Janet Aalfs on Poetry & Democracy

Posted on by Victoria Russell

Leading up to our “What Is It, Then, Between Us?”: Poetry & Democracy event in Morristown on March 23, 2019, we’ll be sharing blog posts with some of the poets and organizations who will be part of the day.

Today, we’re sharing a reflection on Poetry & Democracy written by poet Janet Aalfs.

Janet Aalfs 200 x 200In democracy’s terrain, where each citizen counts and is accountable to each and every other citizen, poetry that is brave and honest invites us to listen more deeply with our whole selves. Shifting is what we notice; it’s what energy does. Lucille Clifton‘s “I Am Not Done Yet” reminds us that we are individual and collective works-in-progress: “a changed changer/ i continue to continue/ where i have been/ most of my lives is/ where i’m going.” Poetry, from poiein, to make. One deeper breath, one truer word, one kinder step, one more generous action at a time, and barriers become less dense. Hope, then, is between us.

I am inspired by countless poets whose voices carry the powers of breath, bone, muscle, blood, the full range of senses. Enheduanna, the first known author in the world, inscribed her living words in clay tablets 4300 years ago: “You have hung them over your fingers,/ You have gathered the many powers, You have clasped them now/ Like necklaces onto your breast.” That I am able to feel her spirit these many centuries later encourages me in the belief that what one human body creates can make a lasting difference, and that the energy we each generate day by day matters to the entire web: past, present, and future.

In “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” in the same stanza as the title phrase, Whitman asserts, “That I was I knew was of my body, and what I should be I knew I should be of my body.” When I was in my late teens, and coming out as a lesbian, Audre Lorde inspired me in the art of moving through fear. I believed her words, on the page and in person, with every fiber of my being, “So it is better to speak/ remembering/ we were never meant to survive.” After a reading she gave in the late 1970’s, I had the opportunity to thank her, and to hear from her in response, “Not only can you do this work – you must.” Catalyst and catapult, the energy that she directed through her full-bodied language, voice and arms uplifting, thrives in my cells.

Another salient moment and turning point for me as a young adult was when I shared with Adrienne Rich that hearing her poems made me want to run home and write. The generosity in her response, “that is the greatest compliment one poet can give to another,” is for me what constitutes the foundation of democracy – reciprocity in all dimensions. In The Dream of a Common Language, Rich reminds us that it is possible to keep honing our skills of discernment and protection when freedom is threatened in any way: “in these hands/ I could trust the world, or in many hands like these/…such hands might carry out an unavoidable violence/ with such restraint, with such a grasp/ of the range and limits of violence/ that violence ever after would be obsolete.”

Calling on our potential to continue evolving, in How We Became Human Joy Harjo invokes: “Remember the earth/ whose skin you are:/ …Remember all is in motion,/ is growing, is you.// Remember that language comes from this.” However, we are vulnerable to forgetting, and to being silenced by force. Fear, then, is between us. Our differences become walls without doors, chasms without bridges, words without roots. These stuck places of pain, when we pay attention, can provide important information about what and how we need to change. Poems encourage us to take notice. Rumi, for one, keeps calling us to action: “There is no companion but love,/ No starting, or finishing, yet, a road./ The Friend calls from there:/ Why do you hesitate when lives are in danger!”

Poems that face and move through fear, mysterious at the heart and welcoming from every angle, transform suffering into healing. These poems converse across perceived barriers of time, space, and identity. They interrupt cultural assumptions and stereotypes. They expose and work to dismantle the odious constructions of patriarchy, white supremacy, and imperialism. They ask difficult and necessary questions, layer after layer, incisive and expansive. Quest, a journey, + ion, energy. A poem-question offers sustenance for the challenge of each step.

One poetic movement meditation that I enjoy sharing, Triple Ripple, is useful in supporting people to engage regardless of opinions and beliefs. This activity uses a simple rocking motion, sitting or standing, three expanding circles with the hands, and these call-and-response lines: “This fear I face/ Is a deeper breath I take/ Is the courage I share.” In creating sites for revelation, healing, and cultural exchange, a friend and colleague, Ingrid Askew, who is African American, and I, descended from European immigrants, made a version that expresses Ubuntu. This universal principle from southern Africa clarifies humanity’s essence, and gives us the heart of what democracy needs: “I am because you are/ You are because I am/ We are all connected through spirit. Ubuntu.”

The poetry that most moves and informs me imagines a world in which we recognize, as in Cheryl Savageau‘s Dirt Road Home: “Everything is a gift,/ there is no such thing as necessity./ Even the air we breathe, the sunlight,/ this mysterious music of breath and heartbeat.” Gratitude, then, is between us. Unconditional positive regard arises from spirit confidence – no place for shaming, blaming, undermining, destroying. Courage – couer, core, corazón, kokoro – in any language, heart. Like Mary Oliver‘s “wild geese, harsh and exciting –/ over and over announcing their place/ in the family of things,” real democracy affirms that we are all made of each other.  Sun-Buer, a 12th century Taoist poet and Immortal Sister has said it this way: “Before our body existed/ One energy was already there.”

The following poem I’ve woven from core strands of three movement languages that I practice and teach – Taiji/Qigong, Okinawan karate, and Filipino stick arts – beckons me onward: “Follow the natural/ Flow, that which comes from within,/ As the lotus flowering rises through mud/ Of the river pool into sun,/ Vast, vast, vast is Divine Wisdom.” In brilliant paradox, democracy both celebrates and transcends differences to nourish the whole. This one sky we share supports and sustains every celestial body, infinite in scope and variation, in constant motion guiding. One earth. One dark and light. One moment. This, between us.

–Janet Aalfs

Posted in Poetry, Poetry Archives, Poetry Coalition, Poets, Tidbits | Leave a comment

Gallery at 14 Maple: Seeing the Unseen explores our shared humanity

Posted on by Courtesy of Morris Arts


Morris Arts invites the public to attend the reception and opening of seeing the unseen, a new Gallery at 14 Maple exhibit featuring works depicting people and aspects of our world that sometimes seem “invisible” in our society, on Thursday, March 14 at its offices in Morristown.

The reception for the exhibit is 6 to 8 p.m. on the 3rd Floor of the LEED certified building and is free and open to all.

The Exhibition Committee of Morris Arts and guest curator Greg Leshé selected works created by 10 outstanding artists. It includes painting, mixed media, photography, sculpture, collage, and digital art.

Top to bottom: Ed Kashi’s portrait of Ahmed, an African torture victim and U.S. detainee before being granted asylum; Jeffrey Campbell’s digital composite/found photography, Here Be Dragons; Nyugen Smith’s  mixed media and collage on paper, Bundlehouse: Like oil + water; Detail from Hanna von Goeler’s multimedia work, Hung Out to Dry: From Riches to Rags and Rags to Riches; Tian Hui’s  acrylic and oil on canvas, Friedrich Hayek.

The exhibit features works by distinguished artists, many of whom have also had careers as curators, documentary photojournalists, and artists deeply concerned by injustice.

The 10 artists featured in this exhibit are: Jeffrey Campbell of Wanaque, Patricia Cazorla of New York, Angeles Cossio of Jersey City, Hanna von Goeler of Montclair, Grace Graupe-Pillard of Keyport, Tian Hui of South Orange, Ed Kashi of Montclair, Nancy Saleme of New York, Nyugen Smith of Jersey City, and Wendel White of Galloway. Each artist brings a unique perspective to the theme of seeing the unseen.

Top to bottom: Wendel White’s Woman’s Hood NJ WKKK, Southern New Jersey Cultural Organization, Cape May, NJ; Grace Graupe-Pillard’s oil, Dadaab Camp/Kenya; Patricia Cazorla and Nancy Saleme’s charcoal pencil, ink marker, liquid silver leaf and acrylic on wood, The Garden of Opportunities, little boy; Angeles Cossio’s styrofoam, coffee cups sculpture, Conglomerate.

“Within the show’s compass I regard the artwork as the beacon, the lighthouse, the signaler-object of the unseen, transmitting a critical light, projecting warning rays while asserting and proclaiming what’s out there that we can’t or choose not to see,” said Guest Curator Greg Leshé about the exhibit. “These forces and realities pose a danger to an individual, a community, an environment, an ethnic group, a nation – and, if ignored or left untended, will imperil some level of our collective humanity.”

Through these artists’ eyes, we visualize the beauty and poignancy of migrant farm workers, people who survived extended detention, political imprisonment, or torture as well as tangible emblems of racism, environmental degradation, and, ultimately, our shared humanity. It is at once an exhibit of great beauty and profound awareness — making the viewer mindful of the truly important and fundamental matters in our world.

Additionally, at the opening reception, the winners of the Ehlers and Coladarci Arts Scholarships will be introduced and recognized for their achievements.

Posted in Arts, Gallery at 14 Maple, Morristown, News & Announcements | Tagged | Leave a comment

The story behind the new Atlantic City Community Fund

Posted on by Elizabeth Murphy, Creative New Jersey

By the people

Atlantic City residents, nonprofits, and community organizations are invited to apply to the Atlantic City Community Fund for grants supporting work that enhances the quality of life in the city.

