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Zakiya Thomas: Young people, essentially, will be the patrons of the future. But beyond that, they are also the workforce of the future, and I think the key thing to note here is that if leaders are not necessarily thinking about that now, then the reality of that shift will catch up with them later.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Mass Cultural Council, and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. I’m delighted that our guest today is Zakiya Thomas, because she was a long-time member of the Mass Cultural Council, but now, she is working at the Boston Symphony Orchestra as Executive Director of Education, Community Engagement, and Inclusion, and welcome to our program, Zakiya.
Zakiya Thomas: Thank you so much for having me, Anita.
Anita Walker: I think I don’t know anyone who has done more work in the Greater Boston community, around community engagement and inclusion, than you. You’ve worked at the Ballet. Where else? You’ve worked at…
Zakiya Thomas: The Museum of Fine Arts Boston and now, again, the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Anita Walker: So talk to me a little bit about what your observations are around this community as our cultural organizations are really eager to be more inclusive.
Zakiya Thomas: Absolutely. Cultural institutions, as you know, are complex organizations, and I think people know that, in theory, but they have no idea what it means to, actually, manage all of that change and, actually, think about the vision and the strategy for community engagement in organizations that are large, small, and medium sized. And those organizations certainly are organizations who are seeking to uphold excellence, in terms of the artistic craft, but they’re also really thinking about the relevance of what they do in every single context. What I’ve certainly seen is that organizations are interested in continuing to grow and expand how they work with people and how they engage with people, in terms of what they do, but one of the greatest challenges is capacity. What is their actual capacity to get that work done, and how are they resourced, certainly, to do that work? First and foremost, I think that having done work in each of those cultural institutions, the Symphony, the Orchestra, and also, the MFA and the Ballet, I’ve certainly seen that there are capabilities at every level of the institution, but it’s often difficult to tap into those capabilities, and so I think that, going forward, the leadership is certainly tasked with thinking about how to use those resources differently and in a manner that allows for sustainability.
Anita Walker: So if you were going to walk into a new organization, maybe one that doesn’t even exist yet, and you have all of this experience behind you, what is one of the first things you’re going to be looking for in the organization? What are the first steps an organization could take, as it’s trying to either improve its capacity to be more inclusive and engage more of the community?
Zakiya Thomas: I think it’s important to take an audit of what the current challenges are and what the key opportunities are, but to do so in a manner that is inclusive. I think, oftentimes, organizations are challenged with gathering information at every level of the organization, and really tapping into ideas from staff who are younger staff, who are newer, as well as staff who bring in enormous amount of historical information to the table. And so I think that that is a fundamental part of information gathering, but also, an opportunity to harness and gather new ideas.
Anita Walker: So a lot of it is right there, sitting in the desk next door?
Zakiya Thomas: Absolutely, and listening, but also thinking about how to implement, and thinking, I think, most importantly about three key things: What is the guiding philosophy? What is the leadership strategy? And how does that leadership translate into the way that the organization gets managed.
Anita Walker: So you use this term, “the institutional narrative.” What does that mean?
Zakiya Thomas: When I think about the institutional narrative, I think about not only the art form, but the history of the art forms that are presented, and I also think about– particularly, thinking about the way in which that narrative is communicated to communities, and how those communities are connected to that narrative. So for…
Anita Walker: Give an example.
Zakiya Thomas: Yeah, absolutely. For example, if you think about the life of a composer and think about the work that’s been produced, it’s incorporating our thinking about the historical narrative, not only of that composer, but also thinking about the context that surrounded the particular composer and artist. What is their life story? What were their challenges? What were their life trajectories? And thinking about how those things actually went unpacked. Provide an opportunity to create relevance for a given community and for a given audience, or for a community partner, for that matter, and I think that those things are absolutely fundamental in thinking about how to be successful and engaging communities and individuals within those communities, no matter whether they’re adults or young people.
Anita Walker: So it, kind of, starts with storytelling and understanding stories and sharing stories beyond just the notes on a page?
