Dawn Ellis Biography

Dawn Ellis headshot
Dawn M. Ellis

DME Founder Dawn Ellis’ work influences the solutions and policies of organizations, governments, and coalitions across the U.S. and internationally.

National and International Reach

Connecting research and policy, Dawn Ellis served as the staff researcher for the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) during the late 1990’s under the Clinton Administration.  In this role, she served on the lead team with agency heads and thought leaders to develop Creative America: A Report to the President, helping shape national cultural policy and private sector partnerships.  Dawn went on to lead the research for Gaining the Arts Advantage: Lessons from School Districts that Value Arts Education, touted as the first national study on American school districts and arts education. A collaboration of the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Arts Education Partnership, Dawn facilitated national education, youth, and arts service organizations as part of designing an investigation to learn from promising practices.  Still in circulation, the research informs a host of initiatives across the country, including national community audit tools developed by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Alliance for Arts Education Network, a U.S. media campaign by the Americans for the Arts, and school district resources from the Arts Education Partnership.

US Capitol

In the early 2000’s, the Ford Foundation invited Dawn to analyze research, study gaps, and facilitate the foundation’s development of new funding strategies to bridge their work in knowledge, education, religion, and access with their support of arts, culture, and media. The result led to the foundation and partnering philanthropies investing in long-term initiatives supporting urban education reform through arts integration, leadership development, research, and communication and policy-shaping strategies in the U.S. and Asia. 

Cover of Ellis report
Designing the Arts Learning Community

Dawn led the DME research team and created online resources and a still circulating work commissioned by Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Silicon Valley governmental agencies called Designing a Learning Community: A Handbook for K-12 Professional Development Planners.  This book for professional development designers distills lessons learned from promising practices across the U.S..  Later, Dawn  coached the Educational Theatre Association and its partners to help this national service organization spearhead and translate research to better serve the field.  From 2011-2013, she served as the critical friend researcher for national and local education programs of the international Vermont Studio Center located in rural Johnson, Vermont.

Innovation and Economy

Pastry vendor
Creative economy: cuisine

As the Vermont representative to the New England Connections Fund, a committee focused on the economy and technology, Dawn brought indicators from research work for the White House to a nascent creative economy field. Her contributions supported the joint investigation by The New England Council, New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA), and Mt. Auburn Associates, which published landmark work measuring the creative economic sector in 2000 – a critical component in the economic fabric. As part of planning for the information economy, Dawn facilitated top level public and private leaders among the business, education, cultural, and community development sectors in Alabama in their work to find common ground to help innovation flourish in their state in 2013.  Recently, Dawn led a DME investigation to inform potential economic investment and the state of the creative economy in a rural city recovering from flood damage.  Since 2018, Dawn has coached a regional service organization through deepening its inclusion work in its largest services, such as facilitating the 2019 inclusion plenary sessions of a New England peer gathering focused on economic development.

Working with two state agencies, private businesses, and community leaders in Alabama, Dawn led DME work in 2009 and 2013 to activate a statewide coalition addressing the need for new industry and job opportunity in the state.  Dawn’s facilitation energized their development of new structures to support creativity, innovation, and career and college readiness in all students.  By framing the efforts around youth, Dawn helped inspire the effort to develop state youth leadership teams to inform and support the work.

While a state education director, Dawn supported Vermont’s early experimentation to harness technology for learning through the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP)/ Technology Opportunities Program (TOP) grants of the U.S. Department of Commerce in the late 1990’s.  This resource continued the evolution of Vermont online learning communities of teachers, professionals, and students centered on creation, responding, and improvement of student work-in-progress

Examining the business sector, Dawn investigated creativity across business and economics, developing a literature review for Harvard’s Project Zero in the mid-1990’s.  Through an American Association of Advertising Agencies program, Dawn worked in the creative department for the international public relations firm, Young and Rubicam NYC, developing copy, visuals, and product line for clients including NYNEX and Johnson & Johnson. Winning the Thomas J. Watson Scholarship, Dawn worked in the communications department of IBM at its Federal Headquarters Division in Bethesda, MD. 

