Faces of change: Supporting leaders, building crucial networks in Colorado's creative sector

A special report on Colorado Creative Industries' Change Leader Institute.

If there’s one thing Colorado’s Certified Change Leaders say they have in common, it’s that each enrolled in the state’s leadership institute not knowing what they ought to do next — in their careers, in their communities, in their creative lives.

Artist and organizer Mary Hockenbery had recently purchased an old church in Hotchkiss and recalls now that she was “banging my head against the wall” trying to figure out how best to develop it into a resource for the small town.

Ann Lukacs was making things happen as a respected film location consultant in Fairplay, but found her future moves hampered by a lack of networking opportunities in rural Park County.

Actor and artist Ryan Foo was dealing with the recent death of Corin Chavez, one of his co-founders at the Black Actors Guild theater company in Denver, and reconsidering both his personal and professional mission.  

“I honestly wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” said Foo. “I felt like I needed a community of leaders, people who could help me through it.”

All of the state’s Change Leaders — and more than 100 now have been certified by the Change Leader Institute —  seem to have some variation of the “what’s next” story in their portfolios. And the institute, run by Colorado Creative Industries, has been a logical place to go for a breakthrough.

Officially, the program’s mission is “to better equip arts and cultural leaders to deal with environmental and organizational change and to create a statewide mentoring network in the arts and creative community.”

Change Leader Justin Garoutte helped refurbish this mural by Fred Haberlein as part of his certification. Photo from Justin Garoutte.

What that means, in practical terms, is that the institute offers hands-on training that participants can use to make things happen: How to communicate ideas, how to break down resistance and build coalitions, how to actually complete projects in inclusive and effective ways.

The training starts with leaders taking part in one of the three-day workshops the state has held in various locations, starting back in 2014. The classes pull together a dozen participants, with varied backgrounds and hometowns.  

“We pride ourselves in this program on diversity — of all kinds,” said Pamela Denahy, Director of Tourism & Events for the city of La Junta one of three facilitators who coordinate the training. “We have younger and older, we have geographic diversity. We don’t want it all to be focused on Denver and the Front Range.”

Nor is the program focused strictly on artists, though they’re certainly welcome. Colorado Creative Industries, or CCI, is part of the state’s Office of Economic Development, and has a broad definition of the term “creative.” The Change Leader program reflects that by including folks who work in business, tourism, government and other fields, all of whom are crucial to building alliances that make creative enterprises happen.

CCI keeps the program affordable. Participants pay only $100 to  $400 (based on the annual revenue of their organization or business) and that covers lodging, meals and study materials.
They do work hard, sessions run day and evening, but the learning usually take place in a scenic spot, such as the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. This is Colorado, after all, and the training doubles as a professional retreat.

”We’re asking them to give up their time and get away to a place where they can recharge,” said Denahy.  “Having a great atmosphere and a great view helps.”

Tanya Mote is a facilitator at the Change Leader Institute. She was a member of the institute's first class in 2014. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

The training covers a lot of ground. But what participants talk about most is gaining listening skills. Leaders can’t just charge through and expect to accomplish things. They have to win over partners if they want financial and social support for their endeavors.  

“Some of that is really about developing empathy for the people around you and understanding what other people go through in resisting change,” said Tanya Mote, associate director of Denver’s Su Teatro and a second facilitator.  Charles Leslie, who manages the Community Concert Hall at Fort Lewis College in Durango, completes the team.

So, it’s not about saying: “I want this.” It’s about saying “What do we all want” and how can my project help everyone succeed. While taking charge may be natural for some, building coalitions is often a learned skill.

Use what you know

To make the training practical, program participants follow up the on-site workshops by completing a project back in their home cities or towns. The goal is to use the new skills immediately while the learning is fresh.

Change Leaders come up with variety of projects, big and small, and filling an existing need.  

One example, is from Justin Garoutte, who came to the Change Leader program from Antonito, population 800, where he was raised and started his career working as a leader of non-profit organization focused on social justice and environmental issues.

His project was to restore a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe painted on the wall of a local business by the artist Fred Haberlein, who was one of Colorado’s most prolific and respected muralists. The painting was an icon of the community for years. As a child, Garoutte remembers “walking by it with my mom on the way to her beauty salon."

But it had fallen into disrepair, and was emerging as a symbol of decline in a town where Catholic traditions remain very strong. “Having grown up in that tradition, I knew how important it was to fix that,” he said.

CCI gives each change leader a $500 stipend toward their project. Garoutte combined that with other community resources in his work. He encountered some difficulties along the way, starting with the fact that the present building owner really didn’t want the mural on the property anymore.

