Leading Change from Within at MacDowell

Christian Holland - June 30, 2022

MacDowell Director of Internal Communications & Human Engagement Jenni Wu amid the summer foliage at MacDowell with her dog, Marvin.

MacDowell Director of Internal Communications & Human Engagement Jenni Wu amid the summer foliage at MacDowell with her dog, Marvin.

In early 2021, Jenni Wu was named the first director of internal communications & human engagement (ICHE) in MacDowell's 115-year history. Never before had a staff member been charged with strengthening and maintaining a healthy and inclusive work culture, and it was long past time to appoint someone to the position. Because of her professional background and nine-year tenure on MacDowell’s staff, working across three different departments, Jenni was uniquely qualified. Her new role offers her opportunities to oversee significant organizational transformations, both practical and cultural, and includes the responsibilities of streamlining internal communications, creating opportunities for staff professional development, and coordinating MacDowell’s ongoing work in diversity, equity, inclusion, and access.

She took some time from her busy schedule to reflect on the efforts she led and managed for MacDowell over the past year and a half, and offers a view to the future.

Christian Holland: Over the past year or so, we – MacDowell staff members collectively – have benefited from an external review of our salaries, and a more robust hiring practice that you’ve devised and shepherded. These are big changes that affected not only our incomes, but the ramping up of operations and hiring after our COVID closure. Within organizations the size and age of MacDowell, evolution typically comes slowly. Did you expect to see real changes come this quickly?

Jenni Wu: We’ve done a lot of internal work in the last year or two. In addition to the compensation review and equitable hiring practice—which we developed with guidance from Yancey Consulting and refined through a full year of active hiring—we also wrote an organizational values statement; created a diversity, equity, inclusion, and access (DEIA) Task Force, a staff Executive Team, and a Board Compensation Committee; implemented a Paid Family Leave policy that covers our New York and New Hampshire offices; standardized our anti-sexual harassment training; and moved toward more inclusive and collaborative decision-making processes. Before the end of the year, we’ll be working on our annual review process and Employee Handbook. To me, it hasn’t felt like these things have happened quickly, I guess because the behind-the-scenes work has sometimes been non-linear. That said, I’m not surprised by what we’ve been able to do. Staff well-being is and has been a top priority for MacDowell’s leadership, and it’s a central part of our Values statement. So, the vision was there from before I stepped into my role. What took time was developing concrete steps for achieving our goals and then moving through them with intention and care.

CH: At MacDowell, we’re collectively seeking to propagate a culture of belonging within our staff of about 50 full-, part-time, and seasonal employees. Could you tell us what a culture of belonging means for MacDowell and talk about some of the changes you’ve observed in our culture over the past 12 – 15 months?

JW: Marian MacDowell’s original mission was to remove barriers to the creative process. On the program side, this has historically meant providing artists-in-residence with studio space, meals, and time to focus on their work. As we’ve moved through our DEIA work, we’ve started to identify other types of barriers that prevent artists from either coming to or thriving at MacDowell. Naming and removing those barriers are foundational elements of building a culture of belonging. On the staff side, this translates into making sure that our policies are equitably written and applied. It also means building and maintaining a mutually respectful environment where staff members aren’t afraid to ask questions, express opinions, or provide feedback. This includes taking the time to include a diversity of voices in decision-making processes and clearly communicating how decisions are made. Compared to two years ago, I know that I’m more conscious of, and open to, perspectives that are not my own. I think that’s true of a lot of people on staff.

Additionally, now that we have a written values statement, we can refer to it as we make decisions—from organization-wide processes like writing the annual budget to smaller things like the way we structure our meeting agendas. The staff and board spent six months working together on the Values statement. Having it is a way of disrupting patterns of “we do X,Y, and Z this way because we’ve always done them this way,” which can sometimes lead to the unintentional perpetuation of inequitable outcomes. So that’s a change that we chose, but the pandemic has changed our staff culture in all sorts of ways. We aren’t able to be together as often, and the need to constantly adapt our practices and policies to keep people safe has been tough. On the other hand, the staff has exhibited so much resiliency, compassion, and creativity over this time. That’s not a change—I think those qualities have existed at MacDowell for a long time.

CH: You’re coming up on your 10-year-anniversary of working for MacDowell, but you also noted recently that collectively, our staff has worked at MacDowell for 392 years, with eight employees who have 20-year-plus tenures. Are there ways that that longevity benefited your efforts to implement new systems that relate to internal communications and human resources?

JW: I’m grateful for all of my colleagues at MacDowell—I’m constantly learning from them and working at MacDowell has made me a better, kinder, and more patient person. The almost 400 years of tenure is an amazing number. Many of our staff members have chosen to dedicate significant amounts of their lives and energy to MacDowell. People are also really generous with their feedback and encouragement. I experienced a lot of self-doubt when I started in the ICHE role. I didn’t know how people would respond to things like the new hiring process, which takes more time and has more steps than what we’d previously done. Conversations about subjects like compensation, benefits, and staff culture can be understandably emotional and personal.

Everyone has given me so much grace, trust, and good humor. Longevity isn’t the only reason for this, but I do think that if you’ve been at an organization for a long time and you’ve internalized the mission of serving artists, you’re really open and committed to trying new things to better serve that mission.

CH: What drew you toward this type of work? Had you aspired to it before coming to MacDowell or was there something about MacDowell that made this opportunity become apparent?

JW: I worked in staff management positions in arts organizations before coming to MacDowell, where I started as the part-time New York office manager. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to stay and grow here. After I moved to the Development team, Stacey Bosworth [who was recently promoted from director of development to vice president of advancement] played a very active role in my professional development. When it was time to hire a development assistant in 2019, [senior manager, events & donor engagement] Brett Evan Solomon, [former institutional giving manager] Julia Tolo, and I proposed an experimental equitable hiring process to Stacey, and she was fully supportive of it. We redacted more than 200 applications by hand using a Sharpie and created our own evaluation templates for applicants at each stage of the hiring process. I really credit Stacey with recognizing the value of what we were trying to accomplish and making a pathway for it to become an organizational standard. Centering equity, access, and transparency in MacDowell’s internal processes is a major part of my job description. It’s not that people weren’t doing this before I started, but it helps to have someone who’s responsible for coordinating this work across departments. I love that I get to work with everyone on staff. The last two years have not been easy at MacDowell, but knowing that my work can make a positive difference in the lives of my co-workers is the best motivation to keep going.

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