By the late 1990s Marshall White had already amassed an impressive list of credentials. Raised in the church and surrounded by music as the son of Bishop Jesse White, the younger White was already – without formal training – playing piano and organ for his church choir by the age of 13. He studied at both IPFW and the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago before ultimately taking over the directorship of the True Love Baptist Choir for a 22-year tenure. During that time the choir performed with everyone from the Fort Wayne Philharmonic at the Embassy to Foreigner at the Allen County Memorial Coliseum while garnering admiration and raising the profile of gospel music in the city. Later, White founded and directed the Contemporary Chorale Choir at Northrop High School before heading to Purdue University in West Lafayette to serve as director of Black Voices of Inspiration from 1994-2000. During his years at Purdue, he took a little known choir and raised their profile to rival that of the university’s Glee Club and provided them their first trip to international competition and performance. Yet even during those years, White had bigger dreams, a vision for what was possible – and he was hoping to accomplish it back home in Fort Wayne.
“I wanted to increase minority participation in the arts in Fort Wayne,” he says now, 20 years after his plan began to form. “There was less than three-percent minority participation in Allen County at that time. I was born and raised here, and I wanted to change that. I started having dreams during the night about how to do it, so I would wake up and start writing the concept down.”
Although he concedes that not all of his midnight stream of consciousness notes were fully formed, they did provide the beginning of what he began to pursue in earnest in 1997 and brought to fruition in July 2000: the Unity Performing Arts Foundation. But even as he worked to develop the foundation’s mission statement and vision, he ambitiously sought to provide more than an outlet for artistic adventure.
“This was always going to be a vehicle for youth development. We were seeking to shape their character, to develop their leadership. We wanted to build their confidence, their self-esteem and give them pride, opportunities and hope. We wanted to give them the things that family used to provide kids but don’t have the time to do anymore, to empower them with qualities of discipline and professionalism.
“But you can’t just try to sell kids on youth development or they aren’t going to be interested, so we provided a singing vehicle, a dance vehicle, a writing vehicle. We had to get the kids’ attention or the youth development wouldn’t come. We wanted to build an umbrella, a one-stop shop, for exposure to all of the arts disciplines and with that would come a support system that would take them through their school years. It’s a powerful thing, building the essence of a kid.”
White’s unique understanding of how best to approach 21st century kids in a complicated world has been matched by his updated model for raising funds and staying vital in the current political, economic and social climate where arts funding has been scarce and luring in new funders and participants can be dicey.
“Traditional arts programs are struggling to survive because the model is old. It’s 20th century-inspired, 20th century-driven and 20th century-functioning. It’s not relevant to the 21st century. There’s an overwhelming struggle to survive, and you can change either willingly or by force. The programming has to be relevant to a new generation if it’s going to move forward. Kids are already making the transition, and now hip-hop isn’t just for black kids. Now white kids are being influenced by it. They’re crossing over racially now. Sports have made that crossover already, and that’s why it’s become so lucrative. You need to make the arts relevant to all minorities and attract them to orchestras and ballet and other arts institutions if they’re going to be relevant to the next generation who will be funding these arts in the future.”
While his goal was to increase minority participation in the arts, White says the great achievement of Unity Performing Arts Foundation is its diversity. And other programs have taken notice of his success in fulfilling that promise. What Marshall terms “Soulful Art Forms” is a new concept and one that he eagerly shares when he attends conferences and workshops around the country. White is quick to point out that the definition of “soulful” – “full of or expressing feeling or emotion” – makes no distinction about who is expressing that emotion.
“‘Soulful’ has nothing to do with color,” he says. “It’s how you experience the art form. ‘Soulful Art Form’ means you experience, communicate and inspire. And that’s what we try to do. It’s for all kids, not just black or white, but programming that speaks beyond race.”
White’s talents go beyond music to a highly detailed form of administration when he shares the statistics of the students who have been part of Unity for the last 14 years. While the early numbers did reflect a focus on minorities (with 89 percent of the original 64 students African-American), the current group of 123 reflects five distinct demographics, including six African, 44 African-American, 15 biracial, 21 Caucasian and 13 Hispanic. He also touts the diversity of his staff and the audience who turn out for the popular choir performances.
The success of the Voice of Unity choir has provided additional exposure for UPAF, particularly when it won gold in the 2010 international competition in China. (This year’s national competition will take the choir to Carnegie Hall in New York City this month and Riga, Latvia in July for the international gathering.) But White is quick to point out that the program also includes creative writing and an arts academy. He plans to expand to include other arts like dance in the near future. But the support doesn’t end at graduation. White touts the success of UPAF’s alumni who go on to college and successful lives. He also helps connect them to mentors, something he experienced himself along the way.
“Chuck Surack at Sweetwater Sound is the one who taught me all of these computer programs I use to track our students. He was a mentor to me, and I want our kids to have that same opportunity to learn from people in the community. So we connect them to CEOs or arrange for them to see surgeries or make it possible for them to sit in a courtroom and learn from experiences so they see the possibilities. You plant the seed of aspiration and track that and connect them to people who can help them make it happen.”
Some of those mentors now are the very alumni White helped years ago, those who helped chart the course for UPAF, including Jimmie Jones, a recent grad of the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University who will be joining White’s staff this summer. And as he works to continue his long-term goals (which from the beginning charted out to 15 years, 20 years and beyond), he sees his new model for success in the arts making it possible to fulfill those dreams that once woke him during the night.
“We are finding funding through our efforts to attract people to our program. The old model was to target, but now you have to attract. And you shouldn’t have to chase money because that means it’s running away from you and doesn’t want you to catch it. You have to create something that attracts money. What has happened here with Unity has happened organically, not by happenstance.