Putting the A in STEAM: Actor and Activist Gavin Lodge
Updated: Nov 4, 2022
Gavin Lodge -- Broadway actor, small business entrepreneur, TikTok influencer, and Executive Director of 4AArts, the American Alliance of Artists and Audiences -- dishes on the importance of the arts, activism, and education. He also shares some of his favorite diverse LGBTQ friendly picture books that speak to the power of identity and family love.
Pick A Little, Talk A Lot
Gavin and I go way back (we were practically kids) when we performed together in TriArts Sharon Playhouse's production of The Music Man. He was the dynamic Harold Hill and I picked a little and talked a lot. Backstage, we became friends in the kind of friendship that endures. Over the years, we've talked politics, literature, raising kids. And it's been so much fun to be a part of his journey from the Broadway stage to launching his own business, to become a social media influencer, and now, most recently the Executive Director of 4A, the American Alliance of Artists and Audiences. In the conversation that follows, we explore the importance of the arts as part of STEAM education and as an important aspect of American society. We also delve deeply into picture books that help foster positive images of LGBTQ families and children. And there's a lot of laughter as well. Listen to the full podcast here or read on for some of the highlights.
What is 4A Arts, the American Alliance of Artists and Audiences?
4A Arts is a national nonprofit foundation with a mission to democratize, catalyze and prioritize arts and culture in the United States. On their website, the goals are listed as: ● Democratize with a robust website connecting artists and audiences and creating ground-breaking research, entertaining content, and thought leadership
● Catalyze through a tenacious movement to create a U.S. Department of Arts & Culture, with a corresponding Secretary
● Prioritize by serving as a champion of educating and informing the American public and elected leaders about the importance of the creative economy
[01:37] "We are heading out into the world to try to become something akin to, say, the Sierra Club of Arts and Culture," Gavin says. "I hate to sell us by immediately comparing us to somebody else, but I feel like it illustrates quickly what we are trying to do, which is elevate the way American society and then consequently, American elected leaders at the local, federal and state level, think about the arts and culture, economy and ecosystem."
It's astounding to me that something so integral to the American identity and American culture, such as what we like to call the creative industry, is so underfunded and underappreciated by Congress.
4A Arts is not a lobbying organization. Rather it works to raise awareness across the country about the importance of the arts, both for the economy and job creation, as well as for helping cultivate American culture and identity.
"Certainly over COVID, we realized just how much we rely upon entertainment of all shapes and sizes," Gavin says. "And so we are out to hopefully change the way funding is distributed and mainly have a sea change in attitude and valuation of the creative industry and arts and culture throughout the country." Gavin adds that although his experience is in acting, 4A Arts goes beyond visual and performing arts to embrace weavers, potters, hobby painters and everything in between. "This is about the everyday American who takes part in creativity in their own little way or their own big way from the middle of Ohio to the middle of New Mexico, and then including New York and Anchorage and Tallahassee and LA," he notes. "We make no distinction between high art and folk art, it’s all part of the American identity..I think one of the reasons that this is so critical is that, for instance, what won the Cold War, it wasn't, thank goodness, nuclear missiles. It was American identity and culture and ideals. And I hope that we can get back to valuing just such a thing for so very many reasons."
Connecting the A in STEAM (That's Arts)
[05:36] Dr. Diane: Well, you know, one of the things that I work very closely with is working with teachers to integrate not just STEM but STEAM, the arts, as part of science, technology, education and math. And I've seen that there needs to be that connection. That when you can connect good literature, when you can connect the performing arts, when you can connect ways of expressing yourself, whether it's through drawing, whether it's through crafts, whether it's through getting up and reciting poetry, that kids are grounded and they learn more and they're able to make better connections and think more critically. Are you all working with education facilities as well?
