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Aaron Dworkin


Sphinx Overture Program

400 Renaissance Center
Suite 2550
Detroit, Michigan 48243
Aaron Dworkin is a 2005 MacArthur fellow, President Obama’s first appointee to the National Council on the Arts, and founder and president of the Sphinx Organization. He’s dedicated to providing young people of color in Detroit and Flint the opportunity to succeed in classical music, however they define that dream.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Sphinx Organization Founder and President Aaron Dworkin: As it relates to the team of Sphinx, I see myself as a support person. One of my key priorities is to make sure everyone at Sphinx has the resources to be successful in the area they’re focused in and to be very supportive of people who are on my team. It’s also the ability to look at the mission and the overall goals of the organization and see it from a macro perspective. It requires the ability to step back from single goals and look at them in totality -- to see the forest while you are in the mindset of trees. There is also the passion that a leader should have; you should be the most passionate about the work you’re doing. You should be the one setting the tone and creating the culture for the team of people who are going to realize that dream together.
What is your dream for kids?
For the young people who come through Sphinx, my dream is that they’re able to realize their dream. In other words, I don’t want to project what I think is best for them onto them. My vision might be that they should grow up to be the world’s best
When I look at the academic impact of arts, they are essential to the success of young people and the overall social fabric of the community.
soloist or conductor, to have success and be a leader in the field and in the performing arts. But they have to have their own dream, and we provide them the experience, resources, and training so they can realistically achieve that dream.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
I would say the impact of education and the lack of access so many underserved communities and underserved young people have, to not just be exposed to the arts, but to have the opportunity to develop a talent or craft in their art form. We are able to provide that to young people who would not otherwise have the opportunity. When I look at the academic impact of arts, they are essential to the success of young people and the overall social fabric of the community. Arts are a way in which we can share the cultural differences that we have in a way that celebrates them and is exciting and serves to break down the manmade barriers around our differences. We’re just creating spaces and places and opportunities where our various cultural expressions can be demonstrated through the arts.
How do you know you’re making progress?
There are some pragmatic issues: we have hundreds of students we are working with in our educational programs, thousands of students attending performances throughout the United States, and for live audiences, we reach billions through broadcasts -- but we also know we are building diversity across a cross section of classical music. We know the number of African-American and Hispanic soloists has doubled since Sphinx’s inception; we know we have at least partial credit for that. We can look at our sold-out audiences at Orchestra Hall and see the need. When Sphinx was founded, it was unheard of for soloists of color to solo with an orchestra; now it happens routinely; there once was no orchestra made up of
I'm hopeful we are in a constant state of evolving, doing new things I'm most proud of, because otherwise we're stagnating and not doing what we need to for our community.
African-American and Hispanic musicians. Now we have two. And our alumni are going on to the best music schools in the country.
What are you most proud of?
My sense of it is that I am always striving to not have there be one singular moment that is what I am most proud of. I’m hopeful we are in a constant state of evolving, doing new things I’m most proud of, because otherwise we’re stagnating and not doing what we need to for our community. With that said, seeing our young musicians walk onto the stage of Carnegie Hall for the very first time and bring their talent, their music, and their cultural identity to a space many of them viewed a unattainable makes me very proud and very emotional.
What role have networks played in your professional career? How have those networks, both personal and private, affected the work you are able to do?
The reality is that networking is a core part of any important endeavor that involves any significant cross section of society. No matter how much you are personally invested in a particular project or mission, you simply cannot accomplish it yourself. You have to be able to achieve goals through relationships and connections to others, even those within other fields and disciplines. The ability to do that is in large part defined by strength and breadth of networks. It’s a pivotal role, and we have been able to develop personal relationships. Without that we would not have been able to achieve what we have so far.
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