The Board of Advisors to the Atlantic City Community Fund last month announced the new opportunity to organize and mobilize their city’s capacity and resources to advance causes identified by and for the residents of Atlantic City after fundraising $30,000.


The announcement was the public launch of the Atlantic City Community Fund, an initiative with roots in Creative New Jersey’s Call to Collaboration held in Atlantic City in 2015.

At that community gathering, more than 145 people, including nonprofit stakeholders, community activists and neighborhood ward leaders, business owners, higher education professionals, corporate personnel, and others dedicated two full days to deliberate about the future of Atlantic City. The convening inspired creative-thinking, cross-initiative and cross-sector collaboration, and sparked the question among Creative New Jersey partners, “Could we create a new philanthropic fund, led by the people of Atlantic City for the betterment of the people of Atlantic City?”

AC Question

In the months following, and inspired by the tremendous commitment of the people of Atlantic City, Creative New Jersey assembled a small group of residents around the idea of creating a community fund.

Through ongoing dialogue, we affirmed that the people who live and work in this city — those whose families have been there for generations as well as new residents who now call Atlantic City their home — have a wealth of knowledge about their neighborhoods and understand the challenges facing residents and local business owners. Therefore, we knew that any community fund we might launch had to be designed and led by Atlantic City’s people.

Our goals were to harness the power of local philanthropy, build community leaders, and fuel community-based initiatives that leverage sustainable change at the neighborhood level in Atlantic City.

Month after month, we met at the Noyes Arts Garage of Stockton University to begin building the structure of the new Atlantic City Community Fund. We affirmed the mission, we passionately discussed the kinds of impact we want the fund to have, and we developed a process for identifying, cultivating, nominating and stewarding a board of advisors to lead the fund.

Fueled by the values of transparency, inclusion, and equity, the working group in 2017 welcomed applications from individuals interested in serving on the board of advisors. The nomination process continued for nearly a year, and the working group reviewed more than 80 applications and conducted dozens of interviews.

From the earliest conversations, we knew we wanted the majority of individuals on the board to be residents of Atlantic City, and all members had to either live and/or work in Atlantic City. This was so important to our working group that the Atlantic City Community Fund by-laws state that 70 percent of board members must be Atlantic City residents.

In 2018, this inaugural board of advisors took the helm and began developing the guidelines and process by which the Atlantic City Community Fund will conduct its grantmaking.

The board has also set an initial goal of raising $1 million so that the Atlantic City Community Fund can be a sustainable source of funds for community organizations and projects for many years to come.

With seed funding of $30,000 from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Community Foundation of South Jersey, we are very excited the fund is currently accepting its first round of grant applications for general operating and project support for activities within Atlantic City that improve the conditions and quality of life for all who live, work and play in Atlantic City. The Fund is a component fund of the Community Foundation of South Jersey.

The partnership with Community Foundation of South Jersey allows the Atlantic City Community Fund to benefit from the organizational structure and grantmaking expertise of a community foundation. I cannot overstate how appreciative we are to the Dodge and Community Foundation of South Jersey for making this early investment.

Grant guidelines and application instructions can be found at ACCommunityFund.org/apply and the deadline for submitting an application is April 1.

The Atlantic City Community Fund is driven by Atlantic City residents committed to transparency, and comprised of community, organization, and business leaders focused on Atlantic City. I believe this kind of board is the board of the future.

Atlantic City Community Fund Board of Advisors (left to right) seated: Sheila Hull-Freeman, Joyce Hagen, Tina Watson; standing: Libbie Wills, Evan Sanchez, James M. Rutala, Maharshi Patel, Benjamin Zeltner, Esq. (not pictured: Derek K. Cason)

Atlantic City Community Fund Board of Advisors (left to right) seated: Sheila Hull-Freeman, Joyce Hagen, Tina Watson; standing: Libbie Wills, Evan Sanchez, James M. Rutala, Maharshi Patel, Benjamin Zeltner, Esq. (not pictured: Derek K. Cason)

The board of advisors includes:

  • Evan Sanchez, Board of Advisors’ President (Cofounder, Authentic City Partners & Hayday Coffee)
  • Benjamin Zeltner, Esq., Board Vice President/Secretary (Partner, Levine Staller)
  • Derek K. Cason (Educator, Dr. MLK School Complex, Atlantic City Public Schools)
  • Fernando Fernandez (Social Worker, The Salvation Army and Rotary Club of Atlantic City)
  • Joyce Hagen (Executive Director, Atlantic City Arts Foundation)
  • Sheila Hull-Freeman (President, Bungalow Park Civic Association)
  • Maharshi Patel (Member, AC Economic Development Advisory Commission)
  • James M. Rutala (President, Rutala Associates, LLC)
  • Tina Watson (Educator, Venice Park School, Atlantic City)
  • Libbie Wills (President, First Ward Civic Association)

I am honored to serve as an ex-officio member.

It has been my great pleasure to have worked on the development and launch of the Atlantic City Community Fund. Our inclusive, methodical, patient and equitable process went against the grain of today’s zeitgeist. Society’s insatiable appetite for immediate results steers us away from taking the long view.

Our nonprofit and philanthropic sectors are determined to solve the biggest problems, but systemic change takes time. Working inclusively takes time. Reaching and involving people who traditionally have not been invited to take a leadership role in their city takes time.

Our willingness to take the time has now birthed a fund created BY the people of Atlantic City, FOR the people of Atlantic City, with board members who are comprised OF the people of Atlantic City.

The Atlantic City Community Fund Board of Advisors will lead this critical effort. Their passion for the city is evident in the work they have all been doing in Atlantic City for many years and reinforced by their commitment to fund community-driven projects in a city they call home.

We all hope that Atlantic City’s corporate and philanthropic leaders will join in support of this innovative community-led Fund so that this work can thrive for generations to come.

CNJElizabeth A. Murphy is the Founding Director of Creative New Jersey. She is a recognized strategist and facilitator and regularly consults with other nonprofit and philanthropic organizations through her consulting firm, The Murphy Group, Inc.

Creative New Jersey is dedicated to fostering creativity, collaboration and inclusion by empowering cross-sector partnerships in commerce, education, philanthropy, government, and culture in order to ensure dynamic communities and a thriving economy.

Creative New Jersey’s leaders and partners are regular contributors to the Dodge blog.

Posted in Creative NJ, Creativity, equity, inclusion, Philanthropy | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Joe Weil on Poetry & Democracy

Posted on by Victoria Russell

Leading up to our “What Is It, Then, Between Us?”: Poetry & Democracy event in Morristown on March 23, 2019, we’ll be sharing Q&As with some of the poets and organizations who will be part of the day. 

Today, we’re chatting with Joe Weil

Joe Weil 200 x 200How does the title “What Is It, then, Between Us?: Poetry and Democracy” resonate with you?

I like the complexity of “between us.” The expression implies that we might share something, but that there is also this separation, this space that makes each of us confront how we will enter and define what is shared and respect what is separate. This can’t be negotiated without a great deal of uncertainty and conflict. People are afraid of uncertainty, terrified of conflict, but don’t always realize a lot of their violence and failure to achieve democracy comes not from uncertainty or conflict but from doubling down on all sorts of cheap certainties and avoiding anything but their cherished comfort zones. Poetry and democracy call me to be consciously and willingly uncomfortable—to live in that space as an aesthetic and moral decision. Poetry and democracy also insist I confront the truth that many citizens have been forced to be uncomfortable all the days of their lives beyond any real choice in the matter. They don’t get to sit at the table and wax eloquent about their discomfort. They are the table rather than being invited to the table.

What many folks call trauma, is the normal pattern of the working poor from whom I came. What does my trauma consciousness do both to join and separate me from democracy and how can both the points of meeting and the points of convergence bear fruit? How can my trauma be more than a threat to democracy and contribute to it?  Have I ever lived in a democracy? Is it like Agamben’s other— another in infinite regress, while I keep moving towards? How does the body of the marginalized, the oppressed, the unseen, the mentally ill, the non-human (for humanity is a conferred privilege bestowed by power) become those who sit at the table, who truly enter the discourse? Who gets to really speak and be heard, and not just “represented” by the “best and brightest?” Who gets to be told, perhaps for the first time: “Your words are not intrinsically wrong. Your being is not a mistake.”

How can poetry start engaging conversations among people with differing views?

Simplest answer is I don’t know. Each poem might be Jacob wrestling with the angel of that question and there might be someone out there who doesn’t like my analogy of Jacob and angels. I don’t even know if that’s the right question. If I say I want to respect your right to have a different view than me, if I pretend my poems are variations on a theme by Voltaire, I best be practical about that: how far does your differing view go towards erasing me, marginalizing me, excluding me, incarcerating me, ignoring me, making me a figure of ridicule or allowing you to feel superior to me, and how far does my view maybe do the same thing to you? I mean in a bar, or at a family gathering, I might have no problem with a good argument, but when one side is able to control the discourse, or run the cops and the jails, and I am not even considered to have spoken even when I am screaming at the top of my lungs, (and you may even censor my cry of pain as a mere rant), well then I might have to say to you: “Enough already. Your view is killing me.”  That’s also democracy.

