Leadership Profile: Halim Flowers

Tell me more about your time with the Halcyon Arts Lab. What was your vision/goals for this time? What is your vision for the future of these endeavors? 

I came home March 21, 2019 after serving 22 years in prison. I had read about the Halcyon Arts Lab in Capitol Magazine, when I was incarcerated. The application was due in 2 weeks after I got out, so I submitted my application my second night out. I received the news that I received the fellowship in April. When I came home, I was just a poet—I’d published these books of poetry. Halcyon asked me to do a spoken word performance at their By the People festival in the summer of 2019. I had never done spoken word before; I did these live performances in chains and an orange jumpsuit, 45 minutes of memorized spoken word. So when I began the fellowship in August 2019, I was a writer/poet, just getting into spoken word; when the fellowship ended, I ended up being a painter.  

The blessing of Halcyon was they provided me with income, a condo, and a studio to create—to be around different artists and creators. It augmented my creative process—to be able to express myself in a visual language, not just the written word. The future is continuing to use my creativity whichever way the universe takes me. I have these cool ideas; maybe next year I’ll be producing movies. 

I want to use these ideas to bring more love to an unloving world. There’s this big void of love in society. It was assumed that I was a menace to society—that they had to protect society from me; now, back in society, I see that I was being protected from society. I never met so many angry, bitter people in prison as I meet in society—especially online. Everything that comes up is always a source of contention; I want to use my creativity to bring more love to the world. 

 My thing is giving back and educating people who come from communities like mine—understanding that your talent is a gold mine, and understanding the business of it. Most artists don’t understand the business of it. We can blend the art with the entrepreneur, and somehow use space and talent to support that dichotomy.  

How can the arts be a tool for social change? More specifically, how can the arts and entrepreneurship “correct our criminal injustice system”? 

I think that everything the artist creates is an extension of the artist. Some people have the resources and the desire to make the world a better place, but they don’t have the lived experience. Even though you have a desire to change the situation, you’ve never lived it. The arts come in and burst bubbles and bring a loving proximity that creates an uncomfortability that drives empathy and change. Most times, we don’t make dramatic change until we’re uncomfortable. If you’ve never experienced poverty, and all the negative ramifications that come with it—like illiteracy and crime and punishment, you’ve never have that lived experience, and I don’t believe you would be effective in bringing about a solution. You can throw money at this and that, but money won’t change the structural elements. The arts allow those who have the resources but not the lived experience to gain a proximity, without actually having to experience something. This proximity makes them uncomfortable with the reality of what’s going on, and it develops an empathy that leads to them being enthusiastic about using that uncomfortability to drive positive change. 

There is always pressure to measure the impact of an organization’s work based on traditional metrics like return on investment. As a non-profit leader, how do you evaluate your progress and success? When it comes to impact at HAL, how do you effectively build a case for the arts [which other organizations can learn from]?   

I haven’t put it in quantitative data form; I’m more a qualitative data person with storytelling. That’s the impact: meeting people who say my story inspires them—my life, my art. So many people honor me by taking my work and putting it in their homes and share it with their loved ones in an intimate space. I’ve been blessed to sell a lot of paintings. My sales can be my metrics, but the conversations I have with people, and they tell me how the work makes them feel: that’s the metric for me.  

We seem to be entering a new age of philanthropy and activism, based the intersectionality and interconnectedness of previously separate interest categories. How can artists be leaders in this environment? 

We have to use our creativity to create environments where people feel safe to come together and feel comfortable being vulnerable. We live in a world where we have made authenticity a vulnerability, because we are so judgmental and so unloving; if someone shares a truth, their truth, and it doesn’t coincide with our truth, we want to attack them, instead of understanding them and accepting them. Artists, we have to be so open-minded, so empathetic, and so strategic on how we use food and music and fashion and paintings and décor and fragrance and architecture and design to create an experience where people feel comfortable just being themselves—they’re not feeling afraid to show up in their authenticity.  

Then, having others who are in the experience to be open-minded and willing to accept others—to listen not to respond, but listen to understand, and build upon a common understanding. Even if you don’t agree! Your opinion shouldn’t be rigid. I don’t feel the way that I felt when I was 20, or 30. In two days, I’ll be 41. It’s a possibility when I’m 50, I probably won’t have the same opinions either. I have to give other people the space to grow too, and understand: “Ok, I understand you—I disagree with you, but it may be that somewhere down the line, I may agree with you. Even in my disagreement, I don’t hate you, and I’m not disinclined to work with you if the intent is to love yourself and others.” 

What do you do in your spare time to balance your life? What replenishes/refuels/reenergizes you? 

