LeeRay Costa Discusses Inclusivity and Transformation

For the second presentation in the Women Influencing the Arts speaker series, LeeRay Costa, Ph.D, co-founder of Girls Rock Roanoke, came to speak to us about Girls Rock: Inclusivity and Transformation in Nonprofit Arts Education. As with the members of Bechdel Project, LeeRay Costa discussed the lack of female representation in the music industry. She shared with us what inclusivity means to her, how she has seen the power of arts education foster transformation and confidence in young girls (as well as  the adult women who teach in the program)  through the Girls Rock program, and how important it is to support one another as women and so much more.

What is Girls Rock Roanoke and what do they do?

Girls Rock Roanoke is a volunteer-run nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower girls and women through music, creative expression, and collaboration. Girls Rock Roanoke fulfills its mission by hosting two weeklong camps each summer for girls ages 8-11 and 12-16. In these camps girls participate in a range of activities including forming bands, learning an instrument, how to compose a piece of music both musically and lyrically, and stage presence. At the end of the week, each group performs for their peers, family, and community members in a showcase to exhibit their new found skills and sense of self.

Girls Rock Roanoke is part of a larger organization called Girls Rock Camp Alliance. Girls Rock Camp Alliance was formed after the initial Girls Rock camp, based in Portland, Oregon, led to the creation of camps in multiple cities around the U.S. and world. Girls Rock Camp Alliance acts as the parent organization for all Girls Rock camps all around the world. It provides resources, connections, and training to each independent camp for its key staff and board members.

How Girls Rock Roanoke was started

LeeRay shared the story of how she and her family watched the documentary Girls Rock! The Movie, and were so inspired that they began researching how they could get their daughter involved in the program.

When her daughter Tallulah  was old enough they went on a family vacation to allow her to attend a weeklong camp at Girls Rock North Carolina. Each day Tallulah would come home from  camp she was more and more excited about the things she had learned that day, such as learning to play the drums and what it means to be a woman. Over the course of the camp, LeeRay saw her daughter’s confidence increase, watched as her daughter became more and more empowered, all while her daughter learned valuable life skills.

LeeRay was so impressed with the transformation she saw in her daughter she decided to launch Girls Rock Roanoke. LeeRay saw a need and has worked to empower the girls of the Roanoke Valley through this special rock music program.

Why is it important?

LeeRay shared with us the following statistics to demonstrate some of the issues young girls face in today’s society.  


  • 80% of all 10-year old girls have, at some point in their lives, gone on at least one diet (2012, Keep It Real Campaign)
  • 47% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported wanting to lose weight because of magazine pictures.
  • 69% of girls in 5th-12th grade reported that magazine pictures influenced their idea of a perfect body shape.
  • 42% of 1st-3rd grade girls want to be thinner
  • 81% of 10 year olds are afraid of being fat (National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders)
  • Episodes of depression among female adolescents almost 3 times that of males


These issues are impacting girls at a very vulnerable and delicate time in their lives, adolescence. A time when young girls are figuring out “who” they are as individuals, their sexuality, and how their bodies function and, unfortunately, there are not a lot of resources or support for girls during this time to help them through this difficult exploration and discovery.  

LeeRay explains, “as a Women’s Studies professor I teach primarily female identified students and watching their lack of self esteem, seeing the things that they’re bringing up and witnessing the lack of self esteem and self confidence in women my own age and older, I thought this is just unacceptable and so, if we can have an intervention early on maybe we can make a difference.”


Where are the women in the music industry?

Not only does LeeRay’s work with Girls Rock Roanoke combat the lack of confidence and empowerment in young girls, it also introduces them to the art of music making. In today’s world the presence of women in the music industry in lacking. Below are just some of the statistics


  • 67.8% of all music industry jobs are held by men, 32.2% by women
  • Membership of songwriters and composers in PRS for Music is only 13% female (total, 95,000)
  • Only 15% of label members in AIM (Association for Independent Music) are majority-owned by women
  • Statistics consistently show women in music earn less than male counterparts (Huffpo UK, AIM)
  • Of 321 members in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, only 44 (14%) are women (Quartz)


LeeRay explains that within  this climate girls can, “encounter the feeling of ‘this space is not for me, this is a male dominated space, and this is uncomfortable for me.’” She also explains that boys seem to have more access to resources which encourage their growth within this field and when in a co-ed environment, girls can be made to feel as though they don’t belong so they begin to withdraw. By allowing them to participate, explore, and learn in a gender specific atmosphere, we are encouraging young girls to flourish so when they return to those co-ed situations they feel confident and can “hold their own.”


