Ashlee K. Thomas merges art with public service

Ashlee K. Thomas was just 15 years old when she drafted her first mission statement: to build a thriving city centered around the arts and education.

Now 40, she’s set out to make it happen, serving as a leader in both sectors as Miami-Dade’s deputy director of the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) and pushing to ensure the county’s efforts mirror her teenage vision.

Born and raised in Liberty City, Thomas was a precocious child. Her mother enrolled her at age 9 in the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center’s (AHCAC) after-school program, an arts learning hub dedicated to the area’s African American community. She then spent the next nine years experimenting with art.

“I found myself in music for the first four years I was there and then in dance and theater,” Thomas shared. “I eventually found myself in musical theater because of the combo of the three.”

Upon graduating from the center, Thomas left Miami and amassed a lengthy list of accomplishments. She danced and taught professionally at a Los Angeles activist dance theater, co-founded and directed an Australian web-series festival, and choreographed a Latin Grammy-nominated music video.

Still, something called to her back to the Magic City.

Thomas returned in 2014 to merge her talents and dream of a career in arts administration and education with her desire to give back.

In 2016, she graduated with a master’s degree in public administration from Florida International University, then dedicated herself to making an impact on her community. Over the following years, she served as AHCAC marketing manager, manager of education and community outreach at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, and as a K-8 drama teacher.

“Seeing children and adults say they’re inspired to change the way they recycle or view education or even look at other human beings, there’s this feeling you get when you see someone have that ‘Aha!’ moment,” said Thomas. “That’s the reward in (public) service.”

Soon she was heavily involved with local artists, applying for county grants and the politics of Miami’s art scene. Accepting the deputy director role in November 2023 was a no-brainer.

“Knowing the department inside and out – and knowing the arts community inside and out – led to an opportunity (to move) into cultural policy and legislation,” said Thomas.

She now helps oversee and support the county’s 1,000-plus not-for-profit cultural organizations and thousands of resident artists. Included in those is the very same AHCAC she attended as a little girl, a full-circle detail she cherishes.

“This department has grown so many cultural organizations,” Thomas said, reflecting on the role the department has played in her life. “I can attest to that as one who has reaped the benefits of its services.”

Though her initial mission statement still holds, she’s made some minor edits to tailor it to her position at the DCA. She now aims to raise Miami’s profile as an international art capital, give local communities and cultural organizations a voice, and ensure that diversity is here to stay.

“I feel like I’m in a place where I fit, so I want to make sure other people feel like they fit,” shared Thomas. “I’m here to let them know and see that they do.”