State Leadership and Networks

Dawn facilitates Alabama
Dawn leads change management thinking for Alabama creative literacy economic development

Leading the Arts Education Leadership Network Initiative for the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) in the early 2000’s, Dawn designed deeper educational networks and services for this association.  The effort resulted in field-initiated professional development systems and partnership frameworks, strategic planning, a new field leadership structure, and self-assessment tools for leaders from all the U.S. states and territories. In 2004, Dawn led a statewide needs assessment team in Tennessee. The resulting 2005 report, Ready, Set, Grow!, led the state to craft a top-rated U.S. Department of Education grant for the Value Plus Schools education reform initiative. The resulting 2011 evaluation report finds the high poverty schools involved in this reform approach make significant academic gains in math, science, language, and social studies, eliminating the achievement gap.

Dawn’s work with Rhode Island began in the late 1990’s, advising a Governor’s Task Force to structure learning around the student.  Her framework inspired a new paradigm for a statewide coalition to adopt proficiency-based policies and individualized approaches, honoring student learning in the home and community as well as at school. Rhode Island took an early lead in the accountability and proficiency systems supporting personalized, student-centered learning.  Recent national leadership services include Dawn’s working with Americans for the Arts from 2013-2017 to coach State Policy Pilot Program (SP3) partnerships seeking to collaborate and engage policy at the state level.

Planners head shot
NJ Agency & Foundation Leaders work with Dawn

Whether through planning, professional development, grant development, or advice, Dawn has supported statewide work in over a fifth of the U.S. states, including California, Wyoming, Maryland, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Hampshire, Alabama, and Tennessee.  For instance, in 2017, New Jersey invited Dawn to head up a DME team to research state needs, facilitate focus groups, and lead design thinking to develop a new approach to a project with the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  Dawn worked as Director of Education Programs at the Vermont Arts Council during the Howard Dean Administration.

Dawn stays involved as a policymaker and leader in her own right. In 2015, Governor Peter Shumlin appointed Dawn as one of five Commissioners leading the Vermont Human Rights Commission. Dawn represented Vermont as an at-large delegate to a 2012 national presidential convention, speaking with various national media.  She advises the Vermont Agency of Agriculture and its Farm to School Network in areas such as evaluation, metrics, and education. She also served as the state representative to a regional economics council and as an appointed state arts councilperson.  As an inaugural alumna of the leadership training program, Emerge Vermont, Dawn plies 21st century mobilization, campaign tools, and social media to engage and build coalitions.

Learning Systems and Education Reform

Young photographers in nature
Young photographers capture nature

Education has always been a key part of Dawn’s story.  Parents and teachers fostered her early love of learning.  As a child, she taught overflow students for her piano teacher.  Upon moving to Vermont, Dawn taught K-8 music in a rural public school and started an integrated arts music program for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities at the Baird School, part of the Howard Center for Human Services. Her work today as President of DME integrates an education sensibility as DME cultivates sustainability in clients by building capacity and capability.

Dawn supports systems change in schools.  Her consulting with Vermont’s Burlington and Winooski school district stakeholders aided the Partnership for Change coalition in thinking boldly and causally while developing a logic model plan to guide its efforts to center learning around each individual student.  In 2011, the two district coalition received a Nellie Mae Education Foundation commitment of around $3.5 million to support high school transformation over the next three years, with further support in 2015. In 2011, the first public elementary magnet school focused on sustainability worked with Dawn to develop Learn, Share, Grow, Show, funded by a neighborhood Community Economic Development Office grant. The catalyst of raised garden beds and public and educational outdoor gathering spaces, bike racks, and resources supported development of social capital across class, bringing new American and families in poverty as well as middle class families. 

