Natalie Gray was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, and currently is a project manager on the creative Placemaking team at the Arts Commission. She volunteers for mostly creative nonprofits, The Ohio Theatre and Event Center, Food for Thought, TMA. Additionally she sits on 3 boards and some committees, like Circle (Toledo Museum of Art, board and co-chair of programming committee), Toledo Soup (board member and marketing committee), and the Ohio Theatre (marketing and fundraising committees).
What is the Arts Commision?
The Arts Commision is a creative nonprofit in Toledo, Ohio, that is designed to serve artists and inspire a vibrant Toledo.
The Arts Commission designed a Strategic Plan for Arts & Culture (TSPAC) that the city of Toledo has adopted. Part of our work is to make arts accessible and the creative place making work responds to the needs of the community and the goals outlined in the plan. What we do depends on where we are, and we all have ongoing projects in various focus neighborhoods. We use art as a tool for community development, opening dialogue, resident engagement, and redesigning how we use our city.
“Culture is how I got to be right here right now. Part of identifying with a community is defining values and understanding how we came to be.”
Having gone to an alternative art school that is a nonprofit, I knew nonprofits had their own culture. There is a mentality of doing what you can with what you have. I went to the Toledo School for the Arts, which doesn’t get any property taxes, and it’s tuition free. It’s mostly funded by really generous people that want to invest in arts, education, and youth. That’s the future.
I saw the work The Arts Commission was doing in Toledo, the impact it was having, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I’m thankful they’ve mentored my leadership.
Where did your interest in the arts come from?
I think going to school where I did played a huge factor. Toledo School for the Arts is an arts integrated 6-12 school. I was really into the administrative side and curious about the decision-makers. My grandfather, father, and brother are musicians, and my mom is a quilter. All of our family friends are poets and playwrights, so I grew up being really immersed in that life.
What is it about Toledo that made you stay local?
I always say that I’ll stop serving Toledo when it stops serving me. Being from here and having family from here set me up with a network already. I feel really overwhelmed with gratitude because my dreams are coming true and that’s a lot in part because of my support system. I have a multigenerational network, and the women I’ve surrounded myself with are incredibly supportive.
What do you think influenced you most as you grew up?
I come from a line of strong women. My mom is very confident. She flirts with competition and loves the art of the debate. I developed the skill to sell something as an absolute truth. She is a very powerful, principled, no nonsense woman. My grandmother, Martha, grew up in coal town West Virginia without shoes. She thrived on education, left the south as a teenager, worked during WWII, and did every job in the book from elevator operator to toll booth attendant before becoming a math teacher. I inherited confidence and power from them. We have grit. Toledo has grit. We learn to advocate for ourselves because if we don’t do it, no one will do it for us and that really shaped the way I push myself now professionally.
What does the idea of culture look like to you?
Culture is why we are the way we are, and the more I try to answer that, the harder I Iaugh. Why am I the way that I am? Because I’m from a strange place where the local fare is chili dogs? Why don’t Toledoans walk anywhere? Is this a product of post Ford urban sprawl? Culture is how I got to be right here right now. Part of identifying with a community is defining values and understanding how we came to be. Now what can we do with this togetherness? Social butterflies flit around, pollinating ideas from group to group and bring people together. That’s my mission.
What advice would you give girls trying to find their own path?
Don’t do anything you don’t want to do. Learn to say no; it’s one of the most powerful tools we have. I had a really great year because I said no to things I genuinely didn’t want to do. I didn’t need any other explanation than that. You don’t owe anyone anything.
As a women of color, what advantages do you think make you the strongest?
My racial ambiguity is an advantage because people will project onto me whatever they want, so people open up to me which I appreciate. I feel like I have a multi-ethnic superpower where I can translate when there’s a fundamental cultural misunderstanding. Most people grow up in a black or white household, it’s more rare that I got both. Going to Toledo School for the Arts, I didn’t go to school with just my neighbors, I went to school with homeless people and ultra wealthy people, so I think that gave me a major leg up.
What makes you feel powerful?
Connecting people makes me feel powerful. Relationships have changed my life, and all I want is for people to come together. Dancing makes me feel powerful, too, because it taught me that my body can do anything, that I am strong, and that I can tell stories in all kinds of ways.
Photos by @dirtykics