To the audiences and tellers, workshop attendees and volunteers who collectively connect Milwaukee through real stories Ex Fabula is a big deal. However, if you look at the broader nonprofit world – budgets, staff sizes and operations, Ex Fabula – outsize impact aside – is small potatoes.

That was on my mind when I interviewed board president Jasmine Hawkins and vice-president Alexis Outlaw. Jasmine holds an MBA from UW-Madison, a BA in Organizational Leadership and Development from Marquette and works for a Tokyo based global media agency on ethics and compliance programs for the Americas. She has a lengthy list of other certifications ­– all in skills applicable to board governance.

Alexis holds a BA from Alverno College, a Master of Science of Management from Cardinal Stritch University and is SHRM-CP certified.  As a human resources professional, Alexis currently serves as Assistant Director of Admissions at Alverno College. In this role she oversees a multi-cultural high school recruitment team, serves as the Program Coordinator for the Thea Bowman Institute of Excellence & Leadership – a full tuition scholarship program for black women attending Alverno College – and serves as Adjunct Faculty in the School of Business, focusing on Business and Human Resources courses.

Her education and professional life are all about diversity, equity and inclusion and creating opportunities. As an inaugural Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Alverno, she finds her acumen for Business, Education and Human Resources are resources valuable to organizations and students she consults with. It brings her great joy ­– knowing what would have helped her when she was starting out – to provide that for Black & Brown students, particularly women.

Alexis Outlaw
Jasmine Hawkins

How did a small arts organization founded by a white circle of friends some fifteen years ago attract two Black women with skills and credentials sought by boards of more conventionally prestigious organizations? That was one thing I wanted to learn from Jasmine and Alexis. How did you come to feel that Ex Fabula is worth your time?

A term Alexis coined – Ex Fabula-fied – may provide some of the answer. Alexis found Ex Fabula as a Fellow, a practice in which Ex Fabula was connecting with members of the community to take part in a multiweek cohort of others looking to refine their process around speaking. It was at this time that Alexis found out that executive director Megan McGee was her Bay View neighbor.

Story sharing and event production appealed to Alexis. All the administrative and organizing work she does in relation to Human Resources and Education is focused on providing chances for people to grow. Ex Fabula is all about that and also let Alexis exercise her inner thespian! She took to sharing stories on the stage like a natural. Nearly a decade later, when board member Kery Kafka reached out to tap her for board service, she was in!

Jasmine literally grew up in the non-profit world. Her mother worked in human resources at Vision Forward (at that time Badger Association for the Blind). Jasmine spent hours on site there, developing relationships with staff members and clients (some of whom lived there). They were like extended family. She had her first daughter while working there in the kitchen and the residents even threw her a baby shower.

It was the tail end of the 2017 season when Jasmine was first Ex Fabula-fied. After she had her third and last child, she felt ready to take on a service role. She learned that Ex Fabula was looking for board members through Social X MKE, a DEI consulting group. She didn’t recognize the organization, but did some research and was immediately intrigued. This was 6 years ago, and she has since experienced some cool moments like becoming a storyteller and sharing the stage as a co-host with David Lee.

A highlight she mentioned was the ALL STARS event with an on-stage marriage proposal – when Board member Meghan’s true love Michelle popped the question on the Turner Hall stage. This was the sort of family feeling Jasmine had grown up with.

What needs to be better? Ex Fabula is several years into an intentional push to actively face racism, ableism, homophobia, and segregation rather than default to Milwaukee’s business-as-usual. This mission and will to use storytelling as more than entertainment is what Jasmine terms heart work. The organization acknowledged the optics of having a white executive director lead the charge. Jasmine solicited feedback from other black professionals and uncovered quite a few concerns. Yes, it’s led by an executive director (Megan) who’s an ally with a heart of gold. But is it a white savior situation? Who really leads? Can we truly be safe, be heard? These concerns were passed along to the board to spark critical thinking about how Ex Fabula is perceived.

Michelle and Meghan's onstage proposal

Jasmine and Alexis have answered that challenge by accepting the two top leadership positions on Ex Fabula’s board. To be Ex-Fabula-fied is to recognize the therapeutic, artistic, and unifying potential of storytelling and commit to using it to change the status quo.

Is it easy? I asked about governance. The board is small and has to implement employment rules and policies and raise money to pay a small staff. I asked if this ever felt awkward. Alexis and Jasmine referred back to that family feeling. Board and staff members have been to each other’s homes and socialized, yet they’ve been able to discuss equitable wages and benefits.

Fundraising? That’s a challenge. Alexis talked about growing fee-for-service relationships with community partners and businesses. Providing storytelling coaches and workshops for clients is a way to carry out the mission while bringing in income. That’s an area where Ex Fabula has grown.

Then there are grants. Jasmine praised Executive Director Megan McGee’s grant savvy! Chasing grants takes a lot of time and legwork because each funder has a specific group or issue they want to impact. Grant applications and fund-raising appeals have to be targeted and specific when general support is not forthcoming. Fortunately, there are many Ex-Fabula-fied people who will step forward to tell potential donors about the impact Ex Fabula’s programs have had in their lives.

Other challenges? Well, there was COVID and the long period of Zoom slams. That was about survival, not growth. Alexis also noted that as the organization emerged from the pandemic and went back to live slams, the first event she went to in-person looked a lot like the Milwaukee default. A mostly white space. But this is not a board that shrugs its shoulders and says well we tried.

AfterDark: For the Culture

Ex Fabula now offers Brave Space workshops where tellers-to-be of color can share stories in a place where they won’t be talked over or disbelieved. Alexis and Jasmine also pointed to the “For the Culture” collaborations with HYFIN that are centering Black and Brown artists, while welcoming all. These are curated events that also invite participants to share, with some pull-out-of-the-hat story slots and UltraShorts.

Brave Space and similar programming are also being delivered to young people in schools, after-school programs, and youth organizations. Jasmine would like to see her own older children participate, to strengthen their in-person communication skills. She mentioned transportation as an obstacle to young people’s involvement, yet another thing to consider.

I took personal advantage of this interview to ask Jasmine and Alexis about the role social media plays in Ex Fabula’s mission. They told me that the younger people in the base expect Ex Fabula to live on all platforms all the time, making this a crucial way to grow the network touched by the work. As an older member and volunteer with misgivings too vague to articulate usefully, I appreciated the knowledge they bring from their own networks – as Black women, professionals, and parents.

Ex-Fabula-fied is definitely a real word describing a real phenomenon. Both Jasmine and Alexis were clear that they’re willing – to quote Alexis – to do whatever it takes to grow and guide Ex Fabula in these turbulent times. Any board in town would be lucky to have their energy and expertise, but not every nonprofit does heart work and that’s what they are about.