Articles, Technology

Avant-garde or Autocrat? Navigating Creative Leadership and Change

Recently, in the Communication Leadership program at the University of Washington, our cohort discussed the intersection of Creative Leadership in the context of the Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) controversy over the hiring of John Maeda as the prestigious design university president in 2008. The series of curated articles painted an interesting trajectory of a creative leader hired with great anticipation for change, denigrated for acting dictatorial in his process (which led to a vote of no-confidence in 2011), then _______? In March 2012, the RISD’s board of directors renewed Maeda’s contract until 2015. But then this past December Maeda left for a position in silicon valley.In light of his 2011 release of a book on leadership, aptly entitled Redesigning Leadership, Maeda’s bumpy path of the past few years leaves me questioning whether time will prove him a long-term leader, or a temporary motivator.

Maeda was intent on modernizing the operations of the university, instituting sweeping changes to communication, and radically adapting RISD’s stead curriculum. Maeda was a known twitterphile, and desired to usher in a new era of transparency and open communication across university operations. Upon first review of Maeda’s detractors, Maeda’s plans appeared to fall into two themes common: his vision and language failed to match his most visible behavior; and he attempted to execute his agenda without respecting and building necessary relationships. Classic politics, it seems, plays an important role even within the climate of a university internationally renowned for it’s avant-garde graduates and cutting-edge creative work.

Maeda’s trajectory lends itself to generalizing this tension between the evolving and The Establishment, raising many questions pertinent to those poised for creative leadership: How does a leader separate true vision from self-driven interest? In times of disruptive change, how much of our old system does one preserve in the design of a new approach? Or more appropriately, how closely do we listen to the voices of the requisite resistance?

If successful leadership is classically defined as the ability to build and maintain relationships, these questions, and Maeda’s first “failures” become even more interesting upon RISD’s board of directors three-year renewal of his contract in March 2012. Was Maeda successful in blending old and new dynamics, merging physical connections with digital relationships?

With Maeda’s recent departure, the success of his leadership will hopefully be vindicated by the staying power of his technology-driven values, defining his leadership experiment more as leadership entrepreneurship.

What have you learned about navigating relationships and change in our current communication landscape?


Seeking Truth, Justice, and Reparations in El Salvador

A mini-documentary highlighting the collaborative work between the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights and partners in El Salvador for truth, justice and reparations in El Salvador. By Alex Montalvo, Revelriter Media.

Excerpted from The Center For Human Rights at the University of Washington

“Today, democratic governance in El Salvador is threatened by crises of crime and violence, driven by the longstanding problems of poverty and social exclusion but rendered a potent threat to governability by the widespread perception that the institutions of justice are inoperable. In a sad commentary on the dividends of purported peace, many Salvadorans report that things are worse today than they were during the 12-year civil war that claimed over 75,000 lives.

Despite the signing of peace accords that called for fundamental social and political reforms, no systematic reform of the justice sector has been undertaken, and those in power continue to enjoy the ability to intercede in justice proceedings in the interests of preserving their impunity. There has been no justice for the victims of crimes against humanity committed in the context of the Salvadoran civil war, nor any extensive investigation to establish truth or accountability in such cases. In this sense, the country’s fragile democracy is built on an untenable silence; until Salvadoran society addresses the systematic violations of human rights that rent asunder the social fabric for so many years, the country’s justice system will remain unable to confront the crimes of the past or present.

Now is a pivotal moment for a concerted push for truth, justice, and reparations in El Salvador, involving strategic coordination between Salvadoran victims’ organizations and international actors. The CHR, in collaboration with the Instituto de Derechos Humanos at the Universidad Centroamericana (IDHUCA), is developing a project to apply important international justice precedents to the Salvadoran context, through the concerted application of national and international pressures for justice and a strengthening of grassroots movements within the country.”


Seattle-ites Renew Fight for Justice in El Salvador’s Dirty Wars

The associated video (below) was produced in collaboration with Dacia Saenz for International Human Rights Day. Originally published in The Seattle Globalist on December 10, 2013.

A man pauses from constructing a poster of family victims of the armed conflict in El Salvador from 1980-1992.

A man pauses from constructing a poster of family victims of the armed conflict in El Salvador for the annual Victim’s Meeting (Encuentro de Victimas). Photo by Alex Montalvo

The solidarity that distinguished Seattle’s relationship to El Salvador in the 1980’s is reigniting once again. Last Thursday, representatives from 10 organizations met at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Seattle in support of a renewed movement for justice in El Salvador.

The event, La Voz de la Justicia: Human Rights at a Critical Juncture in El Salvador, was organized through the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights (UWCHR)and the Social Justice Committee of St. Patrick’s Church. It brought together groups with a long history of supporting human rights throughout the region.

So why now, more than 20 years after the end of official hostilities in El Salvador?

In early September, the Attorney General’s office in El Salvador announced that for the first time in the country’s history, investigations would be opened into the massacre at El Mozote and as many as 32 other wartime atrocities. A few weeks later, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court accepted a challenge to the constitutionality of the amnesty law.

A decision on the amnesty law is now expected literally any day,” says Angelina Godoy, Director of UWCHR. “These are things victims have been struggling to achieve for decades. There’s a sense of real possibility now, one that didn’t exist before.”