Zakiya Thomas: Absolutely. I often think about my own story and how I was invested in at an early age. My mother was a career educator and I studied violin starting at age five, and also studied piano, at her request. <laughs>
Anita Walker: <laughs> Or insistence.
Zakiya Thomas: Or insistence. But I think the key thing about my experience is that I had a lifelong exposure and lifelong access to arts and culture, and I had parents who, essentially, curated my educational experience, and I think that when you think about that kind of trajectory and you think about the key touchpoints or the key opportunities to do so within cultural institutions, it is possible to actually do the same thing at an institutional level. If every facet of an organization, or every person in an organization, is dedicated to the education process, no matter what their day-to-day role is, then there is an opportunity to really curate the experience, not only of the traditional audience member, but also, for individuals who may have a passive engagement with the organization or who have had no knowledge or no experience with an organization, at all.
Anita Walker: You know, one way that I think a lot of our organizations are thinking about the audience of the future or bringing in diverse audiences is working with youth. Is that a good strategy?
Zakiya Thomas: It’s absolutely a good strategy, because what it does is recognize that the dependence on the audiences that exist today is actually not sustainable. That young people, essentially, will be the patrons of the future, but beyond that, they are also the workforce of the future, and I think the key thing to note here is that if leaders are not necessarily thinking about that now, then the reality of that shift will catch up with them later. I think every leader in a cultural institution has to ask themselves what they think the real capabilities are of the young people who engage with them, both actively, passively, and/or not at all. And I think, in thinking about those kinds of things, they have to think about whether or not the management structure that they have facilitates the ability to work with young people, effectively, and whether or not the leadership strategy that exists is one that incorporates young people and thinks about them holistically and ensures that they’re engaged fully. With that in mind, I think one of the things that’s incredibly important is to think about how young people get integrated, both as individuals who are being cultivated as audience members, but also, how they fit into a workplace or human capital strategy for an organization.
Anita Walker: So you need to think beyond, “Oh, they could be in the audience. They could get a job here.”
Zakiya Thomas: They could get a job. When we think about a holistic education for young people, we think about whether or not they’re having an education that allows for them to have strong interdisciplinary knowledge. We want them to understand science, technology, arts, education, every aspect of the world around them, and one of the key components of that is thinking about how that skill and how those awarenesses are applied. The application process is important, and if you think about most people who are working in cultural institutions, they’re doing more than what is expected. They may be performing on stage, but more than likely, they are not. They are working in finance. They’re working in the marketing department. They’re working in all different areas of the organization that require a knowledge and exposure to the arts and a passion for it, but also require a multitude of additional skills, and when we think about creative youth development, what we’re thinking about is also power and positioning. How do you empower young people to think about all of the options that are available to them, in relationship to cultural institutions? But how do we position them so that they can select and take advantage of opportunities that they may not currently know exist?
Anita Walker: So what are some real tactical pieces of advice that you could give to organizations that may be listening to this podcast?
Zakiya Thomas: I think the key thing is to define what the relationship could and should be for any given audience member. I think working in partnership and in tandem with a community and individuals within that community is key and fundamental to that work. I think the other piece of that, too, is also creating a shared vision. If the vision is owned by one organization, but is not owned by a community, then it’s not going to be successful. It’s not going to become all that it can be. But then, also, actually, putting some strategy around what it means to get from the initial stages to a finished product, as you would do with anything within the context of an arts organization. I think too often, the ideas that are generated between and among community members are, kind of, conceptual and remain conceptual, or get documented but never used, and the goal here is to, essentially, make sure that there are actually metrics and that there are actually goals and action steps that are implemented along the way.
Anita Walker: So you’re talking about evaluation. It’s not…
Zakiya Thomas: Absolutely.
Anita Walker: …just best intentions.
