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  • Writer's pictureLindsay McCarthy

INSPIRING, INFLUENTIAL LEADERS MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN THE SOUTHERN TIER

By Lindsay McCarthy and Catherine White


Dawn Burlew, President of Watkins Glen International, Dr. Connie Sullivan-Blum, Executive Director of The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes; and Samantha Little, Director of Athletics and Wellness at Ithaca City School District are three extraordinary leaders at the top of their fields, making their mark on entertainment, arts and education throughout the Southern Tier region.


Pictured, left to right, Dawn Burlew, President of Watkins Glen International; Dr. Connie Sullivan-Blum, Executive Director of The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes and Samantha Little, Ithaca City School District Director of Athletics and Wellness.

Read about the personal journeys that led to their success.


SOUTHERN TIER’S DAWN BURLEW LANDS COVETED ROLE, BECOMING WATKINS GLEN INTERNATIONAL’S FIRST WOMAN PRESIDENT


Lifelong Southern Tier resident Dawn Burlew is a true pillar of success and achievement in our local area. Most recently named President of the beloved Watkins Glen International, Burlew continues to make strides in her career and throughout the area.


A Horseheads High School graduate, Dawn has always had an immense amount of pride in her hometown and area. Serving as class president and excelling academically, Burlew loved her time at Horseheads. Having grown up on the lake, she knew she wanted to stay close to the place she loved in the next phase of her life and decided to attend the (at the time) all women’s Cazenovia College, a small, liberal arts school outside of Syracuse. She went on to attend another lakeside school, Keuka College, where the beginning pieces of her career would fall into place. Dawn looks back on her time in higher education fondly, viewing the experience of being a part of smaller, like-minded communities as invaluable and the perfect jumping point from homebase.


Dawn Burlew recently took over as the President of local and national favorite, Watkins Glen International. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Burlew)


It was during her time at Keuka that she was hired as an intern at international giant Corning Incorporated by Susan King, a woman who would continue to influence and support Dawn throughout her professional career. It was this internship in her first semester of Junior year that opened the door for her forty-year career at Corning Inc. In her time at Corning, she earned the opportunity to work her way up the ladder in various positions, including but not limited to Corporate Communications — where she first met WGI on a professional level — international work, and work with the economic government affairs link for Corning on their Corning Enterprises team. Throughout her time there, Corning offered continuous opportunities for advancement and evolution and prepared her for this current venture in her professional career.


Though never directly on her radar, Watkins Glen International was always a part of her life personally and in her peripheral professionally. Throughout her life, Dawn attended events at the track as a fan, such as the annual race weekend and the Finger Lakes Wine Festival. When the search for a new President began, it was almost as if the stars aligned professionally and personally. As she began to learn more about the company and organization behind the scenes, Dawn said it simply just met her fabric. The family concept, the passion for the company, the industry, each other, and developing and growing truly stood out; “Each individual sector was important to make the greater organization be successful and that just wound up with my values and what I was looking for professionally.”


Dawn attributes her success to hard work, determination, and a strong professional support system and mentors who exemplified success and taught her to pay attention to the little things. Now as a tenured professional mentoring young professionals, especially young women, Dawn shares these tidbits of wisdom. She emphasizes the importance of touching base face-to-face, commanding the respect of the room through preparedness and confidence, both of which she feels set the stage for success from the get-go. Honesty, vulnerability and a genuine willingness to learn and grow seem to be key among Dawn’s advice to young professionals aiming for the levels of success she has achieved. Dawn Burlew has undoubtedly set an unbelievable example of success for everyone, especially young women in the region who are lucky to have her as a pillar of achievement.


 Lindsay McCarthy


DR. CONNIE SULLIVAN-BLUM SPENT DECADE BUILDING STRONG ORGANIZATION DEDICATED TO ENDURING COMMUNITY CONNECTIONS


Dr. Connie Sullivan-Blum, Executive Director of The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes, is celebrating her tenth year in the position, and has been feeling the love from the community through recent accolades she and The ARTS Council have received.


“I feel like love just poured out over me,” Connie said, smiling as she discussed several recognitions both she and The ARTS Council received at the end of 2023 from area organizations, including the Community Foundation of Elmira-Corning and The Finger Lakes, Inc., Family Service Society, Inc., and Corning’s Chamber of Commerce.


“It’s so heartening and so encouraging because … it’s been a rough time.”


As most organizations have had to over the past couple of years, Connie found herself navigating The ARTS Council through the COVID-19 pandemic and the uncertainty of ever reopening the gallery and offices after having spent the past decade building relationships and a support system for area arts and culture programs to flourish throughout the region.


Over the past decade, she’s led The ARTS Council in creating a skilled, stable staff that could support a mission of strengthening communication and relationships within the arts, culture and business communities throughout the Southern Tier.


Connie moved to the Corning area from northern Pennsylvania with her wife and daughter almost two decades ago, after enduring several years of harassment in the Northern Tier because of their sexual orientation.


“When we came to Corning it was, for us, a real refuge,” Connie said. “So, I have a lot of gratitude for the openness of the Southern Tier of New York, both Corning and Elmira.”


Connie started at The ARTS Council as its Folk Arts coordinator in 2007, taking over as Interim Executive Director of the nonprofit in 2014, which shortly became a permanent position.


“We have definitely experienced a lot of growth,” she said of the past decade that she’s led the nonprofit arts organization.


