A Conversation Between Nicole Kelly and Mandy Harris Williams

This month our new Programming Director Mandy Harris Williams sat down with our previous Programming Director, Nicole Kelly to talk about what brought them to the Women’s Center for Creative Work, how their politics have evolved over the years, and what they’re reading and thinking about right now. 


MHW: So first of all, I want to thank you for sitting down with me, you are one of my favorite friends and colleagues for a long time now. I’m excited to take on the baton. What’s the most unexpected piece of advice you would have for me working at the WCCW?

NK: Of course! I’m excited to see what comes out of your time here, and I hope it’s as nurturing for you creatively as it was for me. 

My advice: Go slow, have fun, be nice. Ask the question: Does this contribute to our goals or does it only align? Experiment. Embrace failure! Have fun!

One of my fave things about WCCW is advocating for the political & cultural value of art and art making, for all kinds of creatives…what’s your favorite thing about art – or artists?

MHW: I don’t know if I’m so good at even being able to identify what art is so I have a pretty broad understanding. I think that for some of us, merely surviving is Art– Fine Art, at that.  There’s stuff in the Met right now that doesn’t move me and never will, as much as seeing kids on my block back in Harlem dressed up for Halloween. I honestly don’t have a ton of regard for Art, because when I hear that word, I think about markets, and exclusion. But “creative work?” It includes artists, but is not limited to those who understand themselves as such, includes people who honor the habit of creativity, but maybe don’t feel they belong in an art world. I think creative work urgent. I don’t know if I have so much of an aesthetic sensibility outside of does it make a statement about humanity and justice, did it capture my senses and look pleasing to me. My favorite thing about creative work, then, would be its ability to change the shape of society and the course of history: potential. 

Ironically ( or not,)  you started with the WCCW as an artist! I recall you having said that your position kind of grew out of a relationship with the WCCW, when you and Phoebe (your collaborator at Bitchface, and now, The Heart) were in residence. Can you tell me a bit more about the start of the PD position?

NK:I joined the WCCW staff in the third year of the organization – Hana & Salima’s positions were created not long before mine. I kind of think of it as WCCW reaching the end of its first phase — my impression of the first 3 years is that they were chaotic (in an exhausting, exciting way), and relied on a lot of volunteer energy to keep the project going and get it off the ground. Programs used to happen almost every night of the week, and they were decided by a volunteer committee & coordinated by Sarah and Em. Most anyone who proposed something got to do it, and I don’t think there was much of a rubric for deciding what those programs would be or what made them successful. That phase is really the origin of some of the things I still think are valuable about programs here — that someone can try something new, with a supportive audience, that there’s still a kind of DIY spirit maintained by the open calls. 

Anyway – by year 3, with a small part time staff & a budget, it was possible to create a Programs Coordinator position (my initial title). The position was announced right as Phoebe, Coco & I were ending our programming residency (at the start of 2017), during which we had advocated for a leadership position for a woman of color. I think the sense of political urgency following the election in 2016 & the feminist discourse happening after the Women’s Marches also pushed WCCW to create the new position. My title changed from Programming Coordinator to Programs Director about a year in, as the role became more curatorial. 

MHW: Oh, I’m giggling because I just changed it again! I felt like I wanted it to sound less like I direct the Programs, and more like I direct the programming… Does that make sense? I can be a bit hyper about diction! I guess I’m still very much impacted by texts like Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed comes to mind, where I’m just so obsessed by how like verbiage affects ownership and consequent role. How would you describe your personal politics? 

NK:I think recently, my personal politics have progressed from a critique of intersecting power structures, to an emphasis on building relationships within (and…outside of) those power structures. I started thinking more seriously about what it meant to build coalitions, what solidarity work looks like, during this brief time when I was organizing programs along those lines with Phoebe & Coco. Now I’m learning to practice principles of transformative justice and non-violent communication. I guess broadly I would say my personal politics are pro Black, pro trans, critical of whiteness, anti-capitalist….

Artistically, I think of the work that I do as transformative media, meaning the narratives I create are meant to shape how people see the world and themselves, they reflect alternative ways of seeing. The idea that imaginative work is political work, and art is a political tool. My best work is propaganda, counter-narrative to the dominant cultural narratives we’re inundated with. 

MHW: Oooohh, I love that kind of work, or rather, I just love the acknowledgement of propaganda in art. We share the “critical of whiteness” personal politics — and it has made me more aware of just how much media is propaganda serving white hegemony. 

NK: I’m familiar with your art practice, the questions and critiques that are central to it, and I’m curious about the day to day politics you hold and how you define them. How & why have your politics evolved over the years? What were some formative lessons or influences?

MHW: Wow! My politics have been all over the place. When I was in 7th grade, I ran for elementary school president as a Republican. I didn’t have a choice, but it was wild because my classmates and I realized then that most of our parents were fiscal conservatives. I guess that’s to say I used to be like Manhattan progressive, or kind of neo-liberal as a kid. I didn’t live in a black neighborhood until I was 11. So I had a lot of really ugly cultural assumptions and stereotypes about black people. I was probably pretty neoliberal in this way, until 11th grade when my teacher Ms. Muniz led a year long James Baldwin course. I received a premier education in NYC, but there is no other classroom wherein I learned more about critical thinking, desire politics, and argumentative writing. 