As a master education designer and teaching artist, Dawn teaches across the United States.  Work ranges from professional development in Delaware to facilitating an inaugural leadership track at the Connecticut Higher Order Thinking (HOT) Schools institute.  For instance, in 2010 Dawn coached Wyoming educators in schools, communities, and museums to use partnerships to address access challenges; sponsor University of Wyoming’s Art Museum won a 2010 regional award for this institute. Experience in access, diversity, inclusion of people with disabilities, and continuous improvement led to her coaching educators, administrators, school leaders, and teaching artists from around the world in VSA institutes across the U.S..


Dawn at wood burning plant
Dawn at city wood burning plant

In 2016, Vermont Conversation Voters named Dawn Ellis as a “great environmental leader” for her work in the public service arena.  In 2015, 350Vermont nominated Dawn to represent the state at a national leadership development gathering.   Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility invited her to design training around the “people” aspect of the triple bottom line for their annual conference of businesses.  Dawn brings new perspectives to address root causes of climate change.  A connector, she builds bridges between environmental movements and those focused on inclusion and justice.  Currently, she serves on the Vermont Farm to School Network evaluation and metrics team, helping them measure what matters with their first full evaluation in 20 years of work.

Focus group
Farm to School focus group

In light of the recent research modeling of promising climate reduction practices in Drawdown (Paul Hawken, ed., 2017), Dawn has begun to facilitate connections between traditional environmental and conservation movements and education of girls, food systems choices, and ecosystem design and innovation.  One project underway in this space is a visual book of poetry for families on themes of resilience, both in the environment and in people.  The book will parallel challenges and persistence in a dandelion and a young girl of color in America as they emerge.  Contact us or give directly to support the project development, distribution, and educational outreach.

Dawn’s knowledge and involvement in community gardening and permaculture, complements her  understanding of waste reduction/ reuse; food waste and waste to energy systems; and redesign for business and organizational sustainability to include people, community, and planet, as well as profit.

Access, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Creative voices at mike
Including voices from around New England. Photo: Jeffrey Filiault/NEFA.

Dawn serves as one of five Vermont Human Rights Commissioners, a quasi-judicial body promoting full civil and human rights in the state while protecting people from unlawful discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations. Her 2015 appointment by Governor Shumlin acknowledged her longtime work serving people often left out or left behind in our society. She heads up consulting work in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) with the research arm of a New England service organization, as they seek to make digital services and networking more inclusive.

Dawn’s commitment to inclusion spans her career.   In the early period of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), she served on teams of people with and without disabilities that traveled Vermont to provide direct technical assistance to not-for-profits on planning for inclusion. She also served as executive director of the statewide Very Special Arts Vermont (now VSA Vermont) in the 1990’s. By developing innovative ways to address the needs of individuals, families, and communities served by social services, Dawn catalyzed partnerships that thrive today including work with people living with housing instability, recently arrived refugee families, and community integration of people with developmental disabilities. With an access commitment, she weaves voices closest to the need and least often heard into DME field work.  In juvenile justice, Dawn led DME’s technical assistance to a partnership between a local not-for-profit and Ferris School for Boys, a level five maximum security education facility, to integrate creativity and media education in the school’s rehabilitation and career efforts.   Whether addressing geographic, socio-economic, physical, mental, or age barriers, Dawn helps clients build partnerships to open society’s doors to all people.

Beginning in 2008, Dawn led external research and strategic planning efforts to support Ford’s Theatre Society as it moved education into its core mission, resulting in their ongoing development of national educational programs, services, teacher fellowships, and a Center for Education and Leadership.  Ford’s taps the legacy of Abraham Lincoln and National Park Service site of his assassination to deepen people’s understanding of history and inspire them to use leadership and oratory skills to change their own communities. Program collaborations focus in part on students and teachers in urban and rural areas who lack access to such opportunities, ranging from Anacostia (DC) to Independence, Missouri.  