[06:15] Gavin: Right now? We're tiny, and we're a tiny team, and we have a small budget. Hint, hint. Please go to our website and give us a hand. But education will be integral to where we want to grow, and I want to piggyback on what you've just said, because I think the integration of so many synapses and ways of learning all helps each other. We know very well, and though I don't have statistics on the top of my head, but we all know that fostering any kind of creative learning and outlet helps all other subjects as well. We all know that math and music are very aligned, but being able to express and share and learn anything that might be right brain or left brain helps the other. So, yes, in short, we will be all about educational opportunities to integrate and be part of all of this conversation.
Gavin's Journey from Broadway to Executive Director
[07:32] Dr. Diane: So, Gavin, this is all about our adventures in learning, and I wanted to find out, you're brand new in your position. How did you get there? What was the path that took you there?
[07:44] Gavin: I appreciate that because I feel like I'm on an adventure in learning right now, that is for sure. I am so lucky that I had the family support and the confidence, frankly, to jump into various career paths, and I realize that that is a privilege in and of itself.
I was in politics just out of college. Then I jumped into theater, essentially the same business, the same fragile egos of people who want applause. But in all of my time, I had such a great time performing. I loved every second of it. Every single time I was on a stage or on a sound stage or anything, it was great.
But I also kind of thought, I feel like I'm probably supposed to be doing something else that will be less narcissistic, frankly, or less just about am I going to get the next job or will I be able to get onto the Hadestown national tour or something like that? But I didn't know how to leave a 20 year career. That was even scarier than the idea of having an international pandemic. And then, oh, look, we have an international pandemic. And so it forced me, Covid definitely forced me and my family to take a step back and realize, well, this is a time for reassessment, obviously.
I started volunteering with an organization called Be an Arts Hero, and they came directly out of Covid when, for instance, the airline industry got $60 billion and artists got nothing. They said, hey, Congress, why aren't you paying attention to people who — we aren't just creating entertainment or escapism. We create jobs and we help economies grow, and we help small towns grow, and we help big cities grow. And if you would just invest in small town cultural institutions, you help build entire ecosystems of small towns. So I started volunteering with them. I volunteered with them for a year and a half while I was doing some PR work on the side, random.
And that led me to this opportunity with 4A Arts, which is perfectly aligned with the volunteer work I was doing, but the volunteer work was with the 501(c)4, so we were actually lobbying. And this is on the other side, on the education and information outreach. And I feel really fortunate to have this job when I also feel insecurely like I had a large gap in my resume where I just tap danced for a really long time, which is not nothing. But hopefully my enthusiasm for just figuring it out, which comes from part of my nature and partly my political background and whatnot, that, I think, ultimately landed me the job.
A Quick Trip Down Memory Lane: Gavin on Broadway (Just Because These Pictures Make Me Smile)
Now Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Blog Post: Gavin as Entrepreneur
[11:02] Gavin has established a successful social media presence on TikTok and has created an entertaining and thought provoking parenting blog, which I highly recommend. In addition, he launched the ECKnox brand. He's been sharing very openly his adventures as a dad since Ellison was born. I asked him to share a little more about the business and the other side of his artistic life.
[12:23] Gavin: Thank you for letting me make another shameless plug. Years ago, when I was expecting my first kid, Ellison, I wanted a slick, masculine diaper bag, and they didn't exist. They were all super overly masculinized, as if, don't let parenthood feminize you and make you a girl, or they were just like, women's bags. And so I thought, why isn't there something that's a little more like professional and masculine and not overcompensatingly masculine? It didn't exist. I thought about it for a while, had a second kid and said, way dumber people than me have figured this out. I think I'm going to just jump in. And it has been a snowball effect of, like, getting deeper and deeper and often thinking, why am I doing this? Should I be stopping? But long story short, I did get a bag made, and the first store to take it was Barney's in New York, which was a nice feather in my cap. But I will also say that being in Barney's did not necessarily translate to huge sales, and I'm still frankly figuring it out, but it is available at Nordstrom and on Amazon and of course, on my website, which is ECKnox.