“I feel like there are two things that I made a priority that helped with that growth. One was paying the staff more because when I took over as Executive Director the staff were horribly underpaid … so we just had constant turnover,” Connie explained.


“People would use the job as their first entry into the arts world but they could not make a living at The ARTS Council so they would bop off to someplace else.”


That made creating and sustaining relationships throughout the community challenging. She felt that cultivating an environment that supported a stable staff who could build connections on several levels, was a difficult yet important component to The ARTS Council’s future success.


Dr. Connie Sullivan-Blum, center, cuts the ribbon, officially reopening The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes in January 2024, after a renovation of its galleries and offices. (Photo courtesy of The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes)


“Also, reshuffling staff priorities so that programming and outreach became our main focus instead of the artist members who were already connected to us,” was another of the changes Connie said she implemented in an effort to expand the organization’s visibility and engagement within the arts and culture community.


“That’s a hard thing to do but, you start with who you know, and actually make sure that you’re doing something valuable for them, and then ask them, ‘Who else should I be seeing? Who else should I be connecting with?’.”


In addition to continuing to increase access to the arts and The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes through a variety of initiatives that she hopes to implement in the future, including developing a volunteer corps of docents and creating free studio space for artists and musicians in need, Connie is looking forward to a well-deserved sabbatical she’s taking in the fall, thanks to a grant for Executive Directors of nonprofits she received last year.


“It’s really to be able to rekindle my own work with poetry,” she said, as she laughingly showed off a folder full of paper scraps and Post It notes that she plans to tackle during her time off.


Learn more about The ARTS Council of the Southern Finger Lakes at https://www.earts.org/.

— Catherine White


FAMILY, FAITH AND EXPERIENCE HELP ITHACA EDUCATOR SAMANTHA LITTLE SUPPORT AREA YOUTH IN NUMEROUS WAYS


Chemung County native Samantha Little has spent more than two decades aiding and encouraging the youth of the Southern Tier. Having worked as a school counselor, assistant principal, principal and now the Director of Athletics and Wellness for the Ithaca City School District, the Elmira native continues to make strides for the young scholars of Tompkins County.


Born and raised in the Elmira-West Elmira area, Samantha grew up with a tight-knit family and support system who always pushed her to speak her mind and excel. She graduated from Elmira Free Academy and went on to earn numerous accolades in higher education, including a Bachelor's degree in Social Work, a Master’s degree in Education, and a second Master’s in Educational Leadership.


She began her career in education as a counselor at an elementary school. It was here she met some of her first and most influential mentors who not only set an example through success in their own dynamic positions but also saw her for who she was and encouraged her to be her true, authentic self. 


“I’m very fortunate that I have a very strong mother and my parents always told me to speak my mind, speak my truth and be true to who I was; I always had that support system and never felt like I couldn’t be who I was.”


Her counseling experience at Beverly J. Martin Elementary School set an essential foundation for establishing and fostering connections with students, families and other administrators that continues to influence her role as an administrator.



Samantha Little with her family, which gives her the support she needs to ensure she can devote her best to the job. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Little)


Throughout her career, Samantha has experienced the challenges of being a strong, outspoken Black woman. With White, male counterparts being favored, microaggressions from other staff, or even students and families, Samantha has leaned on a strong support system, her faith, and her work to persevere and continue to find success. She grounds herself in one simple truth: at the end of the day, it is truly all about the kids. Despite these adversities, the question of where she is able to have the most influence and provide the most opportunities and experiences for young people is her driving force.


Now, as the more experienced education professional, Samantha has found herself in the mentor position, aiding young educators and administrators as they navigate the field. Whether it is in a more official capacity through programs designed within the district or within the small Ithaca community in a more unofficial or personal manner, she finds that everyday offers an opportunity to mentor those around her. Her mentoring style allows others to lead as she follows with investment related to them by providing advice, support, or perhaps even acting as a sounding board for ideas. 


Today, in her role as the Director of Athletics and Wellness for the Ithaca City School District, Samantha works 24/7 as a resource for both students and other administrators. In a district with 24 sports offered throughout the school year, over 100 coaches, and between three to five hundred athletes in any given season, there is no off switch for her work. She continues to find that the most important piece of her work is being a resource and advocate for her scholars. In her seven years since taking on this role, she has continued to grow opportunities for her students at the school. This has included, but is certainly not limited to, a socialization period for students through universal lunches, working with a scholar athlete counsel, partnering with Cornell University, inviting speakers or panels to share their experiences, and perhaps most importantly, letting her kids know that no matter what they are going through, they have a safe space to do so.


More than anything, Samantha Little emphasizes the importance of dreaming beyond what is deemed possible and not setting limits on yourself, regardless of circumstances.


“To know who you are, enjoy spending time with yourself, love yourself first, have faith, and then all of that other stuff just kind of works itself out.”


 Lindsay McCarthy


ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Lindsay McCarthy is a Southern Tier native hailing from Chemung County. Following high school, she migrated south for college, where she earned a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from the University of South Carolina. She hopes to share her deep appreciation and love for upstate New York, and the Southern Tier in particular, with readers everywhere.


Catherine White is a freelance writer and current editor of Southern Tier Life website. She worked for almost a decade as a reporter, columnist and assistant editor at the Elmira Star-Gazette before moving to Austin, Texas over a decade ago. While she's not currently living in her hometown, Catherine continues to have deep connections to and love for the Southern Tier region, and always looks forward to visiting.

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