Academy Member Spotlight: Kena Tangi Dorsey

Enjoy this interview with AVT member Kena Tangi Dorsey.

Kena: My full name is Kena Tangi Dorsey (pronounced Kee’-na Tan’-gee Door’-see) and I currently live in Palmdale, California. I'm originally from the East Coast, and prior to coming to California, I had a whole life in theatre. I went to undergraduate school in Pittsburgh for drama at Carnegie Mellon, and then I lived in New York City for 18 years and worked as a Broadway stage actress.

In 2000, I was cast in a show called Quilters at the Geva Theatre in Rochester, NY (a musical about the lives of American pioneer women based on the book The Quilters: Women and Domestic Art). And I had never done any anything with fabric like that before. I did sew a little bit when I was little─ my mother used to make our clothes, so I learned how to cut out patterns and thread her needles. That was fun, but that was the extent of it. I didn't know anything about it. So the theater hired a wonderful woman who was a quilter, and she gave us quilting lessons at the theater so that when we were on stage, we looked like we knew what we were doing. It was hand quilting, as the play took place in the 1800s, so I learned how to hold a hoop and look natural doing it.

During this production, something hit me─ I fell in love with quilting and I felt like I had to do it more. When the curtain came down on the stage, I would go to the costume shop and ask for more fabric scraps. And they said, “you know, the play’s over?” And I said, “no, no, I'm working on something for myself.” And I worked on that piece during the show instead of the little prop pieces. Every night it kept getting bigger and bigger, as I was working on it during the show and then taking it home to work on it. By the end of the run of the play, I had a wall hanging that was hand pieced and stitched by me! That is how my quilting journey started.

So long story short, I fell in love with quilting while performing in a musical about women who quilt!

Lisa: And you now teach in a school, right? What is the teaching that you're currently doing versus what you'll be doing because of the Academy for Virtual Teaching workshop?

Kena: My other passion is film production. So I started out in front of the camera as actress, and then I went to Los Angeles to go to film school. I graduated in 2009, during the economic crash, and there weren't any film jobs. So I started temping at an independent private school. My boss found out that I was a filmmaker and she asked if I would like to start a TV production and film program at the school. I couldn’t believe my luck!

Now I teach film and TV production to high school students during the day, and film and TV for adults in the evening. I also run a summer camp, and we have fifth and 6th graders going, “okay, quiet on the set! Action! Roll Camera!” Nothing will give you joy like seeing nine- and ten- year-olds running a set!

So that's what I do. And then when the pandemic hit, of course, we had to move everything online. I never thought you could teach film and TV online because it's a very hands-on thing. And so that was one of the most challenging things, to try and come up with a curriculum that would still be engaging, and where students could still learn the interesting aspects of film without it all being a lecture.

In the meantime, I had continued to enjoy quilting, and people who knew me asked me to make them quilts. I started making quilts for gifts for people in the theater, like placemats, using African fabrics. I love appliquéing, and so I was making appliqués of black women and figures because back then you just didn't see that enough. And so that became my thing- to make quilts that reflected the African American story in portraits using African fabrics.

I did commissions for people I knew, very selectively, but not as an official business. I chose people who knew me, I didn't advertise. I didn't want that stress of trying to produce on a certain timeline. So it was a really fancy hobby for therapy! But over the last three years, I received more and more commissions. And I knew that I didn't want to keep doing that because I just wanted it to be for me.

It was during that time that it hit me. I was lying in bed, and I literally sat straight up out of my bed as it hit me: I could combine teaching online and Quilting!

So it was during the pandemic that I realized how much I love quilting. And I knew how much I loved teaching. But it was then that I discovered that I could blend them online. And once I had that revelation, it seemed like I started seeing all these things about teaching online. And it was so beautiful, how my path crossed with Lyric’s. It was like the sun and the moon, and at that cosmic moment, we just happened to be in the same place at the same time.

Lisa: Can you tell us more about how and why you joined the Academy for Virtual Teaching?

Kena: Lyric and I met when we took a course together on how to start a creative online business. I really did not even know what I was going to do when I first started that course. I knew I wanted to do something, but what? Through that course, I discovered that I wanted to teach. And also during that course, Lyric and I created an online friendship. So when she decided to create the Academy, she asked if not only would I join the course, but would I mind co-teaching some of the technical stuff? And I said, “Of course, I would love to.” And so we just kind of came together that way, and I was able to create a few video tutorials for the course. I wanted to contribute because I wanted to thank Lyric for recognizing my abilities and kicking me in the butt to get into the Global Quilt Connection. And it's just been wonderful!

