Transcript – Episode 107

Narrator: This podcast is a project of the Mass Cultural Council. We believe in the power of culture – the arts, humanities, and sciences – to enrich communities, advance equity, and foster creativity.

Kim Dawson: How are we giving them actually a menu of different things to experience and choose from while they have time to explore in high school so that they know what is right for them next?

Anita Walker: Hi, I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Kim Dawson. She is Director of Advancement at ZUMIX. And welcome to our program.

Kim Dawson: Thank you so much for having me.

Anita Walker: Now, ZUMIX is one of our amazing creative youth development programs, but for our listeners who may not be as familiar with you, just give us a little summary. What are you up to?

Kim Dawson: Sure. Well, ZUMIX in a snapshot is a creative youth development organization through music. So our primary tool for youth empowerment is using classes in songwriting, instrumental music, audio technology and studio production, and radio to be able to have youth flourish. We have been around for 28 years. We are located in East Boston, Massachusetts, and we work with roughly 1,000 youth every year.

Anita Walker: So a vast experience. And this whole field of practice, which is a field of practice, creative youth development, we’d like to think it was kind of born and raised here in Massachusetts and really nurtured and really grown. And it’s at a point now where your organization is one of those that is thinking about how we take this youth development piece that we’ve been very good at in incorporating the arts and think about where the youth go next, how this work could become a transition to a future of perhaps employment or the workforce.

Kim Dawson: Yeah. So we found ourselves now that our history has been so long at a very interesting point both in terms of our organization as well as our city and state in that our city has been rapidly changing with development and technological and industry boom that we’ve really shifted an eye, primarily because we work with a largely immigrant community of how we can better equip our youth when they graduate out of ZUMIX and out of high school to be able to navigate the world. And a huge piece of that is being able to be paid well to do something that they really love. And so with the changing landscape of our city, we started talking recently in our strategic plan about what is it that we can do not only to– you know, we’ve had this great track record of youth being able to find their voice, being able to find things that they are passionate about, and feeling prepared to go either on to college or to enter the workforce, whatever’s next. But we weren’t as much focused on giving them real work experience or skills and tools that they’d be able to apply to those kinds of jobs unless they were pursuing a career as a musician. And so because of the other types of programming that we’ve done and– like I said, in radio, in audio production, and different types of creative tech, we’ve been offering like a video course, all different kinds of things that we thought, well, we’ve been giving our more advanced musicians professional opportunities to perform for years, I mean really since our inception so that youth know what it’s like and get the experience of being a professional paid musician to work. So what if we tried to start to do more of that in our other program areas so that it not only gives them the opportunity to earn an income, it gives them the experience of being able to work in a real-world setting within what they feel most attracted to in our programming. And so we started to develop that a few years– I mean many years ago, I think about 15 or 20 years ago we actually did that with live sound service, because as our professional musicians were going out to do a gig, they needed amplification. And so we often would provide the sound for our ensembles, and that would be through youth technicians. And that model started to be so successful that other companies started to hire our youth technicians to run sound at different events. And so we call that Z-Tech, and Z-Tech has been doing that for a long time, but it’s really been very much focused on our Z-Tech program as well as our professional musicians program. And so we thought, well, we’re working with all these youth and we’re doing all of these advanced work in all of these other program areas. What could we do to try to formalize that across all of our programming?

Anita Walker: So that’s what you’re in the process of kind of thinking through and taking advantage of that work. You used a word I wanted to hone in on just a little bit, though, because I know you’re thinking about this, too, and that was that word “navigate.” So there’s–

Kim Dawson: Yeah.

Anita Walker: There’s this sort of– there’s the classic default, how do we know if a program is successful? The answer, how many of their kids go on to college? But that sort of assumes that that is the destiny or the best path or the right time to take a path for every single young person who goes through a program and reaches age 18. Talk about this notion of navigation.

Kim Dawson: Right. Well, it’s great that you brought that up, because what we’re seeing is that there’s a need in different creative industries in Boston for youth or entry level workforce positions for a skill set that isn’t necessary to have a college degree to be able to do.

