LEAF’s Jennifer Pickering on the New World, The Power of Art, and What it Really Means to be White.

by Jefferson Ellison for JAWBREAKING.xyz

LEAF Global Arts is a 25-year organization that spans across ten countries and touches thousands of children every year. Known for its iconic LEAF Festival, the arts non-profit has spent 2020 pivoting to a new business model and walking in a new spirit of collaboration and purpose. Having known Jennifer Pickering for the majority of my life, I found this conversation to be re-affirming. She has always been a creative world of the world who saw the best in people and felt passionate about bringing music, art, and culture to as many people as possible. As we all re-imagine who we can and should be in the face of racial injustice and COVID-19, this conversation is one of the most authentic in the series. Jennifer and her LEAF Global Arts team are tending to a new business venture, missing their greatest revenue stream and actively seeking to grow in their allyship of Black people in this city and this country. From the conversation, you’ll learn 3 things: Times are changing, LEAF is adjusting and Jennifer is taking it all in stride.

LEAF has existed for 25 years, what do you wish you knew then that you know now? DATA DATA DATA! How to keep track of it and how to create a better business plan with diversified resources not dependent on things outside of our control.

How has the pandemic challenge or restructured your organization? It has been brutal. LEAF has always been dependent on event revenue and connections, and has run on such a tight budget with extreme creative resourcing. Over 15 years ago we recognized the fragility of events and weather, and intentionally created a “Rainy Day Fund” with 6 months operations (at that time). This fund was activated for the first time in December 2019, LEAF Global opened Valentines Day 2020, and COVID changed the world starting March 15th. Needless to say, our understanding of a “rainy day” has changed. We are grateful for an extraordinary 25 years of connecting people to the world and each other through music and festivals. We recognize we have such a unique formula of creating cultural connections and curiosity and that the world right now is ready for LEAF’s work to deepen as we work towards a thriving global community.

You used to work as a photographer. What attracted you to the medium? In 1988, they used to sell $1400 (yep that was the cost) plane tickets that were good for a year and you could backpack around the world for ~$5 a day. In Hong Kong, I bought my first camera and it changed how I saw everything -light, shapes, colors, people, places. And with t camera I could step into almost anywhere in the world with a reason to be there, meld into the wordwork and watch life and cultural traditions unfold in powerful ways.

What is your favorite memory at the LEAF Festival? My favorite moments were watching LEAF International youth and Culture Keepers have 1st time leaving their village/country transformational life experiences at LEAF- the kids from Haiti opening for Bootsy Collins to a packed crowd with a standing ovation then Peppermint Patti and Bootsy inducted them as Bootsy Girls into the Bootsy Collins Foundation. Watching the four young men from Rwanda reconnect at LEAF from across the world after having survived the streets and becoming world class performers through their LEAF International program and so overcoming so many life obstacles together- all of us. LEAF has created platforms for people of all ages to learn and share their cultures in ways that have let them know THEIR CULTURE is BEAUTIFUL and valued.

How do you all choose which country should get a LEAF international program? Organic connections and conversations that stem from the question that started it all “How many kids on the island are learning about their own traditions?” If the answer could be higher, then we have room to work.

If you could have any musicians – dead or alive – perform at LEAF Festival, who would it be? Nina Simone!!!!!!

If you didn’t live in Asheville, where would you live? In the USA? New Orleans.Out of the country? Not sure. I have been looking for that place all my life that resonates with my soul and I can make a living – must be a place that has water, preferably speaks spanish and I can dance!

What has been your experience bringing people from different cultures together? This is where the magic of life happens especially when 3 different cultures are in the exchange. Are we most similar or do different cultures add barriers? The barriers usually drop within 24 hours max – once the drums start to roll or a dance begins, a new common language takes the lead. We have brought together so many people from very different countries – it is ALWAYS magic!

If you could describe yourself in one song, what would it be? “Here Comes the Sun” by Nina Simone, “Over The Rainbow & What A Wonderful World” by Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

As someone who works with a lot of black and brown American youth and also a lot of international people, how has this moment challenged your understanding of whiteness, blackness, and your place in the movement? This moment brings to light so clearly the depth of the systematic racism that exists in our society, and the fear that people have had to be able to stand up and say “Black Lives Matter”. For so many, being able to say this powerful statement and hear it resounded across the world feels both freeing and exhausting to embrace that depth of realities that this fight is ongoing and happening in our “modern world”. The dominance of the white culture and access is so beyond what I imagined. Especially in this year, co-parenting a black daughter and having a black family has been an extraordinary gift of wisdom, love, humor and insight on all levels. Watching her find her voice through the movement is both invigorating and so disheartening to know what forces of history she is walking against still……Giving “the talk” about when you are stopped by the cops is one of the deepest moments of recognizing that EVERYONE has the RIGHT TO FEEL SAFE. Now I find my best role and place in the movement in new ways that make space for others to walk with me and in front of me or without me at all. I watch the young leaders of the movement and I am inspired and in awe by their grace, clarity, and ability. The future is in good hands and I am grateful to be able to support where and how needed.

Equity is a core value of your non-profit. What has your equity journey been like? Every day I learn more! It has been a roller coaster of continual learning, shocking discoveries, and acceptance that I am white and that has come with tremendous privilege that many people had stolen in previous generations. I have been able to step into places with a sense of safety and confidence often due to my whiteness. When we first intentionally started our Equity Journey at LEAF over 6 years ago prompted by Katie Christie, members of our community, Tamiko and Ashley, told me it would be a long, tough and never ending journey. I was so in the white mindset of “making things happen” and solving “opportunities” that I couldn’t imagine. In addition, because of my own life experiences I did feel I may have “a pass” , and then you layer all those experiences with “imagine if you had been Black”. At first it was so interesting in learning, then it became horrifying that I had expensive college degrees yet only had learned from a white version of history, then I learned to shut up for a few years. Now, I find a new voice and try to stay curious and always learning. So many facts in history such as the Flexner Report and Urbanization and The GI Bill and the list goes on that solidified and built systems of inequalities that show up so prevalent today from heritage health to home ownership. It has been very interesting putting a global lens on the equity conversation, and yet recognizing that the history and experience in this country requires its own lens. I have always had a naturally optimistic view and trust of humans….a journey in exploring equity certainly challenges those beliefs.

What is your vision of LEAF in 5 years? I envision LEAF, led by leaders from different cultures, creating global exchanges and experiences that allow our local youth to travel and connect with others who look like them across the world so that they feel they are valued in the world – this big beautiful world with opportunities for them to create and thrive. In exchange, artists and youth from around the world are come and gather with us on The Block and connect in ways that create and propel movements to revive and preserve their unique cultural traditions, reconnect to roots and broken links, and find new ways of expressing themselves in the music and arts that connects them to who they are and where they come from in the world.

Mayani is a Maasai boy from longido Arusha. He went to boarding school at 6 years old and lost his Maasai language and tradition. Since joining the LEAF program, he has learned to sing Maasai songs, practiced the ‘jump’ tradition and wear Maasai shukas (traditional clothing). Mayani is extremely happy and is currently teaching other youth the culture.