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Conference Reflections

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Dec 04, 2015

At the end of the 2015 Conference for Community Arts Education, we asked a few delegates to share their reflections on the speakers, sessions, and programs they attended. Here are some of the insightful, informative responses we received:

This was my fourth time attending the conference, but this year was by far the most meaningful experience I've had for several reasons. It was my first conference experience as a recent CAELI alumni, it was the first time my organization, Dancing Classrooms, presented at the conference, and overall the workshops I attended and the insights I gained from them were deeply resonant and relevant, professionally but also personally. What has stayed with me most is the powerful imagery I was left with from so many of the presenters.

Such as the pre-conference session on social justice, where Ama Codjoe told us to imagine a conveyor belt, and that "anti-racism is turning around on the conveyor belt, and going the other direction with increased velocity. It's WORK. You can't be passively anti-racist." Or the powerful closing, where we held hands in a large circle and recited from Assata Shakur "It is our duty to fight, it is our duty to win, we must love and protect each other, we have nothing to lose but our chains."

Or Kwayera Archer Cunningham in her workshop, Leading and Caring, pointing out that "the more power you have and the more responsibility, the more delicate and deliberate you need to become. You're stomping around daisies.” Or having us think deeper about creating a "bridge of synergy" between our work and our personal lives by "mirroring the things you're trying to create and foster in your work into your home and with your family."

But by far the most transformational and inspiring was Shawn Ginwright, both his keynote address and the break-out workshop that followed, which I felt truly fortunate to experience. He passionately declared that we "don't spend enough time focusing on matters of the heart," and then took us all, with our permission, on a journey to doing just that by having us create our own dyad healing community, which was an extremely powerful experience that had us FEEL his message that "the spaces of hope and healing are always possible in our lives" and that "we cannot heal young people unless we heal ourselves." I left that workshop feeling vulnerable, yet more whole and more seen, and excited to bring the ideas back in looking at my own organization's work with youth.

Adriana Borzellino
Director of Dancing Classrooms NYC
Dancing Classrooms


As my second Guild conference approached this Fall, I pored over the session descriptions, debating which to attend. Each time I came to the entry for the Friday session, "Creating Sanctuary through Arts Education," the word 'sanctuary' stayed in my mind. 'Sanctuary' is a good word to describe my experience with the National Guild. The conference has quickly come to represent for me a time to build relationships with people who share my desire to serve in their community. As an arts administrator, I always leave with a fresh perspective on our organization's programs and my own professional development. This year in particular, with several new projects on the horizon, I arrived ready to pause and learn.

The conference immediately felt much larger than the previous year, but the Guild's larger staff did an excellent job of welcoming the attendees. Although there were many faces unfamiliar to me, they were all friendly, and I was quickly reminded of the warmth and engagement that had put me at ease the year prior. This sense of community is what draws us together, and it is also the energy propelling us into our own communities with a renewed vision for how we can serve.

Over the span of three days, I learned new strategies for our early childhood and intergenerational music programs and explored an exciting movement outside the scope of my current work, Creative Youth Development. I had spirited debates over sandwiches about encouraging student participation in supplemental programs, and listened to colleagues describe unusual partnerships that had worked in surprising ways for their community. Standing in small groups over our coffee between sessions, my colleagues and I tried to condense our insights and shared our "Aha!" moments. We sat in rapt attention and learned from Dr. Shawn Ginwright that there are different kinds of hope; we applauded and cried when Lily Yeh shared her story of bringing beauty into the places which need it most. Over the span of three days, we created a community that recognized all of the important work being done, and most importantly, that recognized all we have yet to do.

Last year, I left the conference having had many meaningful conversations, but without any connections that extended outside the Conference. This year, I was thrilled to meet colleagues with whom I have continued to build relationships with, but we live all over the country! The need for easier networking and stronger local communities is an obvious next step, and in early December, Guild Ambassador Karen LaShelle hosted a successful event at Creative Action for the Austin community. While there, it struck me that the event felt very similar to being at a Guild Conference, and I am thrilled to know that the Guild is taking steps to broaden our sense of community outside of the annual conference. I would encourage you to attend ambassador events in your area - the stronger our community arts networks are, the better we will be able to serve our collective missions.

