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Life & Arts

'So Out Of Our Control': Austin Nonprofit Furloughs Staff, Hopes To Rebound After COVID-19 Pandemic

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Courtesy of Creative Action
Creative Action brings interactive theater and other arts programs to children during and after school. In 2016-2017, almost 10,000 students participated in programming at 38 campuses.

On March 13, Central Texans woke up to the news of the first local confirmed cases of COVID-19. Schools closed. UT Austin shut down. That launched a stretch of tough times for the local economy as many operations either slowed or stopped completely.

No school means no programs for Creative Action, an Austin-based arts education organization. And that means no income and no need for most staff.

The nonprofit uses arts as a vehicle for personal development and social change. It employs about 120 artists part-time as teachers.

This is "probably the most stressful thing we've ever had to really maneuver," Executive Director Karen LaShelle says.

Read the transcript below and listen to the interview to hear how she is trying to stay connected with staff while working from home, being with her family and planning for a future that is far from clear.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity.

Creative Action Executive Director Karen LaShelle: Pretty much the second that AISD [Austin Independent School District] was shut down, we just pretty much had to close down every single one of our programs at that moment because all of our places to do those programs were no longer available to us.

As an organization, we felt really committed to our part time staff. They are paid on an hourly basis. They don't normally get paid if a program doesn't happen. But we felt like, given what was going on, we wanted to commit to them.

So for three weeks we continued to compensate that staff, even though they really weren't able to provide any programing. And that was also just to give us some time to figure out what do we do here, what's happening – just kind of like along with the whole world trying to figure out what's next.  

KUT: What did you decide when it came to make the decision of what's next?  

LaShelle: With the closure of our programs, we lost a considerable amount of income for really from now and for sure to the end of the school year – and now, we're even trying to really understand if maybe even until the end of the summer. And so we went through all sorts of different scenarios of – what do we do in a crisis like this?

And thankfully, when the stimulus bill passed, it included provisions for part-time hourly – gig economy workers to be able to access pretty robust unemployment benefits. So at that time, once we realized that that was a real option and also an option for many of our full-time staff who are also doing programing, we decided that that was the best thing for us to do at this time so that we could shore up Creative Action and be ready when schools do open.  

KUT: Is this a situation that you had ever talked about or anticipated? When something of this magnitude happens and things just kind of grind to a halt?  

LaShelle:  I mean, to be honest with you, not really. And I guess I feel a little silly about that now. But no, I don't think it ever really occurred to us that this kind of closure could happen because of something that's so out of our control. We do have a reserve fund. We have some different things in place, but they're not at the magnitude of what you would need to really withstand having absolutely no programing for at a minimum, probably two months. 

KUT: What does it feel like to have a situation that's happened to you and your organization but that you don't have any real control over?  

LaShelle: Quite honestly, I've been in my job now for almost 17 years, and this is probably the most stressful thing we've ever had to really maneuver. We've certainly had other challenges in the past. But it's very scary and very stressful.

And I think the biggest thing that's been difficult is trying to figure out how to make our staff feel OK. Make sure that they know we're doing everything that we can to really protect them and take care of them, but not really having a lot of clear answers because we don't really know how this is all going to play out and when it's going to end.

KUT: What have you heard from program participants about what it's like for them not to have Creative Action programs to be able to participate in right now?  

LaShelle: We've definitely heard from a lot of parents in our elementary program that their kids are just really, really missing the teaching artists. They're really missing the program and missing their friends. A lot of our teen participants - we have been able to be in better touch with because they have the technology and it's a smaller program.

So we've been doing Zoom calls with the teens. And I think especially for a lot of our students who are seniors, it's particularly difficult because they're missing out on their final projects, all these final moments that were supposed to be the highlight of their year. So I think there's a lot of sadness and a lot of boredom and missing each other.  

KUT: How long can Creative Action continue without programs, without participants and without teachers?

LaShelle: What we do is a hands-on – engaging people. And if we literally cannot do that – I think if we start to have a better sense that this is going to go on and on and on, I think like many others, we can look at ways that we can really use technology as a strategy to keep up connections and keep some learning going on.

But, I'll be honest, I don't know. It's certainly not going to be at the same scale and it's certainly not going to be at the same level of quality because it's just not quite the same as engaging people through the arts right there in a room with them.

But it's something that we will look to doing more of if it really does look like by sometime in the summer or by the time the fall school semester starts that we can't be back in schools or in communities.

KUT: Is there anything that has happened that's been a source of a surprise or something positive that has happened in the past couple of weeks while all of this has been going on?

LaShelle: I think the things I've been hearing are – one, we have been trying to really stay in touch with our staff through Zoom and technology, and we hosted a movie night and trying to do some different things so that people can maintain relationships at a staff level. And I think that that's been joyful.

And I know that I can, speaking for myself and a few other folks who work here, as extremely difficult as it is, having our own children at home - some joy out of having that more time with your kids and getting to really see them. But most of all, for me it’s mostly just really stressful.  

KUT: What have you done to try to alleviate some of that stress?

LaShelle: I've been finding, from a personal level, a lot of joy of just trying to be in nature and take my kids out and to go into creeks and explore and go on bike rides. And that's certainly been nice. And also just to connect with neighbors from a distance.

But I haven't really been able to have a whole lot of time to do much to alleviate stress just yet. I'm kind of hopeful that when we get through a lot of the logistics of what we're managing right now, with all the staff changes after that, that I'll have a little bit of time to try to take a deep breath.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton

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