The arts are powerful because they provide us with, and help us to create, our identities – who we truly are. The two ultimate questions we have in life are: who am I and why am I here? If you find the answer to the first, it will help lead you to the answer to the second. Identity provides us with a sense of meaning and purpose.
It was in art that I found my own identity. I was in sixth grade and had always really struggled in school. I was lost and confused and thought I was a failure; my self-esteem and confidence were extremely low. Back then there weren’t a lot of diagnosis like ADD, ADHD, or learning disabilities. I was diagnosed as being lazy and a troublemaker…and they probably had a pretty good case against me. Then my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Ferguson, said four words that changed my life. We were doing an art lesson and she came up behind me, looked at my picture and said “Wow, that’s really great”! The other students gathered around and shared her enthusiasm. All of a sudden I wasn’t a failure anymore…I was an artist. I had an identity! I’ve carried that identity and confidence with me to this very day, it’s made me who I am.
Our nation has an identity theft crisis. The victims are our children – many times the most vulnerable and marginalized. The perpetrators are our most trusted officials, decision makers, and leaders. By cutting the arts and arts education in our schools and communities they are denying these youth the opportunity to find their true identities, their true creative selves. They are de-valuing and diminishing their true talents and potential; making them fit into boxes they don’t fit. Eventually both the box and the child will break.
The organization I founded, A Reason To Survive (ARTS), is in the identity theft prevention business. The youth we work with are not only getting their identity stolen, but they are also given false identities by society and those around them: homeless, abused, foster youth, at-risk, cancer patient, juvenile delinquent, etc. Their circumstances do not define who they are. I like to say as soon as they come through our door at the ARTS Center, they become an artist, dancer, musician, or filmmaker, whatever they choose to be. Their societal identities are left at the door. Yes, we use the arts as a prevention and intervention vehicle for these youth, but more importantly we use the arts as a celebration vehicle for who these kids truly are.
The good news is we are not alone. There are thousands of efforts throughout the country to stop this identity theft crisis. They take many forms and approaches – arts education, arts integration, arts as social service, during school, afterschool, in school, and in the community. It takes government, nonprofits, businesses, and communities all communicating and collaborating together to provide this arts safety net for our youth. Only then will all youth have the opportunity, ability, and resources needed to find their true identity through the arts. Lets make that commitment to our youth and hold the arts as a sacred priority to ensure a brighter and more creative future for us all.
This blog was based on this TEDxSanDiego talk I gave recently.