I facilitate arts education workshops and conversations nationally. Teaching artists often ask me why it’s important to discuss arts education and social justice. I’m still honing my response, but here’s my current thinking:
We live in a country with undeniable barriers in education and the arts. I’m not even going to get into the differences between private and public schools, or the historic divide between formal arts training and cultural and community arts in this post. (Although, you should take a moment to read this great piece from the The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and Helicon which makes the case that more foundation funding in the arts should directly benefit lower-income communities and people of color). If we accept the idea that social justice is a vision for a society in which all people, of all identities, are treated equitably then we also have to admit the landscape is currently inequitable.
There has been a great deal of research over the years illuminating the gaps in arts education. The Teaching Artist Research Project highlights the decline in access from the 1980’s to today, especially for youth of color. This matters because we all know there’s also been a ton of research about the benefits of arts education, including higher attendance rates, improved academic outcomes, increased persistence, motivation, growth mindset and so on. A frequent response to these access gaps has been an increase in PTA involvement and funding. However, data has shown this response to be radically uneven neighborhood to neighborhood and actually adds to greater inequity. This mirrors findings from Seattle Public Schools 2011 arts education audit. The same report shows that race and family income are the greatest predictors of access to school day arts education in the district. Additionally, a recent report on arts participation by the National Endowment for the Arts shows that African American and Latino respondents are half as likely as their white counterparts to report having had any childhood arts education.
Non-profits and education organizations have stepped up programming in the last 30 years to plug holes. Demographic data from The Guild for Community Arts Education’s 2011 Member Survey shows that the students of community arts orgs are mostly low-income youth of color, but the teaching artists, staffs and boards are very, very white. It’s true in my organization too. This is important to note, because it means taking extra care to ensure organizations and the people who run them and teach for them have the racial analysis and training needed to do the work. What I mean goes beyond cultural competency; what I’m talking about is anti-oppression work. This is about power sharing. I realize that open dialogue around race, power and privilege, especially as they manifest in each of us personally and in our institutions, can be unwelcome and this type of dialogue is not common in mainstream arts education. Anti-oppression work requires a significant amount of courage, persistence, imagination, critical thinking and reflection – the very creative habits the arts help us hone and refine.
At Arts Corps, I began to realize when challenges were coming up in the classroom or with partner sites, there were often oppressive racial, gender, or class issues present that needed to be addressed. My colleagues and I began to see all the ways unresolved tensions interfered with our goals for quality arts learning (or were being labeled “classroom management issues”). We realized it was our responsibility to arm our teaching artists with a more overt social justice lens and Anti-Oppression Resources, Exercises and Tools. Over time we created a Social Justice Framework for Teaching Artists to support self reflection, community building in our classrooms, strategies to interrupt oppressive dynamics, and to remind ourselves to use whatever agency we have, (even if it’s only our power as adults), to be allies for our students and their families. This is important no matter what race, ethnicity, class or gender we identify as, and whatever the demographics of our students happens to be (including middle and upper class white youth).
Teaching artists have a unique position in the education ecosystem. We work in schools, museums, community centers, symphony halls, parks, prisons and everywhere in between. Teaching artistry is empowerment work, no matter what art form you teach and even if you never thought about it as activism before. Teaching artists are creative resources in communities, and we are critical in the fight for arts education equity. With the realities and statistics in mind, let’s be intentional about where we teach and how we engage our students. Below are a few guiding questions from the Arts Corps’ Social Justice Framework for Teaching Artists (and arts administrators) to consider.
- What do I know about this institution? What is its history in the community?
- How does it receive funding? Who backs it? Who does not?
- How does the institution determine who has access, feels supported, has opportunity, uses power and who is ignored, punished or penalized?
- What is my story as it relates to race/class/gender/sexuality/culture?
- How do I unintentionally and intentionally create unequal and inequitable power dynamics? What youth do I like/relate to the most? Who receives your praise and how often? Who do you send out of the room or punish?
- How do I actively interrupt or question moments of oppression when class is in session? When oppression occurs within the administration or with parents?
- How can art act as an agent of liberation in this particular class and in this institution?
- How do I evaluate the efficacy of my teaching through a social justice lens? What teaching methods do I keep? What do I need to build? What do I need to change?
Please respond in the comments below, or share your thoughts with us during the Americans for the Arts’ Twitter Chat on specific questions related to these issues this Friday, 3/14 at 4:00 PM.