“I had some concerns when I first took over,” Leslie Fields-Cruz acknowledged. As executive director of Black Public Media (BPM), her job was to ensure the stability of the organization. For forty years, the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB) has steadily supplied 95 percent of BPM’s funding. While deeply grateful for this partnership, the reality that the organization would disappear if CPB was suddenly unable to continue was too unsettling.
“I was not a fundraiser,” Fields-Cruz stated emphatically. As the director of programming and curator of the tv series AfroPop: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange, she is a storyteller and passionate about her work. That passion makes her a persuasive advocate and strong leader, but the work of donor development felt outside of her wheelhouse. The planning, practices, and processes Fields-Cruz needed to implement in order to create robust funding streams was overwhelming.
Honoring Artist Vision
Enter P.S. 314 (pronounced P-S-three-one-four, though they forgave me when I slipped and said P-S-three-fourteen). Founded by Pi-Isis Ankhra, P.S. 314 partners with social changemakers using storytelling to promote social justice. “In this country, we are cultivated to believe that art is not actually a business. Artists don’t go to business school, but art is the product. They go to school to learn how to build the product but they are not taught the operations around the business,” Ankhra paused, “If you do decide to do it (operationalize like a business), you develop this brand, and you are beholden to the brand, and you are disconnected from your art space which is your green space.”
Ankhra’s teams work with artists to learn how to approach business development and production holistically. “When you are not beholden to the brand, you are connected to you, as your authentic self.” With clarity about mission, vision, identity, and purpose, Ankhra explains, artists can successfully find individuals and entities who will want to work relationally through long-term partnerships that allow the artist to thrive rather than struggle to get each new project out to the public. In the big picture, these relationships invite community engagement and benefit the partners who participate. P.S. 314 has completed sixty projects in the past five years and brought on forty consultants that embody a diverse range of expertise in what they prefer to call, “a collective.”
Michon Lartigue, a senior consultant, writer, and speaker (and the longest-running collective member) agreed that the experience of working with P.S. 314 was the concept of “networking” in its warmest and most emotionally-connected form. “Pi, by her sheer nature, is a matchmaker,” Lartigue smiled. Matchmaking is indeed a theme of P.S. 314, and Ankhra introduces herself that way in their site’s informational video. (You can check out that video here: https://ps3onefour.com/)
“She has an incredible ability to determine the right team for each project in order to provide a tailored approach to the needs of the project.” They have the flexibility to be responsive because they work in groups that comprise multiple skillsets, which is different from typical consulting work that involves only one person required to handle all different areas. “Pi is highly supportive of the consultants. She has always been supportive of me as a writer and coach. We have our own practices, and we are able to hire each other as well. Pi wants the clients and consultants to do well and do good.”
The Dilemma of Equity
Ankhra, who teaches a course about art for social change at The New School wants to challenge her students to understand what it means to value humanity and equity in real-world terms. Most students will agree that humanity and equity are part of their value system, but often pause when she challenges them with the hypothetical, “Ok, let’s make The New School free for everybody.” Confronted with a loss of personal status in this scenario, students process their own resistance and what equitable action entails.
“I ask them ‘what is the role of the artist? What is your responsibility?’ but I also listen without judgment.” Some students are focused on financial success. Ankhra’s mission is that artists not be required to sacrifice financial security in the pursuit of the greater good, and that the more they understand what their art is about, the better able they will be to identify support for its production. She also teaches her students that it is important to keep space for themselves and to identify, “What is sacred. What they don’t want to share.”
The Benefits of Experience
Ankhra, a filmmaker herself, worked with Director Rachel Lyons to produce Hate Crimes in the Heartland, a documentary examining race relations through the analysis of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre (also known as, the Black Wall Street Massacre) and the 2012 Good Friday Murders, both of which occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Ankhra attended film school, but the principles of her business model are derived from her experience in producing films and her varied career.
“I have been privileged to have had a lot of different life experiences,” she smiled. Ankhra has worked for political campaigns and nonprofits, she is an artist, educator, and worked successfully in philanthropy. She studied abroad and speaks multiple languages. Ankhra identified, “translation” as a theme of her experiences. Creating a connection between two different vantage points is an essence of her work and success of P.S. 314. Navigating the intersection of storytelling, philanthropy, and social change is done through relationship building, communication, and utilization of the best practices of the industries represented in her experienced team.
The Importance of Relationships
Building relationships is the central component of the P.S. 314 model. “These ladies are my friends. And I say that with so much reverence and love for them and for the work they did for me, and for the patience and compassion and the love they had for me and my organization,” Fields-Cruz stated, crossing her hands over her heart. “I needed people I could trust.”
“It was such a mutually beneficial relationship,” Lartigue added. “When we started out, we talked about how Netflix was Netflix and wouldn’t that be great (to work with them.) And the last day of our last call we were having trouble saying good-bye. And Netflix was reaching out to them. It was this beautiful full-circle moment.”
With the support of Netflix, BPM has been able to expand its 360 Incubator program which supports independent producers of broadcast and digital projects centered on the Black experience. “I am also able to share that we will be releasing Belly of the Beast on November 23rd,” Fields-Cruz added. This documentary film is about the efforts of two women fighting against involuntary sterilization, sexual abuse, and other forms of violence committed against female inmates, primarily Black and Latinx within one of California’s largest prisons. “We would not have been able to do these things without the skills and practices we learned from P.S. 314.”
For the Love of Humanity
Humanize the Hustle–P.S. 314
“Philanthropy means for the love of humanity,” Ankhra noted, “And that is the foundation of our work.” This value is not only in the projects, but in how Ankhra has structured her organization. The only employee of P.S. 314 is Ankhra, who has kept the same salary for five years, so that the fee structure for artists is accessible. Social justice work is not profitable, and those who dedicate their lives to it work with limited resources. However, Ankhra wants the collective’s consultants to be paid well not only for their skill sets but also for the emotional labor they pour into these projects. “I want to support people, because I value them as people,” she contrasts this viewpoint from the more traditional capitalist view of limiting an individual’s value to services and deliverables, excluding emotional labor from that calculation.
Her next goal is to create an equity fund. With an equity fund, artists without resources can get the support P.S. 314 provides through sponsorship from larger donors. She speaks enthusiastically about this prospect as another way to bring individuals, corporations, and foundations into the storytelling process and engaging the public. “Covid has really shown us that we have to take care of our culture. We have to be human to people,” a simple concept often stated, but one that P.S. 314 proves is transformative in action.
To learn more about Black Public Media and it’s programming: https://blackpublicmedia.org/
To learn more about the work of Michon Lartigue: http://michonlartigue.com/