Operating a completely female-run organization

LeeRay expressed the importance of having an all female organization. By seeing women in the roles of: leaders, instructors, musicians, and production technicians, young girls are more likely to see themselves in those roles in the future. However, due to the nature of the business and the society in which we live, this can raise challenges. Below are some of the challenges which LeeRay addressed for her and the volunteers of Girls Rock Roanoke.


As she pointed out earlier in the conversation, the presence of women in the music industry, ranging from performers to the business and engineers, is minimal. Finding women with the expertise to operate lighting and sound and musicians to teach has been a real struggle.


As Stacie Huckeba describes in her Huffington Post article, A Professional’s Perspective On Sexism In The Music Industry, sexism is a real issue in the music industry. She tells the story of being called a BITCH being talked down to by a male sound engineer who treated her as if she was not incapable of handling sound equipment she uses on a regular basis.

Because of the bias (much of it unconscious) in this field, when the leaders of Girls Rock Roanoke have borrowed equipment from others, there has been the underlying suspicion that they are incapable of operating it and a fear they will break it.

Lack of confidence

A lack of confidence is not only present in young girls, but it is sometimes also an issue for the adult women working in the camp.  LeeRay describes the challenge of finding people with enough confidence in their abilities to teach the girls and to lead them in specific activities.


We would love to hear from you! Share your story!


The Joyful Quill: Inspiring the Creative Self

During my quest to find influential women in the arts to feature on my blog, I discovered a writing group in Blacksburg, Virginia called The Joyful Quill. After a little research, I discovered this organization was not only run by two women, it was founded by them as well! I knew I had to speak with them about their lives as writers. Fortunately, Jenny Zia and Lesley Howard welcomed me with open arms into their studio where we discussed their journey as writers, The Joyful Quill, and challenges and triumphs they have faced as women in the field and life in general.

Lesley Howard

Lesley Howard


Jenny Zia









Jenny and Lesley have been writing together for over 20 years in various writing groups. Lesley had been a part of a writing group whose guidelines for criticism and feedback were inconsistent and lacking boundaries. One night in a group meeting, Lesley had shared a piece of work with the group only to be, in her own words, “eviscerated” by a fellow group member. This experience led Lesley to quit writing for an entire year.

While on a trip to Asheville, North Carolina, Lesley came across a lovely little bookstore where she found, “Writing Alone and With Others,” by Patricia Schneider. Lesley explained the message of the book was, “you don’t have to have a Ph.D and you don’t have to be destroyed from the ground up as a writer to learn craft. And furthermore, everybody has a voice.” This truly spoke to her.

Using the philosophy, everyone can write, Pat Schneider created, managed, and directed  the Amherst Writers & Artists (AWA) group in 1981. The AWA is now an “international community of writing workshop leaders committed to the belief that a writer is someone who writes & every writer has a unique voice.”

Shortly after reading Pat’s book, Lesley discovered an AWA certification program in North Carolina which she and Jenny both quickly signed up for. After they both completed certifications in the program,  they decided to create a writing group of their own in the New River Valley fostering a nurturing and welcoming environment for writers of all skill levels. In 2013 Lesley and Jenny started The Joyful Quill. Jenny describes the work they do as, “building on people’s strengths and providing positive constructive feedback.” She goes on to explain  how their goal of creating “a place that would be safe for people who were venturing into writing and useful for people who wanted to take it further” was a key factor in the impetus to create The Joyful Quill.

I  then asked Lesley and Jenny, what has impacted each of their writing over the years.

Lesley shared her experience with a month long writing retreat where she didn’t have to worry about anything other than writing. This allowed her to dive deep into her writing and gave her the permission to experiment with new ideas, some being successful while others were not. Lesley believes this practice is important to all writers along their journey so she and Jenny have established their own writing retreat for The Joyful Quill members. During these  retreats Jenny and Lesley provide lodging, meals, workshops, and feedback to the participants.  

