The arts have a place in every conversation

By Maggie Waller, undergraduate dance student, School of Film, Dance and Theatre

Photo of Maggie Waller
Maggie Waller

What place do the arts have in the business sector, particularly in a commercial furniture business? How can young people be an integral and important part of the conversation when it comes to innovating organizations, redesigning protocols, and moving processes forward in new and exciting ways? What does leadership look like? Why is joy such an important component of the workplace? When can we create spaces where intergenerational, interdisciplinary learning and exchange is taking place, and what is the beautiful potential for growth that exists within those spaces?

These were the questions that Justin Villalobos and I were thinking about during our semester-long residency with Goodmans Interior Structures in Phoenix, Arizona, in the Spring of 2019. As students in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University, we participated in the project as a part of the Institute’s Design and Arts Corps. Design and Arts Corps is an initiative that tries to solve problems in the community through student leadership in the arts. It is the embodiment of socially-engaged practice, looking at how the arts can be the leading voice in identifying, deciphering and eliminating certain difficulties in private, public and nonprofit sectors.

Photo of hip-hop dancer Maggie Waller dancing
Maggie Waller

As dancers, specifically hip-hop dancers, we were tasked with increasing workplace incentive to participate in workplace-led volunteerism and with increasing the amount of joy and positivity at Goodmans as a whole. We were both used to working with kids, but this would be the first time that either of us really worked with adults in this way. At first, we were nervous and unsure about how we would connect dance with the seemingly unrelated goals of the company. But, under the guidance of Stephani Etheridge Woodson, professor and director of Design and Arts Corps, we knew we had the skillsets and the open minds necessary to accomplish what was asked of us (and what we were asking of ourselves).

We started with what we knew. We knew rhythm, we knew teamwork and collaboration, we knew the impact of embodiment and physicalization. We knew how to play with the relationship between the individual and the collective. We knew improvisation. And we knew play — this is where we began. The employees at Goodmans, and the president and CEO Adam Goodman himself, were so open and excited about the process. While Justin and I did not give much context or explanation in order for them to really be present in the experience, everyone remained ready for whatever tasks, exercises or questions we threw their way. In every session, people were participating, having fun and engaging with themselves and with others in new ways.

One of the things we were most struck by was how much physical, mental and emotional trust the employees placed in us to lead them through an experience; this trust allowed us to gain new leadership skills and explore our own ideas about how dance and business can be in conversation. Through pre-surveys and post-surveys, along with statistical data taken after the residency, our team was able to see a near 300% increase in volunteerism across Goodmans. Employees also reported, through written feedback and verbal conversations, that company culture was more joyous, positive and playful during the time we spent at Goodmans and well after we left. Justin and I went into this process with little to no expectations. But, finding out that we had met both of the goals that we were initially approached with and exceeding the amount of progress that either of us thought possible was tremendously gratifying. Our time at Goodmans was inspiring, challenging and deeply beautiful.

This experience was not only valuable in the moment, but it was full of little pockets of knowledge and experience that I am now able to take with me as I continue building my career in dance, in activism and in socially-engaged, community-centered practice. I learned many things throughout this process, one of the most impactful being that the arts have a place in every conversation. It is bigger than dance, bigger than music, bigger than painting; it is about looking at what these artistic forms unlock for people, what they cultivate in relationship to humanity and connection, what potential they have to change the world for the better. Discovering this value in what I do and in the field that I am in expanded my confidence and the scope of opportunities that I could see myself engaging with in my professional career.

The experience taught me the leader I want to be: a leader that is understanding, empathetic and open. I learned that leadership is not about perfection, but rather about bringing people together under a shared vision and being the most authentic version of yourself in the process. I learned that “mistakes” are beautiful; “mistakes” are where the magic happens. Finally, I learned that collaboration, conversation and creativity are the keys to making our communities, our nation, our world a more supportive, connected and just place.

The arts have a place in every conversation was originally published in ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

ASU Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts