What do you do when you have the lion’s share of talent, intellect, and drive to make real change happen? Perhaps, you follow a path like Tina Vasquez’s. Taking great care to carve one that suited her needs, she followed her heart’s passions and explored the challenging opportunities that called to her. That tendency started many moons ago.
When we first met, Tina was just shy of her teenage years. She was a student in a summer tap class I taught in a local dance studio, with thick, coke-bottle glasses, a mop of coarse, curly hair, wide eyes and feet that knew what to do in tap shoes. She was shy and sweet and seemed to be hungry to learn, one of those kids you love to teach because they gladly absorb and reflect everything you have to teach. I was hoping to run into her again somehow after that summer.
Fast forward a few years: she eventually danced back into my life, this time at Spring Valley High School. She had developed into a beautiful creature, the awkward girl now replaced by a long, lithe, confident, young woman with a inordinate talent for dance. Clearly, she had absorbed and reflected the lessons of many teachers along the way. Over the years, I learned that Tina was in no way ordinary. Brilliant, forward thinking, and never tolerating being stuck in a box, I knew this young woman was going to make some waves in the future.
Tina (far right) in a candid shot from our 2002 production of Anything Goes. She’s with Nausheen Rokerya, my guest from the upcoming episode 46.
At Spring Valley, I had the pleasure of teaching and collaborating with Tina; her exceptional gifts were a fabulous addition to the high school dance and Thespian programs. In a lovely convergence of two of my worlds, Tina made a connection that made a lasting impact. One year, I brought a grad school friend, Astrid von Ussar, into the school. She and her modern dance company did several workshops with my students over the years, and when I introduced Astrid to Tina, she agreed that Tina was something special.
Young Tina’s interests were piqued by the diversity and the personal contributions of Astrid’s dancers to the choreographic process; she eventually auditioned for the company, got a spot, and danced with for many years. Eventually, Tina would return to our studio to perform as part of the company and led the workshops. What a beautiful way to pay it forward.
The pictures below are Tina performing with Von Ussar danceworks in 2010. Like I said: inordinate talent.
After high school
After graduating Spring Valley in 2003, she attended NYU’s Gallatin School for Individualized Study where she crafted her own college program and received a BA in Movementology. Simultaneously, she attended the Laban Institute for Movement Studies, receiving a CMA (certificate in movement analysis). As a professional dancer, choreographer and teaching artist, Tina danced with Von Ussar danceworks (my friend’s company), co-created an arts-education exchange in Cuba, and has been featured in several dance films by Marta Renzi. Tina’s presence is powerful, engaging, and evocative, no matter what she is doing. If you want to see her in action, check out this excerpt from Marta Renzi’s Nobody’s Darling.
A still photo of Tina from Marta Renzi’s dance film Tenderness.
Eventually, she returned to NYU, this time to the Tandon School for Engineering and received an MS in Organizational Behaviour, Systems and Analytics. After a few transitions into non-profit management, leadership, and most recently consulting in race equity, Tina is now is the owner and CEO for Emerging Equity, a consulting firm that focuses on cultural transformation in institutions and systems.
Emerging Equity is a consulting firm whose mission is to build transformational cultures in groups, institutions and systems using a human-centered equity development process. Through social equity, organizational development and leadership development, Emerging Equity cultivates communities and networks of practice in creating meaningful and nuanced social impacts for humanity’s collective thrivance.
Tina the creator
Tina’s creative instinct seems to be her modus operandi. While she may have stepped away from the professional dance world (for now), she still applies her choreographic brain to people and organizations. Her training has led to a deep understanding of people through both their verbal and non-verbal behaviors as well as how they interact with each other. Blending her training, a penchant for creative problem solving, passion for social justice and trusting her gut, her work now is to make a global impact on the business world. That impact is made through a careful and deliberate shifting of systems to level the playing field and embrace the diverse landscape of available talent. She is a driver for diversity, equity and inclusion, providing the models and training to help facilitate the often challenging transposition.
What does global impact look like? I’ve always been driven by social justice, no matter what I was doing. This is the first time in my life where I have more of the reins of being able to put out what I’ve believed to be a better way of producing practices and developing environments for different people.