That’s something I’m recently learning to meter. In the philanthropy world, we talk a lot about metrics. And I realized I was extremely imbalanced—pouring so much out, and I was so used to being alone inside of a cage, that I really felt uncomfortable with people pouring into me. I’m learning now to, if my friend says, “Let me bring you something to eat”—even though my wife can cook, allow somebody to treat you! I’m extremely passionate about work. Before I got married, my wife asked me, “Do you have any addictions I should know about?” And I said, “Work.” What I do now to allow others to pour back into me—I had to do a lot, and I’m doing a lot of work on understanding that I’m not in prison anymore; I’m not in the street life anymore; when someone offers to help, all the time it doesn’t come with an ulterior motive—and even if it does, that’s their intention, not mine.  

There is always pressure to measure the impact of an organization’s work based on traditional metrics like return on investment. As a non-profit leader, how do you evaluate your progress and success? When it comes to impact at HAL, how do you effectively build a case for the arts [which other organizations can learn from]?   

For me, it’s like—as an individual, as an artist, who doesn’t have a non-profit organization, I just do what I can to do so much for so many people. I just received a letter from a guy that’s doing life in a prison in Texas; I sent him some pictures and some money, and he was expressing his gratitude. That’s a metric for me. 

I was in my studio in New York with a well-to-do Jewish lady who grew up in Long Island—very affluent family—and she was looking at one of my paintings, and she said, “Who are those names, right there on the painting?” And I said, “That name right there? Emmett Till.” She said, “Yeah, who’s that?” So, me explaining Emmett Till to her—sending her links about Emmett Till, and some other people—that was a metric for me. 

I haven’t put it in quantitative data form; I’m more a qualitative data person with storytelling. That’s the impact: so many people contact me, or I meet people, and they say my story inspires them—my life, my art. So many people honor me by taking my work and putting it in their homes and sharing it with their loved ones in an intimate space. I’ve been blessed to sell a lot of paintings; my sales can be my metrics, but the conversations I have with people, and they tell me how the work makes them feel: that’s the metric for me. 

What books have inspired or challenged you? 

My four muses are Jean-Michel Basquiat for visual art; music, Jay-Z, as far as hip-hop/rap; instruments is John Coltrane—Love Supreme is my favorite album; and my favorite writer is James Baldwin. His book No Name in the Street, The Fire Next Time, his essays. I’ve never met a writer who can scathingly indict America with an equal amount of love in the indictment, as well as the critique. The closest thing I see to him right now is Ta-Nehisi Coates—when I read Between the World and Me. Also a big influence on me from a literature perspective is the writings of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, and another New Age writer called Eckhart Tolle—The Power of Now, Stillness Speaks, A New Earth.  

What is your mantra? 

“We attract what we ARE and not what we WANT.” 

“Love is the vaccine.” That’s one of my mantras right now, during the pandemic. 

Browse Leadership Profiles

Alon Chen

Weizmann Institute President Prof. Alon Chen is Breaking the MoldBy Ami Aronson of the Bernstein Family Foundation From a very young age, Prof. Alon Chen knew that he wanted to dedicate his life to science.Today, he is a renowned neuroscientist who has served as...

Diana Sierra

What is your role at your organization?   I am the Co-Founder of CEO of BeGirl. I am also the designer behind the brand, though I’m not doing so much of the designing right now; I’m more in the management position.    Tell me more about...

Victoria Murray Baatin

What is your role at your organization?   I am the Director of Social Impact at the Kennedy Center—that's the title. The role itself is two-fold: the Social Impact Team (within the broader programming division) and the Social Impact...

Rahsaan Bernard

What is your role at Building Bridges Across the River?  I am the president of the organization.  Tell me more about BBAR. What are your visions/goals for this program in the D.C. area?  Our north star—our theory of change—our desire for...

Deborah Rutter

What is your role at the Kennedy Center?   I’m the President of the Kennedy Center.   What value has being part of the BFF ecosystem brought to the Kennedy Center?  When I come to a new city, I ask the people who live here,...

Ingrid Zimmer

What is your role at Inspired Child?   Our umbrella organization is Dumbarton Arts & Education, and I am the Executive Director. Our education program is called Inspired Child, and our arts program is Dumbarton...

Seth Flaxman

What is your role at your organization?  I am the CEO/co-founder of Democracy Works.   Tell me more about the project BFF is currently funding. What are your visions/goals for this project?  We build technology to help make it easier to vote and...

Natalie Jones

What is your role at your organization?  I am senior vice president of external affairs and diplomatic engagement, which means I am focused on three things: first, driving revenue to the organization through philanthropic partnerships; second, amplifying and...

