This is a guest post from Cyrus Wadia, Vice President of Performing Arts Workshop’s Board of Directors. 

The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is a national “Day of Service” designed to empower individuals, strengthen communities, bridge barriers, create solutions to social problems, and move us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community.”

There is no better explanation of why I decided to volunteer as a board member for the Performing Arts Workshop.

  • Empowering individuals. The Workshop is dedicated to helping young people develop critical thinking, creative expression, and basic learning skills through the arts. It is about use of the creative process to empower kids both in and out of the classroom.

    Growing up, I was passionate about playing piano – I had no idea why, but I would get lost in it for hours and hours. Scales, pieces, improvisation, writing; whatever it was, it was something I could do myself that didn’t require anyone else. It gave me a sense of inner strength, and as I grew older, discipline (probably the endless scales…) and ability to express my (shy) self in a different way — all of which I have carried with me and still use in my work and daily life. Playing piano ultimately became a way to focus my endless energy and thoughts like meditation, and every time I play these days I get the same out of it as I did when I was 7 years old.

    None of this empowerment would have been possible without a strong foundation in the arts. As a kid growing up in Marin County, art and music was an integral part of my life. It was a given, not a choice, that I would experiment with many different instruments and different types of art, theater, and writing. This started for me in Montessori school and continued all the way through high school. I know now that this experience was an utter privilege – music provided as much if not more to my development as a person as my “normal” schoolwork.

  • Strengthen communities. The Workshop’s Artists-in-Schools and Artists-in-Communities programs reach thousands of youth in public schools, transitional housing facilities, and community centers each year. The Workshop also collaborates with numerous community partners to ensure that it serves

    Flash forward 20 years, and I’m now an intellectual property attorney and in part, work with artists, designers, musicians and other creative professionals to protect their works. I wanted to find a volunteer experience that would allow me to make a difference in the local community through the arts, and remembered hearing about Performing Arts Workshop as early as high school. I went to my first Workshop school visit in 2008, and was instantly hooked. Watching grade school kids under the guidance of a Workshop teaching artist working together to play music, dance, talk, learn how to use the arts to strengthen themselves, was inspiring. It felt to me like what school should be.

    The Workshop provides a fundamental role in the Bay Area, providing arts education in an environment where arts education is under assault; providing in-school classes, after school activities, and classes in facilities for youths who may otherwise never receive arts education. This is the on-the-ground work that strengthens communities and families, every day.

  • Bridge barriers. The Workshop was initially started to provide a creative outlet for inner-city teenagers. The youth we serve include economically and educationally disadvantaged students, English learners, special education students and juvenile offenders. Everything comes back to the Workshop’s longstanding value — the belief that all young people, regardless of social status, identity, or ability, are equally entitled to benefit from the creative process.

    The awe-inspiring part of being a volunteer for the Workshop is being part of a team of people who passionately believe that all kids deserve arts education, and that by working with economically and educationally disadvantaged students, we are working to better bridge the barriers between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” This Mission permeates every decision we make. Board meetings are filled with discussions about how to achieve the Mission, fundraising is centered around the fundamental belief that the more we are able to raise, the more we’ll be able to perform our Mission. The debates we address are fundamental ones about the importance of arts in society, what function arts serve in a child’s life, and how the Workshop can best serve the students, the performing artists we employ, and the Bay Area community. Just being in the room with the other board members and Workshop staff is a privilege.

  • Create solutions. Workshop Founder Gloria Unti developed a teaching method based on the conviction that the creative process is a dynamic vehicle for learning, problem-solving, and communication.

    The Workshop’s methodology is called a Cycle of Artistic Inquiry that consists of five processes: perception, conception, expression, reflection and re-vision — students are taught how to perceive, conceive, express, reflect, and revise artistic creations, deeply engaging students with the creative process. But what has always impressed me with the organization is the ability to translate something as ethereal as the creative process into something concrete — Youth Outcomes in areas of leadership, relationships, focus and concentration, and non-stereotypical choices. The Workshop has pioneered this ability to measure the ultimate benefits of the creative process – something I think many of us believe in our hearts but are unable to measure other than through our own experience.

  • Move us closer to Dr. King’s vision of a “Beloved Community.” He said “our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”

    This idea of a more perfect society is obviously a grand one, but I strongly believe that the work done by Performing Arts Workshop betters our community, our our city, the nation and the world. Volunteering for the Workshop is my very small attempt to do the same.