a2ru Emerging Creatives Student Summits – Five Years of Arts Interdisciplinary Collaboration

April 6, 2018

Left to right: Edgar Cardenas, Willie Caldwell, Sisi Reid

The Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities (a2ru) began the Emerging Creatives Student Summits in 2014 to actively cultivate future generations of practitioners and leaders in arts interdisciplinary collaboration. During a summit, undergraduate and graduate students from a2ru partner institutions across the country work in interdisciplinary teams throughout three days to explore societal issues and create solutions, culminating in a presentation on the final day. Each year, students from a diverse range of academic disciplines gather at a student summit hosted by a different partner university. The university and location shapes the summit’s theme as well as the topics the students are encouraged to contemplate. In February, more than 80 undergraduate and graduate students from 34 partner institutions gathered for the 5th Emerging Creatives Student Summit hosted by Louisiana State University, where they examined this year’s theme, “Spectacle and the Collective Experience.” This theme was directly inspired by the significance of Mardi Gras and the grand science research at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) in Livingston, Louisiana. Each year the summits grow and change, but three consistent components remain: a bootcamp session led by a professional to introduce students to interdisciplinary collaboration, at least one theme-based panel made up of higher education faculty/staff and working professionals, and time for students to engage in creative problem solving.

To celebrate five years of Emerging Creatives Student Summits, I conversed with two fellow Emerging Creatives alumni, Edgar Cardenas, a2ru’s first Mellon postdoctoral research fellow, and Willie Caldwell, a2ru’s first executive intern. Cardenas, Caldwell, and I represent the first three years of student summits and three distinct educational backgrounds. Cardenas attended the first summit in 2014 as a PhD candidate in Sustainability from Arizona State University. I attended the second summit in 2015 as a senior theatre major from University of Maryland. Caldwell attended the third summit in 2016 as a Master’s student in Arts Leadership and Higher Education from Virginia Tech. We discussed our differing origins into our ongoing working relationships with a2ru and reflected on our experiences participating in an Emerging Creatives Student Summit. We are the only three alumni who have the unique experience of attending a summit and working as a2ru staff. Why did three different alumni pursue the opportunity to work for a2ru? Reflecting on our three pathways invites us to think about the value a2ru brings to the individual undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral candidate as an arts interdisciplinary practitioner.

Before a2ru + The Summit Experience

What were your academic disciplines and interests before a2ru entered your life? How did the summit inform your studies, research, and career path?

Edgar Cardenas
Before attending the 2014 Emerging Creatives Student Summit hosted by Stanford University, Cardenas spent his graduate training at the intersection of arts and sustainability. While pursuing a PhD in Sustainability, he “kept one foot over in the school of art” and explored aesthetics in art and photography. The first a2ru student summit was a perfect fit for Cardenas, who was already studying the role of aesthetics, specifically its influence on our relation to and understanding of the environment. At the 2014 summit, students were offered tools in a design thinking bootcamp led by Bill Burnett, executive director of the d.school at Stanford University. Cardenas left with two main takeaways about the process of interdisciplinary collaboration. First, “design thinking is not magic.” He explained, these are skills can be taught and made accessible for any person to use. Second, “momentum and energy are critical components for keeping collaborations productive.” In addition to his takeaways, Cardenas experienced both the joy and growth that the summit experience intends.

“It was really fun because at the end of the summit, you have all these people with these different ideas of potential products or challenge solutions that give you confidence in being able to work across disciplines for doing some really creative work.”

Sisi Reid
Before attending the 2015 Emerging Creatives Student Summit hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University, I spent most of my undergraduate years studying cultural anthropology, training as a theatre performer, and organizing for workers’ rights advocacy at University of Maryland. I tried to obtain degrees in anthropology and theatre, but structurally it was very challenging to fit both majors into four years. I eventually dropped anthropology. At the time, it felt like I had three distinct parts of me that would never go together: theatre, anthropology, and community organizing. This was my perspective until my senior year, when I attended the student summit.

“The summit really solidified that collaboration is life,” Reid said. “You’ve got to work with other people who don’t look like you, aren’t from where you’re from, who don’t do what you do, in order for this planet to get any better. That’s the only way it’s going to happen!”
-from “Collaboration at Core of Theatre Education”, The Clarice 

The 2015 summit was the first year a2ru created themes. Our theme was “PULSE: Creative Collaborations for Cities in Flux”, which focused on creating new cities. Each interdisciplinary team chose a different aspect of a city to reimagine (libraries, housing, education, etc.). Above: Doing my first elevator pitch during the summit’s “Tumml Bootcamp and Idea Storm” about the benefits of ScrumptI had two transformative takeaways after working with my team to create “City Changers,” a program that links high school students with university students and professors to help them apply what they’re learning to real life. One, I was surrounded by many multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary artists, which encouraged me to continue learning and practicing in more than one discipline. College made me feel like I had to choose between disciplines, but a2ru showed me that strength lies in the intersection. Two, as an artist I am needed in creating solutions. The summit affirmed my ability to collaborate outside of my chosen fields, which taught me that I am a valued part of any problem solving processes.

