Alumni Voices, Executive Program, Impact House

Behind the Lens: Interview with Kira Simon-Kennedy

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Kira Simon-Kennedy participated in our Executive Program in 2015 and our Impact+ House in 2018. She talked to us about China Residencies, the organization she founded; “Commodity City,” the documentary she produced; and her thoughts about using art to work towards social change.

The opening shot of Jessica Kingdon’s short documentary “Commodity City” is a wide wall of flowers. It’s hard to know where to look: from the pink and white roses, to bright yellow sunflowers, to rows of pastel petals, it’s easy to miss the shop owner, sitting motionless in the center of it all.

The film continues in the same style, cutting abruptly between shots of vendors at the Yiwu Markets in China, the world’s largest wholesale consumer market. A wall full of clocks frames a man at a computer; a woman and a child sit surrounded by hundreds of pink and purple dolls; a woman paces between two computers, with rows of pliers hanging behind her.

“Commodity City” was produced by Kira Simon-Kennedy, an alumna of CSIS’s inaugural Executive Program for Social Impact Strategy in 2015 and the 2018 Impact+ House for alumni and their teams. Simon-Kennedy straddles the worlds of art, filmmaking, and nonprofit development as the co-founder and director of China Residencies, a network joining artists with creative opportunities in China and around the world.

Kingdon and Simon-Kennedy at the premiere of “Commodity City” in 2017.

Simon-Kennedy’s work with China Residencies began in 2013. Since then, the organization has offered funding to nearly 70 artists, including filmmakers, choreographers, visual artists, circus performers, and writers. Originally a platform to help artists across the world connect with each other, China Residencies has grown into a full-fledged nonprofit, directly supporting artists with resources to find residencies and opportunities, and mentoring the next generation of artists and organizers through fellowships and a fiscal sponsorship program.

“Commodity City” came about through what Simon-Kennedy refers to as her “parallel life” as a film producer. She and director Jessica Kingdon worked together to develop a story that showed day-to-day life in China’s markets. “People have a vague knowledge that things tend to be made in China,” Simon-Kennedy explained, but they don’t know about the entire trading process that contributes to their production. The film offers a glimpse behind the scenes of “how the flow of goods moves through the world, from not just production and consumption but all of the in-betweens.”

Through both China Residencies and “Commodity City,” Simon-Kennedy hopes to alter people’s misconceptions about China. “A lot of people outside of China have a very misconstrued idea of how things actually are over there. There’s a lot of talk on the news that China’s either taking over the world or a really backwards, terrible place,” she says, “but in fact, you know, it’s just–a place”–complicated, with a different reality that’s good and bad, just like any other.

China Residencies started as a side project that Simon-Kennedy began with her friend, Crystal Bell. After Crystal passed away from cancer in 2014, Simon-Kennedy decided to continue and expand the project. Right around that time, she received a LinkedIn message directed at Penn alumni who were executives in nonprofits, which, as she put it, was “technically my title at this side project.” The message was “very well timed”: Simon-Kennedy already knew some things about the art world, but didn’t have as much experience with the day-to-day workings of a nonprofit. “We didn’t have a five year plan, we didn’t have any kind of official board relations, we didn’t think of it in terms of a business that had a marketing side, and a staff side, and a financial planning [side]…We were getting money and giving it to the artists directly, which was great, but there was never any plan to stand on more solid ground, and so the program was really the first time that we thought about all of that,” she said. It helped Simon-Kennedy learn to integrate a wider variety of skills: she understands now how to use tools from the business sector and “infuse them” with the ethics of a nonprofit.

Simon-Kennedy and Bell in Beijing in 2013.

Now, Simon-Kennedy brings what she learned from the Executive Program to the artists and collectives she advises. Through China Residencies’ fiscal sponsorship program, she mentors younger organizations–such as Wing On Wo’s the W.O.W Project, BUFU, and Yellow Jackets Collective–that might one day consider becoming nonprofits, and advises people who are trying to start arts and culture programs for social good. The people she works with might not consider all of the resources in the field of social impact to be accessible to them, so Kira works to “reverse engineer the principles of the program,” offering knowledge and tools without requiring that participants go to school or spend money. She translates the skills she’s learned into a grassroots setting, so people can put them into practice in their own communities.

For Simon-Kennedy, art and social impact have always been closely intertwined. “Fundamentally, the arts and the creative sector are a part of everything we’re doing,” even though people might not see it that way, she says. She believes that everything we see, hear, and experience influences our day-to-day lives and that public spaces, including art spaces, are also civic spaces, where people who don’t know each other come together; they are important to “understanding who we are and how we communicate with each other and what is important to us as people.” “I really don’t believe there’s an ‘art world’ that is separate from the real world,” she says.

Simon-Kennedy teaches a workshop on strategies for finding funding.

Simon-Kennedy and the “Commodity City” team were recently awarded a grant from the San Francisco Film Society to develop a feature film around similar topics. The film will widen the lens of “Commodity City,” offering a “kaleidoscopic view of all the different ways that China’s changing economy is impacting the world,” says Simon-Kennedy. She believes in the importance of visual and narrative communication in social impact work, as they make a stronger impression than just reports and statistics. “There [are] a million different ways to make an impact in the world,” she says, “and the best thing to do is to start with who you are and what you know.”