Kakuna Kerina, President/CEO of The Harlem School of the Arts
Career: I’m proudest of my ability to have helped people who are in incredibly bad situations to survive. That, and to bring the joy of accomplishment to a child who is learning how to play an instrument and to help someone who may have some impact if not now then sometime in the future—so my accomplishments run the gamut from one extreme to the other.
Turning Point: There was a turning point in my early 30s when I got my first job in advocacy. I knew I was moving in a direction that was what I was put on the planet to do and from there my life just took a very different turn. It took me outside of my environment. That job was a project looking at the impact of HIV aids in communities worldwide.
Challenges: When you engage in work that puts you in a position where you are advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves due to circumstances or their status in society, the list of reasons is endless, that there’s a certain demand that you place on yourself and you bear a certain responsibility that you don’t bear in more traditional fields like banking I think that when you engage in work that’s so connected to who you are as a human being, there’s a sense that you always have to do as much as humanly possible because the work you do impacts on other people’s lives. So it’s not as easy to walk out of your office at the end of the day if something is not completed. It’s demanding personally, emotionally and in ways one wouldn’t expect your work would be.
It’s always demanding of your family relationships because you’re not there. What you’re giving to others you’re not giving to them. My husband and my daughter understand that people should do what they feel most connected to because otherwise they’re not fulfilling their life goals and wouldn’t be very interesting or exciting to be with. My daughter is 11 now and she’s lived all over the world and been in environments where really terrible things happen to people. She’s been in countries in war time – in West Africa, Liberia and Nigeria. But she’s also been exposed to the fact that even in those terrible situations, there’s a sense of community, people share the little bit they have with you, there’s some happiness. Terrible things don’t mean it’s the end of the world. It’s terrible then but it can get better.
Mentors: I wanted to have an impact on the lives of young people and I’m extremely gratified to work at an institution w such a strong legacy. Harlem School of the Arts was founded by Dorothy Maynor. (born in 1910, the noted black American soprano earned a B.S. and performed with most of the major American orchestras. Her recordings were bestsellers and she was regularly heard on radio shows.) And I’m gratified to follow in the footsteps of Betty Allen who directed the school [from 1979 to 1992 She is currently President Emeritus]. HSA has been dedicated to its community which counts as its core constituency children and families that would not otherwise have access to the arts and an arts education. We continue to look at ways to provide for our neediest community—foster children and children in shelters, children in unstable financial environments.
Advice: I would tell young people to stay true to what is unique about them, and do what gives them their greatest pleasures, be it art, music, dance or any interest. #