Zakiya Thomas: Exactly. Evaluation is key, and accountability is key. When we think about how we are accountable to ticket holders, when we think about how we’re accountable to the audience in terms of presenting art that is excellent and of high quality, we ensure that there’s rigor around that, and there needs to be the same degree of rigor around how we work with communities and the kinds of outcomes and outputs that we expect to see.
Anita Walker: So lots of times, I think organizations would, sort of, think about, “Okay. So evaluation would be numbers. How many people?”
Zakiya Thomas: Evaluation can mean much more than that, and the numbers matter. The breadth of the engagement matters, but the depth matters, as well, and when we think about quality, we also have to think about expertise. One key thing that I often think about, particularly as it relates to creative youth development, is how knowledgeable are staff members in any given organization about the developmental needs of any young person, any child? A lot of energy is often spent investing in educators who know the artistic craft very well, but may have not had the opportunity to expand their own knowledge of the social and emotional needs of individual young people, or the context or the environments from which they’re coming. And so there is the need to really engage, both the educators, the practitioners, in that kind of learning and growth and development to ensure that as programs get implemented, as ideas get generated, that they are, in fact, executed with excellence and high quality.
Anita Walker: You’ve touched on something that is near and dear to the heart of the Mass Cultural Council, as you probably know, and that is this whole idea around professional development for teaching artists. We have teaching artists, literally, in every realm, whether it’s in the classroom or in senior centers or in parks. But there have just never really been a lot of really focused professional development for teaching artists. You’re an artist and you teach, and that’s pretty much the qualification.
Zakiya Thomas: True.
Anita Walker: So the Mass Cultural Council, in partnership with a major foundation in Boston, last year launched the first professional development for teaching artists in creative youth development, as you’ve mentioned creative youth development in our conversation here today, and little did we know that this has never been done before. But it goes to your actual point. It’s more than knowing the technical rigor of the art form, and includes the youth development part of creative youth development, and all of the other facets that affect a young child’s life and trajectory.
Zakiya Thomas: Absolutely. The ability to empower educators and to empower them in a variety of different ways is critical, if the goal is to produce results that are, in fact, high quality, but also results that can be replicated in meaningful ways. The goal is not simply to facilitate exposure. I think, in most cases, the idea is to generate and cultivate long-term engagement and commitment to the art form, and that can only be done if there is a cognizance or an awareness of all of the things–the external factors, essentially–that impact someone’s ability to engage with the art. And I think that long-term investment in professional development is fundamental to ensuring that that kind of outcome actually exists.
Anita Walker: What’s wonderful about this new professional development for teaching artists is it does recognize that it is a field of practice.
Zakiya Thomas: Yes.
Anita Walker: And first, we have to call it that.
Zakiya Thomas: Exactly.
Anita Walker: <laughs> That’s the first step, and then, the professional development, even just assembling the community, just convening, just calling it a practice and bringing teaching artists together, and respecting the fact that they are doing something that is defined.
Zakiya Thomas: Well, I think, people often think about teaching artists as doing something that comes naturally, but what, in fact, they are doing is really outlining a certain way that practice gets implemented, and I think what we expect from teaching artists is something that is creative, but something that is often not thought of as being rigorous in nature. But what we know, from engaging with teaching artists, engaging with individuals who work directly with them, is that there is, in fact, a process, and that process is just as important as what they are able to produce, creatively. We would never look at the private sector and not assume that there’s research and development happening that produces, you know, pharmaceuticals that matter, and so why would we assume something different of creative practice, that there is no research involved, that there is no development process that ensures that you have high quality product?
Anita Walker: So to pull the threads of the conversation together here, what you’re saying is intentions are wonderful, ambitions are great, but a rigorous process that has measurable outcomes that are, perhaps, even deeper than how many people come to the show, are all part and parcel of a successful strategy around inclusion?
Zakiya Thomas: They are. And I think what they do collectively is create an infrastructure and an architecture on which ideas and great art can actually be made.
Anita Walker: Zakiya Thomas, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Zakiya Thomas: Thank you, Anita.
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