Anita Walker: And $200,000 of debt. <laughs>

Kim Dawson: Right. I mean these pay well. And, then, a lot of companies actually have some different internships and training programs because they’re– it’s difficult to– because there has been such a boom economically and with jobs in Boston to be able to attract people to their environments and positions to be able to train them to do the job. And so some different industries that come to mind that we’ve been in contact with are things like doing sound and lighting for the theater community or presenting organizations, different types of coding, particularly with diverse group– by diverse group populations of students. Like there’s many groups out there trying to recruit more diverse students to be able to go into coding, whether it’s back end or front end for different types of technology companies, et cetera. And so these are some of the folks that we’ve connected with that have identified, well, we don’t necessarily need students with a college degree. We need students who are smart, who are interested in these fields and are willing to learn and work and have some experience. And so we’ve started talking to those types of companies about how can we create a more formal partnership so that some of our high school youth are actually getting internships there and able to do that type of work while they’re still in high school so that potentially when they graduate high school they might even have a path to employment. Really it’s about, I think, back to the question of navigation, giving young people those options so that they have– so that they can see in a society that’s been very driven towards, “You have to go to college. That’s the only way.” And with college becoming more expensive and a lot of our families really being nervous about taking on large amounts of student debt and being able to navigate that <laughs> once they graduate, how are we giving them actually a menu of different things to experience and choose from while they have time to explore in high school so that they know what is right for them next. They know if it’s best. “You know what? I actually do want to go to college because this is what I’d like to pursue.” Or saying, “You know what? Maybe that’s not for me at the moment because I know that I could actually go into this type of training program or have this experience with this company, and I know they’re looking for people, so I actually am employable right now and could go on to be able to do that kind of work.”

Anita Walker: What I love about really sort of the essence of our creative youth development programs that has always been sort of the heart and soul of it is really the agency of the young person. It isn’t about, “So we are here to fix or give you a blueprint, do this and then you’ll be successful.” It’s really about unlocking that agency in young people. And our organizations have been so spectacular, ZUMIX also certainly in particular, around doing that around their own creativity. But to think about the agency of the youth in deciding their own future rather than conforming to a model that says the only successful future is to get into the best college you can.

Kim Dawson: Uh-huh. I couldn’t agree more.

Anita Walker: <laughs>

Kim Dawson: I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s the– I mean that really is the key to I think any type of successful creative youth development, is that empowerment and that agency, because it makes the entire difference in a young– in any person’s life and future, of being able to feel that sense of autonomy and know, “I can do this, and I feel confident doing it. I feel even if I don’t know everything, I know I can learn it because I have that track record.” That’s the secret sauce.


Anita Walker: Talk a little bit more about ZUMIX’s track record over the last 20 plus years, thousands and thousands and literally thousands of young people have gone through your programs. Could you sort of paint a picture of maybe one story that sort of exemplifies what it’s all about?

Kim Dawson: Yeah. Well, there’s two coming to mind, but I’ll start with one. Right now we’re at a beautiful moment in that our graduating class of seniors that just graduated has an incredible depth of talent and experience as well as incredible ambition to go on and conquer the world.

Anita Walker: <laughs>

Kim Dawson: And one of our students who is now 18 has been with us since she was 6 years old. She’s been with us for 12 years. She has been a consistent member of our community that entire time. And she came to us at 6 years old because she wanted to do music. And through the time that we’ve known her, we helped, because of a partnership that we have longstanding with Berkeley City Music Program– her talent and desire was very noticeable from the beginning, and we were able to work with her and then see that she really hungered for something more even beyond what we could provide her. So even at an early age we partnered her with Berkeley City Music and she got involved with Berkeley while always staying connected and taking our programs as well. She went on to Boston Arts Academy and was a musical student there. She’s a singer but she’s also a drummer. She’s also a songwriter. She also plays piano. And now she’s going to Berkeley on full scholarship. But the incredible story about her, though, is that it’s not just how talented she is, which was, like I said, visible from a very early age. It’s that she has become– she’s a leader at ZUMIX in that she sits on our ZUMIX Teen Council, which is a part of the organization that helps us make organizational decisions. They plan their own events. It’s like our youth leadership council. And she sat on that for a few years, and she really is somebody who the other students look up to, not just because of her talent but because there is a deep belief in her that being an artist means you need to give back to society, means that you’re using your art to elevate something that is somehow connected and rooted in an authentic community, and she lives and breathes that. And it’s amazing to see that kind of talent mixed with sensibility in a person as young as she is but also as mature as she is. And so we’ve– just to be able to watch her grow over time, and now I’ve known her for ten years. And seeing young folks like her really grow up in a second home that ZUMIX has become and then know they’re going off into the world to completely take it over is just– it’s a beautiful thing. I think, you know, we get to know a lot of people over time for– the average amount of time that a young person spends at ZUMIX is about 3 years, but to have somebody that’s been with us for 12 is pretty special.

Anita Walker: That’s a wonderful, wonderful story. Kim Dawson, director of advancement at ZUMIX, another one of our creative minds out loud.

Narrator: To learn more about this episode and to subscribe, visit