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'One Thing After Another': How One Austin Nonprofit Weathered The Pandemic And More

During the pandemic, Creative Action has pivoted to virtual classes and programming. Creative Action Teaching Artist Mr. Freddy is having a virtual creativity lesson with students at Becker Elementary School in Austin.
Creative Action
During the pandemic, Creative Action has pivoted to virtual classes and programming. Mr. Freddy teaches a virtual creativity lesson with students at Becker Elementary School in Austin.

The coronavirus pandemic brought all of Creative Action's classes to a "cold, hard stop."

The Austin-based arts education organization employed about 120 artists as part-time teachers at the time. Executive Director Karen LaShelle called the shutdown "probably the most stressful thing we've ever had to really maneuver."

Like many other businesses, Creative Action moved operations online. LaShelle calls the move "pretty exhausting" because staff "how to function in a completely different manner."

She says the nonprofit compensated for that disruption by incorporating practices like meditation time over Zoom and being "incredibly flexible with people's work-life balance and schedules."

LaShelle says she is well aware Creative Action's employees aren't the only ones who have suffered during the pandemic.

"Honestly," she says, "I think in many ways this has been the hardest on young people."

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below for more on how Creative Action has weathered the pandemic and how LaShelle says the experience may ultimately magnify a sense of gratitude.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Jennifer Stayton: What has it been like for the Creative Action staff to be apart and work virtually during the past year or so?

Karen LaShelle: I think that's been pretty exhausting for all of us. We've had to learn a lot of new ways — how to stay connected, how to communicate — just how to function in a completely different manner. We're a pretty hands-on, tactile group and to all of a sudden be in this new mode has certainly been challenging. And I think just the mental health component of keeping this up is hard on everyone.

Not to mention the fact that over the last year, we've not only been dealing with COVID-19, but we've been dealing with a reckoning around racial justice in our country. We've dealt with a massive winter storm. We've dealt with an insurrection. So it's just kind of felt like one thing after another. And it's required a lot of additional creativity on our part as a business to figure out how to really stay connected to and support the people who work for us as much as we can.

What have you all done to try to stay connected and be there for each other and address issues in that regard?

I think we've tried to have regular sustained contact over virtual platforms as much as possible. We've sent home packages to people. We've tried to do little feel-good things for the staff. Our board [of directors] has provided some comfort and care to our staff. We also have like a meditation time that we do over Zoom. We have other meetings where people can just be connecting to share and to talk. So really just trying to create platforms for people to support one another as much as we possibly can.

We've also been incredibly flexible with people's work-life balance and schedules and really just had to lean into centering the needs of our staff as much as we possibly can.

What has the past year been like for Creative Action financially?

It's been lean. We tried to really just reduce our budget as much as we possibly could without having to cut any people. At the very beginning, we took advantage of the federal unemployment benefits and that first initial stimulus plan to furlough some staff to lighten the load for the first few months. But then when that was over, we brought everybody back on. And then honestly, if it hadn't been for the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans, we would be in trouble. We've been really lucky that we were able to secure two really large PPP loans that have helped sustain our team. We've been able to maintain fundraising. Quite a few of our donors have actually increased their gifts over the last year, knowing that it was really critical at this time to sustain the organization. We are lucky that we do have some reserve funds and we've been able to lean on those as well.

But we typically have a pretty significant amount of earned revenue that we're receiving from schools, from families. And that's been more or less nonexistent for going on 13, 14 months now.

When it's all said and done, we will be fine. We definitely have made it through and will be OK, and I don't think will be really suffering any long-term damage because of the last year.

What are you hearing from students about how their year has been?

I think it's been extremely difficult. I think a lot of young people feel really isolated. They feel really lonely. I think they feel understimulated. I think they feel sick of Zoom. Honestly, I think in many ways this has been the hardest on young people because — especially middle school and high school young people — they're used to being very social and interactive. And I think it's been tremendously hard. And that's especially difficult for older students who might be working toward graduation and all the end-of-the-year activities and all these kinds of things that they haven't been able to do now.

Do you think that the pandemic will have permanently changed Creative Action when all is said and done? Or do you see maybe a year from now that things will look and feel a lot like they did pre-pandemic?

There certainly will be things that we will do differently now. I think that we’ll probably sustain some level of remote work as much as we possibly can because I think that's been a pretty good thing for a lot of people. I think in particular from the new program offerings that emerged, we have a platform now on this global website called Outschool that I believe we’ll sustain so that we can continue to have Creative Action classes for young people all over the world if they'd like to access them. I think we will all probably lean on technology in a different way and in a new way.

And I also think to some extent, we're a pretty grateful bunch and pretty good at being grateful for what we have around us. But I have a feeling that after this experience, and when we all do get to come back together, that we will probably feel even more gratitude for being able to work together in person and be out in the community and serve people in the way that we do through the arts.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton

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Jennifer Stayton is the local host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @jenstayton.
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