In this month’s At the Helm, our Senior Consultant Jesse Bryan sat down with Alison Scott-Williams, the President of Studio in a School NYC, to discuss the importance of arts education, her vision for partnering with NYC’s public schools, and her advice for fellow leaders.
Jesse: You’ve had an illustrious career in the arts, holding leadership roles at The Juilliard School and New Jersey Performing Arts Center. What drew you to Studio in a School?
Alison: It was truly Studio’s mission. I have dedicated my entire career to helping underserved students gain access to high quality arts education from wherever they are, using the arts to help them achieve their goals and dreams. Studio in a School’s mission of serving Title I schools, teaching visual arts to the entire student body, and really embedding themselves in the fabric of the school community and the children’s lives aligned with my personal and professional values. Being able to help young people express their authentic voice is extremely important to me.
What are your greatest priorities for the organization? How have they shifted since when you first joined Studio in a School last March?
When I came to Studio, we weren’t even calling the pandemic a pandemic – that’s how different things were. At our core, our goals and commitment remain the same: supporting our partner schools and the students. However, at the same time, I think the pandemic really opened our eyes to the access gaps that exist in the public school system and in education in general. We had to reframe how we deliver our services. We went to our partner schools and asked, “How can we best support you? What kind of help do you need?” Our ability to partner with schools in the ways that worked best for them became a high priority.
I joined Studio with a vision of how I wanted my first year to go. I imagined visiting our schools and sitting down to talk with principals about how to be better partners. But of course, my plans and our priorities changed dramatically and rapidly at the onset of the pandemic. I’m proud to say that through it all, we were able to keep our artists employed and our schools well-supported.
Can you share more about how partnering with schools looked different over the past year and a half?
Well, we went from an in-person model to virtual to hybrid, and now we’re back in-person. It’s a full circle moment for us.
I think one of the biggest takeaways from this period has been the importance of social-emotional learning. We learned to really listen to the children and to recognize how they were communicating what they were feeling and experiencing through their art. There were so many instances where we asked children to create self-portraits and they drew pictures of themselves wearing masks. We had children caption their artwork with sentences like, “I want to feel happy today.” They were expressing quite clearly how the pandemic was impacting their emotions and well-being. To see that level of expression in so many children—from our littlest learners all the way up to our high schoolers—underscores the power of art. Art has always had a healing quality about it, but during this pandemic, I think it has become essential for self-expression.
A commitment to diversity has been core to your career. How does this inform your work at Studio in a School?
Studio was founded on the mission of serving Title I schools, which are often located in our most under-resourced schools and communities. Embedded in that mission are the principles of inclusion, diversity, equity and access (IDEA), and our organization has an ongoing commitment to use these principles to inform how we teach and what we teach.
We also recognize that making progress with IDEA requires ongoing and consistent work, recognition, and awareness. It’s not like you read the book, put it back on the shelf, and don’t have to think about it any longer. As an organization, it’s important that we continually advance our IDEA efforts and do so in a way that meets the needs of our community. I think it’s also essential that we instill upon the next generation that they should feel empowered to call on these principles in how they govern their own lives.
You are currently seeking a new Director of Development. How will this role—and your investment in creating a comprehensive fundraising program—impact the organization’s future?
For our Director of Development, we’re looking for a leader and a thought partner – someone who can stand side by side with me, my colleague Tom Cahill, the board, our programming staff, and the artists to help us tell our story more widely. We need someone who has a passion and vision for philanthropy, and who loves talking about great student artwork, sees its value, and can help donors understand how important Studio is to the fabric of New York City’s public schools and beyond. Philanthropy today looks very different than it did 50 years ago; there are different levels and there are different ways to measure outcomes. We’re excited to find someone who understands this and can communicate our impact to a national audience.
Is there any advice you would like to share with fellow leaders?
I think there is a great deal of comfort and fellowship to be had when you surround yourself with fellow leaders and community partners. For me, that’s been a critical way to stay engaged and informed.
My biggest piece of advice would be to listen. I think it’s the most important thing you can do as a leader – listen to people at every level of your organization, from top to bottom. Unfortunately, we often feel like we do not have the time to listen in the way we want to and it’s one of the hardest things to do, but we have to make that time. Only by listening can we galvanize everyone to produce the kind of change we hope to see.