Jonathan Swain wasn’t sure what he was in for when he arrived for Day One of the pilot of the Civic Actor Studio (CAS).
CAS, a partnership between Court Theatre and the Office of Civic Engagement, was designed to help South Side civic leaders grow individually so they can be more effective in their work, and to build trust among participants to help strengthen community bonds. It kicked off in September 2019 with an intensive four-day retreat attended by twenty-two leaders from nonprofits, foundations, media, and the University.
“I definitely had a guard up,” says Swain, the president and CEO of LINK Unlimited Scholars, a nonprofit and Community Programs Accelerator member that provides academic, mentoring, and college support to high-potential African-American youth. He figured he might hear a new way to talk about leadership and make some new connections with fellow South Side nonprofit leaders and funders.
While both of those things happened, he says the experience turned out to be much more. Civic leaders like Swain interact with a variety of audiences — staff, funders, volunteers, board members, young people — and through exercises based on the ways theater directors coax the best out of actors so they can convey a powerful message to an audience, CAS helped him understand that he brings many facets of himself to every one of those interactions.
“Authentic and true leadership means drawing on who you really are in every context,” he says. “It’s all there every time you walk through a door — there are aspects of all of us that can be collaborative, empathetic, listening, or decisive leaders.” Examining all the voices he brings to leadership will help Swain strengthen LINK Unlimited Scholars, he says, and building deep connections with fellow participants is another benefit.
“You got to know people on a level far beyond their job title and what they do for a living — not what position they’re in, but who they are as people. There’s a level of trust that gets built,” which can lead to new collaborations and new approaches to challenges facing the South Side.