Portia Dunkley

photo by Gasen M Pierre

Building a Classical Music Community that Looks Like Us: Portia Dunkley in Miami and Beyond

Accomplished music educator Portia Dunkley is the next artist in the ACF | connect program, which provides sustained support for music creators to build relationships with ensembles based in the United States. Through the development of new work, the program intentionally supports a spectrum of voices and music to advance creative musical expression, which ACF believes is essential to human culture. Dunkley has lived in Miami most of her life and she generously shared some stories from her journey in music. She’s the innovative founder of Teeny Violini, a mobile music education program provider for early education sites and schools. Spending over 16 years throughout Florida in string education, Dunkley’s leadership in music education is a bright light in the music-rich city of Miami, the South Florida region, and beyond.  

Dunkley grew up in Overtown, one of the oldest neighborhoods inside the boundaries of Miami, and a place that is important and historic for having been the center of Black commerce in the city and the South Miami region. When asked about outsiders’ often-romanticized perspective on the cultural mixture of Miami, Dunkley made the point that it’s more complicated than outsiders often romanticize, “We always hear about Miami being this melting pot of culture. And I think…I mean, there’s a lot in the soup, right? But what I think people may be saying when they say melting pot or anything, it makes me think of what’s called Sos Pwa Nwa in Haitian, and you make the soup out of black beans. I think people are visualizing when they think ‘melting pot’ is that we’re all mashed together. And that’s not exactly right.”   

Dunkley has seen dramatic changes in the local arts landscape in her lifetime, “Culturally speaking, Miami has definitely evolved over the last 20 years since when I grew up in Overtown, such as in the Wynwood neighborhood, or with Art | Basel, a major art festival [founded in 1970 by gallerists in Basel, Switzerland and was introduced to Miami Beach in 2002],” she reflected. “They basically transformed this neighborhood, which used to be a warehouse district with a lot of abandoned warehouses, and it was the place where you…kind of make sure you rolled up your windows as you were going through, because there was really nothing happening there. So they transformed that area. And they did a lot–all of this while I was away at college; when I left in 2000, it was still a barren wasteland. The Arsht Center wasn’t there; we didn’t really have our own major cultural arts institutions–that has happened in the last 10 to 15 years. Miami has been really working on trying to build this cultural identity and, it’s like any city trying to do anything; it has its stumbling blocks and its challenges.”

Dunkley earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Double Bass performance and holds a Master of Arts Degree in Arts Administration, but the way she teaches is drawn more from her childhood music teachers, rather than from formal pedagogical training, “I took music education classes, and I took some pedagogy classes when I was in college because you begin all over the place. But I realized, early on, that I wanted to do teaching or wanted to be in education in some kind of way. Developing my skill and my pedagogy as a teacher; I had to draw a lot from my own personal experience. A lot of what I do as an educator has to do with what I remembered from my time as a child studying music.” 

Dunkley, whose father is originally from Haiti and whose mother is from the Bahamas, also talked about how influential her mother was in her musical development and in instilling in her a deep appreciation for teachers. “My mom was very adamant about this throughout my whole life. She would say, ‘You have some of the best teachers, you have some of the greatest teachers. I don’t know anybody who’s had better teachers than you. You better appreciate how great your teachers are.’ She ingrained that into us growing up, and that remark always made such an impression on me.” When Dunkley was learning to teach music to young children, she returned to what her teachers did. “How did they approach us? How did they engage me? How did they understand me? How did they care for me? So that’s how I lead in the classroom. I listen to my students a lot. My first goal is to understand where they are as people and understand the knowledge and the experience that they bring, and try to incorporate that in everything that we do.”

Portia Dunkley at work with Teeny Voilini

Many dedicated teachers of young students passionately believe in each child’s potential and intrinsic greatness, and Dunkley is no different. “A lot of what I do as a teacher is building confidence; it’s just like that old proverb says, it’s better to build a strong child than to repair a weak person. I really stand by that philosophy of building confidence, building identity. I can help my students know what their gifts are. Even down to the babies, the little ones. They’ll stand there like ‘look at me!’ and I’m like, ‘man you standing in rhythm, girl, I love it.’”

When asked about her own musical influences and what supports her creative juices, Dunkley reflected on the beauty of silence. “It’s so funny, this question, because I love silence, it’s my happy place. Some people will put on Brahms or whatever composer, or they’ll rock some Lauryn Hill or some R & B or gospel or whatever, but I love silence, and honestly I do my best work or my best thinking or I have my best creative moment when I’m on the long road, and there’s nothing and I can think. I craft a lot of my ideas when there’s nothing to distract me. I’ve tried putting on some jazz, any instrumental jazz, especially like Miles Davis. Jazz is my go-to music. Terence Blanchard is one of my favorites, so I’ll go there when I need to maybe do some work, but I often find that I end up turning off the music. Then I’m working in a silent space and just in my thoughts. I’m just working things out.” 

Speaking on her own current growth and encountering a wealth of Black composers, Dunkley shared her excitement. “With this particular project that I’m partnering with the American Composers Forum with, I’ve been finding myself inspired by William Grant Still and Florence Price, and their stories and how they were able to amass such a vast composition of work. Their contributions are literally just the tip of the iceberg; I am just being in a place of discovery and wonder right now. I appreciate the opportunity to be able to do that, and to be able to share that with my local community, especially, because when I was growing up, I didn’t really have that experience. Yes, I had Black music teachers, but I also had white music teachers, and even with my Black music teachers we didn’t really do a lot of folk and traditional songs.” 

When asked how the musical community can support her and what she hopes the next five years will bring, Dunkley emphasized the importance of community and connection. “I hope in five years, and I know that we have a long way to go, that we all can get to a place of valuing each other, and stop saying stupid such as, ‘I don’t see color.’  We can learn from each other and grow together. I hope in five years, in terms of where we are with people scrambling to try to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion, we will be at the point where we are creating communities and spaces of belonging where people feel seen and heard, where someone can speak up and say, Listen, this is my issue, and not be dismissed. With this particular program that I’m working with Unsung America, I hope that in five years that we are really a community of musicians; and it’s not just Black musicians, but we are a community, Black people and people of color in my local community. I can’t necessarily speak for the nation and the world, but I can speak for what I can do in my own community, and that we’re contributing to broadening our scope of what American classical music looks like and who is reflected in it. The way to support that is by financially supporting artists, which is a big thing for me, so you don’t necessarily have to work for free. Or for fish dinners, bless my mom and her church’s heart.”