Storytelling + Context        

Open Letter



Addressed to the National YoungArts Foundation


Delali Ayivor        
2011 YoungArts Winner in Writing
US Presidential Scholar in the Arts


On May 30, 2020, Delali Ayivor published the following open letter on her personal website and sent it directly to senior staff members at YoungArts. As of 06.19.20, she has yet to receive a response.




[REVISED VERSION]  
                 
 


I think I speak for a lot of us when I say that the last few weeks have just hit different. I would say I don’t know what it is, but it’s closer to the truth to say I’m overwhelmed and paralyzed by the totalities of everything that it is. Whatever the case, it’s become clear to me that
I need to speak on something.

I have been involved with the National YoungArts Foundation for almost 10 years. I started my relationship with the organization in 2011 when I was a finalist in their national writing program and then went on to be named a 2011 🇺🇸 US Presidential Scholar in the Arts. From 2011 to now, I don’t think there’s been a span of time longer than 6 months that I’ve gone without working with YoungArts in some capacity, from performing to promote the launch of the Los Angeles regional program in 2012, to working as a resident advisor in their programs all over the country. Most recently, I was the discipline coordinator for the writing division of their national competition.

I cannot stress enough the joy and meaningful validation that my YoungArts experiences have brought to my life. This is something that I’ve talked about extensively, both in print and person. For years, I gushed about how YoungArts recognized my poetry, ✍🏿 the work that I considered to be my throw-away writing. At the time I applied to YoungArts, I was a senior at Interlochen Arts Academy, where I considered myself primarily a short fiction writer. My poetry was messy, undisciplined and intensely personal. My short stories were studied, tightly wound reproductions of the almost exclusively white male fiction writers we were assigned in class.
It is a sad testament to how much I undervalued my own perspective that I had to see my word—a poem about the complicated legacy of the first black, 💰 female millionaire and the creator of permanent hair relaxer, Madame CJ Walker—on the walls of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery to understand that my words and thoughts and experiences mattered. YoungArts facilitated that moment of clarity for me. It was a powerful moment of recognition that indelibly altered my path in life and solidified a small voice in my head that had been screaming for years that I deserved the space I took up in the world (and more).
   
Over the years, it’s been a particular point of pride and fulfillment for me to see other young artists of color embrace their voice in such a supportive setting. It is an honor and privilege to be in most every room I’ve been in during a YoungArts program. But it is precisely because I have this deep love ❤️️ for YoungArts that I must speak out today. YoungArts cannot claim to be an anti-racist organization in any meaningful way. Putting my personal history of racialized discrimination while working at YoungArts to the side for a moment, they as an institution have not even begun to do the bare minimum work that would be recognized as standard practice for any organization claiming to have a commitment to anti-racism.
This would include things like a detailed, written institutional statement on diversity, equity, and inclusion. An explicit push to increase racial diversity in the highest levels of administration and in Board participation. And increased transparency that the type of “talent” that competitions like YoungArts recognizes is very often the product of privileged access to arts education that disproportionately favors the white and wealthy. 🙄

I want to stress that the vast majority of people who work at YoungArts are wonderful, well-meaning people. For that reason, I will not be using their names. The only person who I will name in this letter is YoungArts’ Vice President of Development, Stacey Glassman Mizener, who is a belligerently ignorant white woman  who has repeatedly demonstrated that she has no interest in personal growth or following anti-discrimination laws. 



I worked full-time at YoungArts from February 2017—June 2018 as a coordinator in their External Relations team.

In my year working at YoungArts, I saw and experienced the following instances of racialized discrimination

  • In November of 2017, Stacey 🤡 called me into her office to commission me to write a poem for a dinner YoungArts was hosting during Miami Arts Week, honoring a prominent black visual artist. As soon as I sat down in her office, she said she wanted to take the chance to get to know me better. She started asking me deeply ignorant questions about my Ghanaian background, explicitly and repeatedly asking me to ignore her ignorance while she did so. This culminated in her asking me if they have houses 🤔 in Africa.

