's so exciting. It's disorienting as a white leader, I'll tell you.


ANTONY: Because we haven't been, as you said earlier, raised to understand that what allyship really means, when it's about sharing power.

TANESHIA:  I also think that there is a sense that we're going to show up and say, “Are you going to put your money where your mouth is?” You've been saying that this is what you'd like to do, now here's your opportunity to do that, you know. What also has been, I think, illuminating, is the fact that there's been a movement to actually even commission the number of studies that there have been that talk about the amount of hoops that a Black-led organization has to jump through versus a non-Black-led organization, right? For the same resources.

ANTONY: You know when you think about the last few months and the potential for change they've created, do you have different hopes and aspirations now for the world your daughters might live in? Where we could be in 20 years, and if so, how has that changed?

TANESHIA: You know, my daughters are my absolute inspiration. My daughters pretty much think they can do whatever they want to do. And I think that's an amazing thing to be able to be born into a world where we have had – and they've seen – an African American president of the United States. It happens to be, where we live, we're represented by the only African American woman to ever represent New Jersey in Congress, so there is nothing that they think that they cannot do. And they also know, I think and feel that they have agency and can give voice to things that they think are wrong. Again, as a Black woman who previously ran a non-Black – I would say a predominantly white – institution, there was a feeling that you had to sort of talk a certain way, look a certain way, be a certain way, in order to be heard. I'd like to think that now we can be heard, that I can show up and say this is what I'm doing and you should invest in us and not have a thousand questions that would not be put to another institution because they're not Black-led and predominantly people of color on staff. So, that's what I hope that I leave my children: that my daughters know that they can show up fully and be themselves and be successful as their authentic selves.

ANTONY: That's really powerful. It certainly sounds like for that to happen, the rooms you're walking into, whether it's funders or government, would have to be rooms in which the other people in those rooms have done their own work to understand why it is that they might have been part of systems that were treating Black-led organizations differently. What else would need to happen to realize that vision for a world in which your daughters can be their authentic selves and realize their potential and what would you need the people watching this to go out and either do differently on Monday or think differently about our own careers and lives?

TANESHIA: So, I read something that said that something like four percent of organizations are led by, I think Black people, and I think women it was a fraction or a fraction. That's clearly not representative of the country, much less the world, in which we live. So, what needs to also happen and how those rooms need to be different is that I hope that I am no longer the only Black woman that is in those rooms.

Watch more episodes of Where We Go From Here.