Maybe the question can be: how can poetry start making us realize all views fortified by purity and righteousness are potentially murderous, and that doesn’t mean we should stop having views, but we ought to always know that this is a possibility before we put words to paper. Perhaps poems can approach uttering as one might an animal we know has been tortured and hurt: carefully, respecting that animal’s ability to kill us, but also feeling the legitimacy of its fear, its rage. And maybe, the poem of someone who has been hated or marginalized can’t share the same poetics as the poems of someone who has been reasonably comfortable. Maybe my hydrangea bush isn’t the same as yours. Maybe your hydrangea is an opportunity for Zen silence and contemplation. Maybe mine is a place to hide from the cops, and while I’m hiding, a part of me notices how blue the flowers are, and how they reflect in the river and I grow sad at the same time I am terrified because wouldn’t it be nice to just sit here for a while and look at the hydrangeas with all sorts of deep thoughts instead of hiding from the cops?

I know we like to think we all share the same level of suffering. We enforce aesthetics we think are universal, but that’s kind of dangerous… Perspectives are by incongruity.  This isn’t empathy so much as carefulness that approaches a possibility for empathy. A friend of mine went to Monk’s funeral. All these famous jazz musicians were there, and he got excited when he saw Miles Davis so he went up to Miles Davis and said: “Mr. Davis can I have your autograph? Miles Davis said: “Man…this is a funeral.” My friend said: “I’m so sorry Mr. Davis.” And Miles Davis replied: “Don’t be sorry; be careful.”

Poems can negotiate being careful, but they can’t be safe. There’s no need to be careful when you’re safe, is there?  Safe people aren’t careful. They get to act like they own the joint. Care is respecting that things are tentative, and you don’t own them.  No poet owns the language. Hell, a poet doesn’t even own the poem they write. True carefulness is knowing it’s a matter of life and death that you show respect where it is due and disrespect where it is necessary. If I can’t speak to you, and if I can’t listen to you, we might both die. If the one who is having a sublime experience of the hydrangea doesn’t at least try to understand the one who is hiding from the cops, we may as well give up. Maybe a good poet can bring each of those readers into the same room, because when you look at a hydrangea, that’s a sort of reading, isn’t it? Maybe a poet needs enough care to at least want to have different readers come to the hydrangea and get something out of it—even a reader the poet might not be consciously inviting. I doubt Wallace Stevens was waiting with bated breath for me to come along and read him.

What are some of your favorite poems or who are some of your favorite poets that engage with poetry and democracy?

My favorite poems change over the years. Recently Wanda Coleman’s “Wanda, Why Aint you Dead” is a favorite because I think it beautifully expresses how people’s expectations and assumptions and judgments are, in some respects, always attempting to murder us  or silence us and then they are amazed when we aren’t  dead. It’s funny, it has a great sense of voice and humor, but it is accurate, too, especially about what it means to be othered.

There’s a poem by Muriel Rukeyser I read in a Longman Anthology many years ago and I loved it. I want to mention this because I can’t remember its title and that means it’s like someone I saw and fell in love with who vanished in the mist. I almost don’t want to remember its title… A sister is cutting her brother’s hair at the kitchen table. It’s during the Great Depression and she’s calmly telling him he’ll get a job today, but you know she and he realize it’s a lie. The lie is a form of love between them and it blew me away because Rukeyser caught something for me of what it means to wager love against futility.

Poems for me are not always on the page, so my grandmother saying: “Never marry a short man; they’re a bag full of cats,” is a poem. My daughter Clare, who is autistic and largely non-verbal, looking out the window and saying, “ I see the night,” is a poem. I love Whitman’s Sixth part from Song of Myself, but it’s dangerous to think “I receive them the same” is necessarily hopeful. It could just as well be interpreted as, “the only time people are allowed to be equal and things are democratic is when everyone is buried”—and that may be true. We at least have to entertain the possibility that it may be true.

To me all these poets, including my daughter, are engaging with democracy. If I remember my daughter’s voice, which shocked and moved me with so much emotion in the middle of my ignoring the dusk, and if I remember how much I loved her, and how much of a momentary but true poem her speaking was for me, maybe I won’t be as big a jerk as I was before and that has to help democracy, doesn’t it?

What does democracy mean to you?

It means a ferocious longing to be allowed to fully participate in what I feel is just and for the good of myself and for the other. Robert Hayden in his poem “Frederick Douglass” saw the promise of democracy as “where none is lonely, none hunted, alien.”

I have a student right now whose brother is being deported. He’s been in America since he was two, but undocumented through no fault of his own. He had some trouble with drugs like a lot of our teenagers and, let’s face it, he’s been here since two, so to me, that means we formed him. Of course, they invoked the more than two-hundred-year-old immigration act about good moral character, which I could maybe see if the kid came here as a teenager or grown up, but he came here at two. Our society created him, not Argentina. His “character” is native to this soil. How the hell can we deport him? It is such garbage to me.

Lonely is a strange term, I guess, to pair up with democracy but I think the lack of freedom and the lack of being allowed to enter into the workings of freedom does make us feel exactly that: lonely—cut off from both others and from our own full humanity. That kid shouldn’t be deported. He should be offered rehab. My student shouldn’t have to apologize to me for missing a few poetry assignments. She was so kind, so apologetic when she came to my office. I hadn’t asked her for the make-up work. I don’t want her heart to be broken. Damn. She’s living one of our worst and most disgraceful poems.

Democracy to me is measured by how we practice the laws of Xenia: How we treat the stranger. I think we’re getting a big fat F. If this is making America great again, it’s the fake greatness of the Cyclops: a grotesque, devouring and feeble giant who is blind even before it is blinded.

Posted in Poetry, Poetry Archives, Poetry Coalition, Poets, Tidbits | Leave a comment

Poetry & Democracy

Posted on by Dodge Poetry Staff

We’re so excited to announce our free, public event coming up on Saturday, March 23 in Morristown: What Is It, Then, Between Us?: Poetry & Democracy.

Each March, every member organization of the national Poetry Coalition offers programming related to a shared theme of social importance. In 2017, it was migration; it 2018, it was the body. This year, it’s democracy.

Dodge Poetry’s contribution to this national project is a free, public event we’ll be hosting in our neighborhood of Morristown, New Jersey on Saturday, March 23 2019 from 1:00-8:30 p.m.

This event will feature poetry readings, conversations, q&a, panel talks, performances and writing activities led by poets including:

Janet Aalfs • Jan BeattyReginald Dwayne BettsCortney Lamar CharlestonCatherine DotyRigoberto González • Joe WeilRachel Wiley 

We’ll also be joined by speakers from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and musicians the Parkington Sisters.

Dodge Poetry Festival 2018 698 Dodge Poetry Festival Newark, New Jersey 10/18-21, 2018 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.net

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson
© T Charles Erickson Photography

Afternoon sessions will take place from 1:00-2:30 pm and 3:00-4:30 pm at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, the Morristown & Morris Township Library, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and Church of the Redeemer.

These sessions will include:

  • several poets reading poems & joining in conversation with participants
  • conversations and panel talks
  • writing activities

The subjects we’ll be exploring together include youth incarceration and voting rights for previously incarcerated citizens; LGBTQ rights; the lives of the working poor; and more.

Dodge Poetry Festival 2018 689 Dodge Poetry Festival Newark, New Jersey 10/18-21, 2018 Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson © T Charles Erickson Photography tcepix@comcast.net

Photo Credit: T Charles Erickson
© T Charles Erickson Photography

The evening’s music and poetry performance, “In Praise: a Thousand Ways to Kneel and Kiss the Earth,” will celebrate gratitude across boundaries of race, creed, sexual orientation, ethnicity and gender and will feature music by the Parkington Sisters.

You can register for the afternoon sessions only, the evening event only, or both!

Register here

If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to reach out to us at poetryprogram@grdodge.org

Posted in Poetry, Poetry Archives, Poets, Tidbits | Leave a comment

What we’re learning: We all have a Freddie Mercury moment inside

Posted on by Sharnita Johnson, Arts Program Director

Like many fans of the band Queen, I anxiously awaited the release of the film Bohemian Rhapsody. It chronicles the band’s rise to super star status, and spotlights Freddie Mercury, its flamboyant lead vocalist. My co-worker and I snapped up the last two tickets for a show on opening night in November. The theater was so crowded we couldn’t even find seat together.

freddie-mercury-71848_640Unlike many critics, I loved the film. The music was amazing, the costumes sublime, and don’t get me started on the re-creation of the iconic Live Aid performance, but what stayed with me the most was Rami Malek’s performance as Mercury. He nailed it. He embodied Mercury’s style, gyrated, and floated across the stage and pulled off a dizzying array of 70’s and 80’s fashion with comfort and flair.