Seeing as how this is an important part of Lesley’s writing process, I asked how she incorporates this into her daily life. As we know, finding time to oneself in today’s hectic routines of meetings, work, families, relationships, and extra curricular activities can be extremely difficult. Lesley says a supportive spouse has been key to allowing her to make this a part of her life. Also, establishing early on in the relationship that this was something which was important to her and would be an ongoing thing has made it an expectation every year versus a question up for debate. The whole family knows that “mama goes away to write.”

Being a mother has also shaped Lesley’s writing over the years. After the birth of her first child she was also working on her very first book. Knowing her new infant would require much of her attention, Lesley became very good at managing her time. She would set strict deadlines for herself and work when her baby was sleeping. This improved her ability to focus and stay on task during short periods of time.

What are some obstacles/challenges you have faced?

Jenny describes her challenges as being that of a personal nature of having too many interests. She is currently interested in tapestry weaving, writing young adult novels, and poetry. She characterizes herself as being easily distracted and believes in order to build a writing career  she would need to focus more on one specific area, something she just has little  interest in doing at the moment.

Being a woman from England the differences in American English and British English have proven a challenge. She shared the story of waiting for an oil delivery for her furnace. When the gentleman arrived, he was having a hard time reading the oil level through the small window so Jenny asked if he would like a torch to assist in his visibility. Seeing the horrified look on the man’s face, she quickly realized this was the incorrect word choice and immediately corrected herself and asked if he would like a flashlight.

What are some of your greatest triumphs?

Jenny’s greatest triumph has been keeping  her writerly self and poet alive over the years. She recently closed her psychotherapy practice and is happy that she now has more time for her writing. . A poem of hers was recently published recently in the Artemis Journal which she sees as part of  reconnecting  to her poetry writing self. Making sure she was part of a writing group and staying committed regardless of her work schedule is also a cause for celebration for Jenny.

One of Lesley’s poems was featured at the Moss Center, and seeing it reproduced on a wall there with graphics was a watershed moment for her. She was also pleased to be included in the Lascaux Review Prize Anthology in 2015.

As for The Joyful Quill, inspiring others to pursue their dreams and helping people succeed in meeting their goals has been a triumph for both Jenny and Lesley. It makes them feel as though the work they are doing is paying off. They have seen students go from drafted scenes to drafted novels, and from feeling they couldn’t write to embarking on plans for  a series of books. Two of their students also stepped into leadership roles for a regional writers’ group, the New River Valley Writers Group.

What advice would you give to women pursuing a career in writing?

Both Jenny and Lesley expressed two things:

1) They would like to see more women being published who are writing about what it means to be a woman

2) Writing takes many forms. You can be published, start your own website and blog, or even get a job as a technical writer.

They believe you must first identify why you want and your desired outcome, and then just do it. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and continue sending out your work despite the rejections  you might encounter..

We would love to hear about women who have inspired you to pursue your creative talent!

Leah Ross: Revitalizing a Community

Leah Ross, Executive Director of Birthplace of Country Music (BCM) speaks about her role as an influential woman in the arts.



Birthplace of Country Music Museum

Birthplace of Country Music Museum

The BCM accomplishes its mission to, “preserve and promote the rich music heritage of our region and celebrate Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia as the birthplace of country music,” through a museum which hosts several permanent and rotating exhibits. The BCM also provides educational programming to people of all ages, a new radio station,  Radio Bristol, and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion music festival, a 3 day music and arts festival in Bristol, Tennessee with over  140 musicians, 20 stages and 50,000 plus attendees.


Visitors admiring sculpure inside museum

Visitors admiring sculpure inside museum

How did she get here?

Leah grew up in a small coal mining town in Southwest Virginia where her exposure to the arts was very limited. Her main contact with the arts was her father’s love of bluegrass music. The lack of arts in her childhood did not stop Leah from soaking up as much live music as she could during her life and going on to be the executive director of a successful organization providing arts to the Bristol community.

Leah attributes her rise to the top of such a successful organization to, “having great jobs that allowed me to do work in the community.” During her work with both a waste management company and a health system company, she helped plan events with the goal of bringing the community together to support worthy causes. Her work with these companies inspired her passion for  event planning and management.

When the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival was formed, she was brought on as the Chair of the logistics committee. After the fifth festival in 2005, she was asked to take on the role of  executive director of the festival. She happily accepted the position because, as she explains, “events thrill my soul. I love the pressure and pace of live events.”  