Of course, Tina’s existence has been too entrenched in the dance world to completely extricate herself; she is also on staff for the local dance studio where her children take class. She works with teens, choreographing and molding the next generation of dancers. It is through that lens that I remember Tina best, and through which we will see the genesis of her call to action.
My adolescent self was someone who was completely moved by her integrity.
Like every adolescent, Tina had moments of insecurity and self-doubt, but being true to herself and her growing knowledge base was what kept her moving forward.
I was a good student in the sense that I did what I was supposed to do, but I failed a lot. I was taking classes that I probably should not have been taking, but I didn’t care so much about the grades; I cared about the opportunity of expansion. I wanted to be exposed to big ideas and to be swimming in them.
Sometimes she swam, sometimes she sank. She took all of the AP classes, but didn’t bother to take the exams. Her interest was in being immersed in the thinking space. Case in point: Tina wanted to do an independent study with me. Being the opportunist that I was, I knew she was a big thinker and would be able to offer big ideas that perhaps we could synthesize into something. Of course, I had no idea just how expansive her ideas were: in her assignment submission, she incorporated material from every subject area, connected her personal dance experiences in the new dance movement, dabbled in Marxist theory and the worker’s movement of the 1930s. Her brain was, quite literally, everywhere. Many of her teachers didn’t know exactly what to do with her brain; they were used to more standardized learning practices, so out-of-the-box thinking like Tina’s threw many of them for a loop.
I kind of felt like people saw me blurry, and there were very few people who saw me clearly. You were one of them.
The reality in education is that not all students fit the mold that we have set for their learning process. Tina was usually five steps ahead of where most teachers were in their class, and it often made for a bumpy educational experience. She appreciated having a space into which she could dump whatever she was thinking about. She also learned how to step up and respectfully advocate for herself when a teacher questioned her process or methods. After all, if she was being true to herself, and she did not fit the mold, she had to work harder to have her teachers understand and hopefully validate her unique learning process.
I know that I don’t think in conventional ways, I’ve just learned to be okay with that and to trust myself enough to go after the thing that I’m looking for. If I didn’t trust that part of me, I would never have started this company, and it would never be as successful as it is because I’m able to see all of these ways of putting things together.
Tina shared a post-undergrad experience that highlighted her unconventional thought process. She had an opportunity to choreograph in a three-week residency in Brazil. As part of the experience, she could have anything she wanted, so she requested dancers from a wide variety of dance discipline, geographic regions, ethnicities and economic backgrounds. Diversity was her standard requirement, which is not the norm in the professional dance world, where performers usually fit into prescribed boxes and categories. Fortunately, her hosts were up for the challenge.
What was so incredible about that experience was that I got to curate a space where they got to use their life experience and their movement life experience, the way they embody the world, and interacted with the world through dance. You let that be the language in which they had conversations (both physical and verbal).
Part of that experience was a regular debriefing about the rehearsals. Tina remembered two dancers, on opposite ends of the dance and experiential spectrum, and the one who was trained in the streets of the favelas, a samba expert, spoke of herself as a “non-trained dancer,” in comparison with her studio-trained counterpart, and how she felt she missed part of the interpretation of the choreography. In a moment of grace, the rest of the group bolstered her, validating her training and expertise, as the expert in her discipline.
It’s a totally different world-view that’s just equally as valid, and that was always my motivation: to level the playing field enough where people can feel validated by their own right but also receive the feedback and validation from other people that their perspective was just as necessary and needed for something beautiful to be created and evolve.
This perspective is the foundation for the work she does with Emerging Equity. She brings these values to companies so they can expand their work with a more diverse base of human resources. Tina believes that when you value the life experience of a wide variety of people, you bring a higher value to the systems of your business.
Moments of epiphany
During her freshman musical, Kiss Me Kate, I had asked Tina to choreograph a section of one of the dances. I figured, I’ve got the talent here, might as well use it! For Tina, the elephant in the room was the fact that she was the baby of the group. There was no doubting ability, it was whether anyone would listen to what she had to offer.
It was the first time that I realized the power that I had to command a room, regardless of my age, because of what I had to say. That power fueled me in a lot of different ways, in other spaces, and it was something I continued to capitalize on as I moved forward. It was another birth moment for me; what the kind of leadership potential I had.
