Aaron Dworkin brings many identities to arts

Arts leader Aaron Dworkin will receive Kennedy Center Award for Human Spirit on May 8.
Photo by Dwight Cendrowski

Ask Aaron Dworkin about his background and he’ll tell you that he’s a “black, white, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Irish Catholic.”

Born in Chicago, Dworkin was adopted by a white Jewish couple as a 2-week-old infant in 1970. They already had an older birth son, so Dworkin’s brother is white. When his mother returned to her musical love, the violin, Dworkin, too, picked up the instrument. He was 5 years old. And he hasn’t put it down since.

On May 8, Dworkin and his wife, Afa Dworkin, will receive the 2017 Kennedy Center Award for the Human Spirit at a gala evening that celebrates the music and spirit of John Lennon. The Dworkins have been lauded as “citizen artists” for their work in founding the Sphinx Organization, which is dedicated to transforming lives through advancing diversity in the arts, particularly classical music.

A 2005 MacArthur genius fellow, Dworkin was President Barack Obama’s first appointment to the National Council on the Arts. He now is dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theater and Dance and continues to host a weekly arts video mentoring show about creativity, while continuing to write, compose and advocate for arts training for all.

He stepped away from Sphinx two years ago, leaving the reins to Afa. An author and social entrepreneur, Dworkin’s memoir, “Uncommon Rhythm: A Black, White, Jewish, Jehovah’s Witness, Irish Catholic Adoptee’s Journey to Leadership,” details his engrossing and inspiring life story.

“First and foremost, I  am Aaron, but I operate in an environment that views me as African American and I was raised in a Jewish household culturally, if not necessarily religiously.”

Until he was 10, he grew up in New York City. “I went to P.S. 183. I saw skin color like hair color or eye color. I’d go to school and see students who were different colors and then come home, and my brother and parents are white.”

A move to Hershey, Pa., changed all of that.

“The world, and certainly the community there in Hershey, taught me that skin color does matter and that I absolutely stood out. Basically, I never really fit in. That’s kind of the story of my life. When I was a kid all I desperately wanted to do was be able to fit in.”

Fit in and play music.

As a youth, he trained with famed Russian violin teacher Vladimir Graffman and then traveled every Saturday to Baltimore for lessons at Peabody Preparatory, the renowned conservatory. He spent his last two years of high school at the Interlochen Arts Academy.

After some time away from music, he ended up as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.

“While I was at Michigan, I started to intentionally think about diversity and inclusion and what that meant,” he said. “That let to founding Sphinx.”

The Sphinx Organization promotes diversity in the performing arts with a heavy focus on classical music because Dworkin rarely saw professional classical musicians who looked like he did.

“We have programs that put instruments into the hands of underserved young people for the very first time, all the way up through providing preprofessional and professional development experience for rising musicians of color.”

The Overture program starts young students on instruments who otherwise would never have the opportunity, he says. Intensive summer programs help prepare students ages 11 to 17 to do music at the collegiate level.”

And the National Sphinx Competition for young black and Latino string players provides a high-level competitive experience, as well as an opportunity for greater exposure for developing musical artists of color.

“When I started [college], I started in a summer program that was designed for African-American students … to help them acclimate.”

He had already had his Hershey experience. So it felt strange being in an environment without whites.
“It was more black people than I had ever been around before. And I felt astoundingly uncomfortable,” he said. “How on earth could I actually feel uncomfortable in white situations and uncomfortable in black situations? So it reinforced even more that I was simply Aaron.”

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