Before arriving at Walker West, the music school started in 1988 by the Rev. Carl Walker and Grant West, Braxton Haulcy spent 35 years in the business world.
But while the onetime music major held positions ranging from accounting to information marketing, he had never before been executive director of a nonprofit music school. And he'd never run a capital campaign.
No matter. Haulcy, hired to lead Walker West in 2019, immediately embarked on a strategic plan and dove into transforming the school into more than a place where parents dropped off their kids for lessons. He's helping it better connect with its Summit-University neighbors — and, in the process, making it a source of learning, music and pride for thousands.
"My hope is to give our community joy," he said.
Eye On St. Paul recently sat down with Haulcy to ask about the campaign, plans to move soon and how this school in St. Paul's inner city has renewed his own love of music.
This interview was edited for length.
Q: Is it true that you researched what Walker West needed before you had a job?
A: Yes. I loved the way Dr. Beverley Hawkins [former CEO of Model Cities] ran her organization. She was the first person I talked to. She was really my mentor.
Q: You started talking strategic planning in 2019. What's your goal?
A: I really sought to reconnect with the community. Music education is so much more. You learn math, language, poetry. It teaches all those things and gives children a way to love learning and excel.
Q: I get the sense that Walker West is very different from what it was 10 years ago.
A: That's true. In fact, I would talk to foundations about Walker West, and they'd say, "Who? I've never heard of it." From my standpoint, we had to build awareness. We had to transform, and we needed that transformation to show that music changes opportunity.
Genesia Williams, who was once my babysitter, had some ideas for marketing. She knew as much about marketing as anyone I'd worked with at General Mills. People used to talk about a learning gap. She'd say, "Don't say those words. It's an opportunity gap." Children need opportunity.
Q: How have you expanded the program's reach?
A: We are still working on that. There are several key things. We have a program called Walker West Without Walls. We are in schools: St. Peter Claver, Obama [Elementary], [and considering] the Promise Neighborhood — Maxfield, Benjamin E. Mays.
Q: You work with the St. Paul Public Schools?
A: It's expanding our outreach and going into schools that don't have a music program. Some may not have much of a budget for music. We now have early childhood [classes] and we have 55-plus. We have all generations.
Q: Tell me about your capital campaign.
A: One of the reasons we started strategic planning is we have a nonrenewable 10-year lease. And the lease is up at the end of 2023. At the same time, we have already outgrown the space.
Q: So that's kind of a happy coincidence?
A: Yeah, it is. And I'm kind of energized by it. I think I got the best advice from Dr. Hawkins. She said the three P's: Pray, Praise and Plan. And from my standpoint, it's all about community.
We have 28 teachers and 90% are Black males. And the way these guys teach comes from Rev. Walker. "Listen to the music and pick it up by ear. We'll teach you how to read music."
The first thing we ask is, "What do you want to do?" They'll say they want to play Rihanna. OK, we'll play Rihanna. Then [the teachers] put some notes in. And then they say, "Here's Bach." And they put a little Bach in.
Q: How soon will your capital campaign hit target? [Goal: $5.4 million from the Legislature to buy the former Wilder Foundation building at 650 Marshall and $4.7 million for new programming.]
A: That's a good question. I've never done a capital campaign and I'm kind of naïve. What I thought would take 90 days might be early 2023.
Q: Is your landlord willing to give you time?
A: Oh yeah. I actually have him on our capital campaign board. So, we can have a symbiotic relationship. I tell him I can get out of here and he can help me raise the money. [laughs]
Q: Will the move double your space?
A: It's more than doubling it. We're at 6,000 square feet now. There is over 16,000 square feet there.
Q: How has your enrollment gone?
A: When we left our past building [777 Selby Av.] we were at about 150. Right now, we have about 300.
Q: And what are you projecting?
A: I'm hoping that we can get somewhere between 500 and 600 a week. Between our events and classes, we have more than 5,700 program participants.
Q: Now that you're at a music school, do you play again?
A: I played piano, but I didn't practice. Now I'm taking lessons from Debbie Duncan's brother [William Duncan. He teaches organ and piano. I used to play for the church and I'm playing organ again. Everything comes full circle. It's the best job I've ever had.