In her senior year, she decided (to my dismay) not to audition for the spring musical. She understood that I was sad, but it was another moment of clarity for Tina:
That was another moment of agency that I had; I had gotten really sick, overworked myself, and it was the first time I chose myself in a different way. It was ‘you’re not infinite – you might have infiniteness within you but your body is not infinite and if you don’t care for it, you won’t be able to continue.’ I could tell that you were really disappointed but you also didn’t make me feel bad about it. That was also one of the few moments where I felt like I was validated for that type of agency. I call those moments the “Simone Biles moments.”
In those moments, Tina learned how to listen to her intuition.
Skirting imposter syndrome
Of course, listening to your intuition doesn’t always prevent the dreaded imposter syndrome from rearing it’s ugly head once in a while. When you run a company with high-priced clients around the globe, it seems impossible not to second-guess yourself.
On any given day, I’m talking with other CEOs, Executive Directors, people who manage millions of dollars who have the power to shift thousands of lives, and they’re looking to me for advice. I think what snaps me out of the imposter syndrome is that I have a lot of opinions about it, having been someone who’s been on the other side and experienced the decisions of others. I take the responsibility very heavily of being clear about what I know and what I don’t know.
We also touched on the art of conversation and the need we sometimes feel to be validated by others. Often in conversation, we start talking on auto-pilot to show just how much we know, or the breadth of expertise we have in something. I mentioned the moment in conversation when you just draw a blank, not necessarily because you don’t know something, but because the next thought just isn’t there yet. There have been many times when that happens to me and it can be worrisome, because it elicits the thought that you are less-capable or knowledgable than you should be. Or worse, that the person you are talking to might think that way. The fear of that possibility, especially in business, can easily trigger the silent shroud of imposter syndrome.
What we have to remember, as people with our own unique blend of life experience, education, creativity and plain old good sense, is the importance of allowing for moments of pause. Sometimes the pause gives space for the next thought to formulate. Other times, it lets us decide to hold on sharing something until a later moment in time. Either way, we must always give deference to the strengths we know we have and our ability to grow so we can get in and stay in the game.
How has Tina changed since high school?
Really dealing with my people-pleasing complex. When you’re a teenager, you don’t really decode your behaviors; you just act. Your adult years are where you go back and decode them because now they’re causing you problems.
For Tina, the problem stemmed from a difficult relationship with her father. Back then, it was something she kept close to the vest. She had a strong, supportive relationship with her mom, who was a guiding light through Tina’s formative years. She was very engaged in a variety of things from academics to dance to anything else that interested her. But the complicated and strained relationship with her father as he was dealing with his own adult issues caused Tina the over-achieving people-pleaser to seek ways to be accepted by him.
I spent so much time outside of that relationship not trying to fit in any boxes because I spent so much time trying to fit in his box. It is exhausting. I would be willing to work to the detriment of myself for someone else as a way to protect myself.
We all deal with our traumas in our own time. For Tina, this particular set came to a head during the slowdown of the pandemic. The time in isolation forced her to come to terms with all of the ghosts from her childhood.
I don’t move from my child self as much; she kind of rides with me. I’m like, ‘I know you really don’t want to do that, but we’re gonna do that. Just put the seat belt on and you’ll be alright.’ Extricating my inner child and allowing her to be her own thing, and allowing my adult self to be her own thing; taking care of myself in that way has been part of that journey.
I had asked Tina to think of some advice that she might give to her adolescent self to help ease the way. She struggled a bit, because she acknowledged that she wouldn’t want to change the trajectory or interfere with the decisions that her younger self had made.
I needed her to make all those decisions so that I could be where I am now. I think, if anything, I would just say to her, ‘Keep on. Do you.”
That’s brilliant. And true.
What does Tina grapple with today?
The flexible brains of creative people often have trouble with the concrete nature of supporting yourself. It’s often not something that is discussed with young people, and if you don’t learn about the what and why of managing your personal finances, it can hit you like a ton of bricks when life throws you curve balls.
