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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

Aaron Dworkin – Lessons in Gratitude

In Lessons in Gratitude, MacArthur Fellow Aaron Dworkin, the visionary founder and former president of the widely renowned nonprofit Sphinx Organization, shares his deeply personal journey. His story is one of perseverance and creativity in the face of financial hardship, mental health issues, and the lifelong struggle to define his own biracial identity, growing up as a black boy adopted by a white Jewish family.

Lessons in Gratitude, A Memoir on Race, the Arts, and Mental Health, also reads like the natural sequel to one of Dworkin's previous publications, which offered his unique perspective on what defines "the entrepreneurial artist." Here, he analyzed the life lessons of iconic creatives like Leonardo Da Vinci and Shakespeare and more contemporary protagonists in music, like Midori or Wynton Marsalis, identifying these creatives as entrepreneurs. In Lessons in Gratitude, Dworkin now convincingly turns his own success story into the source of lessons to be learned from, following the mantra of all storied entrepreneurs: to turn challenges into opportunities.

And indeed, many lessons can be learned from his struggles. Dworkin's vivid descriptions provide emotionally resonant narratives that foster a strong sense of connection while giving a testament to his extensive leadership roles and social activism. His unconditional love for music as an aspiring young violinist and the pain he experienced through lack of racial and social integration at home helped shape Sphinx's mission, which grew into an influential organization geared to address the stark lack of diversity in classical music.

What started as a regional competition has blossomed into a nationwide organization with international standing and a testament to Dworkin's big thinking and unwavering commitment. His vision was clear: "We needed to build a platform that would advocate for those who create at the highest level to disseminate into the field, orchestras, boards, academies, and their chairs and ultimately create true diversity in music."

His Eureka moment finally came to him after many failed entrepreneurial attempts to make a difference in other people's lives and pay it forward while building a life for himself. It came from his awareness of what constituted loneliness and, at times, hopelessness and lack of a sense of belonging, as he describes when finding his true calling in music. " I can motivate young people to practice because competitiveness can bring about a sense of motivation. I can work hard to create opportunities they do not have. We can have a big national competition that would be for Black string players…and give access to additional resources: scholarships so that they could go to some of the top summer programs, get a connection to mentorship and beyond… a network to meet each other, and collaborate musically and create community," he writes. (Dworkin, Aaron P. Lessons in Gratitude: A Memoir on Race, the Arts, and Mental Health. (2024) p.139)   

Looking back now, he says: "there is a lot of gratitude and excitement about the movement that Sphinx has developed, the impact it has had and still has on so many young musicians and their lives, and the change it has brought about, but I tend not to focus on the past," he said in our interview which took place shortly before the release of Lessons in Gratitude. "but there is still so much to be done, and lately, negative influences have also impacted this work. For example, I am concerned about the backlash about what has become known as DEI. I don't define Sphinx as DEI. When I started building Sphinx in 1997, no one even spoke of this easily described phenomenon that seems to fit on a news channel, but really, it is slumping all kinds of initiatives together, turning it into its caricature," he observes.

"While DEI may or may not benefit our platform overall, it can negatively impact Sphinx's work in the long term," he warns. As an educator and social entrepreneur, the former dean and current Professor of Arts Leadership & Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre & Dance is incentivized to find solutions based on connectivity rather than divisiveness. He has had many honors bestowed on him, including President Obama's first appointment to the National Council on the Arts, Governor Snyder's appointment to the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and his membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

"I know many different audiences: people who are white, black, Latino, and Asian; people of various backgrounds, incomes, and politics who are experiencing music and partaking in our shared humanity. I believe that the arts can create spaces to solve problems and share at least emotionally a connectivity that impacts how we treat each other and engage in dialogue. An essential factor of our civil and communal connection is how we are reflected in the arts; can we recognize ourselves within the institutions that shape our mutual future? While the book describes how one garners the resources for an organization that develops positive change, I am also looking at the fact that I was broke and how the negative can impact any groundbreaking creative work," he says.

Not one to shy away from those negatives, in Lessons in Gratitude, Dworkin openly shares details of his struggles, including mental health issues, which are still stigmatized by society at large, including within the performing arts industry. "It is imperative to share this part of my story," he feels, "because many people face various mental health challenges but still don't reach out; it is not just about having resources available but understanding that having the courage to use them depends on a climate of acceptance. I would not let on when I was struggling. Instead, I would downplay the issues to others and, in turn, to myself," he states with great honesty.

There are still many valuable lessons to be learned from Dworkin and his many pathways to creatively express the multiplicity of his talents, which he continues to passionately pursue in his calm and warm yet forward-looking communication style. One such endeavor is poetjournalism, a term coined by Dworkin to describe a news story or other experiences expressed in a poetic form, incorporating elements of emotion, opinion, and creative illustration. Deriving directly from his passion for sharing a particular narrative, both investigative and current news (journalism), yet deemed an emotionally potent deliverable for his deep artistic conviction (poetry), the term "captures stories to be shared in an inviting and artistic way," he explains.

"Since I was very young, I have been writing poetry. As a student at Michigan, I already integrated existing poetry with classical music; we performed works with orchestra, like in the recent American Rhapsody project."Here, Dworkin brings his unique background and artistry to performing arts series and symphonies worldwide. In a spoken word multimedia orchestral work, he tells the story of the American Nation through the prism of his life and the words of American president George Washington, set to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's"Symphonic Variations on an African Air."

"speaking on critical issues in society – as a journalist, and of course, poets have been writing on issues like journalists, so this became my focus. I looked up the word, which did not exist but fit so well in my mind, so I wanted to establish the term and its practice. I did not want to pick topics and broadcast them, but I used what I had learned as a social entrepreneur: You gain impact through partnerships and collaborations. I identified institutions that align with what I want to write about, which led me to become a poetjournalist in residence."

Becoming and fulfilling these roles in associations with organizations like the Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation, Wright Museum of African-American History, Ovation TV Network, Rodham Institute, and Shar Music also informed his last book, The Poetjournalist, and album The Poetjournalist.

Like with Sphinx, collaborations offered new opportunities to build a platform, which Dworkin launched this January and which he hopes will disseminate in the field. "After all, I don't want to be the only poet journalist in the world, " he says, laughing. With the Dworkin Prize, the Institute for Poetjournalism now offers a $150.000 Prize, the largest one in poetry and journalism geared to celebrate the "influence of poetry and journalism." 

If one lesson from all his described experiences sticks with us, Dworkin can connect with others by identifying mutual interests. And it is through music that he writes the "story of mankind, with its melodies and beats – the tragedies, the triumphs, the loneliness, and the wonders. It is part of me that connects me to the rest of the world."(ibid. page 97)

This realization did not happen in a vacuum but was influenced by his early emotional experiences. Some of the close friendships forged at the Interlochen Festival Academy in his formative years made Dworkin realize the importance of arts institutions where he could first experience a sense of community. Some of this community in music became his chosen family, even before he reconnected with his birth family. 

Like all his books, Lessons in Gratitude is dedicated to Dworkin's wife and lifelong partner Afa, who has been present since Sphinx's inception as its artistic director and since nine years has taken over Aaron's Role as its president, and to his two sons, Noah and Amani.





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