Leadership Profile: Ingrid Zimmer

What is your role at Inspired Child?  

Our umbrella organization is Dumbarton Arts & Education, and I am the Executive Director. Our education program is called Inspired Child, and our arts program is Dumbarton Concerts. 

Tell me more about the project BFF is currently funding. What are your visions/goals for this project? 

Inspired Child’s mission is to improve the quality of and access to high-quality early childhood education for children living in under-resourced neighborhoods in D.C. At the core of our beliefs is that early childhood is the most important time in our lives—it’s the foundation on which our lives are built. Our experiences during those first five years in the classroom really affect the trajectory of the rest of our educational career. 

The other foundational belief I hold is in the transformative power of the arts. Arts are essential to our lives—not only as humans, but particularly in early childhood. It’s so essential to have the arts infused into early childhood education, so children’s first experiences in school are joyful and nurturing. 

I also believe in the science behind the importance of music and movement and rhythm; it’s essential for brain development for our bodies and minds to move and make music and be in rhythm. Early childhood and arts: that’s how we create successful humans going forward. 

We seem to be entering a new age of philanthropy and activism, based the intersectionality and interconnectedness of previously separate interest categories. How can artists—and arts educators—be leaders in this new environment of confluence? 

The answer is in the question itself: to not stay siloed and to get out—to collaborate and advocate. I’ve gotten much better at not staying down in the weeds and doing direct services, but getting out and amplifying the message to different populations. We need to get out of our small networks and expand—visiting others’ programs, thinking of ways to collaborate: how can we support each other, as opposed to competing with each other? That’s a strong part of leadership: going into partnerships and collaborations, instead of trying to be competitive and sectioning off areas just for yourself.  

The arts lend themselves to that kind of collaboration; they can be incredibly competitive, but they also require an awareness of the need for others. 

I feel like our performances got much stronger when we got out of doing just straight dance concerts—when we started to write scripts and invited actors and directors and live musicians and video artists. We’re moving out of this singular-disciplinary arts space; we’re so used to having so much incredible collaboration and stimulation and integration now that when you go back to down to the simple, it doesn’t feel quite as rich. 

An example of that in Inspired Child’s work: I’ve aligned myself with a seemingly contradictory vertical, which is science! I think it’s really important to combine art with science. We know that art is transformative, but why? We can’t just say that it’s like magical fairy dust, right? So I’ve aligned myself with a neuroscientist who’s based at Georgetown, with a doctor of early childhood education at George Mason, and I’ve started conversations with a psychologist who works with trauma at Kennedy Krieger. That’s an example of how I’ve gone out of my silo of arts to learn about the scientific backing that proves why the arts are essential and why they work. 

GO TO YOUR OPPOSITE. It’s like in relationships; you should really marry someone who is very different from you, so you can complement each other. Whatever field you’re in, go to what you might think is the opposite field, and find your commonalities—and I think that can create strength. 

Has Covid changed the way the organization works or views its role in society? If so, how? 

With the social justice and racial reckoning that was going on at the same time as COVID, we took some bold steps that we’ve been thinking about for years, but we finally made the move: to shift out of the name our founder gave us 25 years ago—which was great and unique 25 years ago, but the name “Inner City Inner Child” no longer serves us, and nor does it serve the community that we serve. “Inner city” has become a negative identifier for a certain community, and we’re not interested in that. We are interested in uplifting and inspiring, not in labeling or confining. It gave us the launching pad for this new name—Inspired Child—and a new way of looking at the work we do. It’s not about reaching down and lifting people; they have the power within themselves. We all have the power within ourselves. We don’t need people constantly pulling us. Inspired Child embodies all the possibilities and hope. 

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, in terms of reframing our content: early childhood and arts will still be at the base, but thinking about trauma . . . we all have this new level of trauma coming out of COVID, so we’re thinking of trauma-informed practices in everything we do. And racial equity: looking at every program we have through a racial equity lens.  

I’m excited about those big picture things—these reckonings we’ve had because of the health crisis and the social justice crisis, and how that can inform our content going forward. If we don’t do that, we’re not going to survive this. I believe in organizations being organic and not being “set”; we need to organically grow with the community we’re in and be open to what’s going on. 

As a non-profit leader, how do you evaluate your progress and success? How do metrics play into your work? What suggestions do you have to other non-profit leaders about using metrics? 

My advice to other non-profits is that you have to have metrics. They can be hard to get, but you need to collect them in order for funders to see your work. There’s the quantitative metrics (counting children, teachers, families, books), but there’s also qualitative: talk to the people you’re serving and hear what difference you’re making. What are the outcomes? The most powerful metric I like to use is going to the teachers and directors and asking them what they want. We’re not going in and telling them what they need, but hearing what their needs are—and afterwards, asking them if we met their needs. And if we didn’t, using those metrics to make our program stronger. That’s how I use metrics as a leader: where are we falling down? What can we do better? 

It seems like the overarching theme is conversation and collaboration: reaching out to people in other fields, or reaching out to people you’re serving and people you’re working with and using that both to facilitate and to measure growth.  

How can the arts—and especially arts INTEGRATION—be a tool for social change?  

Just looking at it from an early childhood lens: when you bring the arts into a classroom, there’s a democratization of the classroom. When you’re singing and moving together in a circle, there’s no hierarchy. When you’re expressing yourself, there’s no wrong answer. The arts can be a pathway to democracy, equality, and advocacy—to become an advocate for yourself, to discover your own voice, and discover what YOU want. That’s what democracy is: being able to have a voice in the process. The arts are a way for individuals to find their voice.  

And then the change ripples out from there—it has to start with individuals. 

In a classroom where the arts are absent, you have rows of children who aren’t moving—they’re being asked to memorize rote facts. There’s no creativity, no advocacy, no self-expression. If you’re just spoon-feeding them facts, that’s not a path to social justice; it’s a path to people who will believe whatever they see on Twitter. We need to teach critical thinking; we need to do project-based work; we need to play. The arts are a vehicle for self-expression and critical thinking and creativity, and we need all of that; that leads to social justice. 

What do you do in your spare time to balance your life? What replenishes / refuels / reenergizes you?  

I dance, and the other thing that reenergizes me more than anything is just being alone and silent.  

What books have inspired or challenged you? 

The Body Keeps Score by Bessel van der Kolk—it’s all about how we hold trauma in our body. Society has gotten very dependent on medications and talk therapy, which happens from the neck up; we really need to incorporate our entire bodies in order to work through trauma. 

What is your mantra? 

“Fake it till you make it.” Often, you have no idea what you’re doing when you go into a role; just be it, and you will become it.  

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