Arts Administrators: “Lead Like a Comet from the Heart”


I have a handwritten letter that I wrote to myself dated one year ago that hangs near my vision board workspace at home (still assessing whether or not the “visions” are actually working – I think they are). The letter was a result of completing a week at Bryn Mawr College outside of Philadelphia where I attended the National Guild for Community Arts Education’s Leadership Institute (CAELI).

Through an application process approximately twenty-five individuals from across the country are selected to participate in an arts education administrator retreat, working with consultants, coaches, visionaries and leaders in the field. The Guild’s website states:

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During the seven-month leadership development program, they’ll learn from top leadership trainers and nationally renowned practitioners. Designed and facilitated by Partners in Performance, the institute—now in its fourth year—includes a five-day seminar at Bryn Mawr College, advanced assignments, a 360-degree feedback process, and follow-up coaching.

The website description really doesn’t come close to creating a picture of the actual experience. Through the seminar at Bryn Mawr and months of one-on-one coaching that followed, participants dig deep into his or her own personal experience discovering work/life balance issues, learn how to handle uncomfortable situations within the work place, are introduced to skills on how to become better leaders, and assess feedback that came from colleagues and peers through a 360-degree questionnaire.

Everybody in my class seemed so ambitious, goal-driven and focused on understanding why they were at CAELI. My peers were up for the challenge of digging deeper into the land of personal growth and self-improvement. I felt a bit out of place because I had arrived to the table feeling rather disillusioned with the arts education field and was harboring a sense of frustration with my role as an arts education administrator. I was looking for inspiration and a creative solution, the “why” that would fix the malaise I had been feeling, or quite possibly, show me a way out of arts education altogether.

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CAELI Class of 2012
CAELI Class of 2012

During my week at CAELI a combination of individual and group exercises and conversations helped to ease my sense of frustration. Receiving reassurance that it was okay to question my purpose and seek support from a positive community of people who “get it” was exactly what I needed. How often do you get the chance professionally to walk away from your job for one week, put the cell phone and computer away and focus time and attention only on yourself?

At the end of the week we were asked to write ourselves a letter that was placed in a self-addressed stamped envelope and given back to the CAELI staff. We were told we would receive them later – six months later to be exact.

This is what I wrote:

Dear Friend:

Today I sit reflecting on a wonderful week at #CAELI12 where I’ve met some wonderful and passionate people. I feel everything in my life has begun to shift since being here – shifting under my feet.

All the things I have been doing both professionally and personally have prepared me for this moment. I am ready.

I am excited about the near future and already sense great change is in store. I am open to whatever comes my way and feel comfortable that I will know how to lead when the calling comes.

Remember, do not lead with your feet, lead like a comet from the heart, give yourself space and time to listen.

Be well,


While attending the CAELI retreat I learned I had won a contest with the Huffington Post where I was one of eight people selected to be an “Off the Bus” citizen journalist reporting from the presidential conventions. At the time, I didn’t really know what the HuffPost experience would mean for my career. But I was grateful for CAELI, the network of people I met during my week at Bryn Mawr and the launch pad that prepared me for a year of professional exploration and self-discovery.

ArtsEdTech in real time
ArtsEdTech in real time

One year later I’m a completely different person than when I first sat at the CAELI table and introduced myself as an arts administrator. Thanks in part to my experience at CAELI last year, my role within arts education is evolving into a new and exciting project I’ve launched called ArtsEdTechNYC where I’m taking part in a new conversation around the role of technology in education. I recently completed a strategy session where upon first glance my life looks a bit messy on the whiteboard. But I finally recognize I’m leading “like a comet from the heart” and finding comfort in knowing that when I do indeed listen good things happen.

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Jessica Wilt is a professional dancer, arts education consultant and freelance blogger living in New York City where she is actively involved in arts, education, technology, advocacy and politics. Wilt is the founder of ArtsEdTechNYC, a VOICE Charter School Board Trustee and currently is acting Chair of the Arts Education Council with Americans for the Arts where she is a guest ARTSblog contributor.