Cultivating Impactful Change in the Arts
By Kara Schweiss
Photo by Ron Coleman, C4 Photography
Andrea Joy Pearson has been described as a “unicorn,” a person who possesses a rare combination of traits and experiences—a description this multi-talented artist agrees with.
Pearson has indeed had a full and robust career path. She is a visual artist with a body of work in multiple mediums. She also has a background in performing arts, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Voice Performance from Oberlin (Ohio) Conservatory of Music, and a Master of Music degree in Voice and Opera from the University of Kentucky.
Although she wanted to be a performer early on, she found that life as an opera singer was not quite the right fit. “Ultimately, I decided that there were some things within the operatic space that I didn’t want to do… I felt that it wasn’t the most hospitable space for me to be my full self,” she says.
With certifications in human resources management and diversity, equity and inclusion in the workplace, Pearson ended up working for Kennesaw State University in suburban Atlanta, where she served in administrative and project management positions over several years and ultimately took on responsibilities in the institution’s inclusion, equity and diversity program.
“That space of inclusion and cultural building and employee experience kind of stole my heart,” she said.
In 2021, Pearson was recruited to Opera Omaha as director of belonging and inclusion, making history within the opera community as the first executive of color in the organization’s 65-year history. She also served as creative director of the organization’s groundbreaking initiative, “Amplifying the Black Experience.”
Pearson says the Opera Omaha position was appealing because it allowed her to shine in a multifaceted role. “It was a such a unique opportunity to do all three parts, where you have the creative and the artist and performer, you have the space of the human resources specialist, and you have the face of the diversity and inclusion in the specialist—all rolled into one,” she says.
Pearson said she especially appreciated the chance to cultivate impactful change “where more people can feel like they can be themselves” and to increase the diversity of stories told in the classic arts, as well as the local community. “I just have such a love for creativity and for the arts and what impact that can have on culture, and on society, and on cities,” she says. “I think there’s so many possibilities here of how to change the culture and uplift the current culture at the same time.” Pearson says she considers art and activism interrelated. Although she’s from the Atlanta area, birthplace of civil rights great Martin Luther King, Jr., she views Omaha as a community open to possibilities.
“I think of myself as an artivist, of how I am using my art to champion change,” she says. “One of the things that was a big draw for me coming to Omaha was the fact that this is the birthplace of Malcolm X. And in Opera Omaha, getting to champion the life and work of Malcolm X and having more people in the city be excited about learning more about his legacy and history, that was something that was very near and dear to my heart. To be able to bring some of the highest levels of visibility to Opera Omaha that they’ve had in at least seven, eight years was also a real pride for me, to be able to bring opera back into the relevancy sphere, in a new way and with new audiences. I actually helped them cultivate the most diverse audiences they ever had with the production of ‘X, the Life and Times of Malcolm X,’ produced by Opera Omaha in 2022. I literally said to myself. ‘This is what I came to Omaha for.’”
Pearson provided testimony during the process in which Malcolm X was selected for the Nebraska Hall of Fame. He is the first Black person to be inducted since it was established in 1961. “I’m here for civil rights. I’m here for human rights. I’m here for innovation, and activism and inclusion in a way that creates a tighter level of community and equity and people feeling like they’re living well together,” she says.
In early 2023, Pearson took her biggest leap yet, leaving Opera Omaha to establish a multidisciplinary consulting company called Joy Brings Light—an organization as multifaceted as Pearson herself, with a mission to assist clients in creating more just and equitable spaces.
“I say we do DEI differently, and we do DEI that’s founded in action and fueled by joy. I want it to feel really good, I want it to be very community-based and I want it to be active. I don’t do the DEI where we’re just talking about it in circles all day; I want to actually move the needle,” she says. “I’m the person you’re calling when you really want to be on the go. And in this I do facilitation, I do strategy, I do coaching. I do sound healing and facilitation, I emcee and I host different events. I do audience cultivation, and community engagement and programming. Lots of different things. Why? Because DEI demands that.”
Pearson notes with a chuckle that she won a “Kindness Award” in second grade, describing an interest in diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility as “something that got into me when I was very young.”
“I would say, even before being a part of my career focus, it really is just simply who I am. I care about people. I want people to live well,” she says. “Each job title I will ever hold, I actively work to help myself and others walk in our power to utilize our space to create lives that we enjoy. I want to see high performance, I want to see teams get along, I want to see communities that get along. And I love people being connected to their passion, in what they are really good at and what they care about. I think it becomes just so beautiful and productive.”
Pearson says she is determined to make a difference in Omaha, the city that now feels like home for her and her young daughter.
“I am so thankful of how my community here in this town has made me feel so warm, so welcome and so supported for the both of us,” she says. “We really do appreciate all the love and support that we get on this journey.