I enjoyed the movie so much I went on a one-woman campaign encouraging everyone I knew to see it. I also became a forensic Malek fan. That is, I had been totally unaware of the actor prior to seeing the film, so I began a Google research marathon, looking up his filmography, magazine articles, and watching old interviews on YouTube. I uncovered a hefty list of bit parts, voiceovers, and small, but meaty roles in several gritty, war-time films. No shade to Malek, but his television and film resume was relatively thin prior to his role in the USA Network’s  Mr. Robot, and now Bohemian Rhapsody.

I became confusingly intrigued by the actor. I thought, “I’m way too old to be crushing on a movie star.” I couldn’t put my finger on it, but there was something thoughtful and quirky about the actor that I found interesting. Watching him on interview shows, he was a great storyteller and a quick wit. Of Egyptian heritage, I appreciated that he proudly considered himself a person of color.

At some point, I was again sharing my enthusiasm for the film and Malek with someone, and I explained that nothing in the actor’s past work definitively added up to his ability to play the Mercury role so convincingly. He was often cast as a very young, oddball characters with little depth, but in interviews he had a presence. He never reflected on the bit parts, or lame roles with embarrassment or a diminished view. He seemed more confident than the roles warranted, but not arrogant.



I read that even before he was officially cast as Freddie Mercury, he traveled to London to begin movement, piano, and dialect coaching that he paid for himself. It was as if he somehow knew he was taking on one of the most important roles of his career. And it paid off, Malek has won all the best actor awards that often signal a possible Oscar win (Golden Globe, SAG, BAFTA, Critics Choice).

Malek has come to represent something more than a great performance in a fun movie to me.

Malek reminded me that we are all working toward the things that we are created to do – a breakout performance in a blockbuster film, a dream job, a great relationship. The thing that will push us, scare us, and bring out our best. We must invest in ourselves, practice patience, continue to prepare, believe that sometimes our big break happens much later in life than we thought we’d peak (Malek is 37), and even when our past doesn’t seem to add up to a spectacular future, don’t give up.

I’ll be parked in front of the television on Oscar night rooting for Malek because if the same guy that started out with only three lines on the Gilmore Girls wins the trophy, I am convinced, we all have a Freddie Mercury moment inside.


Sharnita Johnson is the Arts program director at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.


Posted in Arts, Diversity | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Is your board giving policy helping your diversity initiatives — or holding them back?

Posted on by Regular Contributor


Adopting a board giving policy has become fairly commonplace in our country’s nonprofit sector. Board giving policies provide clarity about the board’s anticipated role as individual donors, as well as the organization’s expectations in terms of fundraising participation. This practice has been beneficial in helping board members to embrace their role as leaders of fundraising for the nonprofits they represent.

There are three common structures for Board giving policies:

  • Board members are explicitly required to give a minimum gift of a specific dollar amount (i.e., all board members will give at least $5,000).
  • Board members are required to give a gift that is among their top three gifts to charities this year (i.e., the board member’s gift to this nonprofit should be among the three largest their family makes this year).
  • Board members are required to give a gift that is “personally significant to them” (i.e., all board members should make a gift that feels important and meaningful within the context of their own giving capacity).

The Boardsource study Leading with Intent 2017  tells us that 69 percent of all public charities require a board member to make an annual contribution to their organization, and 70 percent now make it a practice to clearly discuss fundraising expectations during the board recruiting process. But Leading with Intent also tells us that boards are no more diverse in terms of age, race, gender, and economic status than they were two years ago, despite a stated preference for greater diversity.

Could the way we structure our board giving policies be partially to blame?

When we, as a sector, began emphasizing board giving policies, we were aiming to resolve confusion around expectations that were causing tension within organizations. Policies do help to routinize board member giving and publicly demonstrate the board’s commitment to supporting their nonprofit’s work. But as we work to make our boards more diverse, it may be that strict giving policies requiring a minimum gift are resulting in unintended consequences — boards populated only by people who can easily reach certain levels of giving.

When we expect all of our board members to give a stated minimum gift, we are saying quite clearly that people who can’t make that financial commitment are not welcome on the board. Isn’t this one of the roadblocks that keep our boards looking (and governing) the same over time? It eliminates participation by people who can’t make a gift at that level, which also keeps them from making other valuable contributions to our governance.

How can we be truly equitable if people must meet a disposable income test to be part of our governance? This is a particularly important question for organizations that are striving to serve people with fewer resources. What does it say about us if we have a board of mostly wealthy people making decisions about the services that people with greater economic challenges should receive?

And even if your core mission is not to serve people with less wealth, don’t most nonprofit missions focus on improving our communities overall? Environmental advocacy groups are designed to benefit everyone with a healthier planet. Arts organizations are designed to lift up creativity and expression throughout our communities. Shouldn’t a truly equitable nonprofit include the voices of many different kinds of people at the highest levels of governance, even if it means that board contribution levels may vary?

My opinion on this issue is heavily influenced by my experience as managing director of a community arts organization 20 years ago. Our Chicago neighborhood was economically diverse — people with great wealth living in condos along Lake Michigan, side by side with people living in single room occupancy apartment buildings and recently-arrived immigrants who (at one count) spoke 32 different languages. We knew that if our young arts organization was going to succeed at bringing this diverse community together, we would need diverse leadership.

We built a board that represented all of the facets of our neighborhood, and set a straightforward giving policy: everyone has to make a gift that is personally significant to them. I had board members who wrote me $10,000 checks (and thank goodness, because we needed the money!). And I had board members who periodically approached me and gave me a crumpled dollar bill from their pocket. And it’s the latter gift that is more humbling to receive — a true demonstration of what “personally significant” means.

From this experience, I learned two things:

  1. Everyone can give, and every gift matters.
  2. Letting board members define their own gift makes it more likely that people from diverse economic situations will be able to participate – and this wider participation makes a difference in how a nonprofit serves its community.

If you’re worried that having a giving policy that does not have a stated gift requirement will reduce board giving, let me ask this:

  • If board members are only giving at a certain level because you require it, what does that say about their passion for the organization? If they can afford it, isn’t a gift at that level (or even higher) personally significant for them?
  • Do you still need to have some financially well-resourced people on the board? Of course! But does every single board seat need to be determined by giving capacity? Probably not.

While I am realist about how hard it is to raise money, I am also a realist about what it will take to build nonprofit governance structures that are effective and ethical for our 21st-century world. Philosophically, nonprofits are owned by all of us in the community — including all of the people we serve. If we don’t build a board giving policy that embraces this, we are handing the future of the nonprofit sector entirely to people with a great amount of wealth. Those people are part of our governance — but they shouldn’t be the only voices in the room.

I stand behind the idea that every board member should make a personal financial gift to their organization — but also believe that these gifts do not have to meet a certain dollar amount in order to demonstrate leadership.

Trimarco Headshot smIdeally, our board giving policies can help to create equity and diversity within our organizations, which is certainly a path to a more just and inclusive nonprofit sector.


Allison Trimarco is the founder and principal of Creative Capacity (www.creativecapacity.net), a consulting firm that collaborates with nonprofits to find creative solutions to management challenges. She is also affiliated with The Nonprofit Center at La Salle University’s School of Business (www.lasallenonprofitcenter.org).


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Sustainable Jersey: Identifying local strengths to build sustainable communities

Posted on by Sustainable Jersey

SJ 1

Every community has a different set of needs and challenges. For busy municipalities, it’s hard to slow down, stop and assess. Successful towns and green teams make time to do the important work of figuring out their local strengths, or “the assets,” of the community. Community asset mapping and needs assessments provide a critical element of community sustainability planning – the engagement of people in the shaping of their community.

Asset identification helps members of the community understand what resources are currently being used to support a sustainable economy, support the environment, or promote social equity in the community. By reflecting back on this starting point, communities can identify gaps as well as understand opportunities to link, leverage, expand or create new programs and activities that support a sustainable future. We provide examples from five municipalities working to create a more sustainable New Jersey.

Community Asset Mapping in Manville Borough (Somerset County)

The first Sustainable Jersey action that Sustainable Manville set out to accomplish when starting the Sustainable Jersey certification process was Community Asset Mapping. Asset mapping is a participatory process that allows local decision makers and residents to focus on what is positive about a community as a base for development. Building off existing assets can be a more cost-effective approach to planning and community development, and can increase success through the establishment of new partnerships.

To gather data for the asset maps, the borough used focus groups and then filled the gaps with interviews and a desktop analysis. Manville residents and decision-makers participated in the focus group meetings hosted by the Manville Public Library. Assets were grouped into four categories: physical, economic, community and natural. This analysis also identified gaps in these areas, which provided a foundation for future projects.

The Manville Community Asset Mapping Report was prepared with the assistance of The Nature Conservancy, the Manville Public Library and the Administration of the Borough of Manville. The report and asset mapping process helped the town leverage the borough’s many existing assets as they worked toward a vision for a healthy, more sustainable future. After completing the report in August 2017, Manville Borough achieved bronze-level certification with Sustainable Jersey in 2018 and was recognized with the 2018 Sustainable Jersey Rookie of the Year Award.