But what might be more relevant and important and pertinent here is that in creating the business, it did allow me the opportunity to commiserate and get out into the conversation, kind of the mommy blog world of parenting and commiserating with other people and learning from other people and sharing my mistakes and sharing my successes to, I don't know, help all of us with this grand journey of parenthood.
And one of the unexpected turns it took was coming to embrace the fact that my daughter, who's now ten, is a trans girl. And that was an unexpected surprise. Of course, parenting is nothing but unexpected surprises, that's for sure. But basically, very long story short there, my partner and I just needed to get out of her way to let her be her fantastically expressive self, and she's thriving.
But for the STEAM and STEM approach, also, I think something that might be pertinent is so often I feel like parenting takes so much effort and it takes a tremendous amount of, frankly, creative thinking and getting out of your own box. I mean, so often I really would just wish that I could spend even more hours just watching Netflix, but I know that that would be a terrible example for my kids when I want to stimulate their brains and get them out to experience things. And something I write about a lot actually has been about cultural experiences where my kids are just complaining the entire time as I'm dragging them to a museum or dragging them through an experience or dragging them to a show or dragging them to a sports event. And one of them is kicking in one regard and the other is screaming in the other regard. But knowing that it will have been worth it because I'm expanding their brains and showing them opportunities and providing opportunities for them that eventually will pay off.
Strategies for Promoting Playful Learning
[17:18] Dr. Diane: So in terms of playful learning, I know as a dad you joke about force feeding culture, but I know that you have really worked to create an environment of playful learning with your kids. What are some strategies that you've used to do that?
[17:33] Gavin: Let's see, lowering my own expectations for how they're going to react. I tend to be a micromanager, and I am a bit of a control freak, I have to admit. While I am not always the best planner in my own world, I am a big planner in the adventures we take together. Again, I guess what I'm trying to say is I plan in advance, but then I keep low expectations for how they're going to respond. And I do a lot of bargaining, of course, for better or for worse. And I'm like, just kiddos, you've got to eat your vegetables before you have the dessert. And first we're going to do this and then we're going to do that. And this might mean spending a focused amount of time at a museum, and then we'll figure out the ice cream situation afterwards. But I also hold off in the immediate gratification.
[18:45] Dr. Diane: So you're encouraging playful learning, you're following the kids interests, but you're also setting up activities and enrichment opportunities that they might not seek out themselves.
[18:57] Gavin: Yes, constantly. And I suppose that I try to set up those learning opportunities, say, earlier in a schedule, earlier in a day, earlier in an itinerary because, you know, it's easier. We all have fresher minds open to learning more when we're just fresher.
Diverse LGBTQ-Friendly Picture Books That Speak to the Power of Identity and Family Love
[20:07] Dr. Diane: You know, I was thinking about something you and I have talked about over the years, just in terms of the importance of real diversity in the picture books that we're sharing with our kids. I know that that's something that you all struggled with, with Ellison and being able to find books where she would be reflected and see herself in the books. Have you found books that support your family?
[20:32] Gavin: We had a whole stack of the books, but by the time Ellison was, like, really coming into her own, she didn't need any explanation. She was just kind of like, fine with it, and we were reading the books for our benefit.
[20:44] Dr. Diane: Sure. Well, that makes sense. And honestly, it makes sense to read them in the classroom as well, because you're helping to provide language for children who might not have that experience.
[20:54] Gavin: That's exactly right.
[20:55] Dr. Diane: And are then able to say, oh, I met this child in Julian Is a Mermaid. That's totally cool.
[21:01] Gavin: Yeah. And then, of course, there's Red, the book about the crayon that gets mislabeled, which many people have held that up to be a really great queer of all kinds book. Yes. It's funny how, despite the fact that this is a topic that we talk about a lot and it's often still controversial, there are kind of fewer books than I would have expected. I'm sure that there's hopefully a whole new library and category out there I don't have in front of me.