  • Ernest Baker, the 🥇 first US Presidential Scholar in hip hop dance and a YoungArts alumnus, came to Miami for an interdisciplinary residency in 2018. Ernest is a Miamian from the neighborhood of Opa-Locka, an incredibly culturally-rich but resource-poor black neighborhood. For the public portion of his residency, Ernest chose to have a community screening and block party at the Opa-Locka Community Development Corporation, debuting a short film he’d made over the course of his residency. The film was about the struggle of growing up as a black man in Opa-Locka and how Ernest eventually learned to channel his energy positively into the church, martial arts and then dance. A few weeks before the residency, in an interdepartmental meeting with no less than 15 people present, Stacey Glassman Mizener announced that as the Development team’s contribution to the residency, she had organized a fashion show at the Neiman Marcus at the Shops at Bal Harbour. The Shops at Bal Harbour is a high-end luxury mall situated in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Miami. People in the room began to question how this event was related to Ernest’s creative work. Stacey then explained that she didn’t see any meaningful tie-in for Ernest to be there. Instead, she explained, at the end of the fashion show, she was planning to have Ernest walk down the runway and dance for the donors.” 🕺🏿
I walked out of the meeting and didn’t come back. After seeing Stacey repeatedly make racialized comments in an inappropriate and unchallenged way, I decided to take action. At the time, YoungArts did not have a full-time HR person, just a part-time white, male, contract-worker. So, I instead called a meeting with the then-YoungArts CEO and still-current COO. In that meeting, which had two other staff members in attendance. I laid out Stacey’s pattern of racist behavior, including both her conversation with me about my heritage, her suggestion that Ernest “dance for the donors,” along with a number of other incidents, including her wearing a bindi to a public YoungArts event, as well as a comment that a member of the Development team told me Stacey had made about keeping POC students on the cover of development marketing materials because it would make donors “more likely” to give money. 🤮️ The CEO and COO apologized that Stacey had “hurt my feelings” and pledged that a change would be made. I made it clear to them that while I wouldn’t, I had the basis to sue them for workplace discrimination, and that Stacey was a legal liability.

  • A few weeks later, Stacey 💁🏼‍♀️ appeared at my desk and asked if she could have a word with me. She took me into a conference room on the 5th floor of the YoungArts office and proceeded to have an unsupervised conversation with me about the formal complaint I had lodged against her. It was very clear from the way that she spoke that my identity in addition to every claim I had made had been passed off directly to her. In the course of this conversation, she said she had never said any of the things that I said she said and never did any of the things I said she did. She asked me why I wouldn’t have come directly to her and said she felt that I’d “betrayed our friendship.” 🤷🏿‍♀️ She also said she was not a racist and that she found these claims to be particularly hurtful because she
    has family members from Ghana.”

  • In my time at YoungArts I was extremely vocal about the work that YoungArts could do to address its implicit biases as an organization. Their reaction to that was to placate me by “allowing” me to do large amounts of personal labor to educate our staff about the many potential areas of improvement. In 2018, YoungArts paid for my airfare and price of admission to an Americans for the Arts conference about implicit bias in arts non-profit administration. I was by far, the most junior-level employee from any organization there. Looking around the room at the executive directors and CEOs, it dawned on me for the first time that I’d been placated and paid off.

  • Under the guise of wanting to mentor a young black woman, my former supervisor at YoungArts exploited and gaslit me. This included behavior such as (1) having me write unattributed copy for her paid freelance gigs outside of YoungArts, (2) pressuring me to take time off so that she wouldn’t have to pay me overtime for performing the essential duties of my job (I was the box-office and front-of-house manager for YoungArts full nationwide season of programming), and (3) cautioning me that I should be quiet around the office about the discrimination I’d faced from Stacey because it “reflected poorly” on me.




For me, the worst part about my time working at YoungArts was the toxicity of the culture of silence. From the first moment I saw Stacey’s true colors, I started complaining, and LOUDLY. 🤯️ And while I got a few shady comments in solidarity, I also got no meaningful action for the very valid claims I had against her. 🤦🏿‍♀️ 

The culture at YoungArts, like at many nonprofits, is one that has been dysfunctional for a long time. When I complained about Stacey, the most common response I got was that there was often an abusive white woman in charge but that Stacey’s specific acts of racism were somehow impotent or didn’t matter. But that’s quite simply not good enough.