Lisa: You have a lot of experience with online platforms and technology and film. What have you learned from the Academy that you didn't know before?

Kena: I learned a lot about teaching the hands-on part. It's one thing to know the technology, to know the curriculum, and to be able to turn the cameras on and lecture or have a conversation. But it's another thing to be able to engage with a project where students really need to get in there and see what you're doing. And for you to able to see what they’re doing. That's one of the things that I really appreciate about the Academy, that it forced me to think, using my filmmaker’s lens and my teacher's lens, about how to show them what I'm doing. It also made me ask myself “How do I also be present? And how can I also make them feel included?”

And so I gave a lot of thought to those questions. The students really need to get in there and to see these stitches, so where do I place my camera for that? I know how to do a wide shot, but I never had to think about where to place a camera overhead and how to think about where to put the camera so that it's not jumping when the sewing machine is going. It's very specific. They don't teach you that in some schools- how to shoot free-motion.

I also learned how to market my class, how to think about my style, and using my own personality to market my style. I’ve also learned a lot from Lyric just by watching her teaching style. Although I've learned a lot about how to do things, I’ve loved just watching her and how she deals with everyone, how she really encourages and empowers students and just gives them the confidence to jump in and be themselves. She's good at pulling that out of people, and that is what I really appreciate. I realize that I can incorporate that in my teaching. I really appreciate that experience and have been able to use that.

Lisa: What class, and in what format, will you be teaching your first quilting class?

Kena: I already launched my first class during AVT, and I'm now working on my second class. I started with a free 2-hour mini course about making Portrait Quilts, which was part of the campaign to help me sell the multi-week live class, which will later be an on-demand class.

I created all the pre-recorded content ahead of time. And I decided that even though I had already made the project a few times, I needed to make one to use during the class. I didn't want to just use a PowerPoint presentation. I wanted to actually engage and go through the process so that I understood what the students had to go through, and then I would be able to answer any of their questions. It's one thing to talk about a project and reflect on what you went through, but it’s another thing to actually go through it, step by step, with the students and be relatively in the same place. THAT I learned from Lyric.

I pre-recorded the lessons, and then I posted about half of them on an e-course website. I had the registration open even before I made the lessons live.

I formatted this class so that each week I went over the modules with them live, talking through them to get them set up, and then told them where the pre-recorded lessons were. And as I was doing that, I was still recording the back-end of the course. I literally finished editing the last module during the six weeks of the live class.

I also created a Facebook class group, which was amazing. I cried on week three when I saw their work, it was so beautiful! It caught me off-guard. I had no idea how they were going to interpret the material and the technique and make it their own. I'm such a baby. My high school students laugh at me, they say “Oh, there goes Ms. Dorsey!” And I reply “No, just something flew in my eye!”

I'll do another live session in the Spring. It's now all recorded, but I’ll course-correct. I made sure to send out a feedback form so that I'm getting students’ input to use for future classes.

Lisa: What did you learn from the first class that you're going to adapt and change for the next time?

Kena: Ooh, I learned a LOT!

I think that I can do way less work! I did way too much because I wanted to have everything covered. I think I gave them too much information, even though I created the learning modules in smaller chunks. For me, editing took forever. Hours. There were hours of video to edit. I asked myself, “Why am I recording me sewing for 2 hours? Why am I recording this whole thing now when I've just got to go through and cut these things?” So now I have a much better idea of where I can jump forward and save myself time. And I learned what the students actually needed, and what I needed to get to those steps.

I learned a lot about what works. I learned that people really like the live aspect of the class, they really do, and that helped sell the course. Also, I think I will do another free mini-course. I think I'll stick with that format─ do a free course to sell the course, and then do a combination live and on demand full course.

I learned better how to answer questions, and about being more intentional about giving prompts. I love how Lyric gives prompts and how they keep everyone connected when they're working offline. I started doing that when I was sending the replays─ things for them to think about, to propel them forward and to keep an online presence. I'll do more of that this time because I think that helps keep students focused, and thinking, and engaged.

Another outcome from the first class is that one of my students asked me about starting a Guild. I thought that was a crazy idea! But the fact is that there were lots of African-American women in my class. The majority of the quilters were African-American, and that blew me away. I was shocked because when I was participating in the guilds, in my experience, there were not many women who were African-American. So I discovered in my course an affinity, and a much-welcomed and refreshing sort of space, that was needed.

