We’re living in a unique moment, there are so many grand stories of institutional disillusionment and decay in the air. This is showing up in the arts as some museum boards becoming the target of activism, and an escalation of the usual scarcity mindset that plagues art institutions—smaller institutions getting more desperate and closing, and the few better-resourced institutions expanding into mega-institutions that increasingly serve wealth, not people. I think we’re all learning something really basic about how to express and wield power with integrity. And if you’re like me, it’s possible that all this learning about institutional power might be showing up in your personal life, your hobbies or relationships, in ways that mirror these larger institutional lessons in helpful ways.
Institutions are just people working together toward a shared goal. Institutional relationships, at every level, are about reconciling collective ideals and stories to personal identity and action. Right now, the ideals and stories do not match the actions of individuals—particularly those of us who have power. This discrepancy makes our institutions feel hollow and shaky. But instead of asking how to build an institution that is solid, I want to ask something more like “what types of institutional practice have integrity?” This is important because we’re learning that institutional forms have no inherent power. It’s our actions within and in the name of these forms that matters.
I think we’re all learning something really basic about how to express and wield power with integrity.
When I’m not running A Blade of Grass, I am a pretty serious student of aikido, a Japanese martial art. Through regular aikido practice, anybody can learn to conduct themselves with more power, but also more awareness of that power and its effect on others. Aikido happens in an “art world” of sorts. I train in a dojo, a hierarchical institutional structure, and most dojos plug into a network of larger federations or associations. These federations add legitimacy and articulate things like the lineage or history of the art, and what you have to do to rise in rank. They also introduce a lot of drama and power struggle to a practice that is incredibly idealistic—the goal of aikido is nothing less than to create total harmony.
Perhaps it makes a lot of sense that in this time, when we’ve all been in institutional shock about so many things, I’ve been remaking my relationship to aikido at the institutional level. Until recently, I trained at this dojo that is internationally famous. My old sensei studied directly with the founder and came to New York in the 1960’s upon the founder’s death to continue spreading aikido. Ultimately he created a national federation of aikido dojos all over the United States that keeps a direct relationship to the founder’s dojo in Tokyo. I certainly enjoyed the reach and reputation of my old sensei during the decade I was a member of his dojo. When I said I was from this dojo, people were impressed. This made me more confident, like more of a force on the mat. Being a member of this dojo made me feel like a badass! Unfortunately, this badass feeling did little to sustain and deepen my actual practice or make me feel welcome in my old dojo. I endured occasional, mild sexual harassment and didn’t feel pushed or mentored—it was clear that I was good for a woman and therefore was not worth further investment. My training kind of stalled out, which is a bad sign—training is something you should ideally be deepening and letting transform you for the rest of your life. My old sensei was rarely there teaching. The dojo, technically a nonprofit, needed more and more money, but it wasn’t clear why.1 It’s not just that the old dojo stopped living up to its myth or reputation. I started to feel like I was tolerating things in the dojo that I would never tolerate in any other part of my life.
Ultimately, I left and joined a new dojo, and that was hard. Being disillusioned enough to leave was easy. I think profound disillusionment is the gift of this moment. But disentangling myself from my identity as a member, or the myth that I was already at the best dojo, took forever. This process of creating a new institutional relationship was an active process of reconciling my identity and actions to a new set of collective ideals and stories. For about a year I have been in an uncomfortable transition, a bardo period of sorts, in which the old institution has been dying inside me and the new institution has been slowly coming to life as I accept fundamental shifts, like being open to a new style. Or the fact that in this new dojo, we train harder instead of calling ourselves badasses. Or getting used to a sensei who is more interested in developing each member than building and consolidating institutional authority.
I think this is a slow process because I didn’t want to trust any institution after devoting myself to an institution that didn’t have integrity. But it’s interesting, and very much of this moment, that I got a lot of extra help with the part where the old institution had to die. After I sustained enough disillusionment to leave, a group of highly ranked women who train at dojos affiliated with my old sensei from all over the country circulated a very polite petition that was grounded in their love of aikido and concerns about its future. They asked for support of specific initiatives that would increase gender representation and equity, such as including a woman on the national technical committee. I signed it immediately, and I have to admit that it momentarily gave me hope that I could go back to my old life and quit this humbling and arduous transition process. But the petition was received as a personal attack: my old sensei didn’t display good leadership and intimidated a bunch of people into removing their signatures. Some I considered friends in this old dojo became really tribal about protecting their leader instead of listening to their friends’ and longtime training partners’ reasonable concerns and productive suggestions about how to make aikido and the federation better. A friend of mine who had been training at this dojo for almost 40 years was banished, not just at my old dojo but at any affiliated dojo, just for signing and circulating the petition. Any lingering doubts I had about whether I belonged to the old dojo were effectively cauterized, and the half-in, half-out attitude I was bringing to the new dojo became easier for me to see.