Photo of a man at the annual “Meeting of Victims” reading a poem written by the father of a child killed by the military in El Salvador.

A man at the annual “Meeting of Victims” reads a poem written by the father of a child killed by the military in El Salvador. The sombrero on the placard was worn by the son during his death. (Photo by Alex Montalvo)

From 1980 to 1992, over 75,000 civilians died in the bloody armed conflict in El Salvador. Thousands more were brutally tortured or “disappeared.” Hostilities officially came to an end with peace accords in 1992, and as part of the peace process, a UN-sponsored Truth Commission was tasked with investigating wartime atrocities. Their investigation found approximately 85% of the violence occurred at the hands of the Salvadoran government.

But just five days after the release of the Truth Commission’s report in March, 1993, the Salvadoran legislature passed an Amnesty Law that has since been used to effectively shield people in positions of power from prosecution for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Many Salvadorans have been fighting for justice and reparations ever since.

The sad truth for Americans is that the armed conflict was heavily funded by our government. In an attempt to make El Salvador a leading example of Cold War policy, the U.S. provided the Salvadoran government upwards of $5 billion, despite awareness of government involvement in egregious human rights abuses.

But concerned citizens across the globe reacted strongly to these abuses and the subsequent involvement of the U.S. government.

Seattle, in particular, was front and center in the movement to stop the war. In 1983 voters passed the “Peace in Central America Initiative” which declared opposition to the United States support of the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and established a Citizens’ Commission on Central America that included over twenty local organizations like El Centro de La Raza, the Catholic Archdiocese, and the University of Washington. Many Seattle parishes participated in the sanctuary movement, providing shelter to refugees from the Central American conflicts.

Today, the University of Washington is back to supporting human rights in the region. Since 2011, UWCHR and The Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America (IDHUCA) in San Salvador have been collaborating on activities aimed at addressing core challenges to the rule of law in El Salvador.

Though there have been a lot of positive developments in El Salvador recently, there are also strong signs that those who oppose the justice movement are still willing to resort to criminality to protect themselves. At the end of September, 2013, the Catholic Church closed down one of the country’s main human rights organizations, leaving the victims in cases like the massacre at El Mozote suddenly without access to legal representation, and even without access to their own case files.

Even groups who search for missing children are being targeted. During a recent trip to El Salvador, we documented the emotional return of Marina Lopez (adopted name Marina Llewelyn) to Arcatao, El Salvador, for the first time since her childhood.

Marina had been taken from her family by the Salvadoran military, but was reunited through the human rights organization Pro-Búsqueda, who work to discover the whereabouts of disappeared children and reunite them with surviving family members. Pro-Búsqueda conducted research for over two decades to find Marina.

Sadly, just three days after Marina’s reunion, Pro-Búsqueda was attacked and its offices firebombed, destroying some three-quarters of their files. These recent attacks are what prompted the recent “La Voz” event held at St. Patricks.

The City of Seattle is taking notice of local efforts for justice in El Salvador once again.Today, on International Human Rights Day, The UW Center for Human Rights is set to receive an award from the City. Godoy says she sees the award as recognition not just of the UWCHR, but of all the UW students, and the many people in El Salvador who have been involved in the effort.

“What makes our work so powerful is the way it’s rooted in partnerships with those on the front lines of human rights struggles, folks like the committee of survivors we just met with in Arcatao, El Salvador,” Godoy said. “I wish those women and men could also step up to the podium and be recognized, for they’re really the ones who are teaching us about what human rights mean.”

For more information about human rights in El Salvador, and to demand a full investigation into the attack on Pro-Búsqueda, please visit

Books, On Story

On Creative Habit(s)

Recently I read The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, the prolific Emmy Award-winning choreographer of Moving Out (2002-04), Singing in the Rain (1985), and Baryshnikov by Tharp 1984-85) fame. With hundreds of original works to her credit, Twyla is certainly no stranger to the creative process.

 A picture of TwylaTharp's book, "The Creative Habit."

My nicely used copy of The Creative Habit

After reading the intro and the first chapter, I thought to myself, “Here goes another book telling me how creative genius isn’t born, it’s just sweat and tears.” To date these oft-repeated prophecies haven’t done much to spur my inspiration, or rather perspiration, to buckle down into any creative process. They’ve always come across as pleasantries meant to superficially satiate the frustrations of a challenging process, like those proffered by acquaintances upon hearing the sufferings of a rocky relationship, “Relationships are A LOT of work. They’re worth it in the end, but they’re not all butterflies…”

But about 15 pages further in I found Twyla’s words to offer much more than pleasantries; she invites us into her own process of self discovery, and to the “life infrastructure” that has supported her overwhelming success.

In Rituals of Preparation (Chapter 2), Twyla talks about the simple daily routines she performs that prime the mind for work, for creative endeavors. She details her all-important routine of beginning each day at 5:30am to hail a taxi to the gym.In describing her mundane tasks as ritualistic, or even sublime, Twyla comes across as asking us to seek deeper meaning in our daily urban lives, to find the connections between the repetitive and the regal. The Tantric-like approach provides a much stronger impetus to staying disciplined with our routines than simply shouting stay disciplined.

Overall Twyla’s voice comes across as vulnerable, personable, strong and experienced. It’s a powerful combination that inspires trust in storytelling, and one that makes me want to continue the relationship, even without the butterflies and….whatever makes you happy.