Tekki Lomnicki of Tellin’ Tales Theatre: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization
Know that you need a strong mission to instill passion in your team and attract board members or it will be hard to sustain your nonprofit. We started out with a mission to build community through storytelling to include people of different races, income levels and abilities. This mission attracted many who considered themselves underdogs and those who believe in racial equity. It has evolved into the mission.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tekki Lomnicki.
Tekki Lomnicki is the founder and Artistic Director of Tellin’ Tales Theatre, a 25-year old company dedicated to shattering the barriers between the disabled and non-disabled worlds through the power of personal storytelling. Tekki’s two full-length plays When Heck Was a Puppy: The Living Testimonies of Folk Artist Edna Mae Brice and Blurred Vision were critically acclaimed by The Chicago Reader and The Chicago Sun-Times. She has written and performed over 26 solo performance pieces, and starred in the award-winning film, The Miracle by Jeffrey Jon Smith. She taught youth at Chicago’s Gallery 37 and After School Matters, and adults at the Victory Gardens Training Center, and ADA 25 Advancing Leadership. She is a recipient of an Illinois Arts Council Artists Fellowship in New Performance Forms, the 2008 3Arts Award in Theater, the 2010 Grigsby Award for Excellence in Solo Performance, the 2014 Dan Van Hecke Award for outstanding leadership and service to the disability community and was named a 2016 Duke of Distinction at York Community High School in Elmhurst. Tekki is on the Inclusion & Diversity Council at True Value Company and does disability awareness presentations for corporations.
Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your nonprofit?
THE MOTIVATION: Early on, before I started the company, I dabbled in acting and playwriting in my free time. I was not given mainstream parts because of my disability. I thought, “Why couldn’t I play the neighbor next door” or “someone’s sister”? Isn’t the world filled with all kinds of people? Wouldn’t the play be more real? So, when my colleague approached me to co-write “When Heck was a Puppy”, based on the stories of a real folk artist whom we met, and play the lead role, I jumped at it. We applied for a NEA grant to stage the play and were asked to submit a short video for the application. When the judges saw it, they said, why isn’t your actor talking about having a disability? They did not give us the grant but asked us to rewrite and apply for the next round. I added my stories to the script, which deepened it immensely, and we got the NEA grant. Audiences were so drawn to this character’s stories that I realized that personal stories including subjects we might worry about sharing, when shared connect people, both with and without disabilities. This fueled us to form the theater. I personally wanted to shepherd new voices into the fold, starting with training children and bringing them up in the ranks. Many of the students who started with us have stayed with us and taken mentor and board roles. The power of personal story and authentically sharing experiences rises above difference.
The work has become my calling and has helped me to understand the power of serving others. I now go through life seeing beyond the masks people wear to understand where they are coming from through their stories. I have grown immensely through the work and live to use what I have been given to help change lives. Having worked in the corporate world, I saw a need for Disability Awareness presentations where employees can feel safe asking tough questions about people with disabilities. By educating hiring managers to include people with disabilities companies can build their workforces with people with varying points of view and talents.
Turning 65 this September is quite a milestone — as an individual, and as a person with a disability. With age and the tremendous experiences of life, I have grown rich in wisdom and blessed with the ability to see the big picture of my life’s work. Since I have paid my dues as they say — in business, as a full-time employee, consultant and in the nonprofit arena — I can now give back to the community I love even more freely and with more passion and artistic aptitude — all without having to prove myself anymore. It took a while (and a lot of therapy and prayer), but I have finally learned to delegate and have created strong teams of volunteers dedicated to the mission and vision of Tellin’ Tales Theatre.
Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?
As the Artistic Director, teacher and mentor, I have witnessed the transformation of hundreds of children and adults who were never given their voice to express their deepest feelings. This new-found ‘freedom” is life changing. It enhances all areas of their lives going forward. What we do greatly influences communication and performance skills, study habits and writing expertise. Another yardstick is the consistent requests I receive to teach storytelling classes, serve on panels for other nonprofits, to perform or serve as an emcee for an event or conference. There have been numerous awards. Those accolades speak to the stellar reputation of TTT in the community and the quality of its programs. We are also confident that our work is of superior value because of the support by discerning and highly respected funders like the NEA, Chicago Community Trust, the Illinois Arts Council and others. As a small organization, the grants are appropriate in size but nonetheless they help sustain the work I and TTT are passionate about.
