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Art of Leadership

Music to My Ears

By October 22, 2014October 2nd, 20194 Comments

I’m old enough to remember when music, dance, art and poetry were integral parts of social change. No one would even consider having a meeting that didn’t include some aspect of celebrating the human spirit. There is something deeply satisfying about gathering in groups and singing together. Collective music around the fire or down by the riverside is an integral part of our human story, and our social movements are suffering as a result of a lack of common song.

Something was lost when we began to professionalize the making of social change. Our songs became chants, our dances became marches, our rallies became meetings and our art was relegated to the walls of conferences.

When was the last time you sang, recited poetry or danced in a professional setting? It’s been awhile for me, and that’s not a good thing. Fortunately, we have folks like Dan Zanes and Toshi Reagon who teach us about the power of collective song. Sarah Crowell and alum Joe Goode remind us how to dance and move; Drew Dellinger and alum Logan Phillips remind us about the power of words; and alums Cece Carpio and Ashley Minner bring beauty to our eyes.

What might happen if we were to burst into song the next time we hit a tense moment in a board meeting? Or dance as we made our way to our seats at our next professional conference? One of my staff members has taken to skipping through the office, and I can’t tell you how thoroughly it delights me.

Leadership can be one of the best things about being human. Sometimes I worry that social change leadership has become a bit dreary, and could use some breath, air and tone. Song.

This month, I invite you to sing – in your shower, office or at staff meetings. Take a dance break. Write a poem instead of a list. Paint your way out of your next problem. Try skipping through the hallways.

Let’s look for ways to enliven our leadership, and humanize our work by returning to basic human capacities that need no agendas, flip charts or work plans. Let’s grab a partner, a funder, a staff or board member and sing, dance, write or play – it will be good for our souls and even better for the world.

From my heart to yours.

October 2014


  • YES! Split This Rock is building an online database of over 250 poems we’ve published in our Poem of the Week series. Coming later this fall, the database will be searchable by social issue theme! So, keep an eye out – soon you’ll have access to an incredible trove of contemporary poems on the pressing social issues of our time, from reproductive rights to environmental justice. Sign up for the list serv at to start getting the weekly poems and to get a notice when the database launches.

  • David Sawyer says:

    Thanks for this reminder Akaya. In the Leadership for Social Change class I used to teach, I would take my (mostly white) students from Berea College down to the Highlander Center. It was there in the mountains of Tennessee that Rosa Parks and many others from the civil rights movement met, planned, wept, empowered each other, and yes, sang. There is a circle of rocking chairs there, famous now, where these great men and women gathered and strategized and prayed. History was made in those cane chairs. Remembering my students sitting in them wrestling with their own dreams about creating a just world moves me still.

  • What a synergistic coincidence. I just opened Akiya Windward’s Rockwood Leadership Blog, Music to My Ears, while sitting in the conference room at the Highlander Center in Tennessee. This week, the organization for which I work, United for a Fair Economy, is partnering with Highlander to present a Training of Trainers Institute for 30 organizers, educators, and activists from around the country. Highlander has a tradition of infusing cultural organizing into movement building activities since 1932. And as I write these words, my colleagues are practicing their banjo picking, singing, and dance moves for inclusion in our intensive 4-day Popular Economics Education training, while in front of photos of Bernice Johnson Reagan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie & other cultural activists lining the walls of this historic gathering place of justice seekers. We still need chants, marches, meetings, and rallies but, as Akiya reminds us, we also need the beauty, joy, and power of music, dance, and theater.

  • Akaya says:

    Thanks for the wonderful wisdom folks. So glad you’re out there making change!

Rockwood Community Call

Kris Mereigh,  MPH, CWP.

public health and wellness strategist

June 27 | 12 PT / 3 ET