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Liz Youker


Kalamazoo Kids in Tune

359 S. Kalamazoo Mall
Ste. 100
Kalamazoo, Michigan 49007
Liz Youker, educational director of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra, wants to ensure that every elementary-aged child in Kalamazoo Public Schools has an opportunity to play the violin, cello, flute or oboe. Working toward that goal, she oversees Kids in Tune, which she considers a great career accomplishment.
Michigan Nightlight: What does being a leader mean to you?
Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra Educational Director Liz Youker: Leadership, on an organizational level, has meant owning up to our community’s persistent problems: including the fact that kids with few resources and poor academic performance don’t have access to music study.  
It has led me to examine our assumptions and question our traditions. We can provide lesson scholarships, but we can’t give transportation or be there during practice time. Why is that? Why shouldn’t kids join an orchestra when they can only play two notes? Those are the questions I asked myself and had to find out.
We spend a lot of time in the nonprofit sector trying to provide as much service as possible, but it’s such a gift when resources are available for things like evaluation and planning by professional evaluators and facilitators, instead of handled on a shoestring in-house.

Leadership made me think about asking for help from new sources. We don’t know much at the Symphony about after-school programming, but Communities in Schools sure does. Leadership, I think, means being bold enough to ask for the sun, moon, and stars at times.
What is your dream for kids?
I will jump for joy when we learn that our alumni are graduating from high school at the rate of 100 percent and going off to take advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise, with enough additional money from music scholarships to cover room and board. I will feel really good when a Kids in Tune member is concertmaster of the Kalamazoo Junior Symphony.
What is one concrete thing that could be done to improve the environment for social sector work in Michigan?
Increased financial support for professional evaluation and strategic planning would be fantastic. It is so valuable. We spend a lot of time in the nonprofit sector trying to provide as much service as possible, but it’s such a gift when resources are available for things like evaluation and planning by professional evaluators and facilitators, instead of handled on a shoestring in-house. In the for-profit world, there are research and development departments where millions of dollars are invested because it pays off in the end.  
I looked to the Detroit Chamber of Winds and Strings as a model organization. They are a great example of successful marketing, fundraising, planning and evaluation. So often in the social sector we keep doing what we’re doing because there is no safety net for experimentation. We’ve been fortunate with the Kids in Tune program to be able to do some experimenting, some thorough strategic planning, and next we’re on to evaluation. It’s going to make a big difference in the long run.
How do you know you are making progress?
First and foremost, I look to student accomplishments to know if what we are doing is successful. We are gaining more and more confidence about the direction of our efforts at Kids in Tune as the data comes in. Our evaluation efforts show that we are attracting and retaining students at the highest level of similar after-school programs in the district. It proves that our students’ attendance during the school day is improving and there are signs of positive impact on their reading assessments as well.
Progress also means that the program attracts and retains the best teachers, youth development staff, and volunteers, and that everyone involved in the program feels that they gain as much as they give. Ours are, and that is great progress.
...our students' attendance during the school day is improving and there are signs of positive impact on their reading assessments as well.
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
Getting the Kalamazoo Kids in Tune program off the ground has been my greatest joy, although I would by no means consider it my own accomplishment. I worked with a wonderful team of people at the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra to develop the concept of Kids in Tune.
I think for everyone, the goal is to find an idea that is so exciting it keeps you up at night, something that you cannot imagine not doing, and to find a way to do that thing every day. I feel lucky that the Kalamazoo Symphony’s board and administration embraced the idea of Kids in Tune early on and gave the go-ahead for us to put it together. I also feel lucky that we found such natural and committed partners to join us in this effort.
What factors led you to choose your current profession?
I finished a master’s degree in cello performance, and while I was studying, the most enjoyable time I spent was touring the city of Akron, Ohio, with a quartet of graduate students while we performed for school audiences. I loved putting those programs together, and I became the organizer for our group.
When I came to Kalamazoo to get another master’s degree in arts administration at Western Michigan University, there was an opening in the education department at the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. I’ve been doing that for 10 years now. I can’t imagine more satisfying work, and feel extremely lucky to have this opportunity at this point in my life.
Reflecting on your career, what would you say was your greatest professional learning experience?
It was, and still is, figuring out when to compromise and when not to. I was listening to a cello master class once and will always remember something the artist had to say. The student was playing a line of music, letting the melody take him this way and that way. It was beautiful, but a bit confusing. The clinician asked him whether his intent was to let the melody lead, or to let the harmony lead. The student said he felt that it was a compromise. The artist said, “No. You must never compromise. To compromise is to weaken both ideas. You must commit to one idea fully.”
This applied more often than I realized it would when I was starting out—I’m a peacemaker, and I once figured that, professionally, people always just worked together to find common ground. I have discovered that sometimes that isn’t a good idea. It’s really important when struggling with ideas to know your priorities and stick to your guns, allowing others the space to do the same thing when they need to.
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