One measurable is of course the number of audience members, the number of donors and the average donation amount. Tracked from 2019 to 2020, the audience numbers — even during the pandemic — increased remarkably by 23%. The number of individual donors (many new) rose by a whooping 61%. Donations from individuals jumped 57% and Facebook followers increased also — up by 30%.
Di Reed, a legally blind non-binary person attended a one-day storytelling workshop I lead. Di was extremely introverted at first, but once they started telling a story the words seemed to come from deep in their soul. Di ended up crafting beautiful stories. They flourished in the 6-week class. Their entire attitude towards life literally changed. Once a teacher, they now identify as a writer/performer and has given many testimonials to the power of storytelling and TTT. They have now been in several TTT shows and has become a cherished member of the TTT Ensemble.
At a theater camp program, I met Ronnie, a ten-year-old with cerebral palsy who stuttered with every word. When it came time for Ronnie to sing his solo his voice came out angelically clear. The shocked class stood and applauded. “Is that him?” his parents wondered. I watched them cry with joy when they realized it was indeed their son. It was at that moment that I realized TTT had to continue using story and music to help kids stretch beyond their perceived potential. Rupa, a blind middle school student and her sister, also blind both were brilliant in the student mentoring program. Their mom’s praise: “…thank you for allowing our daughters to be part of the TTT experience. They have grown as young women and matured as individuals with disabilities. They realize that their disabilities do not define them. They desire to live a life like yours — to inspire, go on despite all odds and to be beautiful, strong women.”
Can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?
Two great stories above, plus here are some heartfelt quotes.
Karen Tamley, CEO of Access Living and former Commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities
Tellin’ Tales plays a huge part in removing the distance between kids with and without disabilities. It fosters understanding and works to eliminate bullying and social isolation. This was a transformative experience for my daughter. I did not even recognize her at the performance. “Six Stories Up” is so valuable — a real community asset!
DAPHANE T. — parent of “Six Stories Up” student apprentice Tiernan T.
I feel that Six Stories Up has had a huge impact on Tiernan’s childhood. He tried one or two programs before but never went back after the first week because he felt like he didn’t fit in. He now calls himself an actor and feels that the program has shown him there’s nothing he can’t do.
JESSE B: Thanks to the leadership opportunities and rich experiences I gained with Tellin Tales, I am pursuing technical theater in college with the intention to one day come back to Tellin Tales in a leadership role. Having started with Tellin Tales at eleven years old, my formative years were spent learning about and educating myself on the experiences of my disabled peers. Tellin Tales showed me my passions in life and without them, I wouldn’t be where I am in college today. We are a family here and it’s one I couldn’t be more grateful to be a part of!
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
Drastically improve transportation for people with disabilities. Taxi service is not reliable, very limited and expensive especially for those who depend upon motorized wheelchairs/scooters. Change attitudes through education.
- Educate children and adults — through school, PSAs, articles — about how to positively engage in conversation and friendship with people with disabilities. Acceptance, inclusion and respect — these remain ongoing challenges.
- Make the public accessible — provide accommodations for people who use wheelchairs and scooters, need auto door openers, etc. so they can participate in cultural and community activities. Many buildings, events, offices and shops are still inaccessible. This leads to isolation. (You would be flabbergasted at how many places are completely UN- ACCESSIBLE, or very limited, or of the horrible attitudes staff can have when modest accommodations are requested — like seating for someone in a wheelchair with their companion somewhere other than the last row of a theater hidden behind everyone else, etc. — this is from Judy, not Tekki)
- Employment and thus lack of financial resources — Many people with disabilities are highly educated, intellect people with much to offer the business world, yet few are offered employment due to the need for certain accommodations or the lack of reliable transportation.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Qualities of an exceptional leader include characteristics like emotional intelligence, integrity, passion, optimism, accountability, strong communication skills and the ability to inspire others to see their own potential. Leaders must invest in and motivate others for the future, serve as a mentor, be humble and honestly “walk the talk.” These traits define Tekki Lomnicki. Her leadership in Chicago and beyond is breaking down the walls of misunderstanding between people with and without disabilities. She represents and advocates for a too-often marginalized minority–one that crosses all ethnicities, all races, all gender identities. As a woman with a disability, she recognized a void, the need to build an organization to unify all people — with and without disabilities — through the art of storytelling. Teacher, mentor, advocate and organizer, Tekki has successfully changed the attitudes and understanding of thousands of people over the last 31 years. She is unstoppable.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit”. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Make sure you have a strong team of “boots on the ground” people to work with you. Know you can’t do it all alone.