Being an Executive Director

The discussion to merge the then, Birthplace of Country Music Alliance, and the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion festival occurred about five years ago. Leah explains that the process wasn’t easy, but overall the two organizations felt it was what the community was asking for. Since the merging to create The Birthplace of Country Music, the organization has grown leaps and bounds and has proven very valuable to the community of Bristol.

Leah explains that her role as executive drector can be “challenging to wrap your arms around everything, but it’s very rewarding. You may be working on the festival one minute and then have to change to a different focus about 5 minutes later. We feel like we’re making a difference in our community.” She also says, “it’s all very exciting, just a lot more than it used to be.” This is her dream job.


Leah Ross giving speech for Regional Tourism

Leah Ross giving speech for Regional Tourism


When asked what a normal day in the life of Leah Ross looks like, she tells me it all depends on the time of year. On a regular day, her schedule is fairly structured. She can be focused on an upcoming event, researching grants the BCM can apply for, cultivating sponsor relationships, or brainstorming ideas for the radio station.  


Community Impact

I would say they most definitely have made a difference in the community. Since the creation of BCM, the organization has gone from 4 employees to a total of 21! With the increasingly popular festival, museum, and a new radio station, the BCM only continues to grow within their community. Leah tells me, “the radio station is gaining ground and will become a great avenue for us to tell our story to the world.”


Leah Ross with Senator Carrico from Virginia Tourism Advocacy

Leah Ross with Senator Carrico from Virginia Tourism Advocacy


After the opening of the Museum, Bristol  was recognized by National Geographic Traveler’s top ten places to visit in the world, and has inspired two boutique hotels to open downtown. This helps the vitality of downtown, and promotes the growth of new businesses. According to Zach Vance’s article, Friday’s Bristol Rhythm & Roots draws thousands Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion Festival has “accumulated $16.1 million for the region.”


Leah also believes the merger has shown the community the importance of arts education and live music. “And not just country music, but all of the roots that have spawned from it.”




I wanted to know what Leah believes to be some of her greatest accomplishments. Being married over 40 years and raising two beautiful children have been her greatest personal accomplishments.

As for her career, she is most proud of the festival, helping build it into what it is today and becoming the Executive Director of BCM. “Helping build something that our community and our region should really be proud of,” Leah says is her greatest joy.


Scythian performing for the crowd at Bristol Rhythm & Roots

Scythian performing for the crowd at Bristol Rhythm & Roots


Challenges in the field

Leah does not feel as though her gender has had a factor on her career thus far. “I’ve never been afraid to take on new responsibilities. I think when you show you have that initiative doors open for you that otherwise may not.” However, she does realize that equal pay is still an issue for women today, and she’s not wrong. According to the Pay & Equity Discrimination publication put out by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, “in 2015, female full-time workers made only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men, a gender wage gap of 20 percent.” While obtaining her degree in Business Administration, Leah did her final project on the difference in salaries of  men and women.


For fun

Running an organization requires a lot of late nights, weekends, and hard work. I was curious as to what Leah did for fun to balance her work-life relationship. She told me she enjoys spending time with her family, quilting, and listening to live music.


Do you know a woman who has influenced the arts? Let us know!


Bechdel Project Kicks Off the Women Influencing the Arts Speaker Series

For the kickoff of the Women Influencing the Arts speaker series, we were honored to have the co-founders of Bechdel Project, Maria Maloney and Kimberly Faith Hickman, share their stories and experiences as women in the field. They spoke about Celebrating Success: Inspirations, Creations and Explorations. Below is a recap of their visit.


What is Bechdel Project and what do they do?

According to their website, “Bechdel Project is a marriage of art and activism, education and economics,” whose mission is to “tell stories on stage and screen that pass the Bechdel Test.”

The Bechdel Test is named after American cartoonist Alison Bechdel, in whose comic strip series Dykes to Watch Out it first appeared in 1985. Ms. Bechdel credits the idea to her friend, Liz Wallace. Alison is also known for her graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, which has gone on to be adapted into a very successful Broadway Musical, and her most recent work, Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama.

In theory, the Bechdel Test is simple. In order for a story to pass it, it must meet the following criteria:

  1. The story must have at least 2 women.
  2. They must talk to each other.
  3. About something besides a man.


The reality is that, unfortunately, the majority of stories told whether on stage, on screen, or in literature do not pass the Bechdel Test.

