lovely literary lady: get to know beth harrison!

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nook: can you give us an overview of your experience in the non-profit arts sector?

beth: during my last summer of college, i worked for gordon lish at The Quarterly. to say that this internship was a transformative experience in my life is an ünderstatement [umlaut mine]. after graduation, i returned to new york to work in book publishing—at Oxford University Press, Princeton Architectural Press, and elsewhere. eventually i landed at the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses as the development specialist for literary publishing. after that, i worked at the Academy of American Poets for 11 years, first as associate development director, then associate director, and finally interim executive editor. somewhere along the way i started the lit mag Spinning Jenny, and i also serve on the board of directors at Four Way Books. i’m currently the managing director of a new nonprofit organization, the Discover Outdoors Foundation.

nook: what do you see as the benefits and challenges of working in this sector?

beth: for me, the main benefit is working in a creative environment. at staff meetings at the Academy, for example, i’d often think, “i’m at a legit business meeting where we’re talking at length and very passionately about poetry—and it’s not off-topic. also, i have dental insurance. therefore, i am truly the luckiest person alive.” other benefits include making the future happen and being part of an alternate parallel economy. outlandish, perhaps, and believing in these ideals takes more courage than i actually possess, but i do believe in them, which in turn creates the courage i need to try to live according to these ideals. as for the challenges, i think the biggest ones are not specific to our sector: staleness, atrophy, boredom, fear.

nook: how do you understand the idea of “community” in the non-profit arts world?

beth: on an organizational level, using the word “community” is sometimes a way of smiling through one’s teeth. an interviewer once asked me how I felt about Spinning Jenny’s “competition,” for example, a term i found rather mystifying and not a little hilarious. if by competitors, i said, you mean the multifarious/various collaborative artworks made by constellations of editors, writers, and designers working for the love of and need for art, then i feel humbled and grateful to be anywhere near the party. a little competition is certainly healthy and exciting, but empathy and the genuine desire to be part of a just, interesting world seem to me to be at least as important. i guess i have always understood the idea of community in the arts and nonprofit world in terms of making a habitable planet with my fellow aliens.

on an individual level, i’m grateful that new york city always gives me at least two options: enter the almost overwhelming current of collective, creative energy that fuels the city, or step out of the current and be alone/relatively invisible. i crave solitude (in reading, editing, writing, traveling, hiking), but none of those experiences makes total sense to me until i share them with others, perhaps raucously and preferably over beers, to find out what i’ve missed and where my understanding was incomplete or my reasoning was flawed. i make it a point to hang out with people who are smarter, more creative, and have different backgrounds than i because they help me fill in holes in my experience and they expand my worldview.

nook: to the outside observer, it does seem that there is more gender parity in the non-profit sector, in terms of individuals with power and authority (executive directors, etc.) what are your thoughts on women in the non-profit sector right now?

beth: in the nonprofit sector—as in certain other fields such as publishing, librarianship, and nursing—there is no dearth of female employees, i agree. and while the proportion of female nonprofit CEOs is rising, their pay is still lagging behind their male counterparts by a wide margin. The Chronicle of Philanthropy recently published an opinion piece on the subject, and i think the title says it all: “It’s Time for Charities to Hire Women CEOs and Pay Them Fairly.” i’m inspired by large-scale movements like the upcoming S.H.E. Summit.

while i was at the Academy of American Poets, i was very proud that the organization was founded by a woman and that its first executive director was a woman. for most of the time i was there, there were women in the top management positions and our board of directors was heavily populated (and led) by a woman. so while some things might be seen as improving, you might be surprised at how many submissions i receive for Spinning Jenny that are addressed to “mr. harrison.” the assumption, and often the reality, is that it’s all dudes at the top. parts of the nonprofit world still have a lot of serious work to do on diversity in its other forms as well.

nook: what advice would you give to a young woman pursuing a career in the non-profit arts sector? what should she know before embarking on a career in this sector?

beth: i have a hard time believing any young woman starting out today could possibly be as clueless as i was, and i’m generally very wary of advice-givers myself. but here are a few things to throw against the wall, though i don’t think they’re particularly nonprofit- or gender-specific:

don’t feel bad about not having “connections” (i didn’t) or not having gone to a fancy school (i didn’t). there are people who will try to make you feel that if you didn’t attend Pencey Prep and you don’t know the so-and-so’s then you are pretty much hosed at age twenty-whatever. those people are not worth your time, and i guarantee you they are no fun whatsoever (i.e., can’t shoot pool). i’m saying it’s not who you know, it’s who you become, so get busy being the kind of person you could stomach being around.

if you are working at a nonprofit organization, don’t be all “i’m a creative person, the budget is not my problem.” if you like getting that paycheck every two weeks, then the budget is your problem. even if you don’t have “development” in your title, learn where funding comes from, learn how to build and be responsible for a simple budget, learn to understand the basics of 990s and financial statements, learn what a 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation actually means. maybe that doesn’t sound particularly sexy, but you know what? i meet people in the for-profit sector all the time who assume that because i work in the arts and am a female, i couldn’t possibly know anything about finances (or politics, or world affairs, or sports)—and that’s pretty damn unsexy. proving those people wrong usually feels pretty good. (okay, that bit of advice was maybe a tad nonprofit- and gender-specific.)

don’t work late and on weekends all the time to get your boss’s attention. she will not necessarily think you are hardworking or ultra-dedicated or raise-worthy, but rather that you may be an inefficient worker and/or need to get a life outside work. save as many of those hours for yourself and your own personal projects and creative work as you can, and defend that time fiercely. if you just graduated from a writing or other creative program and want to keep making while working, listen to the wise words of Ian Stansel and Kenya (Robinson). just don’t become this, which is funny because it’s true.

Get out of the office. talk to people both within and outside your chosen field to see how they are solving problems and looking at old problems in new ways. find people who interest, motivate, inspire, and elicit respect within you, then model yourself after the best parts of those people until you are comfortable enough make a career (which to me means an artful way of living and working) that is completely your own. you will be amazed at how willing complete strangers are to talk to you about professional matters—if you ask them politely, respect their time, and ask good questions (hint: “can you hire me?” is not a good question). what i’m saying is, people will help you; some are very kind. sometimes they will  insist on paying for the coffee even though the meeting was your idea. soon enough younger people will be asking you for these meetings, so return the favor—and spring for the coffee.

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