It would be impossible to distill everything I took away from the conference into a single reflection, but the theme of sanctuary has remained with me as I continue to think about the conference and prepare for the coming year. As Susan Teegan said so well, "In order to provide sanctuary for others, you must practice sanctuary in your own life." I am proud to share that in response to what was presented in the "Creating Sanctuary" session, Armstrong Community Music School has become a member of the Trauma-Informed Care Consortium based in Austin, and we will be providing training in trauma-informed care to our staff and faculty in 2016. It is a small step, but an important one, and it is thanks to the Conference and the excellent sessions provided by the Guild that our organization is moving forward to provide more informed care to the children we serve.

Throughout my time in Philadelphia, I felt suspended between two realities. One was my sanctuary, my colleagues, a safe space for self-reflection; the other was home, a place of action, as well as the reason for my journey. While I knew that returning to daily life would challenge the goals I had set for myself and our organization, I felt assured knowing that I will, with any luck, return to the conference in Chicago next year. Next November, after months action and reflection, I know I will find a safe sanctuary to learn and grow from wherever I am in that moment. Until then, I think I will check out some more Ambassador events!

Sarah Beth Gooding
Program Coordinator, Armstrong Community Music School
Armstrong Community Music School


Philadelphia was the site of my first National Guild conference (hard to believe that was eight years ago!) so returning to Philly this November was especially meaningful for me. With a record-breaking number of arts education leaders gathered together in one space, the energy was truly powerful. Yes, we learn through webinars. We stay in touch through conference calls. We creative types can always find some creative way to reconnect during the rest of the year. But every fall, the conference reminds me that gathering together in person is invaluable. 

One of the tracks at this year’s conference focused on leadership development. The track included a conversation with keynote speaker Rich Harwood, a workshop on building organizational trust with representatives from Dancing Classrooms, and a session with Ronnie Brooks designed to build the skills of CAELI alumni. The workshop with Ronnie was a real highlight of the week in Philly for me; the vital energy I love about the conference is intensified among CAELI classmates who have collaborated and commiserated together. Bringing members of various classes into one room was a wonderful opportunity to build on that shared experience. 

Ronnie led a conversation about leaders as facilitators of meaningful and inclusive discussion. We brainstormed reasons people hesitate to participate or resist making a meaningful contribution. We talked about making a clear purpose known to all participants, managing the process (instead of just the content) of a discussion, tying decisions to an organization’s core values, designating a facilitator who is separate from a decision maker, and creating an environment where both extroverts and introverts can make meaningful contributions. (Some introverts need time to think in order to make their best contribution; some extroverts, when given no warning of the decision at hand, will yell the first thing that pops into their head. Others will think those extroverts actually believe what they say.) Ronnie closed with this: when you are asking for the opinions of others, be willing to be changed by what you hear!

Alicia Andrews
Assistant Director
Lucy Moses School at Kaufman Music Center


This year I went to the conference with a specific focus on expanding my leadership skills to support my work as I settle into my second year with Bloomingdale. I found many concrete ideas from the Making Principled Decisions pre-conference session to the Leader as Facilitator session on Thursday. Some of the case studies of how organizations have worked through change, sharing specific strategies and examples of what worked and what didn't work—Dancing Classrooms and Youth Speaks among others—was helpful to see and hear about timelines and expectations.

The keynote addresses were particularly inspiring—focusing on the larger issues around community and social justice, systemic racism and oppression, and the role the arts can play in affirming and connecting our common humanity was very hopeful. It is a privilege to be working in this field at this time while our social consciousness is raised and that the arts can make a positive difference. The conference has really supported that for me—while building connections with other leaders in my neighborhood and across the country. 

One other dimension I found especially helpful this year was that I was able to bring a member of my senior staff as well as my Board Chair, who joined me for the Board Development Institute: Strengthening Trustee Effectiveness, on Saturday. Having time with these leaders away from the day-to-day issues was invaluable to building relationships, getting perspective, and inspiration for how to work on challenges we are facing together. A few comments from their perspective:

In brief, the Board Development Institute made concrete for me, and broke down into discrete elements a number of governance concepts that had been somewhat amorphous and unarticulated. These included: board responsibilities (and provided a road map to assure board members are adhering to those responsibilities) and fundraising. - Ken Michaels, BSM Board President

The conference reenergized me and made me believe more in the work we do, in whatever capacity one might contribute to it. In particular, it made me consider our engagement with financial aid students outside of our MAP and Project Bridge programs, and how we could provide a deeper musical experience and education for them. The site visit to the Settlement Music School also inspired me to consider our group class offerings and scheduling options in order to maximize enrollment and interest, as well as the general usage and availability of our teaching studios. - James McCain, BSM Director of Student Services

Erika Floreska
Executive Director
Bloomingdale School of Music


Since 2008 the national guild conference has filled me with ideas, provided a safe place to think aspirationally, and recharged my soul. At this year’s conference there were the usual opportunities to share good thoughts with friends who care about me, but are removed enough from my work to provide honest feedback. I also drank my annual Ronnie Brooks, Margie Reese, John McCann leadership cocktail that always helps to re-affirm my strengths, yet reminds me where and how to grow. And of course there were plenty of good conversations about fundraising and evaluations.