And it wasn't like we were there talking about the Harriet Tubman quilts! One of the women just looked around the group and blurted it out. And then somebody said, “Can I just say something? I have been around White people my entire life, or, at least, the past 30 years. My husband is White. All my friends are White. It has been so wonderful coming here on Sundays. I forgot how nice it is to be around like-minded people, there's a certain way that we communicate. I have forgotten that, and I don't see myself anywhere. It's been nice to be able to come here and do that.”

And then the next person chimed in, “Yes, I was thinking the same thing!” And then we had to take five minutes to just acknowledge how nice that was. And that's just because someone saw my picture somewhere, and, whether they realized it or not, signed up for the class just because they saw a Black quilt teacher. And I don't take that lightly. And so I think that was just kind of a beautiful way to celebrate us as artists, as well. It was such a beautiful moment (and another crying moment for Kena!).

Lisa: Oh, that's such a great story! By developing these classes for quilting, you've also found your community and found your niche! Lyric talks about how there's room in the world for everyone who does similar things, and we can't compare ourselves to other people, we're not in competition, and we all have unique things we bring. It sounds like your perspective, your personality, and your joy attracts those people. And you're creating classes, whether you know it or not, that are going to attract your tribe, so to speak!

Kena: Yeah, thank you for saying that. And thank you for reminding me of that, because that is something that Lyric says. And it's really important to remind people of that. I hear her words when I start self-doubting─ “What is it that I'm doing that is special? This has been done before, and there's people who do it better. There are people who do it that are more interesting. So, why me? Why would they choose me?” And we as artists, we do that to ourselves constantly.

But we have to remember that there is room for everybody. Everyone offers something so uniquely beautiful that the next person doesn't, even if you think that the next person does something similar. That person’s approach, their perspective, and their energy is going to attract a certain different person. So even if there's another Black quilter that comes along who does portrait quilts, and there are many, it's going to be completely different than what I do. And you have to remember that, and still celebrate them and lift them up. You have to lift up everybody. That's one of the sayings that I love that Lyric says: “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

Lisa: What would you want to ask of your fellow members of the Academy? And what one little tip can you give your fellow members?

Kena: A tip that I can give is that when you feel overwhelmed because you're learning so much, just concentrate on one thing at a time. Think about the process, not the end result. Just think about learning one step at a time. The beautiful thing about the AVT course is that it's pre-recorded. You can take the things that you're working on now, do that, and then come back when you're ready to go to the next step. So when you start to feel overwhelmed, or you start to feel like there's no way you can learn all of this, yes, you can! There is no written law that you have to learn it all tomorrow. Just do one thing at a time and before you know it, by getting through the process, you're ready to go! That’s my tip.

From my fellow AVT members, I would like to ask you to consider how you can create a community with your courses. Think about how you can add equity, inclusion and diversity in your courses, like Lyric does. She is so phenomenal and boss with that! She is very inclusive and I appreciate that about her so very much. In every aspect, as far as financially, as far as gender, as far as race, culture, it's important to her, I can tell. It's important to her to pay things forward. I have been in courses where people ask unrealistic things, not taking into consideration that there may be challenges. And it's a real turn off. That's not Lyric. So I would implore and I would ask of the other class members to maybe think about your course, and think of ways that you can make your course more accessible to all different people.

Lisa: Amen! Would you recommend the Academy for Virtual Teachers to others? And if so, why?

Kena: YES, 1000%! I would recommend this course to other aspiring teachers because it will open the world for you! It will challenge you and make you a better teacher. And you need to spread your gift! You’ll overcome the limitations of only doing local or in person teaching and be able to offer your gift to people all over the world. You’ll also have another way to have passive income by doing on demand courses. This course gives you the resources to be able to do that, and will set you up for success in many ways- by teaching you how to create a newsletter, how to do marketing, how to create an online form, a lead magnet, and to do all of these things in this virtual world that you can also take into the real, live world. In terms of marketing, I didn’t already have an audience or an email list- zilch, zero, zip, nothing! I have been given the tools and verbiage to reach out to Guilds to help build my audience. That was HUGE!

This course also gives you networking, a community, and a connection with people all over the world. Take the class! It will improve your skills and your techniques, and it will improve your confidence. It will set you up for success! And Lyric is amazing, she's a great teacher and mentor.

Lisa: Lastly, is there anything else you want to share that I haven't asked about?

Kena: Look out for my upcoming class, Quilting with African Fabric: The Big. The Bold. The Beautiful. You can find my online classes online at, and more information about me on my website at And you can find me on social media as @kenaquilts.

Categories: Member Spotlight