working girl: shay wafer

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As Executive Director of 651 ARTS in Brooklyn, NY, this week’s “Working Girl” Shay Wafer talks about her passion for the Creative Arts and empowering her community.


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Name:                  Shay Wafer

Age:                       50-ish

Location:            Brooklyn NY, via Los Angeles, CA

Profession:        Arts Management // Executive Director of 651 ARTS


How did you get started?

A few years after graduating from Howard University my college roommate Angela Gibbs offered me a chance to join her and her mother in opening a school of performing arts in South Central Los Angeles. Her mother, Marla Gibbs, was working on the television show “The Jefferson’s” and wanted to provide an opportunity for young people in the arts as a way of empowering a community. Because my undergraduate degree was in education I came on as the Program Director and helped to shape the curriculum.  Once the school was open and operating we began to produce showcases and eventually plays. I was the only person involved who was not an actor, director, writer or pursuing other opportunities in the performing arts. It became clear to me that producing, or someone who was minding the management and administrative functions was an essential component to a successful production. After 6 years of on-the-job training, I went to graduate school for a MFA in Theatre Management at Yale School of Drama.

What’s an average day like?

As the Executive Director I lead all aspects of the organization: fundraising, finance, marketing, board development, programming and education. I have a stellar staff of young talented individuals who are responsible for the execution of the day-to-day functions, yet I provide the guiding vision and principles. My day is filled with responding to emails, meeting about future programs, creating relationships with potential partners, cultivating new board members, managing the budget and fundraising.

Shay Wafer - resized and airbrushed


Why do you do it?

I believe in the power of art to validate the human experience, communicate an idea, empower a community and to change, challenge or affirm a perspective. I do it because I love the spirit and souls of artists and the beauty they share with us.

Ups and downs you sometimes face on the job:

The downs would be money. Historically, Black people do not have a track record of giving to the arts. We give to churches and colleges but not to the arts in a consistent and significant way. Without individual contributions and earned revenue, an organization is limited in its growth and sustainability. The up for me is the audience. I love the moment it’s clear that an audience gets the performance and their emotional response is palpable.

Your greatest achievement to date? Remaining in the field and raising a caring compassionate daughter who is an artist, Xosha Roquemore.


What singular piece of advice would you give young women looking to get into your field (work behind the scenes in the Arts)?

There are many more opportunities behind the scenes than in front of “the camera.” Pursue those opportunities if being in the performing arts is part of your path. It’s also important as young woman to be as deliberate about your relationships as you are about your career. If children and marriage are important to you, make sure that you include that in your strategy and plans. Your career can become all-consuming and you will climb the ladder of success only to look back and realize that you missed out on the other important areas of life.

What might be next for you?

As far as new programs for 651 ARTS, next would be to create a play for family audiences that would tour across the country.  Personally, I would like to continue impacting the American performing arts landscape in a significant way through continued support of artist of African descent.


What are your top 5 hair tips?

  1. Try new styles.
  2. Wear a short style at least once in your life.
  3. Use good products.
  4. Sponge rollers create great curls on kinky hair, just cover the tips with rolling papers.
  5. There is no such thing as maintenance-free hair.  Even if you’re bald or wear locks there is maintenance involved.

Fun Fact:  During the late 70’s and early 80’s Shay Wafer was a professional hair braider (braiding was her primary source of income) in Los Angeles and Washington D.C. She even created a natural hair oil that she used on clients– and sold –called Ndaiye.  Shay taught her dear friend – un’ruly’s own Hair Expert, Anu Prestonia, founder of Khamit Kinks in Brooklyn, how to put extensions into braids.

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