Garoutte said his newly learned training was useful. “Number one was engaging in conversation and listening. I know I could have gotten defensive and gotten into arguments.”

Ann Lukacs, who lives and works in Fairplay, attended the institute in 2017.

Instead, he said it was about “trying not to judge, just being open to how I navigate this.”

That meant finding a new local business willing to offer up a wall and bringing Haberlein in to recreate his work. It all came together in away that mattered, to the town and to the legacy of a local artist, who died soon after. “It was the last mural Fred did before he passed,” said Garoutte.

Layers of networks

The projects are meant to help change leaders in the short term but the institute has its eye on the big picture, as well. The program aims to keep its students connected, and part of that can include serving as ambassadors of sorts for CCI in their regions.

More importantly, the Change Leaders build a network, both from their original three-day workshop and through follow-up meetings. Change Leaders are invited to convene each year around the annual state-wide gathering of creative workers known as the CCI Summit.

“The most satisfying part of this is that people do click with each other and they build relationships that grow over time,” said Mote.

Foo, for one, said that’s been the most valuable thing about the program, which he went through in 2016. “Anyone who lives in Colorado, I’m still connected to.”

Pamela Denahy attended the program's first class in 2014. This public art piece was her final project. Photo from Pamela Denahy.

Foo employed his learning to help accomplish his certification project, creating an accessible recording studio in Denver, called the Podspace. The studio specialized in helping folks learn  recording skills and worked at a fast and furious pace, engineering the creation of more than 600 podcasts before it closed earlier this year.

It’s part of Foo’s larger professional body of work that has expanded to include art consulting and event hosting; running We Are Denver, a podcasting and art collective with a mission of “helping to define Denver from within;” and operating Brethren Space, a social circle for “men who’ve made decisions their not happy with.”

“It’s about the slow breakdown of toxic masculinity,” said Foo, who is also marking the 10th anniversary this year of the Black Actors Guild.

Other program alumni have gone on to join — or create — organizations that advise on community, environmental, higher education and economic development policy. One graduate made a film about their town, another started an “art pantry,” which provides supplies to 5,000 people in rural communities. Change Leaders have reported scoring jobs higher up the ladder of their organizations and have created organizations connecting artists across disciplines. Many advocate routinely for pro-creative government action.

Hockenbery, who did the training in 2014, went back to her town and turned her old church into a community art space for a few years. More lasting, has been her public service. She ran successfully for the board of trustees and currently serves as Hotchkiss’ Mayor Pro-Tem.

Ryan Foo came to the program after several years running Denver's Black Actors Guild. Photo from Ryan Foo.

She said the leadership skills she learned have been with her constantly, helping her move through successes and failures. “I’ve made mistakes,” she said. “But part of what you learn in the training is to embrace mistakes and say that they’re fine, too.”

She describes herself as going from a timid person to a leader who is now comfortable in any situation, and she credits much of that evolution to those three days at the institute and to the support she gets from her Change Leader network.

“You need mentors from outside of the community when you’re from a town of 982 people,” she said.

As for Lukacs, she did a little network building separate from the Change Leader program, which she completed in 2017. She used her $500 to defray costs of creating the Park County Creative Alliance.

The Alliance has an ambitious goal of uniting all types of folks  across the rural county  — a large swath of land that stretches 21 miles, about the size of the state of Delaware.

She continues to scout locations for car commercials and independent movies, and to run her FairPlay art enterprise, the Bucking Horse Gallery, but she also helps organize the alliance’s efforts to make doing creative business easier, and more visible in the region.

One example: the alliance is working with a newly opened local branch of the Colorado Small Business Development Center Network to develop seminars and classes that can be effective to creative businesses in places apart from large urban centers. Through all of it, she said, the Change Leader program has been a reliable resource.
 
“It’s not only the educational factor of it, there’s this community that also gets built with each class,” she said. “There’s a mini-entrepreneurial group that gets formed as well.”

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Change Leader Q&A:
Mary Hockenbery, Hotchkiss

What were you doing in Hotchkiss before you explored the idea of the Change Leader Institute, other than volunteering in the community.

In 2013, I bought an old church. I was interested in economic development as a citizen, but I didn’t understand what that was then.

So why the institute?
When I saw this program, I knew it was good fit for me to be able to get outside mentoring and grounding in what I wanted to do in my community.

You have said the Change Leader Institute training has helped you through both ups and downs.
I’ve made mistakes. But part of what you learn in the training is to embrace mistakes and to say that they’re fine, too.”

Do you stay in touch with the other people who were in your training?
We’re totally a network — on up to the director of Colorado Creative Industries and that’s huge for me.






 
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