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Sarah Orren: Stepping Up to Save a Valuable Community Resource

Sarah Orren

Sarah Orren


For my first “Featured Influential Woman” post, I wanted to highlight a dear friend of mine, Sarah Orren, Coordinator of Education and Marketing for the Office of Undergraduate Academic Integrity at Virginia Tech. I first met Sarah in what was the very first graduate level course for both of us, Nonprofit Organizational Leadership. We bonded over the shared difficulty with grasping graduate level work and we’ve been friends ever since. After learning more about Sarah over the past few years, I discovered she was a wiz at marketing and reached out to her for assistance when I first started this project, Women Influencing the Arts.

Sarah has played a vital role in the development of this project: from developing the project’s website; constantly serving as a sounding board, allowing me to bounce ideas off of her; to editing my written materials. I truly could not have done any of this without her.

While all of this showcases her many talents, it is not the reason I am writing about her. Along with her skills and expertise in marketing and design, Sarah also has a passion for the nonprofit arts and holds a graduate certificate in Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organization Management from Virginia Tech.

At the age of 5 Sarah’s mom put her into dance class where she took ballet, tap, jazz, and lyrical dance until she graduated high school. As an adult she continued dancing with Belly Dancing and eventually earned a teaching certificate for Zumba. She believes her experience with dance throughout her life has taught her discipline and encouraged her to not give up. Dance has also taught her the value of having a strong work ethic. In dance, as well as other performing art forms, the dedication to perfect ones craft equips those who study it with many skills that can be transferred over to life in general.

For these reasons Sarah wanted to enroll her step daughter, Dylan, into a dance studio. It was important to Sarah that the dance studio be one that did not focus on the “competition” aspect of dance, but rather encourage the learning of technique and passion for dance, in a family environment. During her search she found the Sapphire Dance Center where Dylan showed much enthusiasm and progress in her first year.

Sarah and Dylan

It was at the end of the season, and after the annual dance recital, that the owner informed the students and parents that she, much to her disappointment, was no longer able to continue with the business. Sarah was determined to not let go of this wonderful studio where both her and Dylan had found a home and were able to practice dance. So, she did the only thing she knew to do. She met with the owner and convinced her to share the listserv of parent emails so she may contact them. To her surprise, Sarah was able to find a core group who agreed that this studio was too important to just let it shutdown. Since then, Sarah and this group of volunteers have formed an executive committee and managed to not only keep the doors open, but to continue offering classes to all age groups.  


I was fortunate enough to visit Sapphire Dance Center to speak to Sarah further about her new venture. As soon as I walked in I felt at home. The lobby was full of parents with their children waiting excitedly for their class to start. The children were so excited to see their friends who they hadn’t seen in forever (a week in kid’s time seems like an eternity) and to get into the space to work with their instructors.

Students at dance bar

Sarah explained that the members of the committee take turns acting as the personnel at the front desk during the week as well as pitch in with cleaning the facilities.

Sarah shared how the community has rallied around the efforts of her and the committee by providing furniture for the lobby and pitching in to paint the studio. It is has been a true communal effort.

Sarah hopes in the future to open a nonprofit dance studio to serve the community incorporating dance classes not just for children, but for seniors and the disabled community. The future nonprofit dance studio will also  provide scholarships for students whose parents may not be able to afford classes.

There  is currently no other dance studio in the area that provides these community services. I have no doubt that Sarah will succeed in making this dream come true.She has been a true inspiration to me,teaching me to never give up on my dreams!

Is there a woman in the arts you find inspiring? Share their story!

Getting it Up and Running

Having an idea is one thing. Getting it off the ground and turning it into a functioning project is an entirely different thing. Over the course of the past year, I identified a problem (lack of programs for women in the arts on Virginia Tech campus as well as the Town of Blacksburg) and wanted to do something about it: but what?


To help me determine my “what,” I participated in a variety  of forums including: conferences, informal discussions, and presentations followed by a moderated question and answer sessions. My ultimate aim was to use my experiences with these gatherings to initiate conversation surrounding the topic of “women in the arts.”  


At the end of May, I began the process of developing the idea into a full-fledged project, and all I knew was I wanted to celebrate women in the arts. At this point, I was not able to fully  articulate the shape of the project (what I wanted it to look like); what I wanted speakers to present on;or even how issues could be talked about through a positive and celebratory lens.


