Maceo Paisley On How To Use Art & Media To Develop Critical Thinking & Emotional Intelligence Within The Community
Maceo Paisley is the Executive Director of the arts nonprofit Citizens Of Culture, as well as the founder of Nous Tous Gallery in Los Angeles Chinatown. He believes in art not for art sake, but art for community sake.
Citizens of Culture is a 501c3 non profit organisation that uses arts and media to develop critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and combat resource inequity. Their research is focused on exploring social possibilities through cultural creation and investigation. They provide life skills education programs, facilitate emotional support & financial literacy groups, produce content, and host gatherings on a free or pay what you can basis from our gallery and community space in Chinatown, Los Angeles.
Maceo Paisley is also a multi-disciplinary artist, designer, and cultural producer who explores themes in society and identity through movement, language, and imagery. And now also, an author. Maceo recently partnered with the Marciano Foundation, has been hired by Nike for their latest Black History Month profiling youth athletes and their impact on their communities, has been featured on The Good Men Project, Milk, The Atlantic, his choreography and talents were featured in Pitchfork for Beirut’s music video and he’s sat on a panel alongside Kendrick Lamar and Quentin Tarantino. These are just to name a few. Maceo found his way to be successful through creative expression and is helping others unpack their own success in life through Tao of Maceo.
Maceo shares his insights into how to use art and media to support the community by developing Critical thinking and Emotional intelligence through Social Enterprise.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Thomas Long] - To start things off, could you please share a bit about your background and what led you down the track of working in the not-for-profit and social enterprise sector?
[Maceo Paisley] - Absolutely. I originally was an artist myself and I joined the military, and my job there was to determine what our supply need would be and make sure that we ordered the right amount of stock and shipped it out right and that gave me a really analytical sort of skillset. But having been an artist also as well, I also was very in touch with storytelling and the emotional capacity. And when I got out of the military, I started working to understand the relationship between our emotions and the decisions that we make. So that was when it really struck me that art could be a powerful vehicle for helping us understand ourselves and a vehicle for helping to see ourselves better. And how culture helped us frame our understanding of our reality. And so I started Citizens of Culture to really just take ownership of the relationship that the individual has to their environment. It was just a cultural blog at first, but then later I said, ‘okay, I've been doing a lot of marketing, consulting, helping for profit organisations, understand consumer behaviour and storytelling. How could I take those skills and avail them to consumers, avail them to citizens so that they could use those skills to make better decisions about their own lives and to become better people?’
That's really interesting that you came from such a different background to where you're at now and how it influenced you and empowered you. I think that's absolutely fascinating. For our listeners who maybe don't know about what you're doing, can you tell us a little bit more about the Citizens of Culture? [04:23]
Citizens of Culture is a platform that has a few different goals. Some are them are content, some of them are programming and even some of them are research, surrounding looking at the systems that people engage in to get things done socially, like the institution of family but also economically my work and collaboration. So what we do there, is we tried to use a cultural lens to understand the social systems and social phenomena and really inspect them to see how we can make them better. And like I said, we do that through our blog and the website and webinars, but also through events and workshops and then of course through other programming as well.
That sounds like you're making a lot of really positive social impact in your community. Maceo, you founded the Nous Tous Gallery. Can you tell us a bit more about that platform and the impact that they are making? [05:25]
So Nous Tous is a forward facing - It's a French word. People say it so many different ways, but it's a forward facing platform that really is centred around combating loneliness. And we have a weekly gathering every Wednesday, where anywhere between 6 to 25 people will come sit in a circle, talk about really what's going on with them as human beings, take their masks off, take their armour off and that social conditioning, that social judgment to really sit and discuss what is plaguing us and society and what brings us joy. And through this practice we get to know ourselves better and know each other better and come up with new definitions of what we think is normal and healthy in society.
I think that's really empowering. What were some of the key challenges in setting up the new gallery and how did you navigate your way through them? [06:23]
Right, of course money is going to be a main concern always, right? We are trying to do things on a shoestring budget, but that's not the only problem. The other problem is that we also have to be competitive with the programming that we're creating with other best than practice media organisations and events companies and art galleries. So our proposition had to be one that was both unique and compelling, but what can be achieved on very little money, so that was important. And then without money, how do we incentivise people to contribute without the standard economic incentives people aren't used to? So that took us really looking at what people valued in their lives and in their relationships and see if we can be a provider for that.