When we were starting Tellin’ Tales Theatre we were focusing on teaching and performing. I had to choose people who had specific skills — Amy who was a choreographer, Scott who was a musician, Matthew who could teach art and mask making and Carl who was a professor at UIC and a master set builder. 25 years later, these people are still on our team among others.
2. Make sure you have enough money to sustain your nonprofit for at least a year. If you don’t personally have it — know how to get it.
At the beginning, Michael Blackwell and I had an NEA grant for our first show and were getting paid minimally for a summer theater program. We planned on doing a holiday donation campaign but needed $1000 to move the successful show to a new venue. We went to a bank to borrow the money promising that we would open an account with them for Tellin’ Tales, and we would pay the money back after the holiday campaign. Our campaign worked and we were able to pay the bank back on time with money to spare.
3. Find a strong mentor
Donna Blue Lachman started the Blue Rider Theater (a non-profit) with donations from family and friends and eventually applied for grants. She even used her connections to get a theater space and lighting and sound equipment. I spent many hours talking to her and her Managing Director about how to run a nonprofit.
4. Form a strong Board of Directors and know that all of them may not have money to donate but they have influence and can find others to donate.
I chose my high school drama teacher to be on our board and he was voted President. Michael had a lawyer friend, a prominent artist with influence in Chicago and a friend with deep pockets. I knew that my drama teacher had strong ties to the Elmhurst community (my home town) and could find others to jump on the bandwagon. The board has changed many times through the years, including parents of children with disabilities we have worked with. It’s also a good idea to have board members of different generations that can speak to their peers and bring them on board.
5. Know that you need a strong mission to instill passion in your team and attract board members or it will be hard to sustain your nonprofit.
We started out with a mission to build community through storytelling to include people of different races, income levels and abilities. This mission attracted many who considered themselves underdogs and those who believe in racial equity. It has evolved into the mission:
The mission of Tellin’ Tales Theatre is to shatter barriers between the disabled and non-disabled worlds through the transformative power of personal story. We bring together children and adults from both communities to share their stories in theatrically innovative productions and programs to promote awareness, understanding and acceptance.
This mission really pinpoints that we insist on creating a level playing field for making theater and not just focusing on disability, race or sexual identity. Ours is not a theater where non-disabled actors do the speaking or writing for those with disabilities — all do their own work alongside each other.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your nonprofit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
I would like to talk to Judy Heumann who is a disability rights activist who was featured in the documentary “Crip Camp”. She is recognized internationally as a leader as a lifelong civil rights advocate for people with disabilities. As a person and a leader with a disability, I am inspired by one of her quotes:
“The way society thinks about disability needs to evolve, as too many people view disability as something to loathe or fear. By recognizing how disabled people enrich our communities, we can all be empowered to make sure disabled people are included”
I want to share my idea with Judy and pick her brain about how to attract people with disabilities to our nonprofit, people of influence to join our board and also how to fight the system when I see inequities.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?
My own “life lesson” quote is “Anybody can get up on stage and do theater”. So many adults come to us and say, “Oh I would never be able to do theater — I’m too nervous.” Well, you don’t just jump up there and do it…you need to learn. You need to connect to your personal story or an existing play with a passion. You train with us and have support. Children are more natural theater makers. As far as those with disabilities — even a person who is non-verbal can do it with movement, art, words on a screen or speech generation devices. We don’t take “I can’t do it” for an answer. At first, I didn’t know how to nurture people to be able to jump that hurdle and by trial and error, I found ways to touch people’s hearts and make them comfortable. Thus, we came up with our tagline — “Everybody has a story”.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.
Tekki Lomnicki of Tellin’ Tales Theatre: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.