Interviews & Profiles

Q&A with Dawn Frisby Byers

A conversation with the senior director of content and engagement for PA Humanities

Dawn Frisby Byers

Dawn Frisby Byers PA Humanities

Dawn Frisby Byers, senior director of content and engagement at PA Humanities – and one of City & State PA's 2024 Black Trailblazers – shares insights into her journey, advice for young people, and what she's looking forward to for PA Humanities 50th anniversary this year.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

What was the journey that led you to your current position? What barriers did you overcome?

I knew I would pursue a career in arts and culture from a young age, following the adage “do what you love and it’ll never feel like work”. My early work was in television and entertainment where I developed a strong foundation in marketing and brand management. I segued into the arts and cultural world and have worked with large and small organizations to create inclusive cultural experiences that engage diverse audiences.

Barriers reveal themselves in retrospect. Looking back I realize I was often the only Black person in any organization I worked for and with, yet I never felt the need to compromise my intellect, my passions, or my drive. I forged my own path and never looked back. I learned to be resilient and leverage my unique perspective as a Black woman to challenge and expand the narrative of what authentic cultural expression means. Culture is a reflection of the diverse world we live in and should be celebrated as a source of strength. I hope as I’ve carved out a space for myself, I’ve created a path for others to follow.

What advice would you give to young people of color who aspire to become leaders in the cultural sector and beyond?

Be inspired. Stay focused. Seek out new avenues to success when traditional paths appear closed. Always be open and ready to embrace new opportunities. One of the best pieces of advice a former boss shared with me was… “if two people always agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary.” Don’t be afraid to speak your mind and share your opinions. Remain humble and always be kind.

In our ever-changing world, you must develop the ability to adapt and communicate. Everyone brings a singular set of experiences and perspectives to each environment and situation that is uniquely yours. Learning how to communicate your vision is the key to making your passion and purpose a reality. Remember that leadership is not just about reaching the top - it’s also about how you lift others along your journey. Mentorship will play a significant role in your career, so find mentors who can guide you and be prepared to mentor those who come after you. Keep the cycle of support and empowerment growing so we can create a more inclusive and diverse cultural landscape.

Tell us about your work developing PA Humanities’ exciting line-up of 50th Anniversary programs. What are you most excited about this year?

PA Humanities will continue to produce community-based, humanities activities throughout the state this year, but two projects really stand out -- Rain Poetry and Voices of History. 

Rain Poetry combines children’s literacy, creative placekeeping, and a little bit of magic into exciting community events where poems appear on sidewalks when wet. After a huge success in Philadelphia, the project moves to Pittsburgh and Johnstown this spring. Rain Poetry is an innovative way to blend art with the environment and is a tangible demonstration of how poetry and public spaces can intersect to enrich community life. It creates smiles and intergenerational wonder, and sparks curiosity and joy in unexpected moments. 

The other project is Voices of History, a digital oral story collection project to chronicle the experience of Black Pennsylvanians in cities and towns across the state. The first-hand accounts will focus on themes of migration and family, and be presented online for all to enjoy. Voices of History is a deeply meaningful initiative that promises to preserve and share the rich tapestry of Black experiences in Pennsylvania. By capturing personal stories, we're not only honoring the past but also building a valuable resource for future generations. These narratives of resilience, hope, and community offer profound insights into the American experience.

We see excitement for both these projects growing with cultural organizations, universities, funders, artists, and the public. They showcase our commitment to using the humanities as a tool for celebrating and understanding the human connection. Our 50th anniversary will acknowledge how far we have come, but also set the foundation for what we will achieve going forward.