Let’s get something out of the way at the beginning. For me, art is about connection.
Now, a story.
I remember it distinctly. I was dressed like a robot. It was Halloween, and I was at recess when I heard it. Name calling! As a machine, I was brave enough to stand up and say that wasn’t okay with me. Even as a preschooler, I was obsessed with inclusion. I found power in fighting the good fight. I wasn’t just a regular robot that day. I was a justice-seeking super robot.
I found the arts. I took piano lessons, went to Shakespeare camp, and sang poorly in high school musicals. Arts education was a big part of my childhood. It was so ingrained in my experience that I felt every child must have had these same opportunities.
But that isn’t the case.
Fast forward to my first jobs outside college.
As a teacher, and former justice-seeking super robot, I saw a need. Low-income children of color weren’t in my Shakespeare classes. If art is about connection, why wasn’t I seeing that reflected in my classes?
I went back to school. I was going to learn how to save the world by connecting art to low-income children of color.
Thankfully, I learned that I was fighting the wrong fight. Access to arts education wasn’t a bad goal, but simply having access to arts education wouldn’t bring real connection or equity. Simply put, traditional arts education often does not value low-income communities of color.
For example, I read about a public, arts-focused charter school. Students of color interviewed in the article explained that their dance class spent one “token” week on hip-hop as a break from “foundational” ballet.
Or there are the myriad stories about low-income students of color who weren’t deemed “talented” enough to be placed in the elite youth orchestra because they hadn’t had the opportunity to take lessons as a young child. These cases are real and common. And they demonstrate that communities of color are consistently undervalued by traditional arts education.
In these situations, arts education was not the road to connection. Structures like this perpetuate inequity. I had to learn that. I needed to recognize that by saying this community needed Shakespeare, I was saying I had the power to define what art is. This happens a lot. And it usually favors Eurocentric art.
I don’t have anything against Shakespeare, but I didn’t need to bring Shakespeare or Bach or Monet to low-income students of color that needed art. What I needed to do was recognize that art is already in every community, and that students have their own power to create art. I needed to shift my approach.
So instead of entering a community as a teacher and bringing a prescribed text or curriculum, I would enter as a learner. I needed to value the community and learn from them. I needed to connect with my students—to see their stories and experiences as equal to my own. To see my students for more than their perceived needs.
I needed a new approach to arts education. So, I scanned the literature, and I found an approach that works with, and values, oppressed groups. It’s called an asset-based arts education.
An asset-based arts education works in solidarity with the community. It is mutually beneficial and builds social capital. The programming must be multicultural and value a diversity of stories and voices. And, finally, the work and environment must be empowering and participant-led. (I wonder how this approach might work beyond the classroom.)
I got a chance to put this method to the test. I worked with a group of amazing students at an afterschool program, and the biggest thing I learned seemed simple. I learned hope. There is reason to hope for a better, more equitable, world.
And it isn’t going to be me that saves it.
It’s going to be my students.
In a world that oppresses my students and tells them no (loudly and often), they practiced a playful resistance and claimed their power. They even wrote this line for our play:
“I am equal. Life is equal. No life is higher than another.”
This line was more beautiful and meaningful to us than Shakespeare ever could have been.
A more connected world is possible. And I didn’t need to be a justice-fighting super robot. I just needed to be human. To shut my mouth. To connect. To listen. To learn. And, because I focused on the assets of my students, they (thankfully!) saw some good in me, too. That’s real connection.
And who doesn’t want to live in a world like that?