By Sarah Lydon
Stephanie McKay is a creative multitasker. A professional dancer, singer, musician and arts educator, McKay has toured as a bandleader, performer and solo artist in over 25 countries and collaborated with a wide range of artists, including a musical collective, “Black Lives — from Generation to Generation.” She also teaches arts and performance at Acera, a school for students with diverse abilities in Winchester, Massachusetts. In June, McKay received a grant from the Boston Foundation and the Barr Foundation to create a showcase of new music based on the narratives of women of color in leadership and activism.
“All my life I have seen strong Black women in my own family, but this is a historic time and the presence of these women in our community will have a lasting impact on how systems change to be more equitable,” McKay says. “I want to celebrate and amplify the courage and actions taken by these women.”
McKay was one of 50 performing artists, arts groups and organizations who shared nearly $1 million in grants and support as part of the 2022 class of Live Arts Boston (LAB). Since 2017, LAB has made 360 grants to artists from a wide range of styles and genres to produce and perform new works.
McKay was thrilled to receive the grant.
“It’s a great opportunity for me to continue as a practicing artist while I'm in the classroom,” she said during a recent conversation, while helping her 12-year-old son make zucchini pancakes. “One thing Lesley really taught us is that you have to live what you teach. And if you're going to teach art, you have to practice it and keep your livelihood alive, even though it's challenging, because it brings more depth and richness to the classroom.”
A former touring and traveling musician based in New York City, McKay moved to Boston after her son was born and her husband got a job at the Berklee College of Music. She planned to pursue a career as an arts educator.
“I realized touring didn't really go with motherhood,” she says. She overheard a friend in a bar talking about how his wife was going to Lesley to become a teacher.
“I immediately went home and looked it up, and I found out the reputation it had in education. Everyone said ‘if you want to be a teacher, you need to go to Lesley.’”
As an artist, she appreciates the impact that educators can have in the lives of their students.
“People get emotional when they talk about certain teachers who believed in them,” she says, “who showed them a side of themselves that they didn't see before, who hung in there when they wanted to give up.”
At Lesley, pursuing her Master of Education in Art, Community and Education, she found a supportive community of like-minded educators, and creative connections that endured well after graduation.
“Our professors really instilled in us that the people who were around us in class were the people that you’re going to build with once you graduate from here — these are the changemakers that you're going to be working with,” she recalls.
In 2021, just months after earning her Lesley degree, McKay received a Creative Entrepreneur Fellowship from the Arts and Business Council of Boston. Now with the Live Arts Boston grant, she’s focused on what she considers a historic time for women's rights. Researching the stories of women leaders, she says, has transformed how she envisions herself as an artist and activist.
“I've witnessed women play such a pivotal role,” she says, citing the examples of Vice President Kamala Harris, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and Massachusetts Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley. She also has special praise for women mayors like Atlanta's Keisha Lance Bottoms, Chicago's Lori Lightfoot, Washington D. C.’s Muriel Bowser and Boston’s Michelle Wu.
“During the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of women mayors especially spoke up and made change in their community.”
For McKay, music and activism transcends any barriers between the political and the personal. In addition to being a budding chef, McKay’s 12-year-old son is an aspiring musician, producer and songwriter. In 2022, McKay collaborated with him on a song called "Phenomenon" that celebrates what she calls “joy as resistance.”
“For me, it means making art, making music, it means spending time with family,” she explained. “It means being creative in as many ways as I can and connecting with people. That's what drew me to Lesley — art, community and education. Joy is family and connection and collaborating with my son, seeing him become an artist and modeling that for him through music, showing him that he has a voice and he can use it at any moment.”