Let Me Just Tell It

November 11, 2020

By: Sarah Westlake, Editorial Director

An interview with Jess Solomon


What’s your connection to ArtPlace?

I met Javier Torres when he was the Director of National Grantmaking at ArtPlace. I was a Creative Communities Fellow at National Art Strategies and we were together for the residency portion of the program. He was the first person in philanthropy that I met that felt accessible. Meeting him planted a seed for the kind of practitioner I wanted to be if I ever went into philanthropy. That was how I first became engaged. That next year, one of my colleagues in the fellowship, Nic de la Fuente, received an ArtPlace grant for project Arizona. I ended up working on strategic planning with his community. There are also Artplace threads over at Alternate Roots, a network that will always be near and dear to me. All this to say, I've been a fan and what’s really compelling is the expiration date. I think that was what stood out in the beginning for me the most.


What are you up to?

Whew. As a recovering practitioner of philanthropy,  I am actively imagining the kind of life and work that allows me to bring cultural practice, emergence and systems thinking everywhere I go. In many communities, foundations are the validators. And the practitioners and gatekeepers at foundations build muscles around it. You have to. As I work to undo that muscle memory,  I'm in a space of reorientation, remembering and imagining amongst the backdrop of two pandemics (sanctioned state violence against Black communities, and COVID-19). But isn’t this the time to imagine?! As I reflect on the last 10 years of my professional journey and the cultural work I’ve produced,  I can see the net I've been weaving.  So, what am I up too? I’m leaping. It’s humbling. I am bringing cultural practice, emergence and systems thinking to projects that feel important and transformative in this moment. My consulting practice has become a place for me to stretch and grow and be in community with amazing changemakers.  


The Chief Weaver of Social Fabric

That was my role at the US Department of Arts and Culture (USDAC) from 2015-2017.  USDAC is a grassroots action network inciting creativity to shape a culture of empathy, equity, and belonging. As Chief Weaver I was tasked with connecting regions to each other and developing a community of learning through virtual Citizen Artist Salons. Our first Salon with Betty Yu and Roberto Bedoya on Creative Placekeeping - one of the earlier national grassroots lead conversations on the topic. It was great! We were Zooming before most people were. Weaving is a part of me. Before and after my time at USDAC, connecting people and curating opportunities for rich cultural exchange has been my jam. As a funder, I co-produced what’s known as the “Baltimore Artists Retreat”, a multi-day convening of Baltimore-based artists and national arts professionals. The retreat offered networking and collaboration opportunities between artists, producers, and curators. Since the convening, half of the attendees have leveraged the critical connections made to win awards and/or bring new exhibitions and collaborative works to the public.


How can a hyper-local approach roll up to a national approach?

Good question. I started in philanthropy in my hometown two years after the murder of Freddie Gray. That’s an important distinction because immediately after the Uprising, loads of national and local resources were being pumped into communities and organizations that had known the weight of disinvestment for decades. As the new kid, my initial questions were, “What’s happened to the local commitments made in 2015? Were they deep enough? What does community accountability look like after an Uprising? and What is philanthropy’s responsibility to the communities we say we serve?”  The burned down CVS was built back up, but what about Pinderhughes Elementary around the corner? With my weaver hat on, I began to explore the power of convening - specifically similar groups (organizers, funders, cultural workers) across geographies - to learn best practices, new models, and explore collective impact, and get inspired. I still see strategic convenings as one of the ways to roll hyperlocal approaches into national approaches to a lot of things. The annual ArtPlace conference is an example of that.


How can philanthropy do better?

Whew, again. Who wants to co-write a scripted drama called The Foundation?! Philanthropy is wrestling with itself. Are we changing the system or transforming it? There is a difference between systems change and transformation. I’m Team Transformation. That requires a redistribution of power. Oooh, the P-word.  I was pandemic purging recently and I found my 90’s middle school yearbook. Inside was a flyer for a science and math program funded by a local foundation that I know well now, and have friends who work there . Philanthropy has been the salt in the stew for a very long time. How do you change the recipe? I think it is going to take a lot of creativity and courage. What I want to see more of is courage and creativity. Philanthropy should be the research and development department for social change. I've been inspired by many amazing changemakers in philanthropy - some of whom a part of  the communities they support - but overall, I’m disappointed in the sector. We can’t unsee what the last 6 months has shown us - and the reckoning happening in the field.

I’m not sure most folks even know what Philanthropy is. When I was a grantmaker I would talk about “how we got the money” with potential grantees.  For me, that story was an equalizer and a way to illustrate that foundations are accountable to communities even though typically not framed that way. Historically, the sector was built on wealth acquired as an outcome of structural racism. If my Grandfather who served in WWII received a G.I. Bill, maybe he’d  have a foundation, too.

I would love to see more courageous leaders. I want to see atonement for harm caused by the sector. I want a surge in Community Driven Philanthropy. I would love to see more folks in leadership who are from the places that are being invested in. I want the sector to trust Black Women’s leadership. I want to see more BIPOC and women sitting on investment committees, the groups who manage money for foundations. But most importantly, I want to see transformation. I say this as someone who cares deeply, who tastes the salt in the stew. I think of what Urban Bush Women Founder Jawole Zollar once said to a group of us, "We should be able to lovingly critique the institutions that were a part of". I take that with me everywhere I go.

And today I'm in a space of like.... let me just tell it.


- - -

About Jess Solomon

Jess Solomon (she/her) is a Baltimore-based facilitator, cultural strategist, and organization development practitioner working alongside changemakers to create the conditions for emergent solutions, and more impactful teams, organizations and systems.