Q&A: Arleta Little Leads the Loft at Fifty

by
Michael Kleber-Diggs
From the July/August 2024 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

This summer the Loft Literary Center, a literary arts nonprofit in Minneapolis, celebrates fifty years of connecting authors and audiences in the Twin Cities and helping writers hone their craft with community-based educational programming. Arleta Little has served as the Loft’s executive director since 2021. Before that she directed the McKnight Artist Fellowships and the Givens Foundation for African American Literature, both in Minnesota. As the Loft was preparing for this significant anniversary, Little took time to reflect on the center’s past accomplishments, current priorities, and plans for the future.

Arleta Little, executive director of the Loft Literary Center. (Credit: Anna Min)

I know you’re a poet and an essayist and that you’ve written about life in Minnesota. Before we talk about your work at the Loft Literary Center, I wonder what the Loft means to you personally.
I often think of home as a place to which you come back. When I moved to Minnesota back in 1996, I was already thinking about how to live a writing life. The Loft was the first organization that I connected with to support that goal. I took my first class with the Loft in 1998. It was a class on personal essays with Cheri Register. At one point I decided to go back to school, and one of my classmates was Jocey Hale, who had just become the executive director of the Loft. So I was paying attention to what was happening at the Loft. Eventually I transitioned to a job at the McKnight Foundation, where, among other things, I was the program officer for the Loft. Since moving to the Twin Cities I have been involved with the Loft in so many different ways that when the Loft executive director position came open in 2021, I felt like I was coming home.

With the 2020 murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the pandemic, it’s been a turbulent time in the Twin Cities. What has it been like to lead a nonprofit here?
Within crises or difficult times there can also be opportunity. I have found a dynamic openness to experiment and try new things coming out of the pandemic and coming out of the racial uprisings that were part of our lives and continue to influence the ways in which we are showing up in community to this day. The challenge that I observed most immediately at the Loft was burnout in our people. Our team had been holding it down, riding through levels of anxiety, highs and lows, having to pivot to get our programming into a virtual realm. But also just the trauma of what we all were going through with the racial uprisings. In the community there was also some disappointment relative to the response of the philanthropic sector and others to leverage resources to better support the BIPOC community and to support the capacity that the arts present for narrative change.

Here’s what we’ve done: revitalized our team, shifted from a forty-hour work week to a thirty-two-hour week, and also elevated our relationships in the community through emphasis on strategic partnerships via the ways we organize ourselves to do the work. Now we emphasize craft and community; we’ve reimagined our mission to elevate our role in the community and in the creation of justice. As part of our mission we’re not just emphasizing the life of the writer and reader; we’re acknowledging that we exist within a larger ecosystem and that our work has impact within that ecosystem.

All those things feel connected to inclusivity. How are you promoting inclusivity?
The Loft is explicitly an anti-racist organization. This is work that in many ways is coming to fruition with my leadership, but it also establishes a new understanding of what we want to be in the world. So nurturing writers with an orientation that is inclusive, that embraces a more holistic humanity, that offers a more loving home. The Loft is fifty years old and has habits like any fifty-year-old. When we’re considering equity and access, some of the questions we ask are: How do we retrain ourselves in terms of our organizational infrastructure? How do we actually embody our values of creativity, care, connection, curiosity, justice, and courage? These are some of our challenges as we commit to anti-racism and equity. But we’re up for it. We’re doing the work.

Lasting fifty years is a great accomplishment for any nonprofit, especially a literary arts nonprofit. How is the Loft planning to celebrate this grand milestone?
Well, we planned a full-scale celebration of the Loft. We invited folks who have been engaged with the work from its inception to be present. We have launched two new initiatives and a new fund-raising campaign. The first new initiative is called the Lit!Commons. It is a new digital platform that elevates an incredible cadre of teaching artists to help writers orient themselves on a path to accomplish their own goals, to connect with other writers, and to access resources as an accelerant for writers to accomplish their goals in a digital community.

The second exciting offering is our new Lit!Series, which will launch this summer with a galvanizing event featuring writer and cultural critic Roxane Gay. Lit!Series will allow us to celebrate the incredible voices of authors who are impacting our world and will provide writers with opportunities to meet with agents, to meet with editors, to pitch things they’ve been working on, and to attend intensive workshops, all in a condensed time period.