Hightstown Borough Develops a Public Art Master Plan (Mercer County)

Creativity tends to flourish when and where it is supported. The leaders of Hightstown Borough realized that increasing access and exposure to arts and culture would increase the borough’s vitality and economic future, so they established the Hightstown Cultural Arts Commission to encourage artistic awareness, participation, and expression. The 13-member commission held regular meetings to develop a Public Art Master Plan. Input was gathered through an online survey and a consensus building and outreach program with the residents.

Ann Marie Miller, chair of the Hightstown Cultural Arts Commission explained, “Art that is public is free and accessible to everyone. It is a gift to ourselves that creates a better understanding of where we live, work and visit, and instills pride in the values we cherish as residents of Hightstown.” The Public Art Master Plan was adopted by the Hightstown’s Planning Board as part of the Borough’s Municipal Master Plan. Included in the plan is a requirement that a percentage of all redevelopment efforts be dedicated to the inclusion of public art.

By supporting the interests of creative people, municipalities can attract and retain more of the energy that helps them become sustainable and adaptable. Over the past two years, the Cultural Arts Commission has worked with the greater community to establish pop-up art galleries throughout the borough and dramatic arts and theater performances with children of all ages at the local parks. On March 23, 2019, the Hightstown Cultural Arts Commission, in partnership with Peddie School, will host the 4th annual Empty Bowls, a community dinner supplied by local restaurants and served in handmade bowls to help relieve hunger.  Hightstown Borough is certified with Sustainable Jersey at the silver-level and received the 2018 Sustainable Jersey Creativity and Innovation Award in recognition of their work to support a creative community.

Tri-Town 55+ Coalition Focuses on Older Adults in Chatham Borough, Chatham Township and Madison Borough (Morris County)

In 2016, the Tri-Town 55+ Coalition was formed as a community-based organization that includes Chatham Borough, Chatham Township and Madison Borough in addition to local businesses, non-profits and other public agencies. Their mission is to help address the quality of life, diverse needs, and interests of older adults and their families in the three towns.

With the help of Montclair State University, an extensive needs assessment survey was completed in Chatham Borough, Chatham Township and Madison. The needs assessment helped to identify the primary concerns of older adults and their families. Participants engaged in focus groups and community forums to share their thoughts for solving the community’s challenges. Survey and focus group participants were asked to name the people, places, and things that they consider assets of the community and identify the most positive things about living in their town as they grow older. Transportation was identified as one of the top areas of need among the residents of the three communities.

One of the first key initiatives implemented by the Tri-Town 55+ Coalition is its Rides for Seniors Program. The goal is to help those 65 and older in the towns get to where they want to go, when they want to go, without a smartphone. This on-demand car service program not only serves residents but helps local organizations and businesses by enabling older adults to remain active in the community.

Madison Mayor Robert Conley said, “The partnership started with a very successful Rides for Seniors Program which now has over 350 registered riders and has provided 2,800 rides since April 2017. The Tri-Town 55+ Coalition is improving our communities through a dedicated design strategy for life long living for seniors.”  Chatham Borough, Chatham Township and Madison Borough are certified with Sustainable Jersey and together received the 2018 Sustainable Jersey Collaboration Award for their participation working with the Tri-Town 55+ Coalition.

Sustainable Jersey Webinar

One way that local governments can communicate and engage with the public is through the use of technology. If you are interested in having a better understanding of the tech tools available, register for Sustainable Jersey’s webinar: Foundations for Using Technology Effectively in Your Town.

This free webinar takes place on Feb. 27 at 1 p.m.: Webinar Registration.


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Tips for Submitting to the Dodge Poetry Festival

Posted on by Dodge Poetry Staff

welcome poets Photo by Alex Towle, 2018

Have you ever attended the Dodge Poetry Festival and wondered, How do those poets get chosen to be up there? Are you a poet who wants to read at the Festival and is wondering how to submit or make your submission stronger?

This post is meant to help demystify our submission process.

First, if you have submitted to read in the past and were not invited, please remember that this doesn’t mean that we didn’t like your poetry. Every Festival, our greatest challenge is narrowing down the number of poets we want to invite from submissions to the number of opportunities we have to offer.

Second, if you submit to the Dodge Poetry Festival, you can be certain your work will be read and considered carefully. We take discovering poets we have not heard before very seriously. Even though we receive hundreds of submissions from around the country (and from international poets, too), every single submission is carefully reviewed by a panel of three anonymous poets. Although this review process takes months, we refuse to cut corners, and we are always inspired and encouraged by the number of gifted poets we discover from all across the country who are doing powerful work.

Third, don’t forget that we are curating a live event. We ask for video and audio recordings because, unlike editors of print publications, we must consider how poets engage with their audience. For this reason, each panel poet begins their review of a submission with its video and/or audio recordings. If you’re submitting, it’s important to include at least one video or audio clip of you reading your work, preferably before a live audience. This does not mean that we favor performance poets or any particular style, but we do favor poets who appear to care about communicating and connecting with their listeners and readers. Some of the most riveting readings at the Festival have been given by poets who read with quiet, focused presence.

(Side note: Please don’t go to any great lengths or expense to record a professional-quality video. We know video and audio quality varies, and care more about you and your work than about your video production capacity. You can learn more on our Submission FAQs page.)

Fourth, your writing sample should provide some sense of the scope of your work beyond what’s offered in the recordings. Of course, it’s always helpful to see the text of a poem we have a recording of, but the guiding principle behind additional poems you include should be what you want us to know about your work. Only after reviewing the video and/or audio will the panelists turn to the writing sample, and then on to chapbooks or full-length collections. Some poets read at the Festival all four days, Thursday through Sunday, multiple times per day. These poets have enough material that they can keep their readings varied and fresh from session to session.

Fifth, the cover letter is your opportunity to help the panel get a sense of the perspective and experience you might bring to conversations offered at the Festival, and those you would be interested in. One of the highlights of the Festival is having the chance to see and hear poets with widely divergent backgrounds, points of view and styles reading together, having conversations and sharing stories. Our panel is always excited to invite poets who can help us offer a more inclusive sense of what’s happening in contemporary poetry.

Finally, your resumé or C.V. will be the last part of your submission that the panel reviews. Press packages and book reviews will go unread. The Dodge Poetry Festival is not an academic or professional conference, where the credentials and degrees of presenters are heavily weighed. We’re a festival, and experiencing a direct connection to poetry and living poets is at the heart of what we do. We’re more interested in you and your work than in your credentials and degrees.

To learn about the logistics of how to submit to read at the 2020 Dodge Poetry Festival (scheduled for October 2020, exact dates to be determined), please visit our Submission Guidelines and Submission FAQs.

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Arts Ed Now: Exploring identity and personal narratives through art at Tuscan School

Posted on by Arts Ed Now

Collaboration and sharing of ideas are inspiring for artists of all ages, for great learning and creation in part come from the work of others.

It is always a goal in art education to utilize and explore content that is relevant to who students are and how they see themselves. Art education is an opportunity for students to engage with and to communicate their identity, their role in the world, who they want to be, and how they can make their world better. Color, line, shape, etc. of course are elements of focus.

Teaching artist Barbara M. Bickart worked with fourth grade students in Gina Garofalo’s homeroom and Andrew Dean’s art classes at Maplewood’s Tuscan School for 25 days of hands-on workshops to create and produce a video-performance installation. Tuscan School received a grant from the Artists in Education Residency Grant Program (AIE) to engage with a professional teaching artist.

This residency motivated students to develop their identity and personal narrative individually as well as what role they play within the greater context of the community. Students produced a video-performance installation focused through the prompt: “I am from…” Subsequently, they worked collaboratively, developing “We are from…” further promoting tolerance, acceptance, diversity, and positive social and community change.

However, those formal elements of art are an opportune framework for students to explore socially relevant themes. This project aimed to promote positive identity development, tolerance, acceptance, diversity, and positive social and community change through a hands-on, project-based experience. Working from a community-centered approach, students gained a sense of belonging, commitment, and responsibility to the place in which they live and learn.

This project also provided an opportunity for students to continue developing personally relevant writing skills. Students explored various mediums to express their written words in addition to their classroom writing practice.

“I made art because I like to open up conservations,” Bickart said, “We explore the fire in our bellies, who we are, what we carry with us, what we care about, a process of exploration that means being courageour and honest and vulnerable, and a project grows, the collective expression of many voices. with “I am from, we are from,” the students of Tuscan Elemendary did all of these things. They leaned way in with all of their intelligence. wisdom, honesty, and humor.”

Barbara M. Bickart

The Artists in Education Residency Grant Program is a co-sponsored project of The New Jersey State Council on the Arts and Young Audiences New Jersey & Eastern Pennsylvania. The program is carried out in partnership with regional partners, including Appel Farm Arts & Music Center and Morris Arts.

This program provides New Jersey schools with long-term artist residencies; 11 schools state-wide received AIE grants this year, including Tuscan School.

