An Entrepreneur’s Story of Hope, Faith, Optimism and Perseverance
This is a story about an inspiring entrepreneur and the nonprofit organization she founded thirty years ago, Edna Duffy and the Duffy Liturgical Dance Ensemble ("DuffyLit"). It is a story that we all should know, learn from and share because, as much as ever before, our organizations, communities and world need hope, faith, optimism and perseverance. And these are hallmark characteristics of some of history’s most impactful leaders and entrepreneurs. These are also characteristics that we all possess, and each one of us has the ability to make the most of these powerful gifts within us to make a positive impact in our own lives and in the lives of others.
I first met Edna Duffy, Founder of when facilitating an EiQ Everyday Innovation Leadership workshop. As we facilitated collaborative activities for participants to apply the ARC Model toward their organizational challenges, I was fascinated by Edna’s story and the story of DuffyLit. As the workshop continued, I grew increasingly impressed and inspired by Edna and her passion, and the purposeful mission of DuffyLit.
A month later, as part of a consulting engagement, I was able to spend more time with Edna, and experience DuffyLit’s studio, stage and offices. I learned more about the journey behind Edna’s passion, including her spending hours at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. studying historical documents, books, audio recordings and films. I learned more about all that DuffyLit offers beyond what they are most known for, the performing arts. Their offerings are very diverse and impactful, providing experiential learning that includes history, literacy, leadership and life skills, as well as overall personal development for those ranging in age from five to ninety-five and beyond. The more time I shared with Edna and the more I learned about her story, the more it reinforced that she was an excellent example of an "Everyday Innovator:" Passionate, humble, driven by purpose, and a role model of hope, faith, optimism and perseverance.
Duffy Liturgical Dance Ensemble has performed at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, as well as tours throughout Europe and Africa. However, Edna is not quick to share about her impressive resume of performances, experiences and achievements. She has a vibrant personality and can command any stage, yet she doesn't have much interest in talking about herself or what she has accomplished. Her interest and passion are focused on DuffyLit's primary purpose and mission - to preserve The Spiritual, an American National Treasure.
To my knowledge, DuffyLit is the only organization in the world performing The Spiritual in its authenticity, and Edna continues to passionately and persistently strive to keep this art form alive so that all can benefit from it's universal message of hope, faith optimism and perseverance. As I learned from Edna, The Spiritual may have been born from hardship, but what became from it is incredible, beautiful and unparalleled.
The story of DuffyLit is best told by Edna herself, so I have compiled excerpts from interviews and interactions with Edna. I encourage you to share the story of Edna Duffy and DuffyLit and to support their purposeful work and the positive impact they are making in people's lives, communities and our world. I know that I will continue to learn from my experiences with Edna and DuffyLit, and will do my best each day to apply and share the power of hope, faith, optimism and perseverance.
Edna Duffy: "Duffy Lit offers classes, workshops, lecture demonstrations, and performances that engage the mind, discipline the body, and develop the talents of people of all ages, from 5 to 95 and beyond. All programming at DuffyLit is rooted in the American National Treasure, The Spiritual. Spending Summers with my older brother when I was in college, visiting museums and collecting information about this Art Form became a passion. Starting with spending hours in the Howard University Library where there is a section devoted to The Spiritual, I learned so much about the history and composition of this musical genre. My brother and I often spent our days perusing the Spiritual Collections housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C., also studying and singing these songs in concert with my brother and an ensemble which he formed. I soon realized that The Spirituals were songs that were created out of movement - movement and music that engaged the community in skills that helped them to survive.
From the background of systemic oppression, emerged a creative genre that salved the culturally induced inner wounds of self-hatred by articulating to the Africans in America their humanity, their worth and their heritage. The Spiritual offered a message of hope, faith, optimism and perseverance that served to weaken the physical and mental chains which bound them.
The bedrock of my artistic philosophy is The Spiritual. There is a beauty in these songs that is unsurpassed in any other American musical genre. They tell the story of a period in the history of America that everyone should know and learn from. My choreography explores the depth and the message of these songs. Using dance, I delve into the beauty and poetry in the lyrics of these songs. I use eclectic dance techniques. I weave the message of optimism and freedom into each choreography.
I believe that dance, my art, should reach all those who make up the diverse communities in which we live. I work to create choreography that engages the mind, disciplines the body and develops the talents of people of all ages, races and levels of physical and mental capacity. My choreography grows out of the passion that the universal message of The Spiritual stirs within the souls of all who experience these original American Songs.
The Spiritual also has great contemporary relevance. Although The Spiritual was rooted in the context of Slavery, it has become an American National Treasure because it contains the power to speak across racial, cultural and generational divides. The Spiritual speaks to something universal in the human experience - hope, faith, optimism and perseverance - that's relevant to everybody. That's a universal message. And it's found in all of these songs that were created by people who could neither read nor write. That's the power of the human spirit - and we all share that!
With a curriculum based in The Spiritual, DuffyLit offers classes, workshops and performances that connect the past to the present. Our curriculum and performances provide a looking glass that reflects the past, mirrors the present and dares to stare boldly into the future. And the future is exciting, working with EiQ - we're connecting with new ideas and expanding our thinking beyond our Studio and Board Room. They've helped us learn new approaches and new ways of doing things to accomplish successes that we haven't reached in the past, and increase our audience and our impact! So in the words of that Spiritual that I love, we will hold on just a little while longer, and believe that everything will be alright."
Watch Edna share part of her story and the story of DuffyLit in the video below from a Social Venture Partners (SVP) bigBANG! event, for which EiQ was a sponsor. And realize that while many of history's great leaders and entrepreneurs have been role models of hope, faith, optimism and perseverance, these powerful elements of the human spirit exist within each one of us, and when applied and shared, everyday, we can accomplish incredible outcomes.