This post is part of our “Broadening and Diversifying the Leadership Pipeline” blog salon for National Arts in Education Week 2018.

On my first day as the Arts Education intern at Americans for the Arts, Jeff Poulin (my supervisor) revealed that I, along with my fellow intern Alexandra Benson, would be conducting live interviews around emerging leaders in arts education for a project that would eventually result in the creation of a toolkit of tools and resources. As daunting as it seemed for an intern to undertake, we could not have been more ecstatic. With a background in acting, I naturally gravitate to research methods that are highly participatory. Our research for this project, which would eventually spark the existing tools and resources, was based on intergenerational interviews. These talks captured the nuance of a dialogue between emerging leaders and veterans in the field.

The conversations flowed naturally—each participant was deeply engaged and passionately shared useful anecdotes and expertise. Hearing the “a-ha” moments, the laughter, and the critical connectivity happening between two unacquainted professionals in the field was quite moving. Possibly my favorite part was the post-interview banter that almost always lead to the exchanging of contact information and the planning of a lunch date around the next arts conference. “You are doing such interesting work—I want to learn more,” and “We have so much in common” were the typical phrases.

As an emerging leader in the field, I found this project to be quite timely for arts education professionals coming up through the winding paths that bring each of us to this work. In an age of unpaid internships, I have done my fair share of work for the “professional experience” it might bring. (I’ve also been asked to do arts-related events for free or at a very low cost—presumably because I am a young person and might want the “exposure.”) I have experienced some of these systemic barriers on my professional journey. Living in Washington DC, I’ve noticed that folks live and die by titles. It is my hope that arts education can begin to pull away from that linear mode of thinking and gravitate more toward the concept highlighted in our research—a cyclical leadership—that can foster authentic, diverse, and collaborative work environments.

This year, as a candidate for the Arts in Education Ed.M Program at Harvard University, I seek to continue this discussion with my academic cohort of teaching artists, arts managers, curators, and nonprofit leaders. We each have a role to play in breaking down the barriers for emerging leaders. As a white cisgender man, I know that it is my responsibility to step back when other voices need to be heard. As an LGBTQ individual, I also know it is important to share my unique perspectives for the good of our collective work. I grew up in rural Appalachia and can also share the challenges of carving a path from the hills of eastern Kentucky to a life in the performing arts. Each of us has the power to make a difference in this ongoing effort.

And now, I challenge you: what is one actionable item you can take this year to help break down these barriers for emerging leaders in arts education? Is it to pay your interns so disadvantaged students might be more likely to apply? Instead of always taking on the role of mentor, is there advice that a younger co-worker might be able to share that would improve your work? Is it to seek people of color for your team? Does your organization’s leadership reflect the population it serves? How can you share your experiences as an emerging, mid-level, or veteran leader to influence the progress of diversifying the leadership pipeline? I encourage you to offer your perspective in the comments and with your community.