Client staff retreat
Retreat with front line and management public health staff

Focusing on healthy communities, Dawn facilitates across zipcodes, educational attainment, and medical and health access, to innovate education and service delivery and improve health outcomes.  An international consulting group turned to her to coach a variety of health programs, including the new leadership at Baltimore Healthy Start so they sought to find new strategies and partnerships to reduce infant mortality.  

Using focus groups and facilitation, Dawn supported Vermont Farm to School Network partners evaluation work, pointing them towards healthy children as a top priority, so they could begin to collect and probe data across agencies and institutions around healthier outcomes.  She brings missing voices to the table of health and medicine, focusing on upstream interventions and prevention, reducing barriers of habit, communication, and culture. 

Supporting the U.S.’s first sustainability-themed elementary magnet school, Dawn brokered a relationship with the local community development corporation to expand and develop teaching food gardens, support parent asset and network development, and improve bicycle infrastructure to support people-powered transportation.

Scholarship and Service

School gardens
Supporting sustainability magnet school

Dawn holds a Masters degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education in Administration, Planning, and Social Policy, with leadership and economics study at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Her English Bachelor of Arts degree from Yale University focused on theatre and poetry.  Coursework at the University of Delaware developed further leadership and research skills and an understanding of Environmental Justice.  New University of Vermont Sustainability strands across Environmental Studies, Business, Community Development and Health along with public health and political studies work informed Dawn’s sustainability understandings. 

She serves as a founding editorial board member of the peer-reviewed The Teaching Artist Journal.  Her service projects include coaching state community garden networks, leaders involved with Americans for the Arts, reviewing grants for various state and national panels, serving on the board of the Latin Grammy-nominated Delaware Symphony Orchestra, and supporting Title One schools as they develop community partnerships and mentoring systems. 

Dawn advised the development of MusicanCorps, an Aspen Institute think tank initiative to develop a “peace corps” for musicians, now hosted by The Center for Music National Service.  She served as a final juror for the first national teaching artist awards, hosted at California’s Montalvo Art Center in Silicon Valley.


Clay vessel, abdomen
Postpartum Trophy, clay vessel by Dawn Ellis

As a multidisciplinary artist, Dawn performs, writes, and works in various visual media.  Current works-in-progress include a series of children and picture books to inspire sustainability and resilience in individuals and communities. Recently, Frog Hollow Vermont Craft Gallery awarded Dawn a 2018-2019 grant to support equipment for her work as a clay artist as she develops a body of work in her Life Vessels series. 

As the first artist-researcher in residence at the Vermont Studio Center 2012- 2013, she developed works in word, Strappo monoprinting, and clay, as well as other visual and performing arts media.  Dawn brings this creative background into DME’s work, resulting in innovative, effective solutions that tap various ways people interact with content, ideas, and each other. As a performance artist, she associates with the New England Performers Artist Retreat in Brattleboro, VT and Amherst, MA. Ensemble stage work includes theatre with Montpelier, VT’s Lost Nation Theatre, Ice Fire Productions of Waitsfield, VT, and Green Candle Theatre Company of Burlington, VT. Dance includes performing with Tony award winning Bill T. Jones and the Arnie Zane Company and choreography for Lost Nation Theatre and Garage Theatre, predecessor to Green Candle Theatre Company.

Over the last fifteen years, Dawn performed large choral works with chamber and full choral ensembles of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra under Robert DeCormier and Kate Tamarkin, the Choral Arts Society and the National Symphony Orchestra under Norman Scribner and Leonard Slatkin, and the Delaware Symphony Orchestra under Paul Head and David Amado. Singing a cappella, she toured the U.S. and Asia with various groups, including Whim ‘n’ Rhythm and Out of the Blue of Yale, which she co-founded, serving as its first musical director.

In clay, she studied with Hunt Prothro and has affiliated with various collaboratives such as Vermont Clay Studio, The Clay Studio at Absolam Jones Center in Delaware, Glen Echo Pottery in Maryland, and Burlington City Arts Clay Studio. Dawn is an alumna of the S.P.A.C.E. artist collaborative in Vermont.