The petition part of this story is all about right now because it’s another example of epic institutional betrayal. What makes this a story also about the future is that the new dojo does three things to engender my trust, which I think are a real way forward for all of us, in any institutional context. The new dojo is what it says it is; it’s operating with sufficiently high stakes; and the ideas it is built upon demand something of me—the dojo doesn’t work without my participation. It’s a sacred space that positions martial arts training as a dangerous place for our egos and a safe space for our spirits. You could see how such a statement would be an invitation to abuse, right? What makes it okay is not the form—all dojos are kingdoms, senseis can do whatever they want—but the way both my new sensei and the membership choose to enact it on a daily basis. This consistent reconciliation of words to actions is the fundamental building block of any institutional practice, and it’s hard because it requires the leader to empower others and notice when they are in the wrong. What matters in my new dojo is not the lineage or reputation of my sensei, it’s the proposition he’s offering to a membership. He is saying, “I will transform you by challenging your ego and nurturing your spirit,” combined with a daily commitment to use his power in a way that makes that proposition reliably and demonstrably true. One way he achieves this is by sharing some of his power. Even a leader with almost total authority, like a sensei or an employer, can make all kinds of decisions to share that power. There’s a lot of listening. Everybody who trains is taken seriously. People are given important responsibilities, and are recognized for their achievements. Are decisions around wielding power 100% benevolent, or even accurate? No, that’s impossible to achieve. But the decisions around the distribution of power are good enough to create an environment that I am starting to feel safe having my ego challenged in.
It’s a sacred space that positions martial arts training as a dangerous place for our egos and a safe space for our spirits.
I do think that this approach to power, particularly in the autocratic world of martial arts, does a lot to create a vibrant, growing, young dojo that I would bend over backwards to support. We all signed up for this challenging proposition together—we’re here to be transformed. And we’ll hold one another on that journey. If you’re scared on the mat, or hurt, or crying in the dressing room because you were challenged too much, you can talk about it with Sensei, and count on the support of every single person around you. I’ve trained a long time and never been in a dojo like that. This is important because the larger aikido community is both aging and shrinking,2 facing a relevance crisis that is similar to the one arts institutions are facing. And I can’t help but notice that it might be because arts institutions also love to consolidate power and cultural authority, and trade on things like lineage, reputation, and personal power that can’t be reliably practiced by a community.
I don’t end this essay knowing how to reform nonprofit boards in the arts or with a clear sense of what a post-democratic United States is going to look like. What I get is a clearer sense that we can make strides toward the institutions we want by changing our behavior, rather than architecting alternatives to the institutions themselves. Our institutions feel hollow because for various reasons we are hollow in them.
Our institutions feel hollow because for various reasons we are hollow in them.
On one hand, this is pretty empowering! We always have the power to consider our own behavior and behave differently. On the other, investing in institutional relationships that are less hollow requires vulnerability and might mean letting go of some pretty powerful incentives. This helps me see the arts landscape differently. There are a lot of institutions that have such a huge gap between what they say and what they do, or are operating with such low stakes for most people that I better understand why they’re struggling, and I don’t know if they have a way to grow. Even in whole sectors that feel like they are dying, I also see so much life. Our institutions feel hollow because for various reasons we are hollow in them. A rapidly growing institution like Laundromat Project isn’t reinventing the form of the arts nonprofit. Rather, it’s conducting its business with a much deeper and more consequential relationship to its communities, including demanding greater accountability from itself and as many of its partners as it can. It’s not hollow because the people in it are not acting hollow. That deep sense of consequence, of being implicated in a project or journey that is larger than yourself, is threatening because we are so trained to avoid it. We certainly find it risky to create institutional experiences that have a deep sense of consequence. This might be particularly true in the arts, where a sense of low stakes or artificiality—the idea that it’s just art—are instrumental to our work, and freedom from “reality” is often necessary for breakthroughs. But maybe the future lies in facing that problem. If we do, we can take incremental steps toward articulating what precisely it is that art and art institutions do that is truly of consequence, and then start earnestly enlisting, rather than appeasing, artwashing, or entertaining the folks who are already committed to helping us do the work.
Deborah Fisher is Executive Director of A Blade of Grass
1. Not suggesting foul play, just a level of opacity that I feel is inappropriate for any nonprofit
2. There are a lot of statistics in this 2017 Aikido Journal article, the most relevant is a student to instructor ratio of 1.5:1. Aikido teachers are teaching a lot of their peers and not a lot of new folks.