What’s your name and where are you from?
My name is Suzy Myers Jackson, and I am the Executive Director of Opening Act.
And where are you based?
We are a non-profit based in New York City. Our office is in Brooklyn, and we work with 35 high schools… sorry, we’ll be working with 38 high schools this Fall across the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan.
So, what are you working on here at SPACE?
Our organization brings free, after-school theater programs into the most high-need schools in the city. We have a small but mighty staff of six and, I think, as with many small non-profits and particularly with non-profits working with artists who are juggling lots of jobs and passions, we often get into what I call “whacking moles” during the year, trying to put out fires and get through what we need to get through. We’re rarely granted the time and space to look big picture at the organization and reconnect as a team about what our shared values are. So, that’s what we’ve been doing here. Our goals for this retreat were to get to know each other better as individuals, to reconnect with our shared values and goals within our strategic plan, and to understand how all of our roles and responsibilities work together toward those goals and values.
How have you been using your time here to reach those goals?
We’ve been doing a combo of personal stuff and just downtime together, which we don’t get to often, and then some real, strategic thinking as a group. So, we did some really fun pre-work before we came here. We all had to put together a presentation that explains our personal story, where we come from literally and metaphorically, and how we got to the work that we’re doing now. Some of the people I’ve worked with for five, six years; and I learned new things about them, why they’re invested, and why they care so much about the work we do at Opening Act. So, we did that. Also, before we came, we did this strengths assessment, looking at how we each function best on a team. We were able to share those results and figure out and articulate to each other, “Here’s the best way to work with me, and come to me when you need these kinds of things and I’ll come to you when I need these kinds of things.” That was really eye-opening for us. Then we did a lot of giant sticky note paper of, like, “What are we doing here? What are the values that apply in our programs?” Because we’re all teaching artists as well, so what are the values that lead and guide our work with young people and how does that apply to just our daily work in the office and what we’re doing to make all the pieces come together.
How did Opening Act get started?
The organization was founded in 2000 by a woman, Julia Kamin, who is still very much involved in the organization. She was working educational advocacy, and she was meeting a lot of families and students who were attending tough schools and who were facing challenges personally, academically. She started hearing over and over again from parents, “My child is facing x, y, z challenges; but they joined karate, and every Friday they go to karate for two hours and it’s like they’re a new kid. They founded a chess club at school and ever since then, they want to go to school because they have chess every Tuesday.” So, she realized the really tremendous impact you could have with just two hours a week, that it could be a game changer for a kid. The arts and theater had been her game changer, and obviously she knew the incredible lack of arts opportunities in New York City schools. So, that’s why she started Opening Act.
And how did you get involved?
I came on as an assistant teaching artist in 2003. I was an actress at the time and looking for a way to use my skills and talents that felt more meaningful. I started teaching one afternoon a week at Walton High School in the Bronx, and after a year I just fell in love with the students. Well, it didn’t take me a year to fall in love with the students; I fell in love with the students pretty immediately, and the organization and the work. Then, after a year, through a variety of serendipitous happenings, I was able to take on a larger role in the organization. Actually, I became our first paid staff member, and then I’ve grown with the organization since then into my current role.
So, after everyone leaves here, what’s next for the organization?
It’s a big year for us. We’re heading into year three of a three-year strategic plan. What we were able to accomplish here was to get really grounded as a team about how we’re entering that year, which is going to be an ambitious, exciting, and challenging year. So, we’ve got big goals. We’re actually adding a new staff member in about a month. So, our team will be growing! We’re expanding to serve another high school campus, so we’re adding three schools in Canarsie, Brooklyn. We’ll be trying to increase capacity and revenues so that the following year, we can expand by two new programs and reach our goal, which is to have fifteen programs by Fall 2015.
That’s fantastic! That’s really exciting. So, last question: if you were reincarnated as a farm animal, which farm animal would you be and why?
The sheep seem to have it pretty good here. I like the sheep. Um, I also liked hearing about the dogs that are sheep herders. That sounded nice. Okay, hold on, I’m formulating my thought here. So many options. I’m from Missouri, and my dad grew up on a farm, so I feel like I should have a clear opinion here. I would be… I think I would be a cow.
And why a cow?
I would like to live in a field where my primary job was to, you know, eat grass and swish my tail and produce milk.
Yeah, it sounds pretty luxurious! There are no big concerns for the cow.
I would like to be a dairy cow, just to be clear.
That’s an important clarification to make.
Yeah. A dairy cow.
Interviewed by Arden Armbruster.