Alice Brinkman, executive director of REACH Studio Art Center in Lansing, approaches her role as a leader with passion. And although leadership doesn’t come as naturally as she would like, Brinkman is determined to confront difficult situations and learn better ways of doing things all in the name of growing a great neighborhood art center.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
REACH Studio Art Center Executive Director Alice Brinkman:
By nature I am more apt to follow than to lead or at least, to do things on my own, so it is a daily challenge for me to want to be “in charge.” Another way of putting this is that, as an artist or creative person, I would like to just sequester myself in my studio and go to work on some ideas – without having to consider how I should get others involved.
But leading even a small nonprofit is a huge undertaking, one that goes way beyond my own capabilities. I recognize that this is a task that cannot be done alone. I also recognize that I have a long way to go in being a good leader.
As a leader, I would like to become better at being willing to ask questions, asking for help, listening, and acting on what I hear; deciphering out of the vast choices what is the best direction for the good of those I hope to impact; being willing to fail and take responsibility; understanding that I can’t do it alone; feeling strong enough about a mission that I go the extra mile to learn better ways of doing it, even if those better ways are harder; not asking others to do things I wouldn’t do myself; confronting difficult situations; and helping and inspiring others grow personally and to step out of their comfort zone to I want kids to burst out in pure delight after they have gotten their hands messy with art materials or finished a painting, to feel they are a part of something and have safe people and places to which they can go, and to be curious and willing to try new good things...
accomplish a mission.
What is your dream for kids?
I want kids to burst out in pure delight after they have gotten their hands messy with art materials or finished a painting, to feel they are a part of something and have safe people and places to which they can go, and to be curious and willing to try new good things that will help them better understand their world.
I want kids to know that someone loves and cares about them. I want kids to have the tools to think beyond themselves and to know that they are capable and have much to share.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
Honestly? Less greed. More sacrificial giving. Okay, with that off my chest, and more practically speaking, I think better access to transportation would improve the environment for social sector work.
Many consumers who need the services offered by social sector organizations have a hard time getting there. At REACH there are often transportation challenges for both the students and our volunteers. The bus schedule may mean a 1.5-hour trip for a distance that would take a private car just 15 minutes, or the bus can often be unreliable in regards to its schedule. Some of our potential students have to decline participation because they have no way to get to our studio. I know from speaking to other organizations’ staff that there are similar challenges across the board. I don’t know what the answer is, but improved and innovative solutions to transportation would reduce one big barrier for social sector consumers.
How do you know you’re making progress?
I know REACH is making progress when parents or participants verbalize their appreciation for what REACH does; we are so crowded in our current location that we don’t have room to start new programs; and we receive solicited or unsolicited grant awards and donations.
I know we are making progress when I hear from others I meet for the first time that they know about REACH and are excited about what we are doing; new students are signing up for programs and current students keep coming; a youth who participated in REACH programs years ago, walks in to say “hi” after several years of no contact and then signs up to be a volunteer.
What are you most proud of?
Nine years ago when I first opened REACH Studio in this small, run down store front in Lansing, I would never have believed that, eight years later, I would be looking for a bigger building to house all the youth art programs happening today. It’s helpful when I get discouraged -- yes, I do get discouraged -- to reflect back on the beginnings of REACH and see all the colorful and creative projects that have been produced. More importantly, knowing that thousands of youth and adults were able to participate in those projects and have access to the joys and healing brought on by art making.
I’m proud of the way REACH has been able to have so many meaningful and inspiring partnerships with local artists, various It's helpful when I get discouraged -- yes, I do get discouraged -- to reflect back on the beginnings of REACH and see all the colorful and creative projects that have been produced.
departments at Michigan State University, and many other local organizations. Together we have produced some amazing projects that have engaged youth and made them really excited about creativity and aware that they have a voice in our community.
I’m proud of they way REACH attracts so many compassionate and talented volunteers and staff who are committed to serving our community’s youth. They are the ones who touch so many lives, inspire learning, navigate some pretty sticky situations, show incredible patience, and change lives for the better. The service REACH provides goes way beyond imparting artistic skill. Our volunteers become mentors to many youth who have very few good role models. They tutor, assist with job applications, provide a listening ear, give life advice, and make a huge difference in the lives of the youth.
In speaking with younger people who are interested in careers in the social sector, what advice would you give?
I have a master’s degree in textiles. After college I spent several years being a self-employed dressmaker. My primary responsibilities now, as the director of REACH, are administrative – budgeting, program planning, facilitating staff and a board of directors, recruiting support and participants, and writing grants. You might ask how in the world a degree in textiles prepared me for this! Learning to communicate well through writing and speaking are important skills. Learning this can take place in any chosen area of study.
Starting in high school I wrote curriculum for different courses, I taught community enrichment classes and started my own business as a dressmaker. I worked hard in school and went beyond what was required of me. I volunteered to coordinate my church’s food pantry; I lead English conversation volunteer trainings; I lead youth groups and taught Sunday school classes; I met regularly with and hosted students from other countries to develop friendships and help them feel welcome in our community. I read and talked to people to learn how to do different things. I was privileged to be able to spend time in other countries and cultures, which was an amazing experience that broadened how I understand other people. I spent several years volunteering monthly at a homeless shelter. While I did all of these out of a desire to help others, the experiences helped prepare me for the rigors of nonprofit administration and work in the social sector.
As with any vocational path, the best preparation is to get a broad education and as many different experiences as possible. The best preparation is to be teachable, curious and a good learner—ready to apply what you’ve learned to real life situations.
Pursue this path only if you really believe in helping others. Don’t do it for personal success or money.
Get experience: volunteer in service situations that are out of your comfort zone. Volunteer to work with a variety of people of all ages, incomes, cultures, worldviews, physical conditions, etc. Even if it’s as simple as regularly visiting or helping out your elderly neighbor.
Do your best at everything -- meaning, don’t just get by with the bare minimum needed to pass -- without complaining, even the tasks that you don’t enjoy.
Find the good in everything.