But Todd Parr (Be Who You Are) has done such a great job over years and years of showing diversity and beautiful families and whatnot, but it's still surprising to me that there aren't more. But there are a few that we found. We definitely worked out and overused the spines of the books as we went through them.
One, I Am Jazz, of course, which was really revolutionary when it was first published, I believe. And in that, Ellison was given some language for being able to express her own identity. That line being, “I have a boy body and a girl brain,” and I just love the simplicity. Yeah, the simplicity for those who aren't able to kind of get past their own confusion and they say, I just don't really get it. Well, boy and girl brain just so simple. What's not to get?
We definitely read Morris Mickelwhite and the Tangerine Dress by Christine Baldacchino and Isabelle Malenfant many, many times. I will admit that this book gave me a teeny bit of pause because bullying gets into the story. And even though that's a very important thing to be able to diffuse and to deal with, etcetera, my kid wasn't being bullied, so I didn't even want to put the idea into her head that she could be. But nevertheless, it is a wonderful book and it's a wonderful imagination and whatnot.
There was another one called from the Stars in the Skies to the Fish in the Sea that had really, really beautiful illustrations. And it's about a parent having unbridled love for their kids, no matter who they would be or who they choose to be, or who they end up being, etcetera, meaning I'll love you from the stars in the sky to the fish in the sea. We went through that book a lot.
Victor's Pink Pyjamas was an interesting one for me because it felt, frankly, with all due respect to Laura Alary and how wonderful it is, it felt a little like DIY-ish to me. So I thought, oh, I just haven't seen this on lists or anything. And then it's got such a great message about stop making things such a big deal. Why can't Victor wear his pink pajamas when lots of things are pink? Hot dogs are pink and worms are pink and pigs are pink, so what's the big deal? And he's, he and his mom are, of course, having to deal with their dad, which is so often, sadly, the case, but they convinced him to just stop overthinking it. If he wants to wear pink pajamas, he wears them. It's not that big deal.
But then finally, I think what was my very favorite was Jacob's New Dress, and that it just hit us at just the right time for Ellison. And it was about a pre k kid or a preschooler who wanted to wear a dress at school. And why is it that boys can't wear dresses? It just makes no sense. And truly, why can't boys wear dresses? And this was the one we really read the most by Sarah and Ian Hoffman. And this one, I'm surprised we still have a book jacket on it because we read it so much.
[24:52] Dr. Diane: That makes sense. And I know one of the things that I learned, certainly from your parenting experience was the value of presenting books when I was teaching that just showed families, families loving families. And so my go to is Susan Meyers and Marla Frazee’s Everywhere Babies, and it was one of the first of its kind in that it's very simple rhyming text. And then you've got these beautiful pictures that just show families loving, and sometimes it's the mom and a dad, sometimes it's two dads, sometimes it's two moms. You've got mixed races, mixed socioeconomic levels. It's just a beautiful book. It's incredibly frustrating that that book is currently on some banned book lists. You kind of question, are people even reading the books when they start banning things like that? I think what I'm seeing is people are sort of going to a list of recommended, diverse books and just saying, ban them all, and they've not read a single one of them and it's a real shame.
[25:53] Gavin: Agreed.
[25:54] Dr. Diane: So another beautiful book that came out is A Family is a Family, and it's by Sara O'Leary and Qin Leng. And I love this book because as you go through, it literally talks about all of these different families. Like, both my moms are terrible singers and they both like to sing very loud. I have more grandparents than anybody else I know. We all look alike in my family, we kind of go together. And so it talks about all these different families, including foster families, which is something that doesn't get picture books very often. So it's kind of a remarkable book. And I'm hopeful that there will be more books like that that are available to give kids the mirrors, to see themselves reflected, but I think also those windows to be able to see into other worlds and maybe even as Dr. Sims Bishop talks about the sliding glass doors to actually affect change, you enter somebody else's world and you change your own heart.