This work culminated in a live performance installation showcased Dec. 13.

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Intercultural organizational development: Leaning into change

Posted on by Beth Zemsky, Technical Assistance Faculty



Change can be challenging. It disrupts our sense of equilibrium, safety, and security. To manage change, we often try to overemphasize that which we believe we can hold constant. However, the only thing that is really constant is the ongoing state of change. Biologists call this “homeorhesis” — being in a constant state of change, development, and evolution. Organisms change and develop, people change and develop, communities change and develop — and so do our organizations.

The pace of change has escalated in the last 50 years as a result of changes in demographics, technology, globalization, and the economic, political, and social changes associated with these large-scale social forces. All indications are that the pace of change will continue to accelerate as the world continues to shrink and we are more dependent on each other for innovation, community connection, and basic resources. As this occurs, the disparities and inequities that currently exist regarding access to resources, opportunities, and social power have become ever starker.

Nonprofits with a mission to serve our diverse communities are at the forefront of trying to respond to these conditions. To do so effectively will require our organizations to adapt our strategies, programs, and internal policies, practices, and procedures to integrate competency regarding diversity, inclusion, and equity into every aspect of organizational development in order to create an organizational culture that embeds equity in all that we are and all that we do.

An important first step in advancing diversity, inclusion, and equity goals is developing and honing individual and organizational intercultural competency skills. Intercultural competency is the capacity to shift and adapt our perspectives and behaviors according to cultural contexts in order to be more effective in accomplishing our mission and goals.

Embedding a culture of equity first requires developing the skill of cultural self-awareness to make your current organizational culture transparent, including how dominant cultural norms might be unintentionally institutionalized within your organization. Utilizing this information, the next task is to intentionally work together to support the organization in becoming more proficient in seeing, thinking about, and interacting with cultural difference and shifting power differentials in increasingly complex ways.

One of the ways to do this is to center universal design in the evaluation and (re)construction of current organizational policies, procedures, and practices. Universal design is the practice of designing all organizational systems — physical, social, and economic — to focus on the experience of those who are most marginalized. By centering the experience of those who are most marginalized, we most often find that systems are created that function better for all of us.

Moving towards centering the experience of those most marginalized in our organizational planning will mean significant change for many of us. Change is often not comfortable. Like any event that people find stressful, change can be dealt with in such a way that it becomes a negative crisis. Or change can be embraced and managed so that it becomes an opportunity for positive growth and adaptations that help us achieve our commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. What is clear is that we cannot have change regarding injustice unless we are willing to change ourselves and the organizations and systems in which we operate.


Types of Change

There are predictable aspects to change. However, not all change is the same. Knowing which type of change the organization is undergoing is critical to success. Three types exist, and each requires different change strategies, plans and degrees of engagement.

The three types of change are: (1) developmental, (2) transitional, and (3) transformational. Traditional project management and what is commonly called, “change management” effectively support developmental and transitional change, but they are insufficient for transformational change. Facilitating intercultural organizational development and achieving equity are examples of transformational change.

Developmental organizational change is simple movement and generally is viewed an important improvement. It may be a gradual process and it is often seen as a surface change regarding diversity; for example, increasing the numerical representation of people of color on staff without shifting the ways in which white dominant culture might be embedded in organizational culture.

Transitional change is movement from old to new, where both are known. There is a beginning and an end, but both have been defined. There can be turmoil in this situation, but the final outcome is visible.  For example: taking a new job or switching roles from employee to supervisor, or an organization may change to new computer software. Transitional change is more intrusive than developmental change as it replaces existing processes or procedures with something that is completely new to the organization. These sorts of changes are often necessary to move an organization towards a culture of inclusion. Navigating transitional change requires skills around problem solving, project planning and project management.

Transformational change may involve both developmental and transitional change. It is common for transitional and transformation change to occur in tandem. Transformational change is the most difficult to deal with because it is movement from the known to the unknown. There can be a shift in fundamental values and beliefs which lead to questions like “what do we stand for now?” “how do we do our work? and most significantly, “who forms, informs, and performs our work?” Assumptions change, and the things we take for granted change. Successful transformational change requires developing new perspectives and practices. Navigating transformational change, particularly regarding equity, requires high level skills involving self-awareness, tolerance for ambiguity, flexibility, understanding of the nature of change, and change and conflict management.

As your organization embarks on its diversity, inclusion, and equity journey, it will require you to lean into change — and the discomfort, ambiguity, innovation, adaptation, and creativity that will emerge. Good first steps would be examining your organizational culture, identifying who might be currently most marginalized in your community and by your organizational practices, and utilizing universal design principles to address these disparities to move towards more effectively achieving your mission and creating more equity.


zemskyBeth Zemsky, MAEd, LICSW, comes to her work out of her continued commitment to engage people in learning activities that move them to understand critical social and cultural issues. Building on best practice approaches, Beth specializes in intercultural organizational development with organizations working towards social change and structural transformation including foundations, non-profits, educational, health, faithbased, and social change organizations.

To learn more, we invite you to visit https://bethzemsky.com


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How and why your organization’s culture and values matter

Posted on by Laura Otten, Technical Assistance Faculty


Ensuring a clear, strong mission statement and equally solid core values are two of the most important policies that a board is ever asked to create, as these are the core ideology  the defining elements  ̶̶  of an organization’s culture. Unfortunately, not enough attention is given to the creation of either, and even less attention is given to the (re)enforcement of both.

A mission statement is not merely a collection of words that a board member inherits upon joining. It is a public promise that every board member agrees to protect and steward through the collective work of the board. It is imperative that before joining a board that both the candidate and the board determine the individual’s degree of commitment to that whole promise.

There is only one degree that should be acceptable  ̶̶  a passionate one. It is insufficient that any board member simply like the mission of the organization on whose board s/he sits; it is unacceptable that any board member not understand fully the purpose and work of the organization. If a board member is to do all that s/he can to ensure that the promises of that mission will be fulfilled, now and in the future, s/he must be able and willing to champion the full promise.

Sadly, boards don’t do sufficient vetting of this before bringing on new members. Too few boards insist that board candidates even witness the mission in action before inviting them onto the board.  Board members who don’t understand what the organization is all about, don’t deeply value the mission, and aren’t willing and able to always do what is best for pushing out and forwarding that mission simply do not belong there.

As previously noted, a mission statement is not window dressing, something that is framed on the wall, highlighted on the website, memorized and mechanically regurgitated. It is the living standard by which everything should be measured.  Conversely, a board’s job isn’t simply to stick with the mission indefinitely, but to regularly monitor the need for the mission and to be willing to ask—and answer—the tough and frightening question:  is our mission still needed?  To do otherwise is hardly ethical.

It is, after all, the job of a board to ensure that the organization is an ethical one; that all affiliated with the organization — from board members to the executive director to staff and other volunteers — are acting in accordance with the ethical standards dictated, and modeled, by board members. Ethical concerns go well beyond careful attention to money, ensuring that restricted dollars are used only for that specific purpose, that money is safeguarded, and invested in companies with values and ethics consistent with the organization’s, etc.  Ethics extend to, among other things, making sure the organization is trustworthy and is delivering not just on the mission promises, but the promises that each program/service makes, as well.

But a board’s job doesn’t stop with concern for ensuring an ethical organization. There are many other values that a board must stipulate, the most important being the organization’s core values.

Core values — those five to seven key beliefs — define an organization’s culture and set the behavior guidelines and expectations for everyone associated with the organization, from staff and board members to clients and donors.

These values are independent of the mission and, in fact, complement the mission by identifying the behavior and beliefs that people will demonstrate at all times while participating in the mission. Core values express the soul of an organization and, as such, must be expected at all times, and immediately addressed when they are absent.  As central to how an organization wishes to do business, core values must be affirmed by including adherence to them in performance assessments, reproving when they are not evidenced by staff, board and others, using them as part of the guide in hiring staff and board alike, and in selecting partners, donors, etc.

Deeply engrained and, therefore, completely shared, core values obviate the need for policies, rules, and regulations that tell people how they should behave. Policies and laws have never changed minds and are extremely slow to change behavior. Values, however, modeled at the top, and enforced from the top down, are what define organizations and move them forward.

One last thought on values and culture and the avoidance of harm. People love to talk about institutional memory, believing institutional memory is culture. It is absolutely not. The right institutional memory is part of culture, but the wrong institutional memory is not. And it is the wrong institutional memory that so many want to protect—the board member who has been there for 25 years and remembers why the particular color was selected 20 years ago for the logo; the staff member who constantly tells people why what happened decades ago justifies continuing to do it now; the people who take us backwards rather than move us forward.

But the institutional memory that is important—those pivotal moments in an organization’s development as opposed to the minutia of the years—is the institutional memory that is culturally valuable. That institutional memory should not reside in the head or heart of any one individual but should be woven into the fabric of the culture.  A culture that cherishes the minutia gives reverence where it isn’t due, and this reverence holds an organization back rather than pushing it forward.  A culture that cherishes the minutia of the past becomes insular, blocking—intentionally or unintentionally—the ideas from outside.

