“I believe moving through the world as a fat person develops useful leadership qualities, not least of which are empathy for people who’ve been pushed aside, an ability to intuitively read people and situations, and resilience in spades,” begins Fallon Young, the Executive Director of the New Orleans Film Society.
The Film Society’s mission is to discover, cultivate, and amplify diverse voices of filmmakers who tell the stories of our time. They have a professional development program that helps to ensure that Southern storytellers have the tools they need to create new films in and about the region. New Orleans Film Festival is their largest endeavor each year, featuring 230+ films.
Young is responsible for overseeing the business management and strategic direction of the organization, and is fundraiser-in-chief. She is quick to tell me that she doesn’t do this work alone: “I have a Board of Directors and an incredibly passionate and talented staff.”
I met Fallon back when she was living in San Francisco and running a large community arts space in SoMa. She stood out professionally both because of her clarity of vision and the fact that – like me – she is fat. She was one of the first plus-size women I met who was in a visible position of leadership and who spoke openly about size-based bigotry and body acceptance.
She’s been blowing my mind ever since.
I wanted to know what it’s like being plus-size and a boss at a treasured institution in a high-profile city. And I wanted to know how she got to this place. She told me, “Having a body that society considers deviant because it is unabashedly fat, queer and heavily tattooed, drove me to follow my passion for supporting artists and storytellers, especially others whose voices are marginalized.”
She didn’t start out in the non-profit sector.
“After years working in the tech and legal sectors, I was eager to immerse myself in and to help forge artist-led and artist-centered spaces that embrace diversity, individuality and creativity. In order to do my best work I needed a working environment that allowed me to celebrate who I am, and I wanted to create that for others as well.”
The shift came with its own set of challenges. Young said, “I experienced a fair amount of trepidation before stepping into my first role as an Executive Director because of the intense pressure to raise large sums of money quickly from individuals, corporations and institutions. My deep and raw fear was that, in just being who I am, I would somehow inhibit an organization I love. I knew that many donors give not only to organizations who do great work, but because they believe in the organization’s leadership, and that many people still unjustly associate fatness with poor decision-making.”
Young pointed out that this is not an experience that happens in a vacuum: “We still live in a world that systematically demoralizes fat people and that can lead to a quicksand of self-doubt. We tell ourselves: tomorrow I’ll have the courage to wear something to work that doesn’t hide my shape. Tomorrow I’ll stop shrinking myself for the benefit of others’ comfort and speak up when someone criticizes my food choices, or the man cat calling me on the street on the walk to my office uses the word fat as a slur when I refuse to give him my time or attention. Tomorrow I’ll step forward to lead, or affirm my worth in my workplace by trusting more deeply in my own leadership.”
Though dealing with this kind of bigotry at work is both unfair and painful, Young follows up by saying, “Although I still worry sometimes about being underestimated because of the way I look, I’ve found that if you’re smart, bold, passionate, articulate and persistent, those misperceptions and biases can often be overcome and you can systematically uproot those beliefs just by being your authentic and powerful full self as a fat person. And when those misperceptions can’t be overcome, there’s another donor who will be energized by who you are and the impact you and your organization have in your community.”
I asked her if there had been a turning point in her decision to talk openly about who she is and her body size at work. She told me a story about co-curating a multidisciplinary exhibition featuring visual artists, performing artists and filmmakers who addressed the stigmatization of fat bodies. It was called Second Helpings, at SOMArts, the San Francisco based arts and cultural center where she worked.
“The opening event was the largest gathering of fierce, fat bodies I have personally ever seen in one space, and in curating the show I was able to access and foster deep, meaningful conversations about the lived experiences of fat people and build community for myself and for others. It was also the first time I’d ever really openly talked about my own fatness in my workplace. Fat people have unique and sometimes overlapping perspectives about what it means to create, heal and thrive in a fat body. Learning about the multifarious ways my fat community pushes back against the stigma fat people face––because it’s still socially acceptable to be openly prejudiced against fat––was inspiring and eye-opening for me.”
She said that because of this experience she’s been able to be more open in all aspects of her life around her fatness. “I speak up when I encounter fat shaming or fat negativity, and I ensure my team knows they have my support to speak up about what they need to feel comfortable and safe as well. I’m much more open about the fact that I celebrate my own fat, femme, queer body.”
I asked her how this impacted the work environment she was creating at the New Orleans Film Society.
She said, “One of my employees told me recently I was the first fat boss she’s ever had, and it makes her so much more confident and comfortable at work knowing there isn’t pressure from her boss to look a certain way, or judgment that she’s not capable and effective in her job because she’s fat. That means so much to me.”
She believes a good boss “needs to amplify their organization’s strengths and balance its programming against its capacity, especially in a non-profit setting where people are so passionate about what they do and can easily overextend themselves.”
Young continues, “As a leader, I am constantly learning that self-care and restorative practices make me a better boss and more valuable to my team. As a fat, queer woman, I’ve always felt I had a lot to prove to dispel the myths that fat people are lazy or somehow underachievers or incompetent, and in some ways I think that has often driven me to overextend myself in pursuit of my goals. I’m learning just how much I set the tone for work-life balance within my organization, and that I am responsible for the health of my organization at every level, from its success to the wellness of every person who works toward that success.”
When asked who inspired her, she said, “Arts administrators who dedicate their lives to supporting artists and storytellers so rarely get the recognition they deserve for the important, behind-the-scenes work they do. Maori Karmael Holmes is a filmmaker, writer and curator I admire who has founded not one but two artist-centered film festivals – Black Lily Film & Music Festival for Women and BlackStar Film Festival – to give a platform to artists who might not otherwise have equitable opportunity to produce and showcase creative work. Maori has been entrenched in the arts, film and nonprofit sectors for decades, and earlier this year she stepped up to become the first Executive Director of Array Alliance, the nonprofit arm of director Ava DuVernay’s independent film distribution and resource collective. I am so excited to see what she will achieve in that role. I admire Maori’s vision and tenacity, and I relate to how forthcoming she is about the ways that investing in a career focused on arts and activism has challenged her capacity to invest in her personal practice as an artist. I also admire her for forging vital and vibrant spaces to support artists who don’t get mainstream attention, and audiences who are hungry to experience this work and to see themselves reflected onscreen and behind the camera.”
I asked Fallon if she had any advice for an aspiring plus size boss. She said, “We’re out here, living rich, full lives as fat people, and creating the world in which we want to live. Advocates and role models from within our own communities are everything in the fight to end stigma and shame for fat people so that we can lead more joyous lives. I encourage you to hold yourself gently, gather your courage and move boldly forward. You’ve already got what it takes, right now, in this fat body.”