15 People Who Make America Great: The Artist: Aaron Dworkin, Sphinx Organization
Growing up in rural Hershey, Pa., Aaron Dworkin was something of a double oddity: a black kid with a violin in his hand. There was only one other black family in town, and they looked nothing like Dworkin’s household. He was adopted and raised by Jewish parents. His birthmother is Irish Catholic; his father is black. Diversity is literally in his blood. So picking up a violin at the age of 5 was just one more thing that made him different. It wasn’t until college, though, that he realized how special it made him. At the University of Michigan, a music professor introduced him to the work of African-American composer William Grant Still. “I was overwhelmed,” says Dworkin, 35. “No one ever told me this music existed. It would enrich so many people in the minority community. I thought, Why aren’t they hearing it, too?”
Suddenly, Dworkin’s mission in life emerged: diversifying America’s symphonies-and their musical repertoires. “You can’t complain about something,” he says, “unless you’re doing something about it.” So in 1996 he founded the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based nonprofit aimed at drawing young black and Latino kids into the world of classical music. From a shoestring start, Sphinx now has a yearly budget of $2 million. It has helped about 45,000 students in 100 schools and awarded $800,000 in scholarships. Two years ago kids from Sphinx played Carnegie Hall. Last year Dworkin won a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation.
With the help of an eight-person staff, Dworkin runs a weekend camp for urban kids, teaching them music theory, history and basic instruction on a variety of instruments. Sphinx also pays for 40 exceptional young musicians to attend an intensive music camp in New England. “Playing an instrument improves test scores and teaches discipline,” Dworkin notes. The organization’s signature creation is its annual string competition. Winners can earn up to $10,000, tour the country, perform with the New York Philharmonic and get airtime on PBS and NPR. Alumni of the competition have landed jobs at big-city orchestras. From the roughest parts of Detroit to center stage at Lincoln Center-it seems hard to imagine. Says Dworkin, “Even what I was envisioning back then is not what it’s become.” That’s because he didn’t settle for envisioning his dream. He made it reality.