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How Old is Old Enough?

ISSUE 23 • March 2024

Sebastian Ruth

An Interview with Sebastian Ruth

By Dr. Thomas Wolf

This post is part of a series examining more youth leadership in the arts.

Sebastian Ruth is the founder and artist director of Community MusicWorks (CMW), an organization established in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1997 to create a cohesive urban community through music education and performance that transforms the lives of children, families, and musicians. From the beginning, CMW has invited high school-age students to serve on the board. In this interview, we explore the whys and hows of this structure and its effectiveness as a mechanism of governance and community building.

How long have you had high school students on your board?

SR: From the beginning, we believed this was important. It is written into our bylaws that we have two board slots for students just as there are two slots for parents. We also bring alumni on the board from time to time, but that is not a bylaw requirement.

CMW board member Dayana, high school class of 2024, shown here facilitating a discussion at an annual teen retreat

Why did you feel this was so important?

SR: We wanted to make sure there wasn’t a dichotomy between those who governed the organization and those who were served by it. It is also a great community-building strategy. At the same time, it is an important introduction for young people to gain experience that can well turn into other leadership opportunities later in students’ lives.

How does it work?

SR: Students are nominated by their peers for a three-year term. Many do not serve the full three years because when they graduate from high school, they often move away or have other commitments.

Are they full members of the board? Can they vote on such issues as the budget or even your continued tenure as Artistic Director?

SR: Absolutely. Students have full voting privileges.

Do they have committee assignments?

SR: Yes, their formal responsibilities include serving on our Student Committee (which has recently been rebranded the “Student Council.”) In addition to the students on that committee, there is another board member, a community member, and a staff liaison to help with organizational issues and to translate some of the recommendations into concrete action.

Do students serve on other committees?

SR: Generally not. This is already a major time commitment since there is either a board meeting or a Student Committee meeting every month. However, currently, one of the students serves on the Executive Committee, which consists of seven members.

Serving on a board requires knowing how nonprofits are organized and how they work. Board members should understand their roles and responsibilities in nonprofit governance, budgets, and a host of other specialized knowledge. How do you make sure students are adequately prepared? 

SR: You are right. Just having a body in the room is not enough. This is the most challenging aspect of the system. There are times we try to offer special orientations on things such as how to read a budget. We have occasionally used a buddy system, teaming new board members with more experienced ones. We need to do more in this area, and for anyone considering having students on their boards, they really need to focus on the educational aspect.

CMW board member Alyssa, high school class of 2024, mentoring a younger student 

What about giving and getting? What are your policies, and are students bound by them?

SR: Our policy is that every board member must give something every year and our organization needs to be among their top philanthropic priorities. We don’t care if a student gives five dollars or even one dollar. They are bound by the requirement. And while we do not expect students to fundraise, we do expect them to bring someone new to the organization.

Do you recommend this system for other organizations?

SR: I think it is especially important for any organization but especially youth-serving organizations. It is valuable for the organization to have youth voices in governance and at the same time it is a great education for future leaders.

This is post is part of our On Our Minds newsletter. Previous issues of On Our Minds focused on equity in the arts. You can read them here:

Arts Outcomes Worthy of Pursuit – Joanna Borowski and Samuel McDonald of the New Jersey Symphony’s Education and Community Engagement Department share outcomes they considered worthy of research for their Training Ensemble. 

Access to Evaluation Services – Finally, our colleague and collaborator Allison Russo shares how close to 100 arts education organizations in Newark are working together to gain access to quality evaluation services.