When we talk about these incidents, we often do so in a vacuum, but I want to speak to my state of mind at the time of my YoungArts employment because I think it’s important context. I moved to Miami in 2016 shortly after graduating from Reed College. I think it speaks well to my state of mind that when I graduated from Reed, I got in my car and drove as far away as I possibly could without leaving the continental United States. Reed is a racist institution in a racist city in the most racist state outside of the former-Jim Crow South. I am still unpacking and will probably continue to unpack for the rest of my life, the ⛓ racialized trauma that I endured in that space. I came to Miami only at the very beginning of understanding all that I had suppressed to survive there.

I moved to Miami with a white, female friend who I considered closer to me than almost anyone. When I agreed to move in with her, I explained as best I could that I was grappling with the lingering effects of Reed on my mental health and that I needed our home to be a safe space. She came home crying one day and asked me to comfort her because she had just discovered that her boyfriend was an anti-black racist who didn’t believe in institutionalized racism and was pro-police. I also came home one day to overhear said boyfriend defending Donald Trump saying “grab them by the pussy.” 



I repeatedly tried to talk to my roommate about how I could not live in such an environment. She shut down and refused to have the conversation. I went home to Ghana for Christmas break and broke down to my mother. I came back and told my roomate I was moving out. I left that apartment in January of 2017. She never spoke to me again. We had been best friends for 8 years.

There were many other factors that contributed to my state of mind while I was working at YoungArts. First, and most obviously, Trump 🐖️ won the 2016 election.

By the time that Stacey suggested Ernest “dance for the donors,” I was in the process of grieving the shocking deaths of three of my peers. The first was my Reed classmate, Taliesin Myrrdin, who was murdered in broad daylight on public transportation in Portland, OR for intervening as a bystander to defend a Muslim woman who was being heckled. Taliesien was very close to many people who are very close to me. His death is a shocking and horrifying injustice. The second was my Reed classmate, rugby teammate, and fellow HA, Nico Villareal, who died by suicide shortly before he was supposed to graduate from Reed. Nico was one of the very few, big, brown, joyous presences on the Reed campus. 
I had always identified some part of myself in him. His death broke my heart.

The third was my friend Alexandra Noghaven.
Alex was the first friend I made in Miami. She adopted me and designated herself as my “Miami Fairy Godmother.”🧚🏼‍♀️ She is one of the fiercest white women allies for anti-racism that I have ever known. We coincidentally ended up as coworkers sharing a cubicle space at YoungArts. It was the honor of my life to see her everyday. She passed away due to complications from diabetes. 

It was with this combination of trauma, grief, fear and exhaustion that I walked into the YoungArts offices every single day that I worked there. To wake up, feeling all that pain and drive to an office where I had been repeatedly denied my dignity and humanity was devastating. The effects on my mental health were vicious. I was diagnosed with depression and offered psychotropic prescriptions for the first time in my life. I started having panic attacks at work (although it took me time to realize that’s what they were.)  I can recognize now that I spent most of that time dissociating to make it through the day. Many of my old coworkers may be surprised to hear this. But I’ve always been “good” at dealing with my emotions on my own, and at putting on a brave, performative, placating show.

To my former YoungArts coworkers, 💞 many of whom I have known and cared for since I was an 18-year old YoungArts winner, I say that you cannot claim to care about me if you do not care about my safety and my freedom. For YoungArts to take meaningful anti-racist work done by black bodies and claim it as their own values is wrong.
To take this moment in history to be self-congratulatory about fighting racism knowing full well that a racist white woman works within the walls of your organization is wrong. To have seen me bullied, dehumanized, gaslit and silenced and said nothing is wrong. You don’t get to treat me the way you did and claim to have any sense of dignity. No more.👏🏿  Do better. 👏🏿 Be worthy 👏🏿 of the breathtaking, unapologetic work that YoungArts winners make about their identity.




Commit to anti-racism beyond funding other people’s anti-racist work. Stop coming to black and brown individuals and demanding their personal labor
as though they are only anti-racist resource on the
planet. And if you can’t do that, quite simply, be quiet.

— Delali Ayivor 💅🏿

To read more testimonials of community member's
experiences of racism at YoungArts, visit our ︎︎︎ Archive .

Highlighted words denote vocabulary that is defined in our ︎︎︎ Glossary.