In her nearly 15 years dancing with The Joffrey Ballet, Erica Lynette Edwards was known for her onstage charisma. But she was a prominent figure offstage, as well—taking part in promotional interviews, advertising campaigns and outreach initiatives, which piqued her interest in community engagement.
After retiring in 2014, she spent five years as Joffrey's director of community engagement before starting her own consulting business, Cultivating Better Tomorrows, in March 2020 with business partners Kenny Borchard and Mauro Villanueva. Today, the company leads anti-racism trainings and offers workshops, racial healing circles and strategic-planning services tailored for dance organizations.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about growing up in a predominantly white world, transitioning into community engagement and how she's working to break the cycle of trauma.
How she got into this work
"I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, and was the only Black kid in my class at the studio. That was just the norm for me. The professional world was exactly the same. Then the community-engagement department was all BIPOC people, all the time.
"In community engagement, I asked, What does the community need? It started with diversity of dance genres in our programs, and understanding that other styles deserve just as much appreciation as ballet. Our teaching artists did trainings together talking about cultural humility. I created anti-racism trainings for our department, and then we brought them to other conferences."
Who Cultivating Better Tomorrows serves
"Cultivating Better Tomorrows is not just here for ballet companies. We've had a lot of people who teach at studios—they're not necessarily a rep from the studio, just an individual who wants to learn more. Dance service organizations host our sessions. I just spoke to a belly dancer about helping in her community. I've never felt as connected to the dance community as I do now."
The complexity of DEI work
"When you do one aspect of DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion] work and say, "Okay, we've got diversity now," you're not understanding people's needs or understanding that you have a racism issue. What microaggressions does one Black dancer now experience by being accepted into your space? What responsibilities have you put on their shoulders to be the face of your advertising campaigns?"
How racism manifests
"Racism starts in the morning before I get to the studio. It can continue in the studio, it can get worse in the studio, I might forget about it in the studio and then I leave the studio and I experience it some more. I think there's this idea that in these four walls it gets better, but you're not acknowledging my very existence as a Black person in the United States. In our trainings and guided conversations, this is what we get at."
The organization's goals
"Literally, we want to cultivate better tomorrows. My partners and I recognize the cycle of trauma as tradition in the dance world. Let's be critical and have some self-reflection. Let's change the world so that people come out of a dance class—whether they want to be a professional or not—with joy. That's why we're here."
Cultivating Better Tomorrows is hosting a virtual summit on April 11. Find out more here.