In continuing to celebrate Women’s Herstory Month, we sat down with Leslie G. Schultz, BRIC's President, to talk about what it was like being a woman in the legal field, what drew her to the arts, and how her women role models have affected her life.
You went to school to be a lawyer at a time when that wasn’t quite the traditional path for a woman. What was your experience like?
I started law school in the fall of 1980, at a time when great pride was expressed by the administration of my school that almost 28% of my class was female. It was an awakening for me. I’d never been in such a lopsided community before—my high school was of course 50% female, as was my college.
Still, I didn’t initially understand why some people were focusing on me as a woman student as opposed to just a student. As a result, I didn’t at first identify more with my female classmates and I only hesitantly attended the Women’s Law Association dinner that was held a few weeks after school began. But when I walked into that dinner room, which was filled with women and only women, I felt a rush of emotion and a release of tension I hadn’t even known I was experiencing—a physical sensation I remember vividly today. I understood instantly that being in such a male-dominated environment was causing a great deal of unrecognized stress for me.
I later read In a Different Voice by Carol Gilligan, a gender studies book which posits that women tend to approach justice and ethical situations differently than our male counterparts, and suggests that women are often not heard as well as men, a situation which can create all sorts of misperceptions of one’s role and ability to contribute to a community and a conversation. I think that was a big part of what was going on—it was just hard to be heard, and that was stressful.
How welcoming to women was the legal field?
During my years practicing law, I was fortunate to work with remarkably encouraging mentors who helped me grow and learn and simply treated me as a person without regard to gender. Of course there were others who tried to make me see myself as a woman more that lawyer. Here’s one story that makes me smile at this point. I was 27, negotiating a $100 million construction contract, a type of contract with which I had exactly zero experience. Since I didn’t understand much of anything, my approach was to dig in my heels on just about everything—probably quite annoying for the other side, but ultimately an effective strategy from my client’s point of view!
During the heated negotiations, I was across the table from a very macho construction firm executive who at one point (deliberately, he told me later) spilled a cup of coffee and pointedly didn’t pick up the napkins nearby to wipe up the spill. We had a face-off, clearly about who was going to clean up the mess. I couldn’t believe it. I finally picked up the stack of napkins and pointedly handed them to him, for him to clean up. As he slowly and dramatically dabbed at the mess, he said “This is a wife’s job, not mine.” He was of course sending me a quick reminder that in his view, housecleaning was the work I should be doing.
What drew you to the arts sector?
Becoming an arts administrator was not pre-ordained. I was drawn to BRIC initially because it was trying to advance an exciting building project (something with which I had lots of experience by that time), and second because of the set of values that has always informed BRIC’s programming and role in the community. It has been a great joy and learning experience to do my work at BRIC in the context of stunning music, dance, visual arts, and media.
How has being a woman influenced your perspective as a leader?
That’s a great question, and a challenging one for me, as I don’t know how to isolate which aspects of my thinking are attributable to my gender as opposed to some other root cause. I do feel like my understanding of the inevitably complex social dynamics of a workplace like BRIC and the importance of being a listener was informed by being a woman. And maybe my experience years ago being in a minority among an outspoken, confident, sometimes bullying male majority gave me insight into and empathy for the hidden feelings that different types of people might be experiencing in the workplace.
What’s one lesson you’ve learned in your career that you’d like to share with other women?
Here are six, that apply to all genders: Don’t shy away from things that you aren’t familiar with. Ask questions. Never say never (see Wilma Rudolph story below). Process the emotions coming from the workday. And if you are a primary caregiver for someone, know that you are probably more exhausted than you realize. Do nice things for yourself.
Who are your women role models?
I have so many! I try to learn from and emulate all those I encounter with traits I admire. I have always been drawn to stories of those who have overcome great adversity. My mother, a holocaust survivor, is a brilliant and highly informed woman who survived deportation to a ghetto, work camps and concentration camps. She has always loved learning even though she never went to high school—she got her diploma via night studies, and only took college courses when she was in her 50s. She was of course my original role model, and whenever I faced real adversity (such as a breast cancer diagnosis and later a leukemia diagnosis), her experiences and the fortitude with which she navigated them were very much top of mind. When I was a child, I was also particularly inspired by the story of Wilma Rudolph, a track star who overcame tremendous odds as a Black, impoverished, polio victim to become an Olympic gold medalist and civil rights activist. Never say never.
What are you most proud to have accomplished at BRIC?
I think the culture of the BRIC workplace has improved a good deal since 2005 and I am particularly glad to have been a part of that (though surely there is more work to be done). And then of course there is realizing the dream of BRIC House, which plays such an important role in our rapidly changing Borough, as a bridge and place of convergence for so many different communities. The public access funding agreements we negotiated starting in 2008 make me very proud, as they have provided important resources necessary to enable BRIC’s media program to do extraordinary things and to become a national leader in the field of public access television.
I am also really proud to have helped found and nurture the Downtown Brooklyn Arts Alliance and the New Coalition of Culturals in City-Owned Buildings, two quiet but I think quite powerful groups which exemplify how arts organizations can work together in a way that allows us to learn from each other, to support each other, and to effectively advocate for each other.