Voice for change: How Laura Carisa Gardea bridges art and advocacy

School of Music alumna Laura Carisa Gardea (M.F.A. Voice ‘16) is the epitome of a multi-talented creative. Hailing from Winston-Salem, Gardea initially pursued a music education degree at Meredith College before finding her stride at UNCSA.

"I was finally with peers who were focused, talented, and willing to work just as hard as myself in their respective disciplines," she notes of her transfer. After UNCSA, Gardea earned a Master of Arts in sustainability from Wake Forest University. Today, she wears many hats: she is a humanitarian, a music artist, a sound healing practitioner, a sustainability designer and more.

For the last several years, she has made a global impact through her work with the United Nations on the Commission on the Status of Women. Joined by her UNCSA classmate Andi Irving in their band Proxevita, Gardea also performed at the COP28 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Dubai in December 2023.

School of Music alumna Laura Carisa Gardea

School of Music alumna Laura Gardea.

Locally, she has made waves founding the Winston-Salem Permaculture Collective and the Southside Food Forest. At UNCSA, Gardea learned to speak from the heart while cultivating the discipline, team building and leadership skills she’s needed to thrive. 

Where did you grow up and how did you find your way to UNCSA?    

I am a North Carolina girl. I was born and raised in Winston-Salem. I was a transfer student from Meredith College, where I originally started a music education degree. At Meredith, I learned quickly that I was a big fish in a small pond and would be bullied for my innate gifts and talents after being placed into the Encore Ensemble — the premier a cappella group — which was unheard of for a freshman. UNCSA ended up being the best cultural fit for my educational career. I was finally with peers who were as focused, talented, and willing to work as hard as me in their respective disciplines.

What is your current role? 

I wear many hats as an original music artist with my band Proxevita, a sound healing practitioner, a humanitarian and a sustainability designer. I sit on four nonprofit boards including my own, the Winston-Salem Permaculture Collective.  Most recently, my work has revolved around the United Nations COP 28 Climate Change Conference in Dubai and the U.N. NGO Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) Forum in New York City.  

My bandmate Andi Irving (who attended the Sound Design program at UNCSA) and I were invited to be inaugural members of the Arts and Culture Working Group. The group was formed by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Lisa Russell, who was approached by the United Nations, and is the first of its kind.  

Laura Carisa Gardea and her bandmate Andi Iriving coauthored a historic report with artists around the globe.

Laura Carisa Gardea and her bandmate Andi Irving coauthored a historic report with artists around the globe.

We coauthored a historic report with artists around the globe titled "We, The Artists: Amplifying the Voices of Artists and Cultural Workers in Climate Action" that has led to our group’s invitation to contribute to and attend the Summit of the Future taking place at the U.N. in August 2024. 

Can you describe the projects you’ve been working on? 

While in Dubai last December for the COP28, our band Proxevita debuted an original song entitled “Unifying” as part of the Climate Live concert for the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “Unifying” is about the essence of U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 17: Partnerships for the Goals. At Climate Live, a youth-led global music festival, we shared a stage with notable artists like Ellie Goulding, Benny Benassi and Coldplay. 

Meanwhile, the U.N. CSW in New York City supported the International Human Rights Consortium. I participated as a cofacilitator for a session entitled ”From Isolation to Celebration: Period Poverty, Period and Incontinence Dignity.” We convened global leaders in this space from Be Girl (Mozambique, Kenya & Ghana), Sanitree (Scotland and India), The Pad Project (global), “Long Line of Ladies" (award-winning film celebrating the of coming of age of a young woman through the Indigenous lens) and “ Period. End of Sentence” (Oscar Award-winning film) where we also shared sustainable tool kits for menstrual equity.  


Arts and Culture Working Group also hosted a virtual film festival during the CSW Forum on themes of gender equality and environment. Lisa Russell curated the festival from 160 pieces of artwork featured at the Women Deliver 2023 Arts & Film Festival. The virtual showcase on Thursday, March 21, included the filmmakers, art enthusiasts and artist improvisational inspired pieces from the online festival. Andi and I were invited by Lisa to perform an original song inspired by the films in the festival as part of the showcase. 

What do you like most about the work you do?  

What I like most about the work I do is seeing how art is directly related to the impacts and influences in everything I am doing. I see it at the macro level in the international humanitarian work with the Arts and Culture Working Group, interacting with a global panel of designers, filmmakers, fashion creators, and experts who are addressing environment and menstrual equity and incontinence dignity.

What I like most about the work I do is seeing how art is directly related to the impacts and influences in everything I am doing.

Laura Carisa Gardea

I also see art connections at the grassroots level locally with my nonprofit Winston–Salem Permaculture Collective. The collective seeks to cocreate sustainable solutions with food forests, permaculture education, arts and creative placemaking to alleviate some of our nation's most brutal food deserts, including here in Winston-Salem.  

What do you see as some of the most important skills you learned during your training at UNCSA and how do they inform the work you do currently?    

Communication and performance skills, confidence in public speaking, musical sensitivity and close listening, and finding true connection to an audience are all important. Learning to speak from the heart while cultivating discipline, team building, and leadership skills needed for people to take you seriously and trust in your capabilities have also helped me in my work. 

What has your experience been like navigating work and life after UNCSA? While you were a student, did you expect to end up where you are now?  

After UNCSA, I pursued a master's degree in sustainability at Wake Forest University. I knew the future stake of humanity was near and dear to my heart, and the trajectory we were on was very concerning for me, especially as a young woman. It was the perfect continuation for me to remain in the area, do my art, practice sustainability leadership, and found my own nonprofit and performing music groups. I never would have expected that I’d be where I am today because I continue to learn that what I can accomplish with others is far beyond my own expectations.  

Laura Carisa Gardea at the United Nations headquarters.

Laura Carisa Gardea at the United Nations headquarters.

I’m not sure how one truly prepares for the range of possibilities in the creative sector as an original artist — its nature of development and novelty is so organic. For instance, if someone had told me that I would be performing alongside Grammy Award-winning artist Imogen Heap last summer in London with my band headlining the Esssfest international music festival, I probably would’ve said, “That’s insane, and woah!” 

There are lots of bumps, unexpected turns, highs and lows. Staying connected to your why is the best compass you will ever have in the ever-changing landscape that is reality. 

What advice do you have for current students, whether they’re studying voice or other specialties? 

Find what you’re passionate about and what makes you come alive. See how you might blend your creativity in this space to be more impactful. For instance, if you have a recital to give for graduation, or a work to premiere, see how you might also make this an opportunity to benefit your favorite cause. Bring an audience with you as a performing artist from beyond entertainment to inspiration and impact.  

Go outside. Unplug and find spiritual solitude, time to meditate and ground. It is here where you connect with your purpose and feed your soul.  

Give back. Honor your ancestors, family, former instructors and community who helped to cultivate the opportunity and support to study your passions and pursue your gifts.  

Empower others. Volunteer, connect and share your gifts with the world to find your “ikigai” which is what the world needs, what you are good at and what makes money.   

Don’t be afraid to pursue what hasn’t been done before, even if it’s starting your own business, nonprofit, etc. 

by Sarah Kelly(opens in new tab)

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April 17, 2024