Afa Dworkin seeks to transform lives through the power of diversity in the arts

In 1996, when the Sphinx Organization was first founded, only three percent of orchestras around the nation represented those of Latino and colored descent. That number became a powerful driving force for Afa Dworkin, who has since been drawn to the cause of increasing diversity in the arts.
Dworkin is the Artistic and Executive Director for Sphinx, headquartered in the GM Renaissance building downtown, where she gets to actively inspire and support those of diverse backgrounds in the arts.
“There’s a lot of undiscovered talent; musicians who need access and guidance,” Afa says. “That’s the most rewarding thing of being at Sphinx. We help identify these young people and jumpstart their careers.”
Dworkin does not hail from a country where the arts are often cut first or pushed aside in education. Born in Moscow, Russia, Afa spent most of her youth in the small country Azerbaijan where the arts were subsidized by the government. Every child had access to music education for free. This was a blessing for her as she discovered her passion for music.

“I fell in love with classical music. I began to play violin at the age of seven,” she says. This love for music eventually brought her to study at the University of Michigan. Her father received a job as a chemical engineer in Detroit. While living in Detroit, Dworkin was introduced to a violin professor at the University of Michigan, and learned more about their music program. She decided to stay in Michigan and has been here ever since.

After moving to America, Dworkin became well aware that not everyone has the access, support, or financial capabilities to excel in the arts. She herself participated in the national Sphinx competition that is still to this day one of their most widely-recognized programs. At the end of the competition, students receive scholarships to pursue study in the arts. Dworkin began to volunteer for the young organization, growing to her position today.
Sphinx now serves a national and international audience through the competition andSphinxCon, an international convening held in Detroit every year to encourage diversity in the arts.
“We look at the whole field and ask: what can we do to add more diversity?” says Dworkin. “The convening attracts leaders from the arts all around the globe to Detroit.”
At the local level, Sphinx works to encourage music education through various programs, placing instruments right in the hands of Detroit’s youth.
“We have programs in education and access – our year-round beginning introduction program called Overture,” says Dworkin. “We are in some of the most disadvantaged communities in Detroit. We literally put instruments in the hands of young people and teach them how to be artists.”
Though the number of diversity has been increasing over the years, Dworkin will always find the most joy in empowering others to create music.
“I loved teaching and the joy of making music with other people,” she says. “Now, I help empower other people to make music.”

All photos by Doug Coombe.

This story originally appeared in Urban Innovation Exchange here.