Public Service Spotlight
Executive Director at New Urban Arts
Tell us about your current public service work. Can you briefly describe your employment organization and position responsibilities, as well as any relevant volunteer or entrepreneurial activities?
I’m currently the Executive Director of New Urban Arts in Providence Rhode Island, a nationally recognized community art studio and gallery dedicated to empowering young people as artists and leaders to develop a creative practice they can sustain throughout their lives. We recruit artists from the community to mentor predominantly low-income teens in free year-round arts mentoring programs in our storefront art studio and gallery. All of our programs are about bringing together young people and artists as peers and collaborators.
As the Executive Director, I wear many hats. I work with the staff to ensure that our programs are effective, meet the needs of our community and stay rooted in our mission, values and strategic priorities. I work closely with the volunteer board of directors on sustaining the organization financially, making sure we have the resources we need to meet our mission. I’m also often asked to participate in policy discussions related to arts, culture and education, and youth development. I try to advocate for the importance of creativity and youth voice in education, things that seem to be under increasing attack in American public education reform. I recently co-contributed with one of our alums, a couple of posts to American for the Arts’ Animating Democracy blog, one on evaluating social impact on the arts and another on creative troublemaking. They reflect some of the ways that as a practitioner, I’m trying to move some needles on bigger policy questions that are important to me.
Please summarize your professional and academic background. What has been a highlight?
I started out as an artist interested in doing community-based work. I always thought I’d be doing collaborative community murals with people in all kinds of crazy places. I didn’t think I’d end up an “arts administrator.” I felt passionately, and still do, that the extent to which kids, especially low-income youth and youth of color are systemically denied arts education opportunities is a serious act of disenfranchisement; that it’s not about art as this nice thing kids should have, but rather, that when you deny certain kids art, you deny them their humanity, your belief that they matter, your expectation that they participate in democracy and maybe even rebel in it. That’s why I started out teaching, mentoring, and whatever I could do to connect my studio art education from RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) to working with young people.
It’s important to me that my roots, like so many Wagner classmates, were in real on-the ground work. I was an artist mentor at New Urban Arts when I was in college. After moving back to NY, I worked at various times as a studio artist, a museum educator, school teacher, and after-school program manager. I also started 7ARTS, my own youth program which gave me the non-profit management and policy bug and drew me to Wagner. I was also really fortunate to be given opportunities by several executive directors to move out of direct service work and to learn grant-writing, fund development and financial management, all of which prepared me for the work I do now.
What led you to pursue a master's degree in Public Administration? Why did you decide to study at Wagner?
I was dead set on starting my own non-profit, 7ARTS, a youth program in Queens. I had (unsuccessfully) applied for a few social entrepreneurship grant programs and decided that I wanted to round out my studio art education, my teaching experience with some hard policy, management and leadership training. As much as I loved working with young people directly, I was learning that I really wanted to cultivate more creative spaces for young people to connect with artists. I wanted to have more systemic impact about what I cared about.
What sold me on Wagner was the cross-sector approach, an interdisciplinary approach. I went to an open house and Kathy O’Regan gave a great talk about public service work crossing sectors: the non-profit sector, public policy, the for-profit sector. She told all of us in attendance that our careers would likely require us to move across sectors to make the change we wanted to make. I bought in immediately. I wanted a degree that took a broad look at social change work, where and how it could happen. I was looking at other degree programs that seemed more like cookie-cutter non-profit management programs (“here’s how you write grants,” “here’s how you do marketing,” “here’s how you throw a fundraiser,” really not very forward looking, just a bag of tricks or skills). Wagner took a bigger picture view and that’s what I wanted.
In your current position, how do you use the knowledge and skills that you gained at Wagner? Which skills do you use most frequently?
Most importantly, Wagner gave me the grounding I needed to be a strategic thinker, to be able to move from 10-foot look at problems (“how do we manage these scholarship funds for these kids coming in this month”) to 10,000-foot look at problems (“we own a building now, what’s our 10-year plan for maintaining and capitalizing this thing?”) and somehow move between them seamlessly (on a good day!).
Reflecting on your academic experience, what Wagner courses, professors, and / or projects had the greatest influence on your professional development? How?
All of the classes had such a great impact on me, but off the bat: I really learned so much about decision making in Micro (Microeconomics) with Kathy O’Regan. It also gave me a frame to think about the different ways that value is created. We talked about increasing the number of mutually beneficial transactions as making the economic pie bigger, like online auctions. That was a fascinating concept for me coming from community and youth mentoring work. At a community organization like New Urban Arts, our transactions are relationships. We’re forging relationships (transactions) that wouldn’t normally otherwise happen, whether it’s kids from completely different parts of town and schools or artists and youth who might live blocks from each other and never interact if it wasn’t for our programs. If mutually supportive and reciprocal relationships occur that wouldn’t have as a result of our work than the social impact pie is certainly bigger.
Program evaluation with Carolyn Berry, one of the best classes I took, is a class I think every management major should take. We’re never going to do a randomized experimental design evaluation at New Urban Arts (nor should we) but I’m certainly glad I understand those evaluation designs. That course has helped me take a disciplined and logical look at everything we do, the resources it takes and for what purpose.
Managing Human Resources with Erica Foldy is all about relationships; it’s driving everything towards a learning conversation. That course made me exponentially more thoughtful about how I communicate, how I listen and how I go after that “third story.” It’s been especially important now that I’m leading such a relationship-focused, values-driven organization.
Reflecting on your time outside of the classroom (social events, orientations, trainings, etc.), can you describe one or two key moments at Wagner that impacted your passion for public service?
I was pretty involved with a lot of stuff outside of school when I came in and that was where most of my practical passion for public service work was being fed.
Are there any programs, opportunities or other aspects of the Wagner experience that you wish you had leveraged during your time as a student?
Between the leadership roles I held in student groups SNEAC (Students Network Exploring Arts and Culture) and WEPSA (Wagner Education Policy Studies Association)http://wagner.nyu.edu/students/wsa/clubs/wepsa.php and working 20-some odd hours/week, being a full-time student and trying to run my own emerging non-profit, I was pretty jammed up and it’s hard to say I have any regrets. I wish I could have been more social and maybe hit more happy hours and networking events; Wagner has a great network.
How are you involved with the Wagner community as an alumnus (i.e. attending events, mentoring students, maintaining connections with other alumni, recruiting at Wagner, etc.)?
Because I’m in Rhode Island, I’m not as connected as I’d like to be (Southern New England Wagner alums, let’s get in touch!). I definitely keep in touch with Wagner classmates; they’re great peer resources. I’ve done a few Wagner panels on careers in the arts and I’m always open to talking to prospective students about my experience.
Prospective students have expressed interest in learning how alumni funded their living expenses and education during their time as a Wagner student. If you feel comfortable, would you please tell us how you made it work?
Wagner awarded me what seemed like a pretty generous partial tuition scholarship. That and Stafford loans covered my tuition and I was able to support my living and other expenses working part-time. I was lucky to have relatively high-paying part-time work too with super flexible hours. It was definitely tough though. I’m also a native New Yorker, so I was cool living out in Queens and not paying outrageous rents to live right near NYU or some other crazy expensive hip neighborhood. I had commuted 1-2 hours since middle school all over NYC, so I didn’t need to be near school now. That kept my costs lower than a lot of my classmates.