How to set up a community engagement program that is diverse and inclusive.

In many ways, Los Angeles could be considered an arts education desert. Children are not afforded the opportunity to receive sequential learning in the arts. At Colburn, I was asked to develop a pipeline of learning that was sequential in nature and helped students in the program develop the skills necessary to thrive.Slide1The school altered its mission, ever so slightly, to reflect a new way of thinking about how we engage with our community. Instead of providing “Access and Excellence,” we now provide “Access TO Excellence.” It’s incredible how changing one word makes such a difference in our vision for programming.Slide2My guess is that some of you are thinking. “Wait, if we pursue excellence, isn’t that an elitist pursuit?”Slide3My answer is simple. Programming is not elite if it’s diverse and inclusive!Slide4If organizations are going to tip the scales towards excellence, they should be offering the same type of training that any family of means could provide for their children.

At Colburn we have developed programming rooted in excellence for about 200 students. This is the amount that we can comfortably serve while also giving students an authentic experience in the art form with the right scope and sequence.

How do we do it? Here are the four values we lean on in order to run our programs:Slide51. Programming is Rooted in Excellence and Artistry—By far, our most important programmatic offering is access to top notch training, rooted in beauty for every student in the program.Slide62. Foundational skills building — We strive to start students on their instruments at the right age for them to thrive and then give them the training they need to be successful. Our focus is on beautiful music making by fantastic teachers who are the primary point of contact for the students in the program.Slide73. Help our students be realistic — I love this photo, ha! It is our believe that the pot at the end of the rainbow may not always be what you expect! In light of this, one of the things we do from the beginning is broaden the definition of success for all of the students in our program. Too often, we see that students are hyper focused on an art form and forget how the art can be applied to other parts of their life and career. Slide84. Define the definition of success for all involved with the program — We work continuously to help our students understand that they have their own personal measurement of success.

Here are a two quick thoughts for you to consider as you build your own organization:

  1. Set measurements of success. The Colburn Community Engagement program has two main goals:
    1. Full integration into our Community School—The Colburn Community School has a long, rich history of excellence. Our goal is to matriculate students who complete our community engagement programs smoothly into our Community School offerings, which becomes one of our signals of programmatic success. Tip: If you don’t have another program to establish internal benchmarks, establish partnerships with other organizations to help you benchmark excellence for your organization. Set a goal for X number of your students to become a part of that organization and measure against that goal each year.
    2. College Bound—Only 17% of our country has a baccalaureate degree. Having students that are college bound is a huge success, regardless of chosen career path.
  2. Don’t let current funders dictate your future vision—This is a huge problem in the field. Many organizations fail to make a move towards a smaller program rooted in excellence because they fear they will lose funding from donors or foundations. Tip: Bring your donors and foundations into the conversation at the beginning of the process and have the conversation together. 


How does this resonate with you? What challenges do you face in setting up your own diverse and inclusive programming. I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.

Published by Nate Zeisler

Nathaniel Zeisler is passionate about supporting and developing the careers of artists and artistically minded entrepreneurs. Serving as the Director of Community Engagement and Adult Studies at the Colburn School, Zeisler is working to build a program that offers a menu of services and training to world-class artists who seek sustainable careers, through engagement activities in Southern California. In 2004, Nathaniel founded the Envision Chamber Consort; an organization dedicated to presenting music as a form of contemporary communication. Continuing to pursue connections between the business and arts communities, Zeisler co-founded and led Arts Enterprise, an organization that helps students find sustainable careers in their chosen field. Additionally, Dr. Zeisler served as the assistant professor of bassoon and professor of entrepreneurship at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. As a musician, Nate served as the principal bassoonist of the Ann Arbor Symphony and performed as second bassoonist with the Michigan Opera Theatre in Detroit. Nathaniel earned his doctorate of musical arts and master’s degree in bassoon performance from the University of Michigan and bachelor’s degree in choral and instrumental education from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia.

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