Leadership in the Arts and Media

March 12, 2015

Dean White

Dean Renée T. White speaks about what it means to be a leader in the humanities in advance of the "Arts, Media, Politics" panel on March 25th.

On March 25th, Dean Renée T. White will moderate the public panel, "Art, Media, Politics: A Conversation with Four Leading Women" at the MassArt Tower Auditorium. Joining as panelists will be our Eileen Friars Leader-in-Residence Synthia Saint James (visual artist), Karen Holmes Ward (Executive Producer and Host of CityLine), Stacey Barney (Senior Editor, Penguin Random House) and Lisa Simmons (Founder, The Color of Film Collaborative and the Roxbury International Film Festival).

Before joining Simmons College as the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, you were a Professor of Sociology and Black Studies. How does your academic background inform the questions that you will be asking during the March panel?

I have explored a number of different things in my research: for example, risk behavior, race theory, health policy, and community development. What all of my work centers on is the way in which one’s race, class gender, nationality, sexuality and so on determine one’s social position and access to power. By using this intersectional approach to social issues, I have always been struck by the ways people define themselves and the extent to which these definitions come into contradiction with how others see them.

My interest in conceptions of identity, social position and power also connect to my ongoing interest in art and film. I am fascinated by the stories artists tell, which people are represented in art and how, and ways these images and messages resonate with audiences. But beyond that, as someone who has studied art history and Black cinema, I am always interested in learning more about the creative process, debates over what constitutes art, who determines if one is an artist, and whether art can push us to think about each other’s humanity.

Part of the mission of the College of Arts and Sciences is to create leaders in one’s chosen field. How does one demonstrate leadership as an artist, editor, journalist or in film?

Each of these is an especially creative medium that enables one to engage with many powerful ideas. I truly believe that these fields provide opportunities for people to serve as thought leaders, to elevate discourse and to equip us with language -- visual and otherwise -- to examine ourselves and the world around us.

I suppose in a traditional sense, leadership is associated with visibility. But being publicly recognized as an accomplished, capable and articulate voice is only one way to define leadership. Art, film, publishing and journalism are fields that may have a profound impact on people without the artist, filmmaker, journalist or editor/author ever knowing it has happened. Leaders use their talents to challenge what we expect to see represented in their work and to break new ground. 

During the panel, we’ll be talking about each woman’s personal journey towards leadership. What lessons have you learned that you would like to share with our Simmons community?

Well, I believe that a true leader is one who does the following.

Immerses him or herself in things that are unfamiliar and challenging.
Don't rest on what you already know or have done, always be seeking and learning.

Surrounds him or herself by people who are much smarter or have a different expertise than oneself.
Ego has no place at the table--it needs to be kept in check. Sometimes great leadership requires bringing the right people into the room, remaining quiet, listening, and consulting before acting.

Embraces both creativity and failure.
Innovation is vital, but that means being prepared for failure and all that comes with it. Failure does not have to be a flaw, but rather a recognition of the need to go in a different direction.

Ultimately, leadership requires being open, innovative, risk-taking, and forgiving of one's failures, weakness and mistakes.

Can you tell us about a failure that led to a success for you?

I had a professor in college--my mentor--who was a musician as well. He always referred to research and writing projects as études, which typically refers to instrumental works that are very difficult and are used to perfect musical technique. He called scholarship études to remind his students that what we do is always a work in progress. You can always improve and strengthen a skill or ability, you will stumble in the process of doing this, you will be challenged beyond what you believe is your capacity, and in time you will be better, stronger and more creative. This lesson remains quite helpful.

Once I had written an essay for a publication that was just eviscerated by an outside reviewer. This person seemed to have a strong reaction to everything—my premise, my writing style, the references I used--everything was bad and wrong. It shook me and made me question my ability to do rigorous critical scholarship. I couldn’t figure out how to address the concerns and had to strip away what I thought was valuable and important and ask myself three basic questions: why are you writing this, for whom are you writing this and why should someone care?

I realized that I was adopting a writing style that was uncomfortable for me because I wanted to legitimize the subject matter by retrofitting it for a particular audience. I had to separate the validity of the idea from the effectiveness of my execution of it in writing. This was tough to realize but freeing. The article was still rejected by the journal but turned into a very different research project that is patiently waiting on me to carve out time to return to it. She calls to me every once in a while and I am determined to heed her call by chipping away at a little at a time.