The Loft began at a small independent bookstore and turned into an important literary arts organization. How has community-based literary arts education changed, even in the past few years?
Well, the diversity of offerings and teaching artists is one of the things that certainly comes to mind. The range of stories that are available to us and are being shared. There seems to be an opening of the aperture of understanding ourselves collectively as verdant, rich, and diverse expressions of humanity in ways that I think were more constricted in the past. So that’s amazing.

The convenience of technology gives both the teaching artists and students more options about when they engage, how they engage, and how often they engage. So the variety of formats that are available via people’s cell phones and via people’s laptops is really salient to this moment.

The last thing that I’ll just lift up is the movement away from art for art’s sake as an approach to literary education. People want to share their stories to impact and make change in the world. As is often said of literature, we find the universal in the particular. So the need for more salient stories is expanding. In part because we’re more sensitive and more vulnerable. Stories make our humanity more available to one another in ways that we desperately need right now.

What has allowed the Loft to thrive and grow over the past fifty years?
Looking at our history there are clear through-lines. We still gather for readings like we did in Marly Rusoff’s bookstore. We still offer workshops for writers who want to improve their craft. We still have classes that folks can engage with while developing in a cohort with peers who are also trying to learn craft. We still have events that celebrate amazing voices and the sharing of stories. Over the years the Loft has supported the proliferation of incredible ideas. The Loft published literary magazines at one time. The Loft hosted a book festival at one time. We’ve had dedicated programs in support of diverse cultural communities. At one time we had an international residency program. We used to have a national prize for poetry and literature. These things are evidence of the creative imagination that has been plentiful here.

Secondly, the network of teaching artists that have been committed to sharing knowledge and supporting writers through the Loft has really sustained our work. We couldn’t do what we do without the talents of the writers and teaching artists who work with us. And strong administration. You know, being a writer, being an artist is one thing; being an administrator can be another thing. The Loft has had a history of folks who are strong in one or the other, and then some are strong in both. An organization like ours needs both in order to be sustained over time. Good resources, too. Minnesota is one of the best states for funding the arts.

One of the things you’re prioritizing as part of your time at the helm of the Loft is experimentation in programming and in how you reach writers and readers. I know you plan to do that with the benefit of input from the community. What drove you toward experimentation as a guiding philosophy?
We have to be a learning organization. That means we’re listening. We’re reflecting. We’re adapting. And in our adaptation we may do things that are unfamiliar, but we’re gonna try it. Having a mindset of experimentation also allows us to reframe the idea of failure. We’re trying to learn. We know we’ll have to let go of some things—things we may have invested in considerably that are no longer serving us as they once did. A mindset of experimentation allows for openness. As one of my mentors and a former staff member at the Loft, J. Otis Powell, would often say, “You have to leave room for the spirit to move.” And in that movement is the kind of insight that comes from real learning. I’m an artist myself. For most of my professional career I have worked with artists. I often use the metaphor of jazz. Miles Davis said, “If you played it yesterday, it is not jazz.” So in order to be vital we have to remain open, to constantly re-create ourselves, and reimagine ourselves and our work. For me, coming to the work as an artist means a different mindset from perhaps a traditional administrator.

A lot of wonderful work is underway, and it’s clear the Loft is not resting on its laurels. As you look toward the future, what excites you?
What we can do together excites me. We work with a wide variety of other organizations, including More Than a Single Story, Mizna, TruArtSpeaks, Cave Canem, Indigenous Nations Poets, Green Card Voices, and others. We have a new partnership with the city of Minneapolis for the Minneapolis Poet Laureate. There’s so much opportunity to leverage our common interests to support our organization’s aspirations and goals. The idea that our whole community in all its complexity can look to the Loft as its own excites me.

The mashup of the social connection that can happen in our digital communities also excites me. We know technology’s not going away. And that digital dimension is a place that we inhabit now more than ever. I also think about how necessary writers are to our common discourse. How can we get to know issues if not through people’s stories? If not from the hard work and research that writers do to craft a poem, to offer a book, to write a novel? There are ways in which we can walk in one another’s shoes or learn from one another’s experiences to enrich and inform the very important decisions we have to make collectively to ensure we have a future as humans in relationship with our planet. There’s a lot at stake in this moment, and writers have a lot to offer. There’s a lot of opportunity for writers to actively engage and to participate in helping us to find solutions to the challenges we face. I’m excited about helping to make sure the Loft contributes to that.

 

Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet, essayist, literary critic, and arts educator based in Saint Paul. His debut poetry collection, Worldly Things, won the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize and was published by Milkweed Editions in 2021, the same year he was featured in Poets & Writers Magazine as a 5 Over 50 debut author.