[26:53] Gavin: Fantastic. Yeah. Thank goodness for moving in that direction.
[26:56] Dr. Diane: I sure hope so. And I think we are. I mean, I look at your kids, I look at my kids, I look at this next generation, and I see a lot to be hopeful about.
[27:06] Gavin: Yeah, I agree. Thank goodness. There's a lot to lament and still work for constantly and advocate for. But we have to move in the right direction.
Advice for Our Kids: Applying Our Adventures In Learning
[32:40] Dr. Diane: If you were to give your kids advice for moving forward with their lives, what are the top two or three things that you've gleaned from your own journey so far?
The first piece of advice Gavin offered is to keep things in perspective. So many of the things we think are high drama or incredibly important won't matter in the end. "I would love to be able to give them a sense of let's keep it all in perspective," Gavin says. "So many things just aren't going to matter. And so keep in mind what does matter. They're privileged, entitled kids. We are not millionaires by any stretch, but they don't want for anything. And I wish and I hope that they will have a sense of how lucky they are and always have a sense of gratitude. Because as oppressive as their lives are having to take out the trash once a week, they have it really, really good. "
[34:41] Dr. Diane: And if you couch it in terms of what you and I were talking earlier about the pandemic, the lessons that we learned coming out of the pandemic, hopefully, are lessons that are moving us forward in terms of being more aware of the people around us, being more aware of what doesn't matter, and hopefully being grounded to appreciate the world and the people around us.
The second piece of advice Gavin offered is encouragement to jump in rain puddles, just like you did as a small child. "You take those moments of joy, and so often I'm the joy killer," he notes. "When they were really, really little, every time it rained, I would intentionally put rain boots on them even though they just got flooded with water and we would go jump in puddles. And that was fun. And now we all get older and it's like, well, I don't want to get these shoes wet or I'm in a hurry. I'm always in a hurry. I'm always in a hurry. And I hope that my kids stop and take the time because, hey, going back to rule number one, your shoes getting wet, it just doesn't matter. Just get your shoes wet and jump in rain puddles. And so take those little moments of adventurous, simple joys."
Actor, entrepreneur, political strategist, and father of two, Gavin Lodge comes to 4A Arts with a unique perspective on arts and culture in America. A 20-year veteran of stage and screen, Gavin grew up in suburban Colorado and traversed the country in his work with political campaigns at the senate and presidential levels as well as touring for shows.
After studying international affairs and philosophy at the University of Colorado, he worked as a field organizer in the Iowa Caucus followed by the role of “body guy” to then-candidate Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State. Politics empowered him to move to New York City to pursue a performing career. Ultimately, he performed in multiple Broadway shows (including 42nd Street, Spamalot, and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) as well as regional theater, national tours and several network television appearances. Though he was thrilled every time he stepped onto a theatrical or sound stage, Gavin was equally happy to take on leadership roles in his local union and later his kids’ PTA.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, Gavin jumped back into the political realm, working as a strategist for Bryson Gillette, a minority-owned PR firm focused on politics and public affairs. He also volunteered for Be an #ArtsHero, an arts advocacy movement blossoming during the first few months of the pandemic. During his time with Be an #ArtsHero, he was part of a team that successfully lobbied for a first-of-its-kind hearing on the creative economy in front of the House of Representatives Small Business Committee.
Gavin lives in rural Connecticut with his partner (a composer and orchestral conductor), his TikTok-dancing daughter (who is musically gifted in unparalleled ways) and his soccer-playing son who recently told him “Dad? I’m just not into concerts and theater stuff.” As he told his son, Gavin believes there is much more to American arts and culture than “concerts and theater stuff.” From the video games his son loves to play to low-rider paint jobs to streaming television series while sitting on the couch, Gavin sees American arts and culture as an inclusive, “big tent” spectrum where everyone is an artist and everyone is a member of an audience.
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