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Community Spotlight: Renee Benson

Credit: Temple of Zen

This month’s Community Spotlight features Renee Benson, a Nationally Credentialed Teaching Artist uniting children and communities through education, arts, and culture at Young Audiences of Louisiana. Renee is also a musician, having toured in more than 15 countries including performances at the Glastonbury Music Festival, Eurovision, and Vienna’s Life Ball. NAS recently checked in to see what the inspiring leader and graduate of the 2021 Executive Program in Arts & Culture Strategy is up to!

Tell us about what you are currently working on.

As the Director of Education at Young Audiences of Louisiana, I have the responsibility to create programs that enrich the lives of our youth and the communities in which we serve.  Two years ago, my colleagues and I designed a program to support BIPOC teaching artists in the area to ensure that our organization began actively undoing harm caused by bias in hiring and staffing. Transformative Change Initiative or TCI, and is a one year paid fellowship program consisting of monthly mentor meetings and career development opportunities in both arts education and artistic and administrative practices.

What are you most proud of in doing this work?

What I am most proud of about this work is the overwhelming enthusiasm and shared interest expressed by program staff in the organization to do racial healing work in other facets of our organization.  This Fall, we were awarded a generous grant by our national organization to develop and implement a community engagement program that moves us actively away from prescriptive programming design to being engaged in the community through a listening tour consisting of asset mapping, community events and increasing the opportunities for our children’s caregivers to have a voice and impact in the work we do. Ultimately, this program asks the caregiver to answer this golden question, “Does this organization love my child and the community in which it engages?” Thank you NAS Fellow, Mariah Rankin Landers for being an extraordinary thought partner in this project.   

What’s the biggest challenge facing this project/your work? 

The biggest challenge to sustaining the work of TCI is securing funding to sustain this program for years to come, whether obtained from grants or unrestricted funding. The question is always in the back of my mind, “When does equity, diversity and inclusion work take a back seat to another pressing issue in our nation?”

How has your NAS experience assisted this project/your work?

There have been numerous benefits in being a part of the NAS community. The leadership in Arts Administration course that I attended through NAS in partnership with UPenn was not only full of resources and meaningful discussions with my peers in this work but seemed timely as I was moving into a senior position at my organization during a pandemic and major layers of uncertainty including Hurricane Ida. Honestly, it was the gathering with other colleagues in this industry that helped me endure the dynamic and near catastrophic nature of the last 24 months working in an arts education organization in New Orleans. As I write this, a tornado is hours from approaching this city.  I believe this experience gave me the confidence to continue forward that I have been abale to offer my staff, teaching artists, community partners and school leaders.  With the NAS community on my side, I have a place to reach out for guidance and the resources that ensure the success of the work we do at YALA. Also, as a mid career vocal artist, I have been able to utilize many of the learned skills from NAS into my art production endeavors including the work I to do overseas. 

How can the NAS community learn more about the work you do?

You can learn more about TCI and Young Audiences of Louisiana on our website www.ya4la.org. If you want to learn more about my musical endeavors, you can visit Requiem for A Stranger, an expansive work of music, movement-theater, and sacred spaces created by physical theater company Vagabond Inventions that explores the heartspace of grief and loss at www.requiemforastranger.com. To learn more about the original  experimental opera about the adultification of Black and Brown girls in the United States  Leelah (produced in Austria) of which I wrote the book with composer Vincent Pongracz please visit www.lee-lah.com.