Willie Caldwell
Caldwell’s background began in performance art. He spent his undergraduate years training as an actor and musician, obtaining a degree in each discipline. After working for three years in the provost’s office at Virginia Tech, Caldwell became a master’s student in Arts Leadership and Higher Education. His first contact with a2ru was through the 2015 Annual National Conference. In his second year of graduate school and while working as a Graduate Assistant at the Moss Arts Center, a2ru hosted its annual national conference at Virginia Tech and Caldwell was the point person to organize the conference. By the time the 2016 Emerging Creatives Student Summit hosted by University of Michigan rolled around, Caldwell was an experienced arts practitioner, higher education administrator, and already familiar with a2ru’s work and mission. He was quickly identified as a leader. The summit was “valuable in the sense that I was automatically identified as a leader and had to adopt that role really early on, due to how the other students that were participating in the experience were viewing me.” Both experiences with a2ru affirmed the next steps in his career. Caldwell solidified the focus of his research and practice on “emerging trends and innovation within arts management.”

The Bootcamp Experience

The a2ru summit bootcamp typically occurs in the beginning of the first full day of the summit and is designed to introduce students to perspectives and tools that will support the collaboration between disciplines. We discussed how the bootcamps have evolved over time and began to question what tools can best prepare students to engage in successful interdisciplinary collaboration. While applying to the summit, Caldwell and I had to self-identify the role we play in collaboration by ranking the following five choices from 1-5:

  • Disruptors– an interest in pushing boundaries, troublemaking, “seeing if it can be done”
  • Activists- an interest in making the world a better place
  • Motivators- an interest in personal and/or professional growth, pursuit of knowledge/skills
  • Entrepreneurs- an interest in new ventures, competition, recognition, and/or market success
  • Instigators- an interest in general problem solving, a sense of curiosity, urge to create

At the 2015 summit, these were the five roles that divided us into groups the first night we arrived. In our respective groups, we brainstormed prompts related to different aspects of a city. We then dispersed from those groups and from a variety of prompts written on poster papers around the room, we each chose one prompt (see below). This process ultimately created newly formed interdisciplinary teams compiled of variations of the five self-identified roles. The next day, in our newly formed teams, we had to give an elevator pitch about the benefits of Scrumpt during our “Tumml Bootcamp and Idea Storm.” While collaborating with my team, there was consistent respectful communication, but there were also times when managing ideas and moving forward was difficult. Also, following the summit I was not sure how my role as an “activist” was applicable to my collaboration process or contributions. From the second to the third summit, a2ru continued developing new approaches and designed a new bootcamp to provide students with decision making tools.

In 2016, the “Creative Collaboration Bootcamp” was designed to foster discussion, negotiation, self-assessment of motivations, and space to trade ideas and insights around the culminating solution project. a2ru staff facilitated games to encourage teams to explore their methods of communications and group dynamics. A decision-making assessment tool was also shared. Teams were taught new language for collaboration, then mapped each member on a quadrant graph in order to identify their categorization into four types of decision making motivations: Values Driven, Possibility-Oriented, Task-Orientated, and Outcomes Driven (see below). From the second to the third summit, I saw incredible growth and was impressed by this new bootcamp which addressed the specific challenges of communication and decision making that my team experienced a year prior. One of the core challenges throughout the summits has been determining effective ways to translate the bootcamps into tools that students of various disciplines can use. Reflecting on our individual experiences prompted Cardenas and Caldwell to challenge the effectiveness of using categorization tools. Caldwell spoke about how he self-identified as a “disrupter”, but due to his professional experiences and being older than most summit attendees he was treated more as a “motivator” within his team. He self-identified as one thing based on what he thought he should be, but ended up playing a completely different role that didn’t involve his skill set in acting, music, and higher education administration. He further explained, “I’m not sure that there was a through line that was consistent enough to have people recognize that the tools they were provided in the bootcamp were supposed to transfer over into the working groups for these prompts.”