When I went to Harvard, I think I deepened my identification with blackness, but it was kind of in relief, because having gone to a private NYC high school, I was invited to do a lot of stuff where I was the only dark skinned black woman. So I think through holding, trying to ethically manage, and eventually, abandoning that space, I learned that my best case scenario in a life of trying to ascend to some white professional standard of excellence, as my upbringing had raised me to do, was dealing with racism from people who have the education and flexibility to know better but rarely do better, in exchange for more money (?).  I was appointed to the board of the oldest social club in America, and fought to induct a class that had more minority representation than ever before. Once they were inducted, I felt so badly, because there was so much social incongruity, and frankly, a lack of mutual interest. My strategy was a bit forceful and too optimistic about respectability and integration. That same year, I started studying the mass incarceration crisis, as I rounded out the completion of my degree in the history of the African Diaspora. It was a point of no return when I learned about the cradle to prison pipeline, and specifically, about how prisons use 3rd grade reading scores to project incarceration rates, and build new detention facilities. 

My personal politics, then, are based on questioning the static privilege/disprivilege narratives, deepening and expanding justice and representation by utilizing specific language based in historical facts, saying no, telling the scary truth – I think those are some of the day-to-day practices and behaviors. 

It seems that our politics definitely come to bear in programming work at WCCW. I’m curious how did your work at WCCW support and/or impact your voice, style, workflow, as a Audio Producer/Storyteller/Host?

NK: Hm… I think the relationship between these two things – bitchface and WCCW – became a kind of closed loop. The things I was interested in outside of WCCW seeped into my work here (the Sweaty Concepts quarter is a good example of this), but it worked both ways. Certain programs, certain books, certain vocabulary from WCCW are also referenced and shared in my creative community outside of WCCW. One big overlap is that both bitchface and my role here let me make connections between the work of an artist and a larger cultural conversation or idea, one of my favorite things. 

MHW: And what about your new endeavor?!

NK: Phoebe & I are writing & producing The Heart, a podcast known for personal documentaries, intimate narratives and beautiful sonic universes! Right now we’re making really personal work, but the goal is to be able to produce stories with artists we like & to be editors for radio producers making experimental work. The Heart has always been made by a collective of artists whose primary medium is radio. It’s a very queer show. Ultimately it’s about intimacy and love, in all their iterations and manifestations.

MHW: What are some of the ideas – in general – you’re excited about right now? 

NK: I’m kind of consumed with the ideas behind two stories I’m working on for The Heart. They’re both narratives about things I experienced, but the ideas I’m exploring in one are about the intersections of ableism & anti-Blackness — I started out writing about my own shame, and my anxiety, and the conclusion I reached had to do with the relationship between shame, vulnerability, accountability, and interdependence. A lot of this is informed by writing on disability justice I’ve read in the last year — the work of Mia Mingus & Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha especially. 

The other is about having a crush on someone that I decided not to act on, but I’m using this narrative to explore ideas about desire and what it can teach you about yourself, especially as it relates to gender. (Recently I read: “Desire can be thought of as the tension between who you want to be and who you want to f-ck.”)  I keep finding trans perspectives on desire and wanting that are intriguing me – Andrea Long Chu, for example. 

MHW: Rad, I just picked up Females! I kind of spiralled thinking about Valerie Solanas. I had to put it down for a minute ‘cos I was so unsure of where that detour would leave me. 

I also just finished Algorithms of Oppression by Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble. I am deeply passionate about that work. It gets a bit to your point earlier, about propaganda. People need to stop being so trusting of big tech. The biases in our algorithms are not just inconvenient popularity politics, they are actively reinstantiating hateful narratives and stereotypes. Online platforms have become the top way we search for information and also connect with family and friends – we have to remember that the lens itself is tinted/tainted by the desire to sell user data and advertising space. 

I’m really curious about the intersection between tech and identity, race, marginalized people’s liberation per digital liberation. I think tech, thinking about it and designing it, are huge aspects of creative work today, and even when not squarely engaged with tech, the internet, affects how we do all sorts, but certainly, creative work, today. 

MHW: One of my top reasons for applying for this position was because I was worried I’d miss you and your curatorial force at the helm of WCCW. I’m pleased to say, I’m quite amused by your replacement though… that being said, you’ll be greatly missed… Can you please come back and teach us something in our future programming? 

NK: Haha! It was a surprise when you reached out about applying – a very pleasant surprise. I hope this isnt weird to say, because your work is so influential, but I consider it the best possible outcome of my vision for WCCW, the work that I came here to do, that this role would compel you. When I started, I wanted the space to transform in very particular ways, and I was excited about doing that work. I’ve often said that when I left the role, I wanted it to be filled by an amazing Black queer femme well positioned to take the WCCW mission to the next level. In some ways, the work that I was doing was making it a space for you. The programs you spoke about in your interview, the artists you’re in community with, the way you take up space and command a room – this is exactly what I meant. I can’t wait to see what happens next! And I would love to give a workshop about applying literary techniques to audio & sound design! 

MHW: You’ll be one of the first people I reach out to as I wind down our programming hiatus. I’m so glad we were able to share so much throughout this transition! I promise to bug you, not so much.