Fleetwood Project founder grew up in the spotlight

April 24, 2023
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By Bobby Quinten

Mansfield Record

Stevie Dawn Carter confesses to three primary obsessions in life: coffee, wine and sharks.

The owner of Stevie Dawn Inspires, a Mansfield-based leadership consulting business, explained why she finds sharks so fascinating.

“Sharks go out and own their space,” she said. “They always are moving because great whites will die if they do not swim. They always are moving forward because they cannot swim backward. Those are important life lessons for us, too.”

In 2022, Carter published “Be The Shark: Reclaiming Your Story to Reclaim Your Life.” She said the book’s title came from her mother years ago.

“I felt myself plateauing as a competitive dancer when I was young,” she said. “My mother encouraged me to be the shark and regain my confidence in myself. I won my next 14 contests after that. Be the shark!”

Dancing was Stevie Dawn Previte’s first love. Ballet, tap, jazz, she could do it all and do it well. In fact, Carter quit high school to dance competitively on a global basis. She even moved to Australia and owned a dance school.

“I know that had to be hard for my parents,” Carter remembered about moving so far away. “But my parents always said, ‘Do what you love, be what you want to be.’ My mom always allowed me to make my own choices, and even today, I try to instill that same philosophy in others.”

At 25 years old, life happened.

“I made a dance move that I had done every day, but this time I came down wrong and injured my foot,” she said.

When her doctor confirmed she could not dance competitively any longer, Carter pivoted into an educational career.

“At my core is teaching,” she said. “I always enjoyed teaching in dance. I love observing people, watching how groups react and how group members negotiate. So, I became a college professor.”

First, however, she “became a college kid again.” Five years after earning her bachelor’s degree in small business administration from Union University, Carter followed with a master’s in sociology from Wichita State University. She gained valuable teaching experience at Wichita State and Butler Community College before moving to Texas and into student affairs at Tarrant County College in 2010.

While managing the TCC Center for Leadership Development and the Discovery Center for Student Success, Carter earned her Ph.D. in Community College Leadership from Colorado State University. A colleague in higher education compelled her to complete her doctorate.

“She told me that education is the one thing they cannot take away from you,” Carter said.

“By 2015, I needed a break from higher education,” Carter reminisced. “I had been in some form of college work for 12 years.”

She started her own business Stevie Dawn Inspires, LLC in March 2015. Her published mission as a speaker, trainer and author is “helping people find, reignite and chase their joy at work and at home.”

“My question to clients is always this: are you living out your purpose in life?” Carter explained.

After two startup years, the business took off in Year 3, and she hired her husband, Matt, into the business.

Stevie Dawn Inspires encourages leaders to deepen their emotional intelligence and combine better leadership skills with EQ. Carter believes leaders should know what their core values are and demonstrate those consistently.

Most importantly, the leadership trainer tells leaders that “our responsibility is to adapt to our team members, not vice versa. Make time to educate them. Work with them according to their individual needs and according to the situation. Conduct a pulse check 1 to 10 of how they are feeling that day and let individuals know they are entitled to have a bad day occasionally. It’s OK.”

Carter believes most employees and volunteers want to be educated and empowered.

“Train them,” she said. “Give clear expectations. Let them do it on their own. Let them make decisions, even if they are wrong, and if they are wrong, ask them what they learned.”

Around the same time as Stevie Dawn Inspires began in 2015, the Carters moved to Mansfield. They loved the parks and the schools, but Stevie Dawn and Matt also wanted a home large enough for themselves and their elderly parents.

“It was important to us to have them with us and care for them,” Carter said.

They found that house in Mansfield. That living arrangement proved fortuitous in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic locked everyone into the home for several months.

“We had the perfect living situation. We were our own bubble, our own village,” Carter described. Today, she says “I would not trade the memories I have of those days, playing games together and hearing stories that I had never heard before. I learned to treasure memories and embrace the legacy of others much more than I did before. Even when the world is cratering, we needed to have fun and laugh.”

The pandemic also impacted her consulting business. Stevie Dawn Inspires’ training division Orange Compass, LLC, closed in March 2020.

“We started doing a lot more training in groups,” she said. “We got really good at webinars, too.”

Although the pandemic has subsided, Carter continues to conduct monthly free webinars that often generate new clients.

Carter admitted the pandemic changed her personally, too.

“I rest more,” she said. “I take better care of myself. I try to find more joy in my life.”

She believes the greatest change came in her perspective of emotional and mental health.

“We are resilient as people, no doubt,” she said. “I realized how delicate mental health is. I am far more self-aware now. I take joy breaks, and I always schedule one full day a week away from everything.”

Her newfound epiphanies on wellness and mental health now find voice in her leadership training.

“Leaders make a lot of decisions based on emotions,” Carter said. “As a leader, you need to know when you need a mental health day yourself. Be thoughtful about your reliance on technology and find a community outside of work. Community fills the gaps in your life.”

Months into the pandemic, Stevie Dawn Carter admitted to herself, “All my life is work.”

She and her husband discussed needing something more.

“However, I did not want another business to run,” she said. “I wanted to do a nonprofit that might build community in Mansfield.”

Eventually, their conversations led them back to Stevie Dawn’s childhood and show business.

The young dancer Stevie Dawn Previte grew up in the entertainment world. Her father played in a band while her mother traveled with her IT job.

“I spent many nights as a child in different venues,” she said.

As huge fans of the band Fleetwood Mac, the parents named their daughter Stevie in tribute to lead singer Stevie Nicks. Stevie Dawn also performed in some community theater with her parents as a child.

In fact, when finishing her bachelor’s degree at Union University, Carter completed a capstone research project about developing a performing arts charter school. Seventeen years after that foreshadowing, “Matt and I decided that when the world opened up again, we would make theater our hobby,” Carter said.

The dream became reality in March 2021 when Carter became the founder and executive director of the Fleetwood Project theater group. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization brings to Mansfield amateur theatrical productions through what its leader calls “a community of art with mental health over everything.”

Every activity within a production is accomplished by volunteers in groups, whether it is acting, costumes, sets or props. A critical purpose for the Fleetwood Project is to provide adults with a community where they can express themselves, build self-confidence and improve their mental and emotional well-being.

“Our theater provides a safe space for adults,” Carter explained. “Theater like life can be a traumatic experience, so we emphasize mental health with every person. If you do not feel like you can come in today or rehearse today, that is OK. Take the time and come back stronger the next day. In the end, all our shows are a story of hope for our volunteers that after two months of work they will come out better people.”

The Fleetwood Project’s next production happens May 5-7. “How to Survive an Apocalypse” will play at the Farr Best Theater, 109 N. Main St., the group’s current home. Carter expressed a love for the historic performance hall, while also hoping that someday the city will build a modern black box theater for local community arts organizations.

“I love that the city is conducting a cultural assessment, because I think Mansfield is looking for its identity in the arts,” she said. “One place that everyone in the various arts could use would be a great addition to the community.”

Through the years, Stevie Dawn Carter has played many roles in the spotlight, whether as a dancer, teacher or keynote speaker. However, her favorite role today happens in darkness far from the stage and the lights.

The theater director explained, “When we do a show, I watch from the back. I watch these humans living out their moment, pouring their hearts out, doing the best that they can do. And I think to myself, you created that! There is no high like it, knowing that I had a part in that. That’s how you leave a legacy. That’s how you will be remembered.”

In retrospect, would Carter change anything in her journey?

“I believe everything you do takes you to the place where you are,” she said. “Do I ever wonder what my life would have been if certain things had not happened? Sure. Would I give everything up to go back and see? Not a chance!”

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