For two years, Allison Kennedy has been the executive director of Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative, a Kalamazoo youth space in the Edison neighborhood for creating art and promoting social justice, and in those two years, the 25-year-old says, she has “grown so, so much, both personally and professionally.”
But the lessons aren’t over. Kennedy says her biggest challenge is being seen “as a young person to adults and as an adult to young people.”
“When I first took this job, I felt unprepared and unqualified and that wasn’t really a great way to move an organization,” Kennedy says. “I’m told by grant officers and foundations that I am the youngest executive director they know. I felt like I constantly had to prove myself. I had to let go of that and realize that I am only accountable to these young people and the board of directors that love and support our mission.
“They don’t tell you that about professional life, that when you pick a job that you care so much about it’s going to be really hard not to take things personally. But it’s also really great because you grow a lot. I feel like I love myself a lot more and that’s a big thing.”
How did you become connected to Fire?
I went to Kalamazoo College and when you come to Kalamazoo and ask, “Where do I go for spoken-word slam poetry?” everyone directs you to Fire. As a student, I would walk here for the First Friday Open Mics. Then for a period of time through a service-learning project at K, I did writing workshops with people in probation and parolee facilities and we would get to bring them here for open-mic nights.
When the executive director’s job came open, someone on the board suggested I apply. It was basically a job description that said, “Hey, do everything.” I didn’t think I was qualified; I was 22 and was like, “Are you serious?” But I applied and there was an interview process and, yep, a few weeks later I got this large, beautiful position as the executive director of Fire.
What does Fire do?
It is a youth-driven space for art and justice. We have a teen advisory council that is part of the decision-making body at Fire that decides what programs we do, designs their own programs and makes pretty key decisions like “What’s this lock-in going to look like and why?”
We have workshops where youth will come in and create and make something so that these youth see themselves as artists and not as in an after-school program. It’s a workshop space. We also do lock-ins and retreats and, while they are the most expensive programs to do with youth because of the cost to supervise, staff them, keep the youth safe and have food, our youth grow so much at these events.
We also do the Kalamazoo Youth Poetry Slam each year, where youth compete in front of five judges, with formal scoring. It’s the only youth poetry slam in Kalamazoo that follows national best practices and really preserves the slam culture.
Why did you want to head Fire?
I grew up in Ann Arbor and was part of this amazing teen space called the Neutral Zone and having a space to consistently share stories has been a really healthy thing in my life. That’s what Fire was when I came here and so I wanted to join that space.
I also had a lot of big questions on my plate at the time. I was working in grassroots politics and community organizing and didn’t really know where I fit in as an artist. I came into this work with that question: How do those two things that I really want — artistry and a more just world — sew in together?
You mentioned you’ve grown a lot in this role. What’s changed for you?
I’ve gotten real comfortable being Sassy Nonprofit Nancy. That’s what I call her (she laughs). I have these sassy director moments, saying things like, “Before you complain, have you volunteered yet?”
What gives you the most joy?
The deep authenticity of this space and the young people that come here. They are so, so themselves.
I really enjoy what I call the “lingering after workshop moments.” A young person will tell their parents to pick them up late and then they’ll just kind of hang around and just start talking to me. I love those moments because sometimes they are saying something about themselves for the first time and they are starting to realize how much the world loves them and how much they love themselves.