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Finding, Preparing, and Benefitting from Young Board Members

ISSUE 23 • March 2024

NHSO Representatives, including board members and executive director

An Interview with Representatives of the New Haven Symphony Orchestra

By Dr. Thomas Wolf

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

The New Haven Symphony Orchestra (NHSO) includes four young board members. Can you talk a bit about the rationale for seeking these individuals for the board?

Elaine Carroll, NHSO Chief Executive Officer: It was a natural outgrowth of our focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Diversity can mean many things, including diversity of thought and diversity of age, and young people bring a different and important perspective. When I started at NHSO, we had 33 board members, and only one was under the age of fifty. There was a major imbalance.

Elaine Carroll
Elaine Carroll

How did you decide to initiate a program for younger board members?

EC: We had set up an instrumental fellowship program to increase diversity on stage. But we realized that there were other areas of leadership that were also important. So we added a component for conducting, another for arts administration/staffing, and one for board leadership. Two of the people in this interview (Zanaiya and Jessi) came to us through this fellowship program. Two others were recruited directly through our board nominating process.

For each of your board members, what was attractive about joining the board?

Jessi Avila Shah
Jessi Avila-Shah

Jessi Avila-Shah (current board fellow and a Yale undergraduate): I was looking for ways to get more involved with music following high school. When I got to Yale, I went to the Career Center Job Posting and read the description from the NHSO. I was intrigued by their emphasis on DEI initiatives and the fact that they were looking for younger board members. It is rare for someone my age to get the opportunity to be immersed in the processes of a major organization like this and to be encouraged to participate at a substantive level.

Zanaiya Leon (NHSO’s inaugural board fellow, she was elected to a voting seat on the board at the conclusion of her fellowship and has since been appointed to the NHSO Executive Committee): I was in the first year of a Master’s program with a focus on business administration, and I was looking for ways to become more involved in the music community. The NHSO opportunity was a chance to marry my interests in both areas. 

Annie Lin (first term as a board member, an arts advocate working at the Yale School of Art): My first interaction with the Symphony was with the NHSO’s Education program. Caitlin Daly-Gonzales, NHSO’s Education Director, is a real force in making sure the arts are accessible to as many people as possible, removing barriers. That was something that immediately excited me.

Tom Cavaliere (Senior Associate at AdvanceCT, an economic development firm for the State of Connecticut, and Chair of NHSO’s Development Committee): I grew up in Connecticut and have a strong affinity to New Haven. When I moved back during the pandemic, I knew I wanted to be involved in building community. I decided to explore possible organizations to become involved with. The Symphony stood out because it was clear they wanted me as much as I was interested in them. 

For the four of you, what were some of your expectations coming on to the board? What were the surprises?

Tom Cavaliere
Tom Cavaliere

TC: As a young person, I expected the conversation to be a little stiff and uncomfortable. I was surprised to find people open, and I was encouraged to participate. I was also impressed that when there was discussion about ways to get more young people involved, it wasn’t just talk. There was follow-through. Other organizations try to do this but often they do not know how to listen and act on what they have learned.

AL: One of my surprises in reading the bylaws was that there were no term limits for board members. My impression had been that this is often considered an aspect of effective governance.

ZL: I expected more formality but people really got down to business to implement goals in a strategic way and I am very much involved. I really like seeing evidence of progress and of things getting done. 

JS: When I began the fellowship, I expected the board to be more of a hierarchical system. I expected to be low in the hierarchy. But if there is something I want to say, my opinions are welcomed.

Do you all serve on committees?

Group Answer: Yes. Committees represented by this group include Finance, Education, DEI (chaired by Zanaiya), and Development (chaired by Tom).

Most boards require their members to give money. Is that a requirement of the younger board members?

EC: Every member of the board gives to the extent they can. We ask that the NHSO be one of their top three priorities for giving.

For each of you, what have been your greatest contributions to the board?

TC: I helped organize a four-way collaboration bringing together young members of the Elm City Club, Future Leaders of Yale, and the Greater New Haven Chamber of Commerce Young Professionals Group with the Symphony. We were able to introduce the Symphony to a younger demographic and capture contact information, and the event culminated with attendance at an NHSO concert. I have helped organize other collaborative events like this for the NHSO.

JS: I have introduced the Symphony to many young people at Yale and among other organizations I am connected with. When I talk about the fellowship, people’s first reaction is, “Oh, I don’t play an instrument.” It is a chance for me to say it is so much more – an opportunity to get involved in management, governance, finance, and other areas. It is so important, especially in reaching under-represented students.

Zanaiya Leon
Zanaiya Leon 

ZL: I had the opportunity to be a member of the staff at one point, and I believe one of my values to the board is bringing the perspective of staff to discussions about existing and proposed activities, trying to think realistically about what is possible, representing the points of view of staff who may not be present. I have also been able to connect social justice clubs and other organizations to the Symphony which the NHSO would have been unlikely to know about.

AL: Like my colleagues, I have helped build bridges to other communities—in my case including the Chinese community. But one of the other things I think I bring to the board is the ability to ask questions, to go deeper into ideas and initiatives.

What has the experience of board service for the NHSO done for your own development?

TC: I have picked up many leadership skills and been given the opportunity to provide community leadership early in my career. I have also picked up insights about decision-making. 

Annie Lin
Annie Lin

AL: I have loved exploring change, not just for its own sake, but to strengthen an organization and to make this art form strong for the next century and more.

JS: It has opened my eyes to other opportunities and the possibility of pursuing new areas in my education. I have also been able to observe some very effective people and learn from them.

ZL: It has helped to demystify some notions I had about business, about leadership, about organizational structure. I had been worried as a young Black professional woman about these areas and how I would fit in. But the experience has given me a level of professional confidence.

Elaine, do you have anything you would like to add?

Yes, I want to mention something else that these young people have done for our organization. We talk about how important it is for audience members to see people like themselves on stage. But it is also important for our young staff members to see people like themselves as part of the organization and its governance. I would also say that working with a passionate, talented group of young individuals gains you access to an amazing pool of talent that you otherwise might miss—people who have so much to contribute in so many ways.

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.