I think that's a really interesting point because I feel like a lot of other social enterprises struggle with money and remaining competitive when there's just so many major players in the field. So what has been the biggest lessons that you've learned on your entrepreneurial journey? [07:22]
One of the biggest ones I will stand by, is I would say…
start where you are and stay small as long as you can and get good before you get big, right.
The idea there being that a lot of us are looking for a rapid scale, the most funding, but I really believe it has been our success. We've stayed small for about three years, but we have very low turnover. People come, they continue to come and they've been coming for two years or for three years or for a year and a half, and that continuity of the group that we're working with remains valuable instead of always trying to pay for the biggest names or the sharpest talent. Maybe looking for loyalty and how we can support people to keep them to stick around.
I think that's such an interesting point for people starting off. So what do you see are the most important traits of successful purpose-led entrepreneurs and artists? [08:33]
I think in both cases, artists and purpose-led entrepreneurs, is that people have to come first and they have to have an understanding of where their north star is. Especially if you're working in social enterprise or nonprofit. We have to be values driven, right? It has to be about what we're trying to accomplish in the world and how that accomplishment affects people's lives day to day.
I think that's such an interesting point for people starting off. So what do you see are the most important traits of successful purpose-led entrepreneurs and artists? [Continued.]
We're not going to sell the most of the products, but what we can do is have a deep impact on the people's lives that we touch. I think of success for a nonprofit more the way that a school or a church would see success and the way that they organise their alumni communities and their volunteer organisations, as opposed to a traditional for-profit enterprise where they're just looking at revenue and growth.
I think that’s such a valid point. Just separating the good that you're doing and separating from the revenue of the business and understanding your impact. I think that's so important for all businesses involved. [9:45]
For us, a metric for success would be can we create a deep and transformative impact in individual lives as opposed to surface level impact on a large number of people.
I think that’s absolutely spot on. How have you seen the not for profit sector change over the last few years and where do you see it heading? [10:05]
I think particularly in the States, but globally as well, there is seen to be a lot more progressive values that are being put in the forefront, whether it be environment or cultural, ethnic and racial differences. A lot of that stuff is starting to be integrated with what we would see in a traditional NGO for not for profits. People are really starting to recognise the importance of representing those who might be economically disenfranchised or you know, immigrant populations who maybe haven't had access to financing and really seeking to empower them in a lasting way. I think nonprofits are starting to see themselves, their mission is putting their own self out of business in some positive ways. If they can actually solve the problem and put themselves out of business, that's how they know they're doing a good job. It is a turning point that I see might be approaching in the next couple of years, as opposed to seeking to maintain the status quo of whatever the service community is. And when I say put ourselves out of business, I don't mean necessarily ending the organisation, but creating such an impact in the area of service that you can then move on to a new area, right? If we're going to be an NGO and we're attacking measles in a developing nation, we want to address that issue to the point where we can go on, move on from measles and now address hepatitis. We don't want to be stuck on solving that for people for a hundred years. You know, same thing with poverty. Same thing with social justice and same thing with our work. Emotional intelligence and critical thinking. We want to create a culture of emotional intelligence and critical thinking to the extent that our work has influenced culture to the extent that our work is imbued in the way we live our lives day to day.
I think that's a fantastic answer. Staying adaptive, solving multiple problems and absolutely destroying the status quo. I think that's such an empowering statement. What are some inspiring projects that you've come across recently that are creating awesome social impact? [12:07]
Oh boy. I’ve got to remember the name of it there. I'm pretty sure it's called “Holisticism”, but I want to make sure that I say it right and because I want to credit this individual. The founders are really incredible. Holisticism is an incredible wellness organisation that's making wellness accessible. Its a female founder and they're doing really good stuff. Breaking down some of the barriers to wellness.
The other one that I think is really positive is “Loom” and that one is all about prenatal and reproductive healthcare for women. That's a really great organisation.
The third one is “Beam” is all about mental health access for people of colour in the United States. So this is great, great organisation.
Do you have any books that you'd suggest to people on their social impact journey? [13:19]
Yeah, two just came to mind. And the third one I'll pull directly from what I'm currently reading. I will say that the first one is “Dare to Lead” by Brene Brown. She's a powerhouse in the field of leadership and vulnerability. I think she is mandatory reading for anyone who wants to lead a group of people on the emotional intelligence side. I think the other one is Patrisse Cullors “When They Call You A Terrorist”. It sounds like it isn't directly related to social impact work, but she really brings us through how community is so important to making individual change. And her story of leadership and connection with the people around her is really powerful. And the third one is “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, which is a really practical guide to understanding your brain and cognitive science and behavioural economics that just might make you more efficient in the use of your own mind.