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New Jersey schools ride the green wave for a brighter future

Posted on by Randall Solomon, Executive Director, Sustainable Jersey


Sustainable Jersey for Schools 2018 special awards announced

sj2Sustainable Jersey for Schools celebrated the 111 schools that achieved Sustainable Jersey for Schools certification in 2018 at an awards event attended by over 250 teachers, principals, green team volunteers, school board members and staff. In addition to the newly certified schools, we announced the three schools and one school district that received 2018 Sustainable Jersey for Schools special awards.

Readington Township Public Schools Saves Energy and Costs

Readington Township Public Schools in Hunterdon County received the 2018 Sustainability Makes $ense Award that recognizes a district that has made exemplary progress in sustainability resulting in cost savings to the school district. Dr. Jonathan Hart, the superintendent of Readington Schools, said, “We are very proud of this accomplishment. This recognition affirms the Board of Education’s commitment to the work of the Green Committee and demonstrates the hard work and dedication of our students and staff to the district’s sustainability efforts.”

Five years ago, the District took the ambitious step to create an Energy Efficiency Program to serve its four schools and approximately 1,700 students. With the combination of operational and behavioral changes initiated by staff and students, the district has reduced its energy use. The estimate of avoided costs, based on the usage savings over the five years that the program ran, is $421,000.

Jodi Bettermann serves as the energy efficiency coordinator for the Readington Township Public School District where she administers the district’s behavior-based Energy Conservation Program. Her work to achieve energy savings through changes in culture, behavior and decision-making is delivering measurable results that serve as a model for New Jersey school districts.

Jodi said, “Behavioral changes are the unsung heroes of our results. Turning off lights and electronics, setting moderate heating and cooling setpoints and operating our building efficiently all added up to big energy savings.” Students are actively involved in the energy efficiency program. The green teams in each school participate in the program and the middle school students can also participate in an Energy Club, which monitors classrooms to ensure lights and electronics are turned off at the end of the day as well as investigates renewable energy sources.

Green Tiger Team at Three Bridges Elementary School

Tsj3hree Bridges Elementary School of Readington Township Public School District in Hunterdon County achieved the 2018 Sustainability Champion award with an impressive 605 Sustainable Jersey certification points. This is the second time that the school has earned the award; the elementary school also accomplished this distinction in 2015, the inaugural year of the program. “I am so proud of the entire Three Bridges and Readington Township communities for joining together and working so hard on all of our sustainability efforts,” said Kristen Higgins, principal of Three Bridges Elementary School. “I particularly want to thank our students for doing their part to save the earth with such energy and enthusiasm.”

The staff at Three Bridges School lead a Go Green program dedicated to promoting a sustainable culture at the school and educating the students about being good stewards of the environment. The students refer to themselves as the Green Tiger Team since the school’s mascot is a tiger.

Thirty-four students signed up for the green team. Part of their job, as a green team member, is to be an energy patrol officer and help perform monthly energy audits. The green team members, led by their advisor, Tiffany Barca, would perform monthly surprise audits when the students were at specials, recess or lunch. They would check to see if the lights in the classroom were turned off. Students would leave “WOW” stickers for when the lights were turned off and “Oops” stickers for when the lights were left on.

The students completed ten energy audits for the 2017-2018 school year. Three classrooms received ten WOW stickers and the reward was an extra recess with Principal Higgins. This contest helped promote saving energy in the school building. The green team members made posters and signs both on the computer and by hand to help remind students to turn off the lights and save energy. The Go Green program continues to encourage a culture of sustainability at the school.

Long Branch Middle School Rides the Green Wave of Sustainability

sj4For a second year in a row, Long Branch Middle School of Long Branch School District in Monmouth County achieved a Sustainability Champion award. James Brown, the principal at Long Branch Middle School explained, “The Long Branch Middle School students and staff ride the green wave of sustainability in order to create a green future for our community!”

The Long Branch Middle School Garden provides a hands-on learning environment. This is the fourth year of the garden and the school added a greenhouse to increase production. The crops are sold at the local farmers market, donated to local food pantries and used in the school’s student Bistro 63 café run by special needs students. Bistro 63 prepares freshly made soups and sandwiches using produce from the garden for the middle school staff while teaching students valuable life skills needed to become sustainable adults. Students in two classes at Long Branch Middle School are getting a taste of the restaurant business from working at Bistro 63.

Long Branch Middle School students promote sustainability at school, home and in the community. The students also help clean up beaches; an effort that resulted in the group beginning a #StrawFreeinLB campaign. The school no longer uses straws in the cafeteria and the students are working with local businesses to eliminate plastic, or use alternative, straws. The middle school students educate business owners of the dangers straws pose to marine life. The students made the initial visit to the business to provide information and are now working on securing commitments.

Jackson Liberty High School Conserves Energy


Jackson Liberty High School of Jackson School District in Ocean County achieved 355 points and is the recipient of the 2018 Sustainability Champion Award. Jackson Liberty High School Principal Geoff Brignola said, “Jackson Liberty High School is honored to be the recipient of this award because it recognizes not just one achievement, but a collective effort of so many people committed to being responsible to our environment. Here at Liberty, programs like our trout farm, our efforts to draw public attention to conservation issues, and simple things like a commitment to re-using art supplies are part of a district-wide culture of conservation.”

Liberty High School has an onsite ground-mounted 1.6 MW solar array that helps power the school facility. This system replaces approximately thirty percent of the school’s electrical use. Liberty High School also has a geothermal system. Geothermal technologies draw upon the energy stored in the earth to control school building temperatures. As a result, geothermal systems use less energy than a conventional heating system.

To date, 310 school districts and 800 schools are taking part in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program. The district participation has grown to include 53 percent of all New Jersey school districts. From energy audits to integrating sustainability into student learning and boosting recycling efforts; the past year has been exceptional. Over 3,938 sustainability actions were completed by schools and districts participating in the Sustainable Jersey for Schools program and over $16 million in grants have been awarded to schools and school districts since the program’s conception in 2014.

For more about Sustainable Jersey for Schools: Website  Facebook  Twitter   Instagram   LinkedIn

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Kicking off the new year of board leadership learning

Posted on by by David Grant, former president and CEO, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation 


For those of us involved with the Dodge Foundation Board Leadership Series, each New Year actually begins in the fall. We leave the champagne and hugging for January, but we do a pretty good job in October of looking ahead with a sense of hope and new possibilities. Our New Year’s resolutions are not about diet or exercise or staying in touch with old friends but rather about organizational effectiveness and impact in the social sector in New Jersey. 

David Grant

David Grant

As facilitator of the opening workshop in the series, I get to remind the nonprofit board members and executive leaders in the room that we can’t pursue our resolutions by trying harder – that’s almost impossible to do in a stressed and overworked sector. We have to pursue them by thinking differently about what we are doing. 

Towards that end this year, I introduced a new framework for thinking about nonprofit effectiveness called The Performance Practice, created by The Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community, of which I am a member. The framework names six “pillars” of high performance for nonprofits and presents specific practices organizations can follow to build effectiveness in those areas. (A seventh pillar regarding periodic outside evaluation applies to larger, national organizations.)   

I hope readers of this blog post will click on the link above and consider The Performance Practice in full.  But I’d like to share here some personal thoughts about the pillars, saving the first and most important pillar for last. 

Pillar Two is disciplined, people-focused management. This pillar is shaky in the social sector. We assume management is necessary in the corporate sector but less critical in small organizations of people working together towards a social mission. In many nonprofits, we expect the same executive director who is the outward face of the organization, often its chief fund-raiser, ambassador and program expert, to also be a one-person HR department – and with little or no training in management. The Performance Practice addresses what good managers do to attract and retain valuable employees (and board members), such as creating workplans, providing feedback, and providing incentives. It also reminds board members that they are the managers of the executive director and that well-managed people get better at what they do. 

Pillar Three is well-designed and well-implemented programs and strategies. This is the pillar the rest of the world sees every day, and it gets lots of ongoing attention from staff and board members. But are we always clear about whom we serve?  And have we set up ways to learn from them? Do we have an evidence-based theory of change behind the design of our programs? Are we looking at data on results? Are we designing our programs within the context of the larger ecosystem in which we operate? Questions like these from The Performance Practice can up our game in Pillar Three. 

Pillar Four is financial health and stability.  This is the existential pillar, the one executive directors wake up in the morning worrying about.  In smaller nonprofits, this pillar is often understaffed, and financial systems lag behind as organizations grow. And it is often undernourished by boards who have not been organized and trained in the tasks of friend-raising and fund-raising. Work on Pillar Four is crucial, and there are lots of professional resources available to help us, but I have always believed that the best way to build financial health and stability is to be sure the other pillars are strong. We have to have people, programs, processes and an impact on the world worth supporting.  

