Image credit: Used with permission
May 1, 2022—I am thrilled to introduce the readers of Arts & Culture Connections to the dynamic and passionate Co-Executive Directors of the New York-based viBe Theater Experience—Beryl Ford and Michelan LeMonier. The nonprofit organization, which is 20 years old, facilitates the production of original theater, music and media created and performed by teenaged Black girls, young women, and nonbinary youth, with a focus on real-life issues.
In addition to its longevity, what makes viBe both unique and impressive is that it is dedicated to giving decision-making power to these youth, ages 13-26—from the creation to every facet of production. The program is based on a unique pedagogy that utilizes devised theater within a racial and gender justice framework. According to the program’s recent annual report, during fiscal year 2021, viBe directly served more than 700 girls, young women and non-binary youth of color, and performed for more than 950 virtual and in-person audience members—both invited and commissioned performances.
I was most impressed to learn that 100-percent of the program’s participants graduate from high school, and 90-percent of those graduates go on to pursue higher education. The viBe participants attend many colleges and universities, including Syracuse University, Hunter College, St. John University, SUNY Purchase College, Temple University, and Simmons University.
This program is a confirmation of the power of the arts to change lives—build confidence, foster resilience, expand perspectives, inspire dreams, and help participants to develop life skills. That’s why programs like this one, especially in communities of color, reaffirm the importance of making the arts as widely accessible as possible.
I first learned about viBe when I met Beryl at the Signature Theater’s production of Confederates. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to learn more from her and Michelan about the journey that led them to viBe and their vision for this noteworthy program.
Donna Walker-Kuhne: Please share how your career path led you to become Co-Executive Directors of the viBe Theater Experience.
Beryl Ford: As a Black woman passionate about the arts, I have always been preoccupied with building a Black counter-memory that documents and preserves the contributions of Black artists and subjects. I can trace this impulse back to my childhood—to visiting temples of culture and not seeing anyone like me on the walls or very often in the galleries. Like many others who share this origin story, I grew up and channeled these desires first into my studies and eventually into my professional pursuits. Having studied Art History at Smith College, I became intimately familiar with the practice of circumventing the dominant Euro-American curriculum I was required to learn for my degree in favor of researching the Black artists I needed to survive and feed my soul. I found inspiration in Alma Thomas’ abstractions rather than Jackson Pollock’s; I remembered myself in Lorna Simpson’s black-and-white photo series rather than Daguerre’s; and I loved myself in Amy Sherald’s vibrant and dignified portraits.
Following this impulse, I decided to pursue a Master’s in Arts Administration at Columbia University’s Teachers College. While there I was introduced to the world of development and external facing work that undergirds cultural institutions large and small. Through coursework and professional experiences related to culture, philanthropy, visual and performing arts, and public programming at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Aperture Foundation, Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Museum of Modern Art, I developed an appreciation for the art of fundraising and resource building. I also began to think more critically about the ways in which I navigate my own arts participation through a philanthropic corridor that empowered me to work for equality in the arts and honored my passion for Black art of all mediums.
Ultimately, these experiences have proven to be incredibly formative and have guided me to where I am today—viBe Theater Experience—in my new capacity as Co-Executive Director. Reflecting on my former experiences, I believe they have positioned me well for this new role. It seems that I have always approached my leadership from a space of collaboration and collective decision-making in my attempt to ensure that the communities I am working with are seen, heard, and centered in the creative process. Stepping into a co-leadership model has been so natural to me and sharing this honor with Michelan LeMonier has been a joy of a lifetime. Our relationship is incredibly simpatico.
Michelan LeMonier: I’m not quite sure when this idea started, but I do remember wanting to start and run my own nonprofit in college. I was very adamant about choosing a career that provided resources to people and, more recently, it became even more important to me to choose a career that also created and strengthened communities. I wanted to bring together groups of people to support and uplift each other while also providing that group with opportunities they may not have had access to before. And viBe gives me the space to do that.
What’s great about this phase of my career path, is that it came full circle—I started out as a participant in viBe when I was in high school and it was one of the most affirming experiences of my life. It brought me out of my shell; it allowed me to express myself in ways I hadn’t been able to express myself before, and it provided me with the tools to carry the things I learned with me to other areas of my life.
When I was nearing the end of my college journey, I interned at viBe for credit towards my arts management minor and decided, “This is where I want to be after I graduate.” I came back in 2018 and have been growing at this organization since; from viBe Apprentice (intern), to Operations Assistant, to Programs Manager, to Operations Director, and now Co-Executive Director. While I could have learned about nonprofits from a myriad of other organizations, viBe was definitely the best choice for me.
Donna: How do you engage the viBe Theater Experience in creating access to the arts?
Beryl: For nearly twenty years, viBe has been at the forefront of creating safer spaces for Black and Brown girls, young women, and gender expansive youth to create original performance art. I understand that a key facet of my new role at viBe is to be a bridge between our participants and the organization at-large and the broader arts ecosystem of New York City. This work is something that I have inherited from my predecessors and work that I do gladly.
