We’re used to considering leadership in terms of political power, economic power and often in this part of the world church or theological power. Typically power looks like media, celebrity, male and poster family. Diversity in leadership causes people to ask better questions about what really makes a leader – is it about being in charge? Or is it about inspiring people, creating a following something people want to be a part of? If this is the case then many of our political and church institutions are dead or dying and when it comes to economic power we’re asking questions about divisions between the rich and the poor, we’ve got a more mainstreamed critique of financial power bases after the banking collapse, the expenses scandals and the growth of the occupy movement. The thing is, we don’t really value traditional leadership roles, nor trust predictable power bases anymore. This series is about profiling some people in and from unlikely places who are changing the communities around us significantly through a variety of ways. I hope that this series opens people’s views about what leadership really looks like and challenges what we place at the feet of those with traditional ‘power’ In my view we should give all the women featured this week more power.
Introducing: Ruth McCarthy – Director – Outburst Queer Arts Festival
Ruth is someone who manages to combine creativity with activism and opinions really well. Over the last seven years she has helped to build Northern Ireland’s first and only queer arts festival into a must-attend of the year, creating safe spaces for people to feel at ease and encounter difference and share ideas. It’s a festival that’s really important to me (I’ve written about some of the reasons why here) and it’s been a pleasure to witness Ruth’s humour as well as her insightful and perceptive rants via social media as well as in person. Ruth cares deeply about mental health and wholeness and oppression and she creates change and opportunities for change by providing access to art and emotional experiences. For me, surely this is one of the healthiest and most transformative modes of leadership that I know. Meet Ruth here:
What do you love about what you do and why?
The people I get to meet. One minute I’m having a conversation with a small LGBTQ group or a queer activist somewhere, people quietly doing groundbreaking work in communities where change is really needed, the next minute I’m talking to a performer or artist who has an idea for something totally genius that makes me high for the rest of the day. I’m constantly inspired by the ordinary and extraordinary things that people do out of creative passion or an uncomplicated sense of justice. To experience that when you go to work and to see the changes that can come about from that is like exercising your heart every day without having to wear Lycra.
Can you talk about/describe a couple of personal key moments or experiences that you think shaped your interest and passion for the work and roles you currently hold?
One of the moments I remember most was at a David Hoyle performance in Belfast, about 11 years ago. He’s a queer performer who sometimes sings and paints onstage but mostly just talks about simple truths while looking like Liza Minnelli after a lost weekend on cheap wine and amphetamines. The background to this story is that I have a tendency towards anxiety and under-confidence that I have to manage quite a lot, especially given that most of the things that I like doing or have a drive to do can involve putting my head above the parapet. It can be an odd battle. Anyway, I’d seen David several times before but this particular night was very powerful and intimate. Towards the end of the performance he came right up to me (and others in the crowd, one at a time) and said, in the most loving and gentle way while looking me right in the eyes, “You’re going to die”. I don’t know how to describe what happened other than I went home afterwards and stared at the ceiling for half the night and decided that it’s okay to be terrified half the time as long as it doesn’t stop you doing what terrifies you. That’s the power of art. I know that tiny moments like that can shift something in people, even just the smallest thing, that opens up possibility or changes of heart and mind. It’s not always as immediately vivid as that. It can be something silly. It can be something moving. But whether you’re making it or experiencing it, sometimes art/film/music/performance/stories can do something for you that no amount of teaching or therapy can. It can hit us with a resonant truth on a visceral level or somewhere that seemed hidden. That’s why I do the work I do instead of starting a political party or raising goats up a mountain with a silent order of nuns.
We all have hum drum/mundane aspects and tasks in our life and work but what are the things that you really live for? Give you a buzz? Make you get out of bed for? Spend your whole year planning for?
Having ideas that I play out in my head even if nobody else sees them makes me really happy. And music. And books. Other than that, time just hanging out with close friends is the thing that gets me out of bed because I know I’ll be laughing my head off at something completely inappropriate and wrong within ten minutes. I don’t mean it to sound twee but it’s things like that and sitting in the garden with a cup of tea looking at the stars at night that are most important to me.
What is the stuff in your life that you think has trained you/prepared you for the work you currently do and are developing?
The experience, both good and bad, of growing up gay in Ireland in the 80s. Being brought up in an extended family that valued stories and music and community and made sure we did too. Making small queer events and creative things happen with my friends in the 90s and meeting all the amazing people across the world who were doing the same with little or no resources. Working for women’s groups. Working for the BBC. Especially that one time I forgot to write “Possible squirrel attacks” on a hazard assessment checklist before filming in the woods and got pulled by the head of Health and Safety. It taught me to always consider the unexpected squirrel.
Who are the people who inspire you and why?
My friends. Because they make me think and they make me laugh. Obscenely. And you always come up with your best ideas and thoughts when you’re trying to do one better than somebody’s last.
If all the work you do could go your way and deliver the results you dream of what do the communities you live/work in and/or care about look like?
I think the best possible result of what Outburst does would be thousands of other people effortlessly dreaming and imagining and creating the answer to that question for themselves.