I needed help. I used my experience working in programming and engagement at the Moss Arts Center to begin reaching out to people in the community to start discussions. This was probably the most beneficial part of the process for me. With every person, or group I spoke with, I was able to slowly but surely define the parameters of my project and give it focus and shape.


I met with members of the Blacksburg Regional Art Association, Virginia Tech faculty members, Rhonda Morgan, Executive Director of the Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation, Sue Farrar, Executive Director of Montgomery Museum and Lewis Miller Regional Art Center, friends, and family. With each new person I spoke with I was able to gain insight into the project, define the parameters, and focus the intent. These individuals provided helpful feedback, asked questions to get me to think about the core of the program, and provided a list of artists and leaders in the field to contact.


Thanks to everyone who volunteered their time to discuss this idea, I created  a project which highlights some of the best attributes of the events I have attended as well as a well defined intention. The speaker series portion of the project incorporates the “break out” sessions seen at most conferences where participants can go listen to a presentation by key members in the field surrounding the theme of the event (celebrating females in the arts) as well as a moderated and informal question and answer portion. Each speaker(s) presents on a topic she feels is important to women in the field, around the theme of “celebration.” After each presentation the host, (i.e me), opens a question and answer period with the audience and the format transitions into a less formal discussion with audience led questions.


The website portion of project, namely the blog, integrates the informal discussion aspect as well. I have had the opportunity of meeting and being introduced to very interesting and talented women in the field right here in the Blacksburg, Virginia area. Unable to incorporate each of them into the the speaker series, I will be meeting with them and then featuring their stories and talents in a post.


As with every planned event, there are challenges. The way I see it, you have two choices: you can face hurdles head on allowing them to help you overcome the challenges which in my experience makes the your event grow even stronger, or you can allow them to stop you dead in your tracks. I do not typically like to accept defeat and decided to persevere with this project. I am glad I chose this route, because I feel as though the following challenges only helped me grow as an artist, arts leader, woman, and have helped this project become what it is today.


Time Frame


Due to the fact I started my process in May with the anticipated start date being September 1, I was faced with the challenge of connecting with potential speakers  during vacation season. If I were to do it all over again, I would have started earlier in the year and come up with a schedule/calendar of tasks to be done as well as a detailed time frame in which to accomplish them. As with all strategic planning and project management, this is an essential first step when working on any venture.




As with most arts initiatives, funding is a crucial component, but also one of the hardest to obtain. As  a graduate student, my personal finances are quite limited and I was unable to finance the project out of my own pocket. So, first I identified project needs  and then worked to determine “where” I could find partners and support. I needed a space to host the speaker series, food and snacks for the post-event mixer, and marketing materials .I was able to use the skills and knowledge gained from my studies in development (fundraising) to partner with both the Virginia Tech Women’s Center and School of Performing Arts to provide support  for these elements.


Reality vs. Hopes and Dreams


As an artist, my dreams can be lofty at times. During the development process I came up with so many ideas and expectations. One in particular was having five women to present in the series. However, due to the time frame I had, I was only able to confirm four. I am not upset by this number at all, in fact, I’m quite proud of what I was able to accomplish. I believe it important to set high goals for yourself, but at the same time be willing to accept and compromise when those goals are not reached.


“Women Influencing the Arts”: Why Start It?

Over the past two years of graduate school, I have become increasingly interested and aware of the topic of women in the arts. Some of the issues which have stood out to me are: challenges faced by women in the field; the lack of influence in leadership roles; and the underrepresentation of women both on and off the stage. My interest in focusing on female voices and influence stems from my own personal journey of dealing with issues arising due to my gender.

In May of 2015, I attended the 2015 Opera America Conference. During the conference there were many sessions, presentations, and panel discussions pertaining to what it took to be a successful opera company in the 21st Century. The one which stood out to me the most was Women in Arts Leadership. In a room full of female leaders (and a few very supportive men) we discussed the lack of women in leadership roles within opera, issues in the field, personal perspectives and experience with barriers, as well as changes we (women in the field) would like to see in the field. Leaving the room I felt as though I was part of a revolution. A movement. I felt as though I was a part of something important and was inspired to continue digging deeper.

My first glimpse into better understanding women in the arts was to examine the influence of female leadership within organizations. I located and interviewed three Executive Directors of arts organizations and asked them about their personal experiences in the field including: their own inspiration for joining the field; struggles they have faced which they believe is due to their gender; and any advice they could provide for young and emerging women professionals in the field.