Figuring out how to have a different relationship to my financial life has been another really big awakening. It’s stressful when I think about it big picture. But, when I’m present with myself, I recognize that I am exactly where I need to be to learn the things I need to learn, to go where I need to go.
If anything, Tina is always able to learn and land on her feet. And in the process, she’ll do a double pirouette into a layout, just because she can. She knows what she wants, and understands that there are many ways to get there. Her wedding was proof of that. I was fortunate to bear witness to that fabulous and beautiful celebration of their love, and it was put together on a shoestring:
That wedding was really special; I feel like that was the definition of me and Jud’s life, which is ‘all hands on deck.’ We had less than no money to pull that wedding off; there was not a single aspect of that wedding that a community member did not touch. I spent $250 on a ton of fabric and made my wedding dress and all my bridesmaid’s dresses. A cousin was working at a farm and donated all the flowers. A bunch of family cut and put them in these little mason jars that I went shopping with my mother-in-law at yard sales all over Maine to cobble a bunch of glass things together that might look pretty.
The bells and whistles are not her focus in life. Most important to Tina are the moment-to-moment experiences that are shared, spending time connecting to loved ones, laughing, dancing, breathing the same air together. She values her community, however far out that extends.
Then and now
Reflecting on her younger self, Tina is nostalgic for the creative child she was. Playing in different spaces, exploring and expanding the limits of her creativity was her driving force. Really, that force is still in play, but it manifests in different ways. Then, she was free to take dance class, choreograph, draw, journal and wax philosophic without the restriction of adult pressures (and finances).
I hate the idea that that has to be a memory. So when that happens, I bring it to the present. I find new ways to express myself in very small moments.
As nostalgic as she is for the child at play, she does not miss the burgeoning health issues that she once suffered as a teenager. She had severe asthma, was on five different medications to manage it, was in and out of hospitals, and sick all the time. In 2009, the combination of stresses (parent’s divorce, no healthcare insurance, couldn’t pay for meds) finally caught up to her and her body broke down. She vowed to change her lifestyle and diet, simplifying everything until her body leveled out. I created fearsome boundaries.
From that point forward, Tina the people-pleaser took a backseat to allow for her to heal. Weekends were off limits for work. She made choices that were actually good for her, not just to appease or satisfy others. Jud was instrumental in supporting that effort, joining her on her new nutrition plan and cooking for her, literally nursing her back to health. After about a year, her body regulated. Now, she is medication-free and enjoying a healthy existence.
This is Tina’s advice to young people today. Between her two children at home, and the teenagers she works with in the dance studio, Tina is listening in to the heartbeat of the youth culture. While she was once directly plugged into the cultural movement of the turn of the 21st century, she is now looking at the world through older, wiser eyes. She’s still doing the work that she set upon years ago, but she sees the need to turn the work over to our children, who will develop and carry it further forward than we ever could have dreamed of.
I feel like the world is only going to get crazier, and our young people are just going to get saner. They know things in such a profound way because they are living the end of a time. We [the adults] are still attached to what was, but I think these young people are like, ‘no, the end is very clear.’ My prayer for young people is that they just trust their own gut, and they don’t allow social media, propaganda, other people’s values, to get in the way of what they’re here to do. If adults can get out of their way, they’re going to be really clear about what they need to do.
The hope is that our children will trust themselves and listen to their gut as they move forward in their lives. Our job as the adults is to be there for them as they start to figure things out, pick them up if they need it, and refrain from projecting our expectations onto them in the process. They are growing up in a very different world than we did, and we have to trust that in this new, crazier, more chaotic landscape, they will have better tools to navigate it.
- Coloring. To satisfy her creative brain, Tina uses coloring as an outlet. She uses gel pens to color mandalas, she draws and paints, makes collages – anything that she can express her inner self.
- Crocheting. The repetition and monotony of the activity allows her to do something with her hands and not think too hard. I don’t even like to count. If I can’t make something by sight, I don’t want to make it.
- Meditation. It’s not always easy for a brain that’s active all the time, but it does help to shut her brain down at night.
Watch the full interview with Tina below. Leave a comment, subscribe, and share with a friend!
One thought on “Changed for the Better, episode 42”
Love this one. I remember her and her incredible talent. Wayched the
clip you attached.