In 2013, three friends—Kate Johnston, Sarah Williams, and Katie Bachler—decided to throw a dinner party in the desert. They invited 60 friends to meet, eat, drink, and converse against a backdrop of the nearby Joshua Tree National Park. They rented banquet tables and put out place settings. For the next in the series, A Women’s Dinner in the City, Johnston created an invitation that grew to be the size of a booklet, though aesthetically it was really more of a zine. It included hand-made name tags and a directory of everyone who would be present at the dinner, along with their responses to pre-sent questions and everyone’s contact information. Self-directed car-pooling was encouraged.
“I was calling them generative documents,” says Johnston, a graphic designer by training. “We wanted them to generate this kind of shared intention that they’d bring to the event.”
More than three years later, and those initial women’s dinners have morphed into the official Women’s Center for Creative Work, a nonprofit and shared space in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Frogtown with a mission of cultivating “LA’s feminist creative communities and practices.” The WCCW puts on programming and workshops, assists in artistic and professional development, hosts artists’ residences, and advocates for feminist-led projects and businesses in the city. It also advocates for a “radically expansive understanding” of both feminism and creative practice, collectivity and ownership. Anchoring that radical, idealistic mission is a real, concrete dedication to and understanding of that less-glamorous side of grassroots organizing: systems, processes, planning and logistics.
It’s the kind of innate sense of order and practicality that might drive someone to, say, turn a party invite into a rolodex of potential collaborators. Or self-publish a publication called A Feminist Organization’s Handbook that details the WCCW’s administrative protocols, breaks down its funding structure, includes flowcharts of its internal operations, and offers exercises for readers eager to do the same. Any sort of activist group, cooperative, or community effort bent on dismantling existing systems better have set up a few of their own. Organizing for social action needs both visionaries and those with solid organizational tactics; the practical doers and the idealistic thinkers. And, ideally, people who are both.
“That really speaks to our backgrounds: I’m a graphic designer and Sarah is an arts administrator who has worked for a long time at another nonprofit arts organization in Los Angeles,” says Johnston (Bachler moved to the East Coast shortly after the first dinner). When the two decided to expand the dinner in the desert with Women’s Dinner in the City—held at a site just across from the 1970s feminist landmark Woman’s Building—Johnston gave them a very official and bureaucratic-sounding name, mainly because the return envelope for the aforementioned invitations needed a return address. It also alluded to the historical trajectory of socially minded and feminist advocacy organizations, bureaucratic and otherwise. “While I was in school I got really interested in the idea of social practice and the transformative power of the party,” she says, noting that there’s a long artistic and activist tradition of hosting shared meals that lead to strategy sessions and coalition-building. Shared meals show up in Mary Beth Edelson’s Last Supper, in which collaged women’s heads on the famed Da Vinci painting, and of course in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party. The artist Gordon Matta-Clarke’s SoHo restaurant in the 1970s treated cooking as a kind of performance, and as the handbook points out, second wave feminists loved a potluck.
Yet as lively and fruitful as those events can be, it takes a lot of work put one on. Johnston and Williams will be the first to tell you that, and also to own up to sort of loving it—building systems, charting out workflow, budgeting time and money. After throwing the dinners and before officially opening the Women’s Center, Johnston and Williams underwent an entire year of research, which they took to calling the Year Long Laboratory (“I really like naming things,” notes Johnston). They divided that year into quarters, which they used to investigate, respectively, “histories, economies, communities, and space.”
At the end of their “space” quarter, they received a grant from SPart, which they used for a down payment on the space that the center still occupies. Now the organization is funded by combination of membership fees, foundation grants, individual giving and a smattering of other small proceeds, all of which you can see laid out in a pie chart in A Feminist Organization’s Handbook. A series of infographics also within the publication’s pages show their system for running the fall benefit and the timeline for the membership drive. Their internal operations are depicted by a diagram of concentric circles.
And in the back of the book is a flow chart that shows the board of advisors, and the various managers, directors, and coordinators. The Women’s Center’s operations are non-hierarchical, which in theory means the center operates on a system of shared production, and values horizontalism over top-down leadership. In practice, that takes a shit ton of logistical know-how; it’s much easier to have one person calling the shots than to collectively make sure everyone has an equal voice, and to put into place a system that values and maintains that communalism. The Women’s Center has arrived at a successful model over years of tweaking and iterating, and paying incredibly close attention to their own shared processes and systems.
As a graphic designer, Johnston has put a lot of time into making these systems and efforts visible—and the handbook gives others access to what they’ve learned so far.
Johnston points out that although the center is a haven for feminist art, she and Williams are not fine artists themselves. Their success comes from being able to think systematically. “In her previous experience in art administration, [Sarah] has a deft of experience stacking chairs and buying beer for openings and knowing all of these little invisible things that go into creating something,” she says. “And also of course design is the same way. Behind a great looking website is hours of process and iteration and back and forth and trying to find the right solutions.
“I think we both have backgrounds in these fields of invisible labor.” The handbook is their attempt to make that labor not only visible, but also valued.