From Shy to Fly—How the Arts Developed My Self Worth

Posted by Erika Hawthorne, May 11, 2018 0 comments

I first realized I had the power to create change through the arts in a small camp in my hometown, Rockford, IL. I was just a little girl trying to muster up the courage to get on stage and perform when I attended the Rockford Area Arts Council (RAAC) Camp for Young Creatives. Waiting backstage with knots in my stomach, fingernails digging into my fingertips to distract from my nerves, I reassured myself I knew all the moves. “I got this,” I thought to myself, “...but wait! What’s step one again!?” The music starts and my body takes over, making all the right decisions on time. All that was required of me was trusting my capacity to pull it off.

It was before I knew what it meant to be a woman of color and the importance of representation in leadership roles, and before I could speak intelligibly about diversity, equity, and inclusion in the arts. Starting at the age of five and into my teens, I spent every summer at RAAC Camp exploring and building confidence in myself through the power of dance, music, theater, and the visual arts.

I developed parts of my character in these arts programs, befriending kids from diverse backgrounds and challenging myself on a stage to bare my soul in front of an audience—only to be received with overwhelming applause and support. The camp’s staff was comprised of community members who resembled the campers’ demographics. It mattered most to have leaders who not only looked like me, but pushed me personally to solidify my self-confidence and self-efficacy as a young, shy girl trying to develop a sense of self-worth and identity.

RAAC offered me my first professional experiences, too. After aging out of the camp, I continued my engagement with the organization by serving as a Teaching Artist, participating in their artist apprentice program (ArtsPlace), interning, and eventually becoming the RAAC Camp Director. Sharon Davis—now serving as the Executive Director of the Rockford Area Arts Council—continually opened doors for me and even allowed me to maintain my engagement after leaving Rockford to attend Howard University in Washington, DC. Sharon’s nurturing leadership created a space where I wasn’t afraid to take chances. The opportunities she provided allowed me to gain experience beyond my years, helping to launch my career at an early age.

Throughout my journey in the nation’s capital, I’ve been fortunate to gain mentors and invaluable experiences including an internship at the National Endowment for the Arts, which led me to the Arts Administrators of Color DMV Network (AAC). AAC serves as a safe space to process my experiences as a person of color with like-minded people who share my passion for the arts and social justice. It is a space to build relationships, share ideas, ask questions, be heard, gain incredible mentorship, and to find a sense of belonging.

Last year I participated in AAC’s first cohort of the mentoring program, where I was paired with Pam Breaux, president and CEO of the National Assembly for State Arts Agencies. Pam’s patience and attentive ability to listen helped me investigate my world and realize my agency to gain control over my circumstances and create change. Her empathetic leadership style exemplifies how I aspire to be. Through working with my mentor, I achieved the goals in my action plan and have successfully been accepted to American University where I am currently pursuing an MA in Arts Management and Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management.

My experience with the mentoring program motivated me to get involved with the AAC Planning Committee to be a part of helping this organization grow. What I love most about AAC is the “for us by us” culture where people of color who are working in the arts come together and get engaged in exciting ways, whether it’s through the mentoring program, the professional development events, or the social networking opportunities.

Quanice Floyd, the founder of AAC, taught me that being an ally is too passive for the high stakes we currently face in our political climate. Marginalized communities need “accomplices” willing to actively engage in advocacy to address issues facing our communities. I’m invested in positioning myself in a space where the arts, social justice, and philanthropy intersect to break down barriers facing historically marginalized communities.

In a recent AAC mentoring session, we were fortunate enough to have Aaron Dworkin speak with us about “The Power Within You.” He left each of us feeling inspired and highly motivated to go after our dreams with enthusiasm and strategy. He said, “The more that what I am doing is aligned with what I am passionate about, the more empowered I feel to do that work.” While I sometimes still feel like that shy girl afraid to take the stage, I recognize the importance of my presence in the field to open doors for others like me. I’ve learned that stepping up even when you’re afraid is where your power to inspire soars the most.

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