From Cardenas’ point of view: “The whole point of being interdisciplinary is being able to break out of roles that you’ve been entrained into, or disciplined into and so being able to say, ‘Alright, if you are an engineer, how do you approach this problem analytically? If you are an artist, how do you approach this problem through artistic methods and allow people to say you can switch perspectives.’ Allowing them to use the tools that they have and not being so regimented to the idea of who you are and how this works within this context of arts integrative work.” Having experienced the summit as an undergraduate at a time where my language for interdisciplinary collaboration was just beginning, it was valuable for me to hear Caldwell and Cardenas articulate the possible limitations that categorization tools can have during interdisciplinary processes. As the summits have grown, so has a2ru’s approaches to training the next generations. Since attending our respective summits, both Caldwell and I have shared feedback with a2ru staff about how to strengthen the bootcamps and collaboration process. At this past summit in February 2018, Cardenas introduced a new bootcamp based on sharing methods, rather than categorization.

From Student Summit to Staff

Why did you want to work for a2ru? What was your internal motivation that led you to be a fellow, to create the internship, or to be the intern?

Edgar Cardenas
After obtaining his PhD, Cardenas needed a place to test the ideas he developed during his dissertation. His research focuses on coupling art, design, science, and engineering methodologies to bolster more creative problem solving, primarily in an interdisciplinary small-group setting. Having experienced the student summit, Cardenas knew that a2ru was a “natural fit” to further test his ideas about interdisciplinary collaboration.

“a2ru was the perfect container for continuing to do the type of work that I was doing, which is ‘how do you think about creativity across disciplines and how do you figure out how to do that within a collaborative context?’”

In April 2016, a2ru welcomed Edgar Cardenas as the first Mellon Postdoctoral Research Fellow. During his time, not only did Cardenas further develop his own research and practices, but he also supported the current generations of Emerging Creatives. At the most recent student summit, Cardenas provided students with three Creative Collaborations videos, DifferencesFrameworks, and Methods, to watch sequentially prior to arriving. In these presentations, he provided the students with tools and methods to structure their ideas about discipline, creativity, and collaboration that were used in their processes. Cardenas also collaborated with University of Michigan dance professor, Amy Chavasse, to develop activities and presentations to engage the students. He also shared Tools for Action from Stanford’s d.school. Both his intimate understanding of the summit experience combined with his research of interdisciplinary collaboration made him a great resource for the students. His work has prompted a2ru to contemplate what mentorship roles other summit alumni can serve in the future.

Willie Caldwell
To fulfill the internship requirement of his master’s program, Caldwell looked to a2ru as an opportunity to build and grow his network within higher education before graduating. He was very excited by a2ru’s portfolio and saw the opportunity to learn more about their business model. After experiencing a national conference and student summit, Caldwell called Laurie Baefsky, a2ru’s executive director, to discuss the possibility of creating an internship position.

“They’re [a2ru] doing and trying to do really good, important work centered around interdisciplinary arts integration both inside and outside of higher education. That’s what ultimately led to my decision and led me to do the ask with Laurie and actually create that position.”

Caldwell created the executive internship in August 2016. During his semester, he helped develop long-term strategy for the organization, participated in executive and curricular committee meetings, built long-range communications strategies, and helped a2ru engage in articulating to lawmakers and the public the importance of interdisciplinary research, practice, and teaching. Working for a2ru allowed Caldwell to strengthen his skills and impact, deepen his understanding of arts interdisciplinary practice in higher education, and broaden his investigation into different ways of knowing.”

Sisi Reid
I left the summit with new ideas from various disciplines, ultimately feeling like I was ready to change the world. Although I was graduating, I told Lauren Fretz Thompson, a2ru’s educational specialist, I wanted to attend the next summit. I knew I wasn’t going to get this interdisciplinary focus anywhere else and I needed to return so I could continue to be exposed to these ways of thinking. I kept in touch with Lauren and months later, a2ru hired me as program assistant for the 2016 summit. I assisted with logistical support, co-moderated the “Creative Revitalization” panel, and mentored summit attendees.(WATCH a video including Willie Caldwell and me at the 2016 summit.) My initial idea for an Emerging Creatives alumni group was born during the 2016 summit. I knew my fellow summit attendees and I wanted to keep in touch and build off the excitement we felt, so I attempted to organize our information. I didn’t have all the resources and support I needed, so the alumni group never took off. Fast forward to 2017, I was coming toward the end of my year working as an AmeriCorps member. I reached out to Laurie Baefsky to check in about the 2017 summit and she told me about a new executive internship position. I was still deeply inspired by my experiences both attending and working a summit, so the decision to pack up my life in Maryland and move to Michigan was a no-brainer. I was curious about who and what mechanisms were behind this national alliance and my transformative summit experience.

Continuing the Work

What are you doing now in your careers?

Edgar Cardenas
Cardenas finished his postdoctoral position with a2ru earlier this month and is actively looking toward what’s next. He recently co-published a paper about sociological methods and research on methods for evaluating collaboration and the technologies that can assist in understanding how interactions unfold in collaborations. He is currently working on two Detroit-based photo projects and a paper on art-science publication platforms.

Willie Caldwell
Caldwell is in his second semester as Visiting Assistant Professor of Arts Management at Miami University in Ohio where they are “building, growing, and developing a curricular approach to teaching arts management and entrepreneurship”. His current focus is on course development and curriculum instruction – work he will continue in his second year. Last month, Caldwell attended Arts for Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C., an event he attended in 2017 as a2ru’s first executive intern. He continues to keep in touch with a2ru staff and recently provided feedback for their 2017 Report on Creative Placemaking in Higher Education Pre-Conference Workshop.

Sisi Reid
I am currently the executive intern for ArtsEngine and a2ru. I manage social media for both, support program and event planning, and maintain partnership data. I’m also co-facilitating a weekly theatre workshop at Cotton Correctional Facility with the Prison Creative Arts Project and acting locally. Working and attending the 2017 a2ru Annual National Conference allowed me to learn more about creative placemaking and think more critically about what my theatre skills can do within a community.  After my internship ends in May, I will be returning to Maryland where I will shift my focus back to teaching and creating theatre full time. I am returning with intent to continue my art and also broaden my practice in creative placemaking. I am currently in conversation with a professor from University of Maryland about presenting a2ru’s efforts in creative placemaking at The National Consortium of Creative Placemaking’s Creative Placemaking Leadership Summit in College Park, MD this October.

My big project now, is actualizing the work I started in 2016, an a2ru Emerging Creatives Student Summit alumni network. I created a Facebook group and am collecting contact information and input from the alumni. We want to know what alumni want from this network as we go about developing it. I am doing a lot of data collection and entry that will create a strong foundation for the a2ru staff to identify and engage with Emerging Creatives alumni.

Continuing the Work + Creating the Network

Why is it important or is it important, to have a network of all the people that have attended the Emerging Creative Summits? Why or why not?

When I asked this final question, we all agreed an Emerging Creatives Student Summit alumni network serves great value for both the alumni and the advancement of arts interdisciplinary practice in higher education. The past five summits have included doctoral candidates, graduate, and undergraduate students from across the country who have practiced arts interdisciplinary collaboration. Establishing this network of communication with over 400 summit alumni will strengthen the ability for current professionals, higher education faculty/staff, and students knowledgeable of arts integration to collaborate and continue to shape the practice of interdisciplinary efforts. Cardenas highlighted the potential of gathering alumni in the same physical space.

It’s a natural extension to connect the people that have been interested in doing the work via being alum of the summits. A lot of this work actually happens not in a static context. Yes, we could build a compendium of information that people could borrow from, but if we’re really talking about creative idea, the creative ideas come from the interactions and so you need opportunities for these people that have been at these events, who are interested in these intersections to interact, and those interactions should breed new ideas that should they decide to, they can carry on as collaborations into the future.”

I’ve been collaborating with Maryrose Flanigan, a2ru associate director, about the many possibilities this network can bring: a future summit alumni panel at a national conference and/or summit, opportunities for individuals between the cohorts to meet and build new collaborations, mentorship to future summits attendees, and continued involvement in the many research and career opportunities a2ru’s alliance offers. Caldwell articulated the value he sees, which derives from his need for more formalized knowledge to be produced about the courses he teaches. He is teaching courses in arts entrepreneurship and arts venture creation, but doesn’t have a textbook or published case studies to use.

“Knowing that there are other people that have gone through this experience [the summit] that are also doing this experience in other places that I have something automatically in common with, just helps to strengthen what it is that we’re trying to accomplish here, right? That’s advancing the arts as a way of knowing and connecting that knowledge to the public good. I think because of that, it’s [the alumni network] inherently valuable and it’s not only valuable to us, it’s also going to become a valuable part of the portfolio for a2ru.”

Advancing the arts as a way of knowing is a practice Cardenas, Caldwell, and I have experienced prior to a2ru and continued expanding by participating in a summit and working for a2ru. We have experienced, from both sides, the great value a2ru possesses in articulating arts integrative practices and carving out spaces for individuals to develop interdisciplinary collaborations.The a2ru Emerging Creatives Student Summits were a significant experience in developing the research, careers, and confidence of our individual journeys and many more. Over the course of five years, a2ru has demonstrated their commitment to nurturing the growth of arts interdisciplinary leaders by gathering and teaching over 400 students from across the country. We are proud to be Emerging Creatives alumni and celebrate a2ru’s incredible achievement.


Hosted by James Madison University

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Spectacle and the Collective Experience, hosted by Louisiana State University

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WATER: New Directions Through Arts and Sciences, hosted by University of Florida

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RISE: Forging Resilient Communities, hosted by University of Michigan

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PULSE: Creative Collaborations for Cities in Flux, hosted by Virginia Commonwealth University

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Hosted by Stanford University

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