A self-described “Jill of all trades,” 26-year-old Claire Swinford has proven herself willing to transform her professional persona to pursue passion. After graduating from Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., in 2010 with a degree in journalism and French, she briefly lived in France before beginning a journalistic career at the Colorado Springs Independent. Before Swinford knew it, she was running the Indy Give! campaign and transitioning into a career of nonprofit work. She left Indy Give! in February for the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, where she works as education and community outreach coordinator. Swinford spoke to the Business Journal this week about her penchant for the arts, her “circuitous” career path and her work for the Philharmonic.
I was born in Denver in 1988. My dad was working for a software company at the time and was hired by Microsoft about six months later, so I spent most of my childhood in Seattle. It was a great place to grow up — Seattle in the ’90s was kooky and intercultural. I spent most of my childhood outside, and there was a lot of jazz, classical and folk music around the house. … We lived in a little suburb of Seattle for about 10 years before my dad decided he was sick of working for Microsoft, so we pulled up our stakes and moved to Colorado, which I think was sort of my parents’ happy place — they had been on vacations here as kids and both really loved it. It was kind of an adventure, but I was not best pleased: There was no Starbucks; there was no Nordstrom, and everything was brown. That was August of 1999. It was a strange sort of culture shock, but I ended up in a school that suited me a little better (Colorado Springs School). The minute I graduated, I went back to Washington, but picked the wrong side of the state. I went to school at Whitworth University in Spokane, which is a far cry from the Seattle area.
What did you study?
I graduated there in 2010 with a double-major in journalism and French, neither of which proved particularly useful right off the bat.
Where did you go from there, after graduating?
I tried my best to stay in France. I was there for a semester and kind of didn’t want to come home, but they tend to frown on people there without visas. So I ended up back in Colorado, living in my parents’ basement and working as a lifeguard. … I got an internship at the Colorado Springs Independent a few months later and also taught French for a year. The Indy kept giving me more stuff to do and eventually I was hired to run the Give! campaign with Laura Long, then Mary Lou Makepeace and then solo for the last year.
Was the move from journalism to nonprofit work a conscious and voluntary one?
Yes, that’s what was great about it. I had been reporting on local nonprofits while I was writing for the Indy and I grew to realize how meaningful the work they do is in terms of how it’s able to effect change in Colorado Springs … That was really inspiring to me. From working with these people, it made me curious to give it a try myself. I’ve always loved the arts, so that’s where I started looking for organizations to make that leap. I knew Nicole Anthony for a while and she sent me an email to let me know that her position at the Philharmonic would soon be available and recommended that I apply.
What do you do as education and community outreach coordinator?
It’s all about trying to find people who should know and love the orchestra, but have never been for whatever reason. It’s about finding out what those barriers are and helping to take them down. … We try to foster an air of enthusiasm around the concerts that hasn’t been there before.
What role do you think your journalism background plays in your work?
I think the biggest influence journalism, and even French, have had on what I do for the Philharmonic is helping me to better understand the community at large and how it ticks. That helps when it gets to trying to engage the community and foster partnerships. The institution has been around for 89 years, but a lot of people don’t have that awareness. Learning about the culture and history that surrounds that, through working at the paper, has helped a lot. And the French has helped my credibility with the teachers I work with at local schools, because that is another part of my job.
Do you think Colorado Springs is a good place for young professional development?
I always remember what Zach McComsey said a few years ago. I was in Leadership Pikes Peak and he talked to a bunch of us about how to foster a sense of Colorado Springs as a valuable place to develop and how to keep learning no matter what your job is. He said, “That’s the thing about this city: No one stays; so the ones that do, and the ones that stick to it, will end up with way more to do and way more influence than they know what to do with.” I don’t think that paints a dim view of this place at all. I don’t think Colorado Springs will ever be a Chicago, or Los Angeles or Seattle, but I don’t think people give it enough credit as a place where there are good people trying to do good things. If you bring to that a good work ethic, I think you can definitely be a part of that.
I moved here around the same time as a lot of my cohort from Whitworth moved to Denver. Within a year, they were all working at spas as receptionists or as baristas at Starbucks, and I had an unpaid internship that had turned into a job that I actually cared about. They just knew each other and didn’t go out much, while I had met all these cool people walking into a coffee shop or hanging out at an art gallery. I think Colorado Springs is approachable in a way that most of these big cities aren’t. It is integrated in a way most big cities aren’t.