ALIVE Q&A: 2015 Class Women of Achievement Award-Winner Sara Burke

By Laura Schilli
In Culture

As a community leader with a love for dance and a mission to empower her city through the arts, Sara Burke has been quite an inspiration for young leaders in the St. Louis community. She was honored May 5 at the Ritz-Carlton in the category of “Cultural Enrichment” as part of the 2015 class of Women of Achievement

Women of Achievement recognizes women for their volunteer services and leadership in the St. Louis area. This year Sara Burke was recognized for her efforts to increase access to the arts, diversify the arts community and provide opportunities for minorities. She plays many different roles: owning and directing The City Studio Dance Center; being an active dancer, teacher, choreographer and arts consultant and serving as board member of numerous art organizations.

Also, as commissioner for the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), Burke has made a difference by funding recent African-American graduates with the Katherine Dunham Internship. This internship is an opportunity that calls for diversity among cultural institutions and provides students with the opportunity to succeed in arts management.

Sara Burke took a moment to share with ALIVE her enthusiasm for receiving this outstanding achievement award and to discuss her passionate motivations.

Sara Burke. Photo by Wesley Law.

Sara Burke. Photo by Wesley Law.

ALIVE: First you were a recipient of Grand Center’s 2012 Visionary Award for Outstanding Arts Professional and now you are being honored in Cultural Enrichment for the 2015 Women Achievement Awards. What is your reaction to all this excitement?
Sara Burke: It is very overwhelming! I always think it’s a mistake … The Women of Achievement Awards are so out there, and I looked at all the other women who received it years before, and I felt so humbled. What’s so amazing is that my mentor in dance, the legendary Katherine Dunham, the mother of black dance … I studied her technique and studied with her in East St. Louis in the 1970s. She received this award and she has also received the Kennedy Center Awards. This woman is beyond: She broke so many barriers of color; she marched for Haiti. When I saw that Katherine Dunham had received this I was like, “Okay this is totally not happening!” This is the woman who really carved out who I am today. That has been driving me to be a volunteer, to do all of this stuff that is a pleasure for me to do. I love it. I care about diversity; I make it happen. It’s really important to me.

ALIVE: You have such a busy schedule, between owning the City Studio Dance Center and being commissioner for the Regional Arts Commission, as well as being a board member for numerous organizations. What has been your favorite part about working with these organizations ?
SB: What has been very fulfilling for me has been being a commissioner for the Regional Arts Commission. I really enjoy it, and what has been so rewarding is, as an artist myself, that I can be at the table where we award very large sums of money to all of the art organizations in our city and also be able to fund small groups who are edgy and are making a difference, who are young, doing work for the community, doing work for Ferguson. That has been really rewarding.

This year I am especially gratified because I was able to lead the charge to get a new grant called the Community Social Impact Grant, which was a direct response to Ferguson and to the artists who are working in Ferguson … This is really powerful, and we need to keep, in my opinion, making change. The arts has historically broken barriers, and that is where we had made some changes, and we’ve had access to power because the arts tends to be more inclusive. So this grant … funded 75 people. They didn’t even have to be not-for-profit. They just told us what they were doing, and our committee read about it and we released funds. It was so gratifying because we had so many people.

And this was the great news: We made it a permanent fund at RAC, and we funded it with $200,000. As a funding organization we acted so fast, and all the commissioners were behind us. It was unanimous …

The other part about RAC is pretty great. I have a fellowship [the Katherine Dunham Internship] that’s endowed by my husband and myself for an African-American to get into arts administration. They will be paid for their time at RAC for their internship. We have five different interns … I want to see the arts diversify. I really do.

ALIVE: What had originally inspired you to want to volunteer your services  fostering the art community and providing opportunities for it to be accessible for all?
SB: I grew up in a really privileged city and background, and my family has always said, “This is not really how the whole world is. Not everyone has three cars. You have to realize it’s a big world out there.” So we had foster children when I was growing up, and we had two brothers and sisters that came and stayed with us from Cuba. When I was growing up I really was exposed to a larger world—even though I grew up in Green Bay, Wisconsin … the only people of color were the football players. It gave me an incredible learning experience in my own home having foster children who were from all different backgrounds, and it just made my life so enriched.

When I came to St. Louis, I found out that Katherine Dunham was going to have a school and a company, and I just thought, “How do I get to East St. Louis? I’ve got to find a way.” I met her drummer from Senegal, and that is how I got there. I think from then on that’s why volunteering meant so much for me, because Ms. Dunham would often say, “This river for you is an ocean between East St. Louis and St. Louis.” It just informs everything, so for me it was really about, “How can I share my own power? I really am privileged—how can I make the table I’m at? How do I share that?”

I will no longer serve on any board that’s all-white, and … [if it’s] a board that has hope, I make sure I bring someone, and I say, “I would like you to put this person on the board.” Someone who might not have access to power. That’s really important to me. I’m at the point in my life where I have the power. I plan to use it; I do use it. I put people at tables who maybe wouldn’t get there because I think you have to share your power.

ALIVE: You use the word “share” a lot, and I don’t think people generally think to “share” their power with others. It’s a very generous act for someone of power to do. Can you share some advice for young people who aspire to be a leader that makes a difference to the community?
SB: When I opened my own business, I remember thinking, “Do not think about it: If you think about it, you’ll talk yourself out of it.”

I think when you are young, it is the best time to start making connections. I tell this to every young person: Get a mentor. I love to mentor young people. It is the greatest pleasure in my life. Again, you receive access, wisdom, information. Life is a long road, and you have a lot of setbacks. It’s a way to get you to start early, because when you start to learn and have the power of your own, the minute you can mentor the next person, you will be so fulfilled. It’s all about volunteering yourself. It really is, everyone has something to give. Start now, do it now.

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