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Sowing the Seeds of Social Change: Arts Education as a Source of Hope, Healing and Agency

Date: 09 August 2017

Since 1937, the National Guild for Community Arts Education (a partner organization of the Arts Education Partnership) has been committed to ensuring that all Americans realize their creative potential, with quality arts education available to all. Our member organizations – community schools of the arts, arts and cultural centers, preparatory programs, arts education divisions and more – play a critical role in providing creative learning opportunities to communities across the country. They have shown that self-expression, creativity and skill-building have exponential impact and that arts education makes a significant contribution to addressing many of our most pressing of health and social issues.

Educational and social policymakers are increasingly focused on social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practice. Why? Because studies affirm the powerful positive impact of this work and, beyond that, reveal the deep need for it to counter negative cycles rooted in hopelessness. Anti-social and problematic behaviors in youth have been conclusively traced to damage done by institutional racism, toxic environments and structural violence, which leave whole communities traumatized and hopeless. Theory and practice have shown that providing spaces and opportunities for youth and communities to heal, hope, imagine and create can be transformational for individuals and communities.

Dr. Shawn Ginwright, a national expert on youth development – who will present at the 2017 National Conference for Community Arts Education – studied the research and pinpointed the crucial role of hope and healing in achieving positive youth outcomes. “Youth development and civic engagement strategies designed to engage America’s most disconnected young people will only be successful to the extent that they address hopelessness and create opportunities to heal from socially toxic environments and structural violence. Success is dependent upon healing from these issues.”

Arts education is uniquely effective at meeting this need, as a natural source of healing, hope, imagination and agency. The National Guild fosters a growing movement to engage intentionally in this healing effect. Learning how to identify and creatively address the effects of psychological, physical, emotional and historical trauma is becoming a critical aspect of the work of art educators, both in and out of school.

“Imagining, but also having a space to create, is essential to social change and civics. However, as our public schools dismantle art education, particularly in communities where folks are freedom dreaming endlessly, community art-based educational programs sow the seeds of social change, progressive ideas, and our future,” explains Bettina Love, professor of educational theory and practice. “Writing, drawing, acting, composing, spittin’ rhymes and/or dancing help individuals explore their world, while developing the confidence and life skills to be agents of social change. Therefore, art instruction provides more to communities than just the art itself: it is the key ingredient to a better world.”

This November, the Guild will bring together many experts and practitioners of this kind of transformative work at our conference in San Francisco and Oakland. Sessions will highlight effective practices for increasing impact, improving participation, growing programs and advocating for more equitable access to arts education. The 2017 National Conference for Community Education will be held in the Bay Area, Nov. 15-18, 2017. See our full conference program, which includes sessions on all aspects of community arts education.

This blog is a guest post by Jonathan Herman, executive director at National Guild for Community Arts Education.

Title: 2280 Pasos Bajo un Cielo Nublado | Artist: Hernán Jourdan | Medium: Film

When I was asked to create a work of art exploring literacy, I wanted to create a dance but I had no dancers or a studio, so I chose to use my own body in the space I had, my yard. Fluent Nature is video of micro-choreography that explores what cannot be expressed with words, how nature has its own language, and how placing the human body in nature changes the story.

Title: What Is Me and What Is Not Me | Artist: Alex Chadwell | Medium: Music

My thinking on arts and literacy centers around the concept of literacies and artmaking as both sense-making and meaning-making processes that organically and inevitably overlap, intersect, and reciprocate. Compositionally, What is me and what is not me is a sound collage of sorts (there is no notation for the piece, and I'd be hard pressed to recreate it accurately) that abstractly and aurally represents the relationships between literacies and artmaking.

Title: A Curious Honeybee | Artist: Gideon Young | Medium: Film

Offering welcome through traditional and digital elements of literacy, A Curious Honeybee provides an experiential learning environment by activating visual, musical, natural, and emotional literacies.

Title: Tercera Llamada | Artist: Karilú Forshee | Medium: Audio

La Carpa Theatre is a project that I am currently directing in the Detroit Latinx community. The project aims to strengthen and uplift youth voices through devised theatre, in the style of the Mexican Carpas. This audio was created in the theatrical environment envisioned for our project. The ways in which literacies are re-defined are at the heart of La Carpa Theatre's mission.

Title: Literaseas | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite and ink on paper with digital edits

Title: A Riddle | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite on paper with digital edits

Title: False Binaries | Artist: MJ Robinson | Medium: Graphite on paper with digital edits