Margaret Wilson - CityStep
This year, I am serving as Executive Producer of CityStep, a 35-year old arts education organization that promotes confidence, self-expression, and teamwork in 5th-7th grade students in the Cambridge Public Schools through teaching dance, culminating in a final show featuring all the program’s classes. CityStep was the first “independent service organization” at Harvard College and was founded by a Harvard student, Sabrina Peck. CityStep now has chapters at Penn, Princeton, and Yale, with plans to continue to expand to more colleges and cities served. Sabrina Peck now serves as Executive Director of “CityStep.org," a recently-founded nonprofit organization that serves as an umbrella organization for the four CityStep chapters, pursues alumni outreach and fundraising alongside a Board of Directors, and codifies curriculum-building tools and other materials that are particularly helpful when building new CityStep locations. CityStep.org also assists with alumni engagement, supports teacher training with a yearly training trip in New York, and, among other things, at times funding and community outreach.
CityStep Harvard has three boards - teaching, producing, and music - each with distinct functions, but collectively forming one company. Teacher Board is composed of Classroom Directors (one per class) and teachers, who go into classes weekly in small teams, implementing curriculum and directly working with the students. Teacher Board is overseen by the two Executive Directors (“EDs”), who primarily oversee the classrooms, handling everything from communication with the individual schools and district programs, running extensive teacher training at the beginning of the school year, overseeing all aspects of the classroom, and running the teacher portion of weekly company meeting. Music Board works over the course of the year to compose all of our final show's music, based on the vision of the Classroom Directors and input from their teachers and Cambridge students, as all of our show pieces are original compositions by Harvard students, based on the vision of each class’s CD and students.
Producer Board handles the operations aspects of the group, including finances and budget, fundraising, publicity and design, alumni outreach and engagement, operations, and waivers/permission slips, as well as logistics such as rosters, snacks and food provisions, field trips planning, and aspects of final show production, such as costumes, show t-shirts, merchandise ordering, and show tech. Producer Board is led by the Executive Producers (“EPs”), who run the producer portion of weekly company meeting, or “PBoard” meeting. EDs and EPs work collaboratively on many aspects of CityStep’s management, such as final show preparation and coordination, collaboration with other groups on campus or performances, such as annual events like Arts First and Dance Jam, and communication with our Public Service Network (PSN) advisor, Varsha Ghosh. The EDs and EPs also collaboratively work with Sabrina Peck and CityStep.org, including Luana DeBorst, CityStep.org's Programming Director who assists Sabrina with management of the organization. CityStep Harvard also has two alumni liaisons, Heather Buffo (a former CityStep Harvard EP) and Cassandra Vickers (a former CityStep Penn ED), who live in the Boston area, communicate regularly with Sabrina and Luana, and are available to collaboratively assist CityStep Harvard, particularly with regard to alumni engagement and effective outreach. The creation of the alumni liaison positions is a fairly recent development, along with the creation of CityStep.org, and alumni liaisons' engagement varies from year to year and time of year, particularly as the final show approaches. Rather than overseeing management or making decisions for the company, they serve as liaisons between CityStep Harvard and Sabrina/Luana, as well as to assist where the EPs want to seek collaboration on relevant aspects of CityStep Harvard's strategy, outreach, fundraising, marketing, alumni initiatives, or aspects of final show preparation. EPs have weekly meetings with the Executive Directors, with Artistic Board (EPs, Executive Directors, and Classroom Directors), and with the whole company (during which we split off after 15 minutes for PBoard meeting), in addition to other meetings that pop up for various reasons between other organizations, meetings, and stakeholders.
CityStep is mutually beneficial to the Cambridge students and the Harvard students who participate. While the transformation in our students - their confidence, self-expression, teamwork, and excitement about dance - is arguably the most obvious benefit of our program, the impact on Harvard students is also invaluable, allowing student teachers, musicians, and producers to gain classroom teaching experience with a great deal of responsibility, develop curriculum, explore non-profit management, compose original music, and combine a love of arts with service. Our alums have gone on to make extraordinary contributions in both the arts and education, ranging from Natalie Portman and Diane Paulus, to Max Hodges (Executive Director of the Boston Ballet) and our countless alums who have participated in programs like CityYear, TFA, and now Harvard Teacher Fellows.
In the past three and a half or so years (since I have been a member), CityStep has undergone a lot of leadership upheaval, including restructuring Executive Board and cutting classes from two per week to one. Additionally, transitions between leadership can also be difficult, as there is a massive amount of information to be transferred from one year's leadership to the next, and institutional memory can be lost. Thus, the most difficult part of my job this year has been working off of often limited documented institutional memory and feeling like we were at times having to “reinvent the wheel.” Additionally, over the past two decades, PBoard has shrunk dramatically and now grown again quickly, leading to a lack of defined structure and progression in non-EP producer roles and a need for more progression in roles among PBoard. Therefore, my research question will seek to strengthen the structure and continuity of PBoard in light of the fact that students are only here for four years, and often in leadership roles only for one, and organizations rely on organizational structures, external partnerships, and institutional memory to ensure that student-run organizations have successful futures beyond individual students’ terms. Strengthening and renewing ties with organizations and individuals in the City of Cambridge will ensure that our program remains in the minds of city and school officials and that the greater community we serve is aware and informed about our program offerings and performances in order to increase engagement and maintain a reputation of prominence and meaningful programming. Restructuring/solidifying/defining non-EP PBoard roles will allow for maximally effective utilization of members and their skill sets, while allowing for progression within PBoard roles based on experience and skill sets, in addition to defining roles in such a way that all necessary tasks are accomplished and CityStep’s organizational and operational needs are fulfilled effectively. Building and consolidating institutional memory will allow future EPs to lessen the burden of additional substantial work that results from a lack of organized, recorded institutional memory, requiring extensive gathering and piecing together of information together.
Therefore, my research question is: How can the role of the Executive Producer(s) and Producer Board be best shaped to support the growth and success of the organization and the experiences of our students, teachers, and producers? Specifically, how can 1) community partnerships, 2) structuring/officializing/“titling” of non-EP PBoard roles, and 3) institutional memory building be improved to maximize CityStep’s success and continuity into the future?