Heather Steinman doesn’t set unattainable goals. She’s simply trying to change the world every day.
“That’s all,” Steinman said with a laugh.
As the Colorado Springs Conservatory’s chief operating officer, Steinman is well-positioned to do exactly that. The Aurora native brings a wealth of experience from her previous career with the YMCA, for which she held various leadership roles in both Tennessee and Colorado.
“At the end of the day, it’s about creating opportunities for [kids] to be inspired, and have a safe landing space and find something that you’re passionate about,” said Steinman, who has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from Fort Lewis College in Durango. “It really doesn’t matter what you’re passionate about, as long as you find something.”
Steinman, who lives on the Westside with her husband and their two children, sat down with the Business Journal this week to discuss why she believes Colorado Springs youth are in the midst of a crisis and what role the Conservatory can play in overcoming that.
Talk about your responsibilities as chief operating officer.
As the COO, my responsibility is daily operations. I oversee the budget, the staffing, the programs, the partner programs — everything that could possibly happen in a day is what I oversee. I work with the board; we fundraise. I’ve been very lucky to find a CEO [Linda Weise] who is equally (if not more) passionate than me about everything kids. We partner so well together. She’s inspiring and she’s a great mentor to me. I think that’s really important that when you land somewhere, you feel like you continue to grow and your voice is heard.
Talk about the Conservatory’s work in the community.
We do over 300 gigs a year, and that’s so kids have the opportunity to really connect with their space and share their talents, and hopefully inspire other people to want to work as hard. … We recently got a Transforming Safety grant, which is to reduce recidivism in the Southeast area. We were able to work with 511 students from Centennial Elementary School. These are kids that don’t get exposed to performing arts on a regular basis, so we created a field trip day. They were here for six hours. We picked three songs we knew they would know, and those kids broke into groups and that was their song all day. We taught them to play it on the piano and the guitar, and we had them rewrite the lyrics in a recording arts class based on what they were studying at school. They had to practice and perform by the end of the day. You saw kids really come out of their shell.
… Now we’ve been able to create a really cool connection with Centennial. … We’re really intentional about what we’re trying to achieve because we can have such deep-rooted connections with these kids.
How did you transition from a very sports-centered organization to one focused on the performing arts?
I fell into the Y because I wanted to do something around sports. Then found out I liked kids and working with kids, and then that I had really good leadership skills and was kind of a control freak. … It’s all transferrable knowledge. I think the best learning tools are the biggest mistakes you’ve ever made. …
My passion here, and in the entire community, is kids. That’s what I’m all about, is getting kids opportunity. I feel really strongly that I need to leave this planet better than I found it, and that’s really a driving force for me. I have kids who are coming up in this community, so why not me? Who else is going to carry the torch?
Why is exposure to the performing arts crucial for children’s development?
In the school district, it’s really inexpensive to throw a ball out. Kids often times are completely [judged] around their athletic prowess. But if you don’t fall into that spectrum, other kids don’t get to see your light shine.
I think empathy grows when you get to see someone else’s light shine, because all of a sudden weird Timmy in the corner isn’t weird Timmy. He’s got a crazy-ass voice, and you’re like, ‘Damn, Timmy can sing?’
… I think the best thing a nonprofit can do is fill the gap that this community needs, and I think the gap that our kids need now is connectedness, and social and emotional intelligence. … I believe we are in a youth crisis right here in this community currently with the suicide rate continually being on the rise, with parents trying to understand how to parent through technology, and with kids more disconnected than ever because of the opportunity that technology provides. They’re constantly comparing themselves on a daily basis, and media is so accessible that they can see things and be worried about things that we would never have been worried about. With that, they’re losing the ability to connect with each other and with adult mentors.
… We are a no-phone zone here. We want them to be creative. If they’re in a space and they’re waiting for class to start, then they need to be collaborating with each other. … When they’re here, there’s no drama of the text wars. They have the time to just be here.
How do you think the Conservatory can help with the community’s youth crisis?
[The arts are] a platform for so many things. … When we give [kids] access to things like performing in front of 100 or 1,000 or 10 people, they all of a sudden have to have a different element about themselves. You now have to work harder than you did when you had to do your book report in class, because you’re collaborating with a team. You’re learning these different assets that allow you to become really strong individually, but you’re also depending on a team culture.
What we’re trying to do is identify the things that kids need to have by the time they get to college so that they have every tool they could ever need. … We give them opportunities to connect within the community so that they not only have to practice their trade, but it’s about the context of this community. Now they know what TESSA is. They know what their county commissioners do because they helped [the Department of Human Services] with getting their awareness out for Child Abuse Prevention Month. … We expose them to so many different things, and it really gives them an opportunity for them to see how all these different spaces connect in the community.
There are so many opportunities through art that connect community and connect difficult questions to be able to open up the doors to really start making some long-lasting change. … In Colorado Springs, we are really trying to get ahead of the curve. We can’t be OK as a community that our kids are going to see three or four suicides in their school time. We have a county and city that work really well together, and we’re small enough and big at the same time that we have access to people, and they hear and they care. They really want to make positive change.
What are the biggest challenges the Conservatory faces?
Having the community understand how intentionally diverse we are because we want our kids to get to know every aspect of each other. … Luckily, we’ve been around for 25 years and we have a really great reputation in the community, but some people don’t know what [the Conservatory] is at all. They also sometimes think it’s an elitist organization, but 41 percent of our kids are on scholarship. We are incredibly diverse.
People need to know the Conservatory is a place where the arts are accessible. It’s accessible, but you can’t just come and take a lesson with us. You’re signing up for a program that we know is going to enhance you for years to come. … You can always be good at something, but it takes practice and it takes rigor, and it takes someone who’s going to be there supporting you and challenging you. We’re not challenging our kids enough because we’re holding the bar too low.
We don’t do that here. We’re like, ‘You can do anything, but you’re going to have to work your butt off.’ … When kids don’t have the opportunity to learn hard lessons through failure, their resiliency is zero. We want them to have a safe space to fail.