As Co-Executive Director, I am responsible for ensuring that the organization has the resources necessary to provide accessible art-making opportunities. Accessibility at viBe looks like access to free programming and workshops, free therapy sessions, and sizable participation stipends. Paying our participants for their genius artmaking not only has a positive financial impact, it also reifies that their work is of a professional caliber that is worthy of accolade. In my role, I also engage in partnership building with value-aligned organizations in New York City in order to expand viBe’s community network and to deepen access to the arts for our participants. Understanding that the work we do at viBe doesn’t happen in a silo is incredibly important to our impact.
Michelan: At viBe Theater, making the arts accessible is a priority. Sometimes the thought of creating a full-length play/choreplay, album, or any production can be daunting. But viBe’s pedagogy takes down the barriers between the connotation and the actual experience of creating art. The staff also works to build partnerships that provide our participants with opportunities to see professional performances. During my leadership at viBe, I hope to increase viBe’s reach in schools to provide more access to the arts to a wider range of Black girls and gender expansive youth.
Donna: How are you advancing the dreams of young girls through the viBe Theater Experience?
Beryl: Abundance. I strongly believe access to abundance is a birthright. In my capacity as Co-Executive Director, it is my responsibility and mission to ensure that viBe’s participants have access to an abundance of opportunities—access to professional venues; to see performances’ to industry mentors; to platforms and partnerships that amplify their talents; to showcase their art, to networking events; to artistic retreats; to opportunities for professional development, and to resources, including free therapy and wellness events. Advancing our participants’ dreams means that I must consistently leverage my fundraising and resource building expertise to ensure that they have access to as much abundance as possible.
Michelan: By listening to them. At viBe, it’s important to have conversations with Black girls and keep their stories at the forefront of the narrative. While we are a theater-based organization, theater is just one of many ways Black girls choose to manifest their dreams and we embrace as many of those ways as we can by opening pathways for them to explore what brings them joy. From these conversations, viBe has created new programs, as well as altered existing programs to address current needs. This includes wellness focused workshops; increased movement opportunities, and including them in the decision-making process.
Donna: What is your vision of leadership today?
Beryl: Coming into a co-executive leadership dynamic for the first time has been about being comfortable with what my contributions are to our collective style of leadership. My vision for leadership is rooted in collaboration, empathy, grace, and a quiet power and strength. It is about being deliberate in road-opening and creating space, for our staff, our participants, and for those in viBe’s larger constellation of community members and supporters. It is about sharing power, accountability, and responsibility and modeling collective leadership.
It also is about understanding that our leadership doesn’t have to be like everyone before us or everyone after us, and that it doesn’t always even have to be about us. There is so much value in knowing that I am part of a whole that is in service to a larger mission of empowering youth of color to create their most authentic and genius art. It is about knowing that the work I am doing presently is building a sustainable foundation that will exist well after I am gone. The institution of viBe is fueled by the lifeblood of the creativity of its participants. Everything I do in my role as Co- Executive Director is toward ensuring viBe’s existence well beyond my tenure.
My vision for leadership is also connected to my own personal politic. As a Black woman, I know that our leadership is incredibly powerful, and I believe that investing in our leadership at all ages is the only way to ensure a sustainable future for all. Black women must be poured into, given opportunities to lead, believed, mentored, and sponsored (our names must be said in the rooms!), and we must be equitably compensated for our work. All the qualities I embody in my own leadership have been instilled in me by the Black women I admire most.
Michelan: I envision leadership as a starting point for creating bridges and building the foundation for strong communities that can sustain themselves long after you’re gone. In the last two to three years, we’ve learned firsthand how unpredictable the world can be and how things can change in an instant. When COVID first started, I got to witness Toya Lillard, viBe’s former Executive Director, call in community as a way to create a solid foundation of support for Black girls, young women, and gender-expansive youth. And that experience has shaped how I view leadership and influenced my own leadership goals/styles.
As a Co-Executive Director, I feel it is my job to uplift those around me as well as enable them to feel capable, supported, and empowered. One of the main ways of doing this is by providing resources like professional development, career opportunities, and access to wellness modalities.
I’ve witnessed leaders, especially Black Women leaders, become burned-out building these communities in the hopes that those after them will benefit from the legacy they leave behind. However, my vision (and what I am working towards) is for leaders to receive from these communities just as much as they put into them WHILE they build them.
Donna: Who inspires you?
Beryl: So many Black women inspire me, but as of late I’ve really been inspired by Dr. Indira Etwaroo. Not only is she an incredible educator and storyteller that works at the intersections of community, performance, and visual arts, she is an exemplary arts leader who is truly committed to equity and accessibility. She has shaped the field and advanced so many cultural institutions through her work, ideas, and fundraising leadership. I am so inspired by her example and hope to impact the field just as she has through my own leadership.
Michelan: The girls/femme-identified youth we serve, as well as the Black women around me. When I feel like I’m drained or burned-out, just a small get together really clears my mind and encourages me to rest and move forward when I’m ready. When I am with them, I feel like I can accomplish anything.
These bonds make me the Artist, Administrator, and Leader I am today.
Donna: Thank you so much, Beryl and Michelan, for your efforts to support and cultivate the creative passions and bring to life the dreams of young Black girls, women and femme-identified youth.
I hope the readers of Arts & Culture Connections will further explore the incredible programs at the viBe Theater Experience and support their efforts. They hope to expand the program to other places. You can learn more about it at this link.
As always, I invite you to share your thoughts and comments below about the importance of supporting and engaging the artistic aspirations of Black girls/femme-identified youth.