But this year also felt different. It was full and alive of the real work done on the ground. It wasn't an abstract conversation about change and social justice, but the ideas and work of real people. I was so proud to look around and see so many new organizations and arts lovers and leaders. And truly excited that the People of Color Roundtable spoke to people of color, not just about them.

I also took away many great strategies for connecting to broader communities, which is a major focus right now at Neighborhood Music School.

So thank you good people of the Guild for organizing such an amazing conference that reminded me why I do this work. You should be proud of where you have come in the last eight years.

Noah Bloom
Director of Programs and Community Engagement
Neighborhood Music School


Inspiring, informative, thought-provoking, collaborative, friendly, information-packed, networking, learning and sharing, friendly, and meeting like-minded people from all over the country. These are some of the things that describe the National Guild for Community Arts Education’s 2015 National Conference held in Philadelphia.

I always tell people that this is the best conference I attend each year. It’s like going to a family reunion where everyone is passionate about community arts education! Where else can you dig deep into the arts and social justice, community arts within higher education, race and representation in the arts, creative youth development, and action projects to move the field of teaching artists forward, among many other relevant subject areas? This is like a feast for someone like me who is most passionate about the arts, communities, and being a catalyst for young artists, working within the context of higher education. I am proud that the Guild is willing to take on substantive and sometimes difficult issues in our society.

And of course the amazing people—Eric Booth, Shawn Ginwright, Lily Yeh, Tina LaPadula, Lara Davis, Jon Hinojosa, Jean Johnstone, Beth Feldman Brandt, Leslie Thomas, Courtney Boddie, and many more (I could go on and on here)—all in one place! And then there is the knowledgeable and caring National Guild staff—Heather Ikemire, James Horton, Robyne Walker Murphy, and more—who are listeners, collaborators, responders, and instigators in the broad field of community arts education and its expanding definition.

Thank you for this extraordinary service to our field. Thank you for allowing me to experience the magic of the Village of Arts and Humanities and the murals of Philadelphia. And thank you for bringing us all together to think, learn, and dream. 

Glenna Avila
Wallis Annenberg Director of Youth Programs and Artistic Director
CalArts Community Arts Partnership


I believe this was the best Guild conference I’ve attended. The overall atmosphere was one of reflection and listening, and I feel like I made really strong connections with like-minded arts education leaders. Since returning from the conference, I’ve attempted to ask deeper questions in each conversation—trying to draw more expertise out of the people around me. I feel more creative and more a part of art than I have for many years, which may also be my overall sense after having attended CAELI this past summer. The conference helped me re-immerse myself in CAELI-ness, and helped to further cement many principles that I have been playing with. Overall, there seemed to be a sense of interest in learning—a delightful, energetic nerdiness about arts education. It was very fun to learn in that kind of environment. 

Julia Wilkinson Manley
School Director
Colorado Conservatory of Dance


One of my favorite sessions was Lily Yeh’s Building Community through Exploration and Play. It was playful, rejuvenating and extraordinarily clever. This came at the end of 4 full days of conferencing for many, and so her session was perfectly timed and restorative. Somehow she convinced us to wiggle, sing, dance, act, and to open ourselves up to critique in a way that was fun and non-threatening. She left time at the end of the series of activities for the group to reflect on the experience, and the share-outs were some of the most thoughtful and genuine I heard during the whole conference. She is an extraordinary teacher and leader.

I was also impressed by the panelists and facilitators of Friday’s session on trauma and the sanctuary model, Creating Sanctuary through Arts Education. Susan Teigen, Mike Bryant, and Frank Machos presented complementary points of view and deep knowledge bases. I was reminded of how important it is to pay attention to detail in our work, and of how well-suited artists are to be educators, since both art and education require the ongoing deep examination of craft and the pursuit of mastery. The three presenters and the moderator drew effectively from professional experience and from a highly educated perspective.

Adam Johnston
Manager of Community Engagement Programs
Settlement Music School

This resource brought to you by the National Guild for Community Arts Education.