YAMA Executive Director Kim Dawson: Artist, Educator, and Humanitarian

For the past 15 years, Kim has been activating young people through the arts as an artist, educator, administrator, and humanitarian. She joined Young Audiences of Massachusetts in September 2012. Kim’s professional life has taken her to London, New York, and Los Angeles, before returning to her home town of Boston in 2008. Her work includes serving as a program director for a music organization dedicated to youth and community empowerment, founding and managing an independent theater company, teaching theater, facilitating workshops focused on building literacy through art-making, and performing as a professional actress. 

Much of Kim’s personal life has been spent on creative humanitarian initiatives with both local organizations and NGOs in Portugal, Colombia, and Brazil. Her recognitions include receiving the 2011 President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the 2012 Massachusetts Nonprofit Network Award for Excellence in Collaboration, and being honored as a Citizen Artist Scholar at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival. Kim holds a BFA in Acting from Boston University and a Masters degree in Arts in Education from Harvard University.


Young Audiences: What sparked your interest in arts education?

Kim Dawson: This is a difficult question to answer because it was not one instance that provided the spark, but rather a growing flame that evolved over many years. I have to start by saying that my personal mission is to support other people in realizing their own creative potential. So I will answer this question through two lenses:  as an individual and as a citizen.  

KD: As an individual, I cannot think of a time when I did not have the arts as part of my education. Of course, my childhood was full of creative exploration – in theater, music, dance, and visual arts – but I did not realize the importance of these experiences until I was in college. I was in a conservatory program for acting and one of the beautiful things about being able to master an art form is that one gets to deeply consider the question:  “Why do I do this?” Acting is the perfect medium for me to learn about people, relationships, various subjects, and the world. For example, I was once cast at Masha in Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” and taking on this role, I not only explored the emotions of the character and the relationships she was involved in, but the “world of the play”. I researched the history of serfdom in Russia along with the political state of Russia in the late 1800s, the writings of Tolstoy and Gorky and the music of Tchaikovsky. This research was always part of my process so over the years I’ve learned an extraordinary amount about various cultures, contexts, and subjects (which will hopefully make me a serious contestant on Jeopardy one day). Theater was my entry point to learning history, culture, science…you name it. This is the real reason I love acting: To me, acting was learning. 

KD: As a citizen, I firmly believe that an effective education brings about success and social change. For as along as I have been an actress, I have also been a teacher. My teaching method has always been aligned with the pedagogy that a teacher is really a facilitator for empowerment. When a person truly learns something, at least three things happen: they feel motivated, they want to exercise what they just learned and they want to learn more. When this is facilitated well, a whole host of other skills are fostered like teamwork, creative problem solving and flexibility. The arts offer a unique platform for this type of learning because the possibilities for teaching the arts as a stand-alone subject or using the arts as a tool for exploring other subjects are endless.

YA: When you were a teaching artist how did you use the arts to teach your students critical literacy skills?

KD: I would always begin with an excerpt of text that the students, who were teenagers, would generally find challenging such as texts from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Shakespeare, and Toni Morrison. My lesson plans were structured around isolating portions of the text. The students would first explore the individual words, build phrases and then sentences and finally paragraphs as opposed to tackling an entire excerpt from the start. After several theater exercises where the students created montages and stories, the students not only understood these words, but they had a strong sense of ownership of them.

YA: You received your master’s degree from Harvard University’s Arts in Education program that enables students to design their own curriculum. What was your focus?

KD: When I started graduate school, I thought that I was on a track towards becoming a college professor and teach theater for social justice. My first semester at school included education theory, the various ways people learn and the future of education. Within my coursework, I focused my research on arts programs at community based organizations that provided for underserved populations (homeless teens, juvenile detention centers, communities with extreme poverty, etc.). Through this research, the nonprofit sector became much more intriguing to me as a sphere that I wanted to work in. As a result, I selected courses in the latter half of my studies around nonprofit management including finance, leadership and marketing. I ended up taking classes at both the Kennedy School of Government and the Business School, which have been extremely informative in my work.

YA: What future projects are you most excited about?

KD: This year YAMA is slated to begin a strategic plan. Having been involved in strategic planning at other organizations, I love how the process unifies staff, board, artists, and other constituents towards one vision. Also, the discussions that usually take place as part of the process are thought provoking and informative. Although it will take a lot of work, I’m really hoping it will inspire and motivate all of us.

YA: What do you enjoy most about working with Young Audiences?

KM: There are two main reasons why I love working at YAMA: the mission and the people. I believe that we are serving our mission of providing arts learning for young people across Massachusetts. We are impacting the students on multiple levels – by inspiring them with exceptional performances, hands-on workshops and arts integrated residencies. Secondly, I have to say that I work with an amazing group of people – my staff, the artists, and our volunteers. 



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