Leadership InSight: Interview with Jessica Mele

In our Leadership InSight series, we ask arts education leaders to share advice and the experiences that have helped them become successful leaders. Jessica Mele is a program officer in performing arts at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She has also served as executive director at Performing Arts Workshop in San Francisco, CA.

What led you into the field of community arts education, and how long have you been at your current position?

I've been at the Hewlett Foundation for about a year and a half now, and it’s my first time working for a charitable foundation. Before that I was executive director at Performing Arts Workshop in San Francisco for four and a half years. It was my mom that led me into arts education. She was an early childhood educator and dancer and storyteller, so when I was a kid, every learning experience was a creative learning experience. She was really thoughtful about that. And those were some of the most important learning moments of my life—being creative, making plays, making up stories and songs, and learning things through stories and songs.

So when I came to a crossroad in my professional life after college, after graduate school in education, it occurred to me that that was really the most important part of my education, and everyone deserved that kind of learning experience. That's what brought me to arts education and specifically community arts education. At the same time I moved to San Francisco and found Performing Arts Workshop, whose mission is to help young people develop critical thinking, creative expression, and learning skills through the arts. That matched up so well with my experience and values. So I found my home at Performing Arts Workshop, which is also a Guild member.

Are there specific qualities you find necessary to being a leader in community arts education that are unique or different from those qualities needed in other fields?

Oh, I don't know that they're so different from qualities needed in other fields. But I do think that in this field you need to have an orientation toward collaboration, and in order to do that you need to be a good listener and empathize and understand the needs of partner organizations or partner schools or partner community organizations. It's a very collaborative field and sometimes that doesn't make good business sense. But it does make for a stronger field, and in many cases it makes better programs for kids.

So it helps to have that kind of collaborative consensus-based approach to leadership. But in addition you need a strong sense of how to make the business model work, because it's a really tricky business model. The financials in community arts education rarely look great unless you're starting off with a lot of money. So I think those are the two things. You need to combine that kind of empathetic listening and collaborative mindset with some business common sense. Those two things can be really hard to hold at the same time.

What professional projects or training experiences that you've been a part of were impactful on your leadership development?

Let' see. CAELI [the Community Arts Education Leadership Institute] helped me stop and take a breath and be reflective of my own experience and what I bring as a leader. In particular when I first started as an executive director, I focused a lot on what I didn't have and what I didn't have in comparison with my predecessor. CAELI helped me focus on what I did bring to the table and valuing that and helping project that value when I was working with other people in the organization. 

I was also an organizer with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers years ago when I was just starting out. That work was really affirmative for me because the union was 80 percent female, very consensus-based. I was assigned to the education school and museums, and my job was essentially walking around the campus and talking to people. And doing that you learn a lot of patience and you learn how to talk to just about anyone. That was a really valuable learning experience that I took into my current field.

What was one piece of advice on leadership that particularly resonated with you and how have you put that into practice in your work?

There are a lot of things. But there’s something I remember Ronnie Brooks saying at CAELI that has stuck with me—and part of the reason it stuck with me is I didn't initially really understand it. She said you will be blamed for everything, for the good and the bad as an executive. You're bearing the responsibility for that. 

Her point was that you might as well just take credit for the good stuff, don't deflect compliments or positive comments about your performance because you're going to get all the bad stuff too. So you might as well appreciate and leverage the points of positive recognition you get. That has stuck with me because I had a really hard time being generous and kind to myself when I was first in that role as an executive director. 

For you personally what does it take to be a strong leader?

For me personally, an important thing to remember is if you feel like you should talk, you probably shouldn't. And when you feel afraid to talk, you probably should. A critical element of being a strong or effective leader is understanding when you need to speak up and use your voice and when you need to not do that.

And it doesn't always align with what you're feeling at the moment. There are a whole lot of other things that it takes to be a strong leader, but I lead with that one because it also embodies supporting other people to be their best selves—and helping bring people together has a lot to do with how you see yourself. Respecting yourself and what you bring to a room doesn't mean you have to take up the whole room. Taking over a room is how a lot of people expect a leader to show up, but it's not necessarily what makes an effective leader.

Published: March 13, 2017