To my surprise, nobody had any “struggles” to speak of. I thought to myself, how could this be true with all of the studies being conducted showing the disparaging numbers of women in the field in areas such as leadership, directing, composing, exhibitions, music festival lineups, etc.? For example, according to an article written by Alanna Vagianos titled, Music Festivals’ Glaring Woman Problem out of 10 major music festivals, “women artists (single performers or all-women groups) made up only 12% of acts in 2016 — compared to 78% male performers (single or all-male groups).” According to a preliminary research survey done by OPERA America, there has been “an actual decline in the number of women in leadership positions at all levels of opera companies over the last 16 years. While the general numbers seem to indicate a steady increase in female leaders, the ratios to male leaders in the same positions show a decrease of between 4 to 8 percent from 1990.”

During the twentieth and so far in the twenty-first century, Women have certainly made great strides in creating a more equal work force, and a more equal world in general, from women’s suffrage (ratified in 1920) to women’s centered journals and magazines i.e. Bella Magazine, educational opportunities specifically designed for the empowerment and advancement of women (for example college degrees in Women’s and Gender Studies), National Equal Pay Day, and Women’s Leadership Conferences. While all of these showcase a woman’s strength, perseverance, and tenacity, and should by no means be undermined, women, especially in leadership roles (both formal and informal) in many fields in the arts remain underrepresented.

To address this issue, organizations including  OPERA America and American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) have begun focusing research and programming directly for women in the field. OPERA America has started the Women’s Opera Network which is an online platform meant to educate people on the issues facing women as well as creating a space for young professionals to connect with established women in the opera sector. ACT has partnered with Wellesley Center for Women to launch the Women’s Leadership Project. The purpose of this project is to research the lack of women in leadership roles within theatre. They will also be hosting their first “Women’s Leadership Project” conference in August of 2016 to begin the conversation on gender equality in theatre.

While these efforts are centered on specific fields, some universities have also begun creating programming highlighting women in the arts on a broader scope. Armstrong State University has created the annual Women in the Arts Symposium where they invite students to present on contributions made to the fields of visual and performing arts by women as well as issues faced by women in the arts. In March of 2016 Cornell University opened up their annual President’s Council of Cornell Women Symposium to focus on women in the arts. Alumnae in publishing, acting, film, and music business came to speak on their work as well as issues facing women in the arts.

The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, right here in southwest Virginia, holds a Women’s Leadership Conference for local business women. While this is beneficial to all who attend, the arts sector is in fact different from the corporate sector. Here on the Virginia Tech Campus there are multiple programs for women. For example: The Women’s Center hosts an annual Women’s Leadership and Mentoring Program for those interested in pursuing a career in higher education administration; Virginia Tech and the American Physical Society will be hosting a Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics in the spring of 2017; and the School of Engineering features housing specifically for female engineers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2012-2013 women earned 61 percent of all bachelor degrees, 57 percent of all master’s degrees, and 53 percent of all doctoral degrees in the Visual and Performing Arts field. Virginia Tech has a robust program for the arts and it only continues to grow and yet there are no programs tailored to foster their growth as emerging women in the arts.

I began thinking of my time as an undergraduate student and then as a young emerging professional in the field. I had always hoped for mentorship and personal connections  to gain experience. Of course, I did have the guidance and input of my professors, but I wanted to learn from other established women in the field as well.

A combination of reflecting on my past as an undergraduate student, the trends in the field, as well as the need for a program for women on Virginia Tech’s campus led me to develop a speaker series focused on celebrating what it means to be a woman in the field. Part of celebrating “where” you are in your journey, whether it be in school or applying your skills in the field, is the ability to recognize challenges one encounters along the way. This speaker series is meant to do both. It is meant to celebrate the presenting artists while addressing issues and challenges women have faced and will face while pursuing a career in the arts.

I couldn’t just stop at creating the series. Along the way , I have had the honor of meeting some fascinating and fabulous women; I have read about influential women who impact the arts on all levels; And, I’ve learned about performances and projects women arts leaders and arts makers are creating right here in Blacksburg, VA. I wanted to create a place where these women could be recognized and honored.

I welcome everyone to participate in the conversation and the celebration of Women Influencing the Arts. Are there women you admire in the field? How have they influenced you? Let me know!