Take 5 with Manny Cawaling

A community is like a tapestry; a composition of uncountable threads – of different colors, textures, and origins – that are woven together to create a beautiful and vibrant scene.

Imagine one of the threads begins to fray; starting at one corner, making its way across the tapestry, eventually unraveling the threads surrounding it.  Within moments, the once tightly knit scene is now in disarray, the image is unclear, and the scene fades into single strands of thread.  As quickly as it came apart, repairing the damage will be no easy task.

Now imagine a local community, and remove from it all of the arts and arts-focused non-profit organizations serving that area and those around it.  Just as the tapestry’s composition dissolved when a thread came loose, a community can unravel when it lacks healthy arts organizations and programs.

When considering the importance of non-profit organizations, we wanted to learn more about the valued role they play in the symbiotic relationship between the arts, local communities, and schools.  So, we reached out to ArtsEd Washington member and Youth Theatre Northwest Executive Director Manuel Cawaling.

Manuel’s (or Manny as he is well known) journey with the performing arts began when he was a student at O’Dea High School, where he became involved in the thriving music and theater program – run at the time by current ArtsEd Washington Board Member Robert Cooper.

He notes that his experience in high school theater “taught me to express myself, have confidence and presence, work collaboratively with others, think creatively, and most importantly, think outside of my own perspective and experience to understand the feelings of others.”  Little did he know that his experience at the time would be a catalyst for his future work in the arts.

Since that time, Manny has worked as an artist and arts administrator for more than 20 years in the Northwest.  One look at his past experiences, and it is clear that Manny has a deep passion for serving and building communities, telling important stories, and activating dialogues around relevant issues.   Some of his former work includes:

  • Artistic Director of the Capitol Hill’s former Pilgrim Center for the Arts
  • Original board member of Seattle’s League of Fringe Theatres
  • Former Associate Artistic Director of the Northwest Asian American Theatre – which under his leadership, received awards for their Youth Outreach and Education Program
  • Former Exhibit Developer & Manager at the Wing Luke Asian Museum, where he also lead outreach initiatives; and
  • YouthCAN – an empowerment program that fosters leadership development and creative skills amongst Asian American youth

The list goes on and on!

When asked what inspires his passion, and his commitment to ensuring that communities have the opportunity to engage with the arts, he answered, “Simple: children. When you look in the face of a young child you sense their untapped potential.  I am passionate about creating as many opportunities for children to find their voices, passions, talents, and life path.  The arts are a critical tool for their process.”

Well said, Manny!  Read the rest of our conversation with Manny to learn more about his insight on the role of the arts in communities and schools.

1. In your experience within the non-profit sector, why is it important for likeminded organizations to join efforts and support one another?  What inspired you to join ArtsEd Washington as a member?

You can’t play a symphony with just one musician. Together we are louder, diverse, and powerful.  We all share a common goal.  With all of us in it together, I think we have a fighting chance.

As Executive Director for Youth Theatre Northwest, I believe it is critical that I and every member of my staff* are part of a connected community that is showing support and advocating for arts education in every school and every school district across the state. By supporting arts in schools, we are cultivating the artists, arts leaders, audiences and patrons of the future.

I am grateful that ArtsEd Washington is taking the lead on this work but they can only be successful if they have the support of many behind them. There are many challenges to overcome but together as a mighty coalition, we will build a stronger platform for arts in Washington state.

*At our 2011 Annual Meeting, Manny purchased individual memberships for himself and his entire staff.

2. Why do you believe exposure to the arts is vitally important to students, schools, and the community?

The process of making art develops a child’s unique creativity.  Look around us and you will see that almost every industry depends on the creativity of its workforce to break ground, pioneer new approaches and develop new levels of thinking.  Arts education isn’t just about instructing emerging artists, arts education is about creating a more dynamic world.

3. Youth Theatre Northwest (YTN) is actively engaged with other community organizations and schools.  What types of positive arts impacts – to students and the general public – have resulted from your efforts and work?

In our programs, we have seen shy children bloom into creative and expressive adults.  In our outreach work, we have seen young people use arts as a tool to process feelings and understand their sometimes confusing emotions.  This can be seen in our annual partnership with children at the Fred Hutchinson School*.  At our theatre on Mercer Island, for many of our youngest audience members a play at Youth Theatre Northwest is their first exposure to theatre – we consider this to be the greatest honor.

*YTN is part of the arts enrichment program at the Hutch School, an accredited K-12 school program sponsored by the Fred Hutchinson Research Center and Seattle Public Schools.  Its mission is to serve patients (and their family members) receiving treatment at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

4. In today’s economic climate, describe the importance of advocacy for arts and arts education programs for youth?

Bottom line, no one else is going to do it. In today’s economic climate, every sector is fighting for their piece of the pie.  If we don’t advocate and keep arts education and learning issues on the table, they’ll be left out.

5. What advice would you give to other arts organizations seeking to integrate with their local schools and community groups to positively impact arts learning and exposure?

Spend time with the community.  It’s too easy to go into a school with your own agenda or with a disconnected text book approach.  Get to know the students, faculty and families.  Attend their community events and review their academic data.  Initiate a partnership that will directly address a challenge or inflate an opportunity.  As a result, the school or community group will come to realize what we already know: art creates change, art builds community, art develops the hearts and minds of young people, art brings people together.

Manny has been Executive Director at Youth Theatre Northwest since 2008.  When he’s not spending time there, he can be found outside hiking, camping, taking a long road trip listening to his favorite music, and walking with his best friend Sumo – his Boston Terrier/Bulldog.  Although he isn’t a coffee drinker, Manny will do just about anything for a cold can (not bottle) of Diet Coke.  His favorite fall tradition is picking chestnuts in honor of his grandmother.

Share your inspirational arts education or arts advocacy story with us! Where have you seen the arts change outcomes for a student? How has your personal engagement made a difference in a policy or budget issue? What arts teacher changed your life?  Let us know. Your submission may be selected for a future Take 5 member profile!


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      Thaxton’s experience at Madrona K-8, where more than three quarters of the students fall below the poverty line, demonstrated the remarkable impact of arts learning.  Citing more confident, engaged, and perseverant students at Madrona (which had limited arts offerings before she began work with the PAL program), Thaxton observes that the climate and culture of the school were transformed by the arts. She also sings the praises of the professional development she received through the program.

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      ArtsEd Washington is currently in the process of revamping the PAL program to be implemented at a district-wide level instead of the slower school-by-school approach. As part of the Creative Advantage, Seattle Public Schools has just begun implementation of PAL in its Central Pathway and will continue rollout to the whole district over the next few years.

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