Afa Dworkin, President of Sphinx Organization, Pushes for Diversity in Music C-Suites

Afa Dworkin, president and artistic director from Detroit Organization of the Sphinxcame to the United States when she was 17. She didn’t learn English, her fourth language, until she was 18, speaking her native Russian and the languages ​​of her mother, who was originally from Azerbaijan, and her father, who was a Persian Jew from Iran, growing up.

A professional violinist, she was early in her college career at the University of Michigan when she met Sphinx founder Aaron Dworkin in 1995. She fell in love with the organization’s mission — and with him. She joined Sphinx as an intern and never left, rising through its ranks to the presidency when her husband left.

For the past nine years, Dworkin, 46, has led Sphinx’s work to increase diversity in classical music, including a program to build the pipeline of black and Latino directors in the field, a $1.5 million venture capital fund investing in similar efforts. to create diversity in classical music across the country and, most recently, a plan for an undisclosed gift from philanthropist Mackenzie Scott.

Dworkin said she honed her culinary prowess during the COVID-19 pandemic and cooks at least one new meal every week, which is paired with a personalized menu and related poem or anecdotes brought in by her husband.

Dworkin’s remarks have been edited for more space and clarity.

  • What kind of impact did the Sphinx have in its first 25 years?

The number of young people reached to date by our programming is 150,000 over 25 years. Not counting early educational programming, we also have over 1,000 alumni. We have invested over $10 million in artist grants and scholarships for our Sphinx alumni and artist family members, and our overall digital footprint, which is approximately 60 million.

  • Over the past few years, Sphinx has launched a pipeline development program aimed at diversifying the office space into the classical music field. Where is this located?

We launched this program four and a half years ago, and it was the first effort that did not focus on music, education or performance. He focused on administrative empowerment. The Knight Foundation (John S. and James L.) found the idea compelling and gave us seed capital, a pilot grant of $1.5 million, to launch what we now call Sphinx LEAD (Leaders in Excellence, Arts and Diversity). We have launched a two-year scholarship program for 20 scholarship holders per year. They meet four times a year for learning retreats, where they learn everything from how to compile or interpret budget documents to how to schedule a concert, negotiate contracts, public speaking and network. We pair each leader with a coach, a mentor, and ultimately, we help them secure positions at the C-suite level. Fifty people participated in the program. Today, six LEAD alumni hold C-suite positions at major orchestras, conservatories, music schools, who now return regularly to Sphinx and help co-curate our digital program content throughout the year that we offer online and on Sphinx Connect, the largest and oldest meeting we host in Detroit. Not yet officially announced but will be in the coming weeks, Knight has renewed and slightly increased its commitment to the LEAD program. And that’s a big vote of confidence.

  • Just before the pandemic, Sphinx created a venture capital fund. What types of investments has he made?

We have made a commitment of one and a half million dollars to the sector. This is essentially a grant renewal effort, and it is in place because we know that the sector-wide, systemic change we are trying to affect cannot be done directly by Sphinx alone. Examples of successes we’ve granted over the past two years include a national solo singing competition started by one of our alumni in partnership with the Manhattan School of Music, a conglomerate of 30 orchestras that have partnered to create orders. by black and brown composers and have pledged to perform these new works during their main season and a national piano competition launched last year by the Cincinnati Symphony, the Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music and an African-American pianist. American. The Sphinx Venture Fund is a big effort because it tries to encourage people to think big, big systemic change with kind of big high impact and big numbers. So that’s sort of an important area of ​​Sphinx’s programming that I think it will position itself much more of over the next 25 years as an organization that not only does the work alone, but works with the entire sector and which also serves the field.

  • The Sphinx Virtuosi has just made its international debut in Sao Paulo, a fitting achievement to celebrate your 25th anniversary. Will there be more international performances for the Sphinx ensembles?

Hope absolutely is. That’s a goal, and I plan for us to go back overseas and perform not only in South and Central America, but also elsewhere overseas and in Europe and hopefully on the African continent. also. It is important and meaningful for artists because they can bring their art, their artistic talent to the world and because the work they do is synonymous and in a way an extension of the mission of Sphinx, at the heart of that this being that excellence and diversity are wrapped together. .

  • What do you think of what Sphinx has accomplished in its first 25 years, and is there still work to be done?

Sphinx has grown from a small, singular initiative to something that is a whole conglomeration of programs that not only spans one country, but is now globalized. It’s something that I think is a movement, not a program or an organization. But there’s still a ton of work to do. I think our work stops when our stages, our music, our community conservatory schools and our offices are occupied by a diverse number of leaders. And until that happens, the job is not done. We still have a long way to go. So I see that the next 25 years will really do a lot of advocacy work, tripling and quadrupling the partnerships so that diversity and inclusion doesn’t just become something that Sphinx does and encourages others to do…but it doesn’t. It’s now not only showing others how to do it but also working with large conglomerates in our industry so that we continue to do this work together.

  • Sphinx is among the local charities benefiting from an unexpected gift from billionaire philanthropist Mackenzie Scott. Can you share your plans for this?

We have chosen not to disclose the amount, but the donation was used to create the Next Stage Fund, which is designed to invest in a special initiative each year for the next five years to take a piece of our work to life. step or to the next level. Among the first projects is a series of recordings to document, preserve and disseminate the music of black and Latino composers, performed by our first touring ensembles.

  • You said you improved your cooking prowess during the pandemic. What kind of achievement are we talking about?

My repertoire is growing in terms of genres and types of cooking techniques that I have never tried because of course I have more time at home. I learned to do a lot more things with vegetables. And in fact, during the pandemic, I became completely vegetarian. …During the pandemic, Aaron and I started a weekly newsletter to share recipes with our friends and family and paired them with a piece of music and also created an online menu for people. What we still practice today, at least every week, is that we create a printed menu with a detailed description and a theme for each evening. And then Aaron associates a piece of poetry or researches a fun fact, an anecdote associated with a new dish. I feel like it’s always a special moment for both of us every day no matter what. And the other thing is that it’s entertaining and educational.

Virginia S. Braud