Celebrating Black Leaders in Brooklyn: Spotlight on Toya Lillard
To celebrate this year's Black Philanthropy Month, we reached out to several Black leaders in our nonprofit community to learn about what inspires their work, local Black-led organizations they admire, and how the organizations they lead are working to achieve equity in our communities.
We first spoke with Toya Lillard, Executive Director of viBe Theater Experience, an organization that produces original theater, music, and media about real-life issues written and performed by New York City teenage girls, young women, and nonbinary youth of color.
We wish to thank Toya for taking the time to speak with us, and for allowing us to honor her work as a local leader by sharing her voice with our community. Read our full interview with Toya below.
Who is a leader in the Black community (past or present) who inspires you?
I have always been inspired by Ella Baker, a Civil Rights icon, and human rights activist, who worked on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement. I was introduced to Ella Baker through music, actually. "Ella's Song," by the group Sweet Honey in the Rock was one of my mother's favorite tunes. My mother LOVED Sweet Honey! There is a line in the song that is an Ella Baker quote: "To me young people come first, they have the courage where we fail." This line always resonated with me as a young person. It actually emboldened me! Ella Baker worked among, and centered, young people throughout her entire career, and life. That is something that inspired me to work with young people, and to name my desire to do so.
Ella Baker was from the South, but lived and worked in New York City during her time working for the NAACP. That is another fact that inspired me, as someone who is from Houston, Texas, but has always dreamt of working and living in New York City. Ella Baker also discouraged "charismatic leadership" and preferred collective leadership within a truly abolitionist framework, which seeks to empower and "free" all oppressed people. These are principles that I hold dear and work every day to embody within my life, and work.
Which local Black-led nonprofits do you admire?
I admire Groundswell, led by my dear friend and sister-in-artivism, Robyne Walker-Murphy. Groundswell is doing some powerful work with young people, and they hold similar space as viBe, in terms of creating and sustaining an uncensored environment for young people to express themselves, and create art informed by their lived experiences. I also admire Black Feminist Project, because Tanya Denise Fields teaches Black women how to show up as your authentic self, unapologetically, and then get the WORK done. Her organization has fed a lot of hungry people during the pandemic. I also admire organizations like Girl Vow, Black Feminist Future, and of course Brooklyn Community Services, run by my friend Janelle Farris.
How do you work to achieve equity at viBe Theater Experience?
At viBe, we are particularly proud of the fact that our organization is not only Black and woman-led, but three-fourths of our staff are under the age of thirty. That's pretty much everyone except for me! We also operate with a "true-cost" budget which factors in the true cost of supporting our young staff, providing full benefits to all administrative staff, and we have created a leadership pipeline that has resulted in two senior staff positions being filled by viBe alumna. Lastly, we work with philanthropic partners (like Brooklyn Community Foundation!) to hold space for viBeGirls to speak out about the issues that are impacting them, and their communities most, like school pushout, misogynoir, and adultification bias. At viBe, equity is a core value connected to our mission and vision to create and hold intentional space for Black girls, young women, and gender expansive youth to get their "nugget of free" and create an artistic response to the world around them.
Learn more about viBe Theater Experience here.