Pillar Five is a culture that values learning.  Many organizations embrace this pillar in theory but not in practice. For Pillar Five to have substance, there must be enabling structures to support our good intentions. In particular, there must be time set aside for divergent thinking, for reflection, for reading and discussion, for processing and learning from mistakes, for refinement of mission and vision statements, for analyzing data, for future planning, and for working through differences of perspective. I call this mission time. Scheduling it is hard to do. Protecting it from the urgent demands that distract organizations from ongoing learning is even harder. But you can’t build Pillar Five without mission time. 

Pillar Six is internal monitoring for continuous improvement.  This pillar has enormous potential to improve organizational performance when nonprofit leaders understand its power. We do pay attention to how things are going, and we always want to do better.  But what are we monitoring? Unless we slow down enough for ongoing learning (Pillar Five), we notice and measure what is easily quantifiable – “numbers served” or a rating of “highly satisfied” on a program evaluation. But how well were those people served? And did satisfaction with a program lead to any changes in behavior in the weeks and months that followed? The key to Pillar Six is creating an internal assessment system that uses qualitative as well as quantitative metrics to define and shape performance, not judge it after the fact. I elaborate on this theme, if not beat it into the ground, in my book The Social Profit Handbook. 

Finally, there is the pre-eminent Pillar One: courageous and adaptive executive and board leadership. None of the other pillars gets strong and remains strong without Pillar One. It takes courage to stay passionately committed to a mission, to define and insist upon high performance from staff and board members, to look unflinchingly at data, to listen carefully to those we serve, to create and protect mission time and be patient while people learn to use it, and to champion values of diversity, equity and inclusion if they have not been part of an organization’s history and DNA. 

And if we can’t adapt as our organizations themselves grow and develop in a changing world, we will fall short of our own aspirations for effectiveness and impact. 

I love the overarching metaphor of building these six pillars to support high performance.  The task is formidable and has many dimensions.  But we have to start somewhere, with a picture in our heads of what we are striving to build together.  The New Year beckons, and construction can start whenever we put our minds to it.

Posted in Collaboration, Community Building, Leadership, Nonprofit, Technical Assistance | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Creative New Jersey Kickstarts Community Collaboration and Trust

Posted on by Susan Haig, CivicStory


“How can we provide our youth with safe places for creative expression?”

“How can we encourage young professionals to live, work, and raise families here?”

These and dozens of other questions have been explored and debated in a remarkable series of “creative convenings” around the state of New Jersey over the past seven years. From Skylands in the Ramapo Mountains region in the Northwest to Atlantic City on the Jersey Shore in the Southeast, in 14 different communities, groups of 100 to 200 citizens from diverse fields and walks of life have met together for the first time and in a new way. They emerge a day later with a powerful new sense of purpose and agency, ready to work together to change their communities, and realizing — in many cases — that they will be the change. What’s been going on?

Inclusive Calls to Collaboration

Creative New Jersey, a statewide civic initiative fostering “creativity, collaboration and inclusion” was launched in 2011 by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, a New Jersey-based philanthropy focused on arts, education, environment, and informed communities. Each of the two-day Creative New Jersey “Calls to Collaboration” are planned over several months in two phases:

  1. A cross-sector Host Team of 12 to 20 local residents is developed through a process of introductions, referrals and discussions that identify civic-minded leaders of diverse communities as well as quieter, behind-the-scenes activists or connectors. The host group receives coaching in team-building, common goal-setting, and inclusion.
  2. The Host Team then issues personal invitations to a cross-section of community residents representing diverse sectors, generations, and ethnicities, to attend a two-day “Call to Collaboration” that explores questions such as: How can we collaborate to build community esteem, foster an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit, and attract more residents and investments in order to create a thriving Atlantic City? The “whole nine yards” format of the framing question is intentional, to pique the curiosity of a broad range of participants.

Respectful Exchange

Creative New Jersey adapts many of the Open Space Technology concepts developed decades ago by Harrison Owen and used internationally by businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. The format bypasses pre-set agendas, panels of experts, and trainers, and even cuts introductions to avoid creating unintended hierarchies based on titles or affiliations.

Day One begins with all the participants choosing seats in several large, concentric circles. Following a brief, warm welcome, they’re invited to get to work — using markers to scrawl questions they care about onto large pieces of paper, which are then posted and assigned a time and location as a break-out session. Residents who never knew they were leaders find themselves moderating a discussion. The “Law of Two Feet” (also defined by Owen) means anyone, anytime, is free to roam from one corner and conversation to another, so moderators work to keep their discussion brisk, engaging, and respectful.

By mid-afternoon, the 100-plus participants have taken part in at least four “pop-up” discussions, and often many more, if they’ve behaved as “pollinators” who choose to drop in and out of concurrent dialogues. Conversations are often a mixing pot of ideas, resources, and proposed solutions from participants. In this collaborative work model, Day One serves as the “opening” phase, to be followed by “narrowing” and “closing” in on practicalities on Day Two.

Creative Atlantic City Bets on Diversity

I served on the volunteer steering committee during Creative New Jersey’s start-up years, but still wasn’t prepared for the palpable sense of energy and exuberance I encountered upon arriving at three different “Calls to Collaboration” in Monmouth County, Atlantic City, and Camden. Each time, people were engaged and enthused, and scores of New Jersey residents were clearly perceiving their communities in a whole new light. “I’ve lived here 25 years, and had no idea so many others cared about the goals I’m passionate about,” was a common response.

When Day 2 begins the next morning – with everyone again seated in large circles – people greet one another with ease and familiarity. Elizabeth Murphy, Creative New Jersey director and “Call to Collaboration” facilitator, invites participants to move from yesterday’s open-ended questions and trading of ideas to feasible next steps. Though missing another day of work can be challenging for some, the second day has proved to be critical for “focusing on planning and action, and deepening relationships and trust,” says Kacy O’Brien, Creative NJ’s director of programming.

Success Factors

When I asked Kacy what makes Creative New Jersey’s methods so well suited to large, diverse communities, she describes the Call to Collaboration as a “modified Open Space framework that includes engagement, team-building, knowledge-sharing, and network-building to support community connection and collaboration.”

“People become energized and excited when they first can connect with others who feel passionately about common issues, second realize that they’re not alone – they’re sitting shoulder to shoulder with others who are also deeply committed to their community, even if they don’t agree, and third can lead from where they are, given the time and space for generating solutions to complex community issues,” Kacy said.

The genius of Creative New Jersey, to me, is the speed with which people are propelled out of status quo thinking and freed from prevailing narratives of civic inadequacy or democratic decline. Conversations abound, in twos, threes, fives or more, and ideas are exchanged in a congenial atmosphere that accommodates young and old, extroverts and introverts. One senses new possibilities being hatched in every corner of the room.

Ready for Deliberation

Certainly the more sustained work of deliberation – considering options and carefully weighing trade-offs – may require a more reflective environment than the “free-flow” of Creative New Jersey gatherings. But the required components of deliberative work:

  • Listen with care
  • Focus on the issue at hand
  • Stay in learning mode
  • Participate fully
  • Disagree positively

are present at Creative New Jersey Calls for Collaboration as well. Participants adopt a lexicon of respect and empowerment that will serve them in future deliberative environments. As Elizabeth noted during the wrap-up of Creative Atlantic City, “what you all created here today was a democratic, egalitarian, respectful way of hearing each other out, and coming together to work together.”

Creative Monmouth

Mature Leadership

It should be noted that both Elizabeth and Kacy play key facilitating roles at Creative New Jersey gatherings, deftly guiding participants through both days with a subtly tight time frame for interaction. Both are experienced theater producers and are comfortable working with people of a variety of experiences, talents and backgrounds.

Their deep understanding of citizens as fully creative beings defines – for me – the essence of Creative New Jersey. The program’s spirited affirmation of each participant as uniquely valuable to the whole community generates – again and again – a powerful sense of hope, possibility, and agency for 21st century New Jersey communities.


This story was originally published as a guest blog of the Jefferson Center, a nonprofit, nonpartisan citizen engagement organization working on crafting democratic solutions to today’s toughest challenges (www.Jefferson-Center.org) as the fourth in a blog series exploring democracy around the world, submitted by a diverse group of people interested in using deliberation, participation, and civic tech to solve challenges we face today. It  does not necessarily represent the views of the Jefferson Center or Jefferson Center staff. Creative New Jersey thanks Susan Haig, Founder and Creative Producer of CivicStory, for sharing her perspective on our work and for telling the stories of New Jersey’s communities.

Meta Data

1 Jefferson Center. https://jefferson-center.org/

  1. Creative New Jersey. http://www.creativenj.org/
  2. CivicStory. https://www.civicstory.org/
  3. Open Space Technology. http://openspaceworld.org/wp2/what-is/
  4. The “Law of Two Feet”. https://opensource.com/business/10/8/darwin-meets-dilbert-applying-law-two-feet-your-next-meeting
  5. Creative Atlantic City video. https://youtu.be/Y7mUBuSz1uQ
  6. Creative Monmouth video. https://youtu.be/XtB2L-Yp5oE


Posted in Collaboration, Community Building, Community Engagement, Creative NJ, Creativity, Informed Communities | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment
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