Make sure that someone isn’t already doing the work. Duplicating existing work can undermine or create competition for resources directed towards an effort. If there is an organization who is doing similar work, you might consider aligning yourself with them by joining their efforts. Otherwise, find your own unique approach to solving the problem that they’re also working to address.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Simon Tam of The Slants Foundation.
Simon may best be known for winning a landmark case in 2017 that helped expand civil liberties for minorities, unanimously, at the Supreme Court of the United States (Matal v. Tam). He is the founder and bassist of The Slants, one of the first all-Asian American dance rock bands in the world, and also leads The Slants Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides resources and mentorship for artists that incorporate activism into their work.
As a speaker, Tam has appeared at thousands of events across four continents, and is a regular at key industry events such as TEDx, SXSW, and INTA. Each year he speaks to Fortune 500 companies, universities, and many of the world’s top leaders in law, entertainment, and education. He has consulted world leaders and major organizations on policies related to equity, diversity, and inclusion. In 2016, Simon joined President Barack Obama, George Takei, Jeremy Lin, and other celebrities in the #ActToChange campaign to fight bullying.
Simon’s work has been highlighted in media features around the world, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Rolling Stone, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He has earned many accolades for his work, including: The Mark T. Banner award from the American Bar Association, the Hugh M Hefner First Amendment Award, Milestone Case of the Year from Managing IP Magazine, the Ovation Lifetime Achievement Award, and the Distinguished Alum Award from Marylhurst University.
In 2019, he published his memoir, “Slanted: How an Asian American Troublemaker Took on the Supreme Court.” It was named One of the Best Books on the Constitution of All Time by BookAuthority and won an award for Best Autobiography/Memoir from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.
Simon Tam continues to fight for justice by serving on multiple nonprofit boards, developing innovative solutions to social problems, and sharing a message of radical optimism.
The Slants are the first and only all-Asian American dance rock band in the world. They’ve been featured on/in Conan O’Brien’s Team Coco, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, SPIN, and thousands of radio and tv stations around the world, but they’re perhaps best known for winning a landmark case against the government in the Supreme Court of the United States. Since retiring from live performances in 2019, the band has dedicated their platform and resources to supporting Asian American artists engaged in activism through their non-profit organization, The Slants Foundation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?
Most people know me as “the guy who went to the Supreme Court” or a “troublemaker,” but I really see myself as someone who enjoys getting others to see the bigger picture, especially because that diversity of perspective is what enables progress. As a musician, I strongly believe that culture plays a large role in social change. I first started playing bass guitar at ten years old, and from the first moment I picked the instrument up, I knew that it would be a part of my life forever. When I started performing my own original songs, that’s when I truly appreciated the power of art.
If I was a superhero and had some kind of origin story, it wouldn’t involve a radioactive spider or mutated genes, it would be the process of learning expression through art. Creating art not only tests the depth of an idea (especially when trying to combine poetry with melody), but often has us exploring many perspectives and possibilities to see how the final work can be realized. That, in a nutshell, is the work of activists as well as that of nonprofits.
Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your non nonprofit?
Prior to starting The Slants Foundation, I was thinking about some of the frustrations with the nonprofit world that I experienced as an artist of color. For example, many arts foundations speak of being inclusive but still heavily make decisions based on existing relationships, name recognition, or the pedigree of the artist — criteria that usually tip heavily in favor of dominant majorities who have resources. It’s often unintentional, systemic biases that reinforce inequality and some of those processes were blind to those with decision making power. In addition, arts grants often put heavy burdens (like excessive reporting and grant deliverables) upon recipients, which actually take away from the craft instead of empowering artists to do their best work. I knew that something needed to change.
Most of my career was spent as a professional touring musician and working with nonprofits, so I had the kind of direct experience that many folks lack on the opposite side of the table. I also spent a considerable amount of time developing resources for musicians. For example, I wrote two books, authored over 3,000 articles, and published nearly 400 podcast episodes, all to help my fellow creatives how to scale their careers. In addition, I delivered workshops at events like SXSW, MusicFestNW, TEDx, and DIY Musician Con. Rather than being burnt out, I was hungry for more! I had a passion for working with aspiring musicians, especially those who face institutionalized obstacles based on racial discrmination that many are blind to. With The Slants Foundation, we’ve been able to help reshape how artists interact with the industry as well as how nonprofits serve people of color.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
Compared to most arts nonprofits, The Slants Foundation is quite young. However, I think that’s also our strength because we’re not inhibited by traditional structures or limitations. As such, we’re looking to make a social impact through unique endeavors that others aren’t even trying. For example, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we experienced a huge rise in anti-Asian racism. And, while the economy was crashing, we saw a disparate impact on artists, especially performers — so we decided to address both epidemics by funding artists who had creative projects that spoke to issues of hate using art that sparked empathy and conversation. When you magnify this kind of mindset, you’ll see a touch of it in everything that we do: rather than duplicating the work of established foundations, we ask: how can we meet artists where they are while creating social change? It’s really allowed us to launch all kinds of innovation in the nonprofit and art world.
Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
Through a partnership with a music distribution company called CD Baby, we launched a music career development program for independent artists. For six months, I coached three artists by meeting with them every other week to focus on goals, strategy, and tactics. Of course, when we launched the program, we had no idea how much the industry would be disrupted by a global pandemic. However, we used that as an opportunity for the artists to develop some core assets that are often ignored like their website, more rigor in the creative process, and developing business opportunities. Each of the artists were able to double their following — one of them even saw over 500% growth in their fanbase. And, several of them also received major music endorsement deals. The results surpassed anything that any of us imagined possible, especially during one of the toughest years that humanity has had to face.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The first thing that society can do to help foster social change through the arts is to embrace a mind-shift when it comes to our relationship with artists. Too often, people see support of the arts in one of two ways: either it involves personal gain — they are seeking to be entertained or perhaps want to collect/own something — or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, they believe it is an act of generosity (perhaps supporting someone through crowdfunding). There’s nothing inherently wrong with either-we need people to purchase art and generosity is an act of kindness-but as a society, we need a third way: to see appreciation and support of the arts as an act of justice. This would mean valuing the arts and humanities as much as we do STEM programs, it would even mean that our country would elevate the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture to a cabinet-level position, since it fundamentally shapes quality of life.
As a community, I believe that local organizations should be more intentional about working with artists to advance their work. Creativity isn’t extracurricular. It is a fundamental quality that allows students and citizens to excel in their pursuits, whatever they might be. It is also contagious and appreciation of it helps local economies thrive. For example, businesses can feature local art (either visual or performing), organizations can work with artists for employee retention and training programs, and worship centers can open their doors during the week in between services as galleries. There are many ways to incorporate art into our communities, but whatever we do, it should begin by working directly with the people in our own backyards. Not only would this help build an ecosystem that helps bring more resources to artists, but it would also allow the community to leverage that storytelling and culture-shifting power to advocate for change in their areas. And, you could also imagine what it would do for the local economy in terms of tourism, festivals/events, art sister city programs, and more.
Finally, individuals should consider supporting the organizations already doing this kind of innovative work. Most nonprofits are desperate for funding because that is what allows programs to grow. I don’t think people realize how a regular gift of 5 dollars a month can be transformative when it comes to creating social change. Just a small handful of people can launch an entirely new program. And if you were to multiply that effect to a neighborhood, some serious work could be done.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
These days, I believe that leadership is shaped by radical optimism. More than skill or position, leaders need to have a big picture vision that can drive a team. That’s because optimists inherently see possibility whereas pessimists inherently see obstacles. No one wants to follow a path that is littered with roadblocks; they need to see the larger vision of what their efforts, resources, and investment can lead to. Also, leaders need to have a calling, a real passion for the work that they do, in order to be sustained. That’s because those who are driven by love can overcome obstacles that those driven solely by fear or anger can never do.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a non profit”. Please share a story or example for each.
Here are 5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit:
1) Make sure that someone isn’t already doing the work. Duplicating existing work can undermine or create competition for resources directed towards an effort. If there is an organization who is doing similar work, you might consider aligning yourself with them by joining their efforts. Otherwise, find your own unique approach to solving the problem that they’re also working to address.
2) You might end up spending more time managing your board of directors than you could ever imagine. All nonprofits are required to have a board of directors that meet regularly to manage the organization. It’s highly likely that in the initial phases of the nonprofit, the board will also be your key volunteers and fundraisers. As such, board management is essential and you need to create realistic expectations for this process, since board members still have to manage other aspects of their life (career, family), and will probably not prioritize the nonprofit as much as you do. This often means repeatedly following up with members to vote on an issue, to solicit their feedback on projects, and holding them accountable for the work that they’ve committed to. Board members aren’t guided by a paycheck so you’ll have to demonstrate real leadership and commitment to get the work done.
3) If you’re just starting the nonprofit, you can complete an IRS form 1023-EZ instead of a standard 1023 form. It’s much shorter and processes more quickly. Eventually, you’ll need to switch in order to provide more comprehensive reporting metrics, but it’s a way to get started, especially if you have fairly limited resources (under 50,000 dollars per year for the first three years). You could also work with an existing nonprofit organization and request that they be your fiscal sponsor. In that instance, they could receive tax-deductible donations and grants on your behalf while you do the work. There’s usually a small administrative fee for this (standard is 10%) and it would allow you to receive grants that are normally required for 501c(3) organizations. This could also be a way to test your ideas or for smaller scale/short-term projects instead of building an entire board and working with the IRS directly.
4) Even if you started the organization, it isn’t yours. Once you form a board of directors, management of the organization is under the control of that board. The board might vote to remove you or take things in a direction that you disagree with. This is for accountability, because board members commit to the larger mission of the organization, not necessarily to the founder. This means that you need to ensure all of your efforts are in service of the nonprofit’s mission and values, but it also might mean that how those values are expressed may differ, so you need to carefully recruit and communicate with board members to ensure that everyone is on the same page. This also means that you should plan an exit strategy for yourself as well: how can you build an organization in a way that it isn’t dependent on its founder and so that it can continue to thrive?
5) Finally, if you’re planning to start a nonprofit organization, you should know that it is far more rewarding than you could ever imagine. Yes, it is challenging and there will be immense frustration at times. However, when you see how the work can impact others and a vision is realized, it provides a satisfaction that simply can’t be compared. Focus on the community that you serve, no matter what.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I’ve been in awe of the work of Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. His ideas of creating social change have been highly influential and I appreciate how he integrates equity throughout his approach.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is one that Martin Luther King, Jr. often stated: “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” I think about this statement nearly everyday. And, I think about how the moral arc doesn’t bend on its own. It requires patience, persistence, and people willing to do the work. It reminds me to roll up my sleeves daily, no matter how I might feel, and to do that work. Before going to sleep each night I ask myself, “What did I do to help bend the arc today?” and “How can I do more tomorrow?”
How can our readers follow you online?
Please follow the work of The Slants Foundation at www.theslants.org and @theslantsfound on social media. I write articles regularly on my website, www.simontam.org and share content through @simonthetam
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.