Michelle Malet

What is your role at the Capital Jewish Museum?   I am the director of development at the new Capital Jewish Museum (also known as the Lilian and Albert Small Capital Jewish Museum). I have been in the position for three years now, and it is...

Lisa Curtis

Her Favorite Book The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. It was the first book I read that made me really connect with a character – it made me cry.  Her Mantra “What I do matters.” When I think about that, it reminds me that I need to be present in the moment and show...

Melinda Cooperman

What was your journey to becoming the Associate Director of Marshall Brennan? I have about 10 years of experience in civic education, and I’ve always been interested in teaching. I was a volunteer with an organization called the San Francisco Urban Service Project,...

Eshauna Smith

What was your journey to becoming the CEO of Urban Alliance? How much time do you have? I’m just teasing. My own background is that I come from a strong family that had its share of economic challenges, among other struggles, and I grew up in a neighborhood in LA that...

Jim Beck

What was your journey to becoming the Vice President of Planning, Development and Evaluation for Sasha Bruce? Before Sasha Bruce I had worked at a great non-profit in San Francisco called Haight Ashbury Free Clinics. In 2004 my partner and I were visiting her sister...

Sarah Lefton

What was your journey to becoming the founder and executive director of Bimbam? I worked in media, advertising, and tech when I was in my 20’s, and on the side I became really excited about adult Jewish learning. Coming from a small southern city where there wasn’t a...

Jason Benkendorf

What was your journey to becoming the Executive Director of AU Hillel? I came to American University as an undergraduate when I was 18, and when I came to American I thought that I was going into politics- my dream at the time was to be a political speech writer....

Rabbi Aaron Miller

What inspired you to create Metro Minyan - the flagship program of Washington Hebrew’s Young Professional Group, “2239”? 2239 has been thriving for 15 years. It started as a way to engage Washington Hebrew’s young professionals in dedicated young professionals...

Megan Beyer

You recently became the Executive Director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities. What is your vision for the Committee and how does your work play into and support the Arts and Humanities in communities throughout the nation? President Obama...

Sixth & I Synagogue

Sixth & I has grown to become one of Washington’s most valued religious and cultural landmarks. With a non-denominational, non-traditional approach, the synagogue has welcomed thousands of people through its doors, and distinguished itself as a place of openness...

Kate Goodall

S&R Foundation embodies the embrace of ingenuity and creativity in the nation’s capital. Entering its sixteenth year, its visionary mission is to support and foster innovation among talented artists, scientists, and social entrepreneurs. S&R is in the...

Andrea Gottlieb

Jerusalem U is yet another one of Bernstein’s grantees that is leveraging the power of innovation to inspire the new generation about Jewish and Israel identity. Poised to instill in this generation a deep sense of connection with their heritage, the organization has...

Robin Bronk

This past year, Bernstein Family Foundation was proud to provide The Creative Coalition with a grant to support its upcoming Arts Advocacy Day. Several decades ago, TCC was founded by a network of Hollywood actors determined to safeguard the arts and arts in education...

Patty Stonesifer

Martha’s Table has been a Washington institution for decades now, having provided its noble food, educational, and opportunity programs to thousands of children, families, and neighbors across the District. In an ever-challenging landscape for social service...

Josh Troderman

As a pioneer in the Jewish educational technology sphere, ShalomLearning is innovating Jewish supplementary instruction by introducing a fresh approach to Hebrew Congregational school. The Bernstein Family Foundation is proud to support this non-profit organization...

Kennedy Center

Bernstein Family Foundation has supported the globally-revered institution, The John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts, for many years now. As a hub of the arts, culture and education, the Center has used its standing in the community to expand its reach and...

Alliance For Young Artists & Writers

[av_textblock size='' font_color='' color=''] Bernstein Family Foundation is proud to support the Alliance for Young Writers and Artists, which is endowed with the partnership of The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH). The Alliance, PCAH, and...

Christopher Lewis

Bernstein Family Foundation is a proud supporter of WAMU 88.5- American University Radio. With a listenership stretching across the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, WAMU plays an important role in the nation’s capital. The Foundation, in its quest to...

Louise Dube

Bernstein Family Foundation, a major proponent of American democracy, is proud to provide program support to iCivics, a non-profit civic education organization founded by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. For the past year and a half, it has been in the hands of Executive...

Rabbi Aaron Miller

Rabbi Aaron Miller, a rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation in DC and Potomac, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. He graduated from Brandeis University with a degree in Jewish Studies and was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He also earned a Masters...

Eshauna Smith

Eshauna Smith joined Urban Alliance in March 2013 and was named CEO in June 2014.  Her leadership in development, policy and advocacy, communications and strategic partnerships has helped position Urban Alliance as the premier advocacy organization for youth workforce...