I had the honor of creating the Kennedy Center Youth Council (KCYC) in Spring 2016 with a specific mission of investigating how the Kennedy Center can positively impact and be positively impacted by youth. The KCYC founding was inspired by the Kennedy Center’s yearlong celebration of the centennial of John F. Kennedy’s birth, which included the exploration of citizen artistry, defined as using the arts for positive social impact. One of our most extraordinary KCYC members, an embodiment of the citizen artist ideology, is Grace Dolan-Sandrino. Grace, a 16-year old senior at Duke Ellington School of the Arts, has accomplished more than seasoned professionals twice her age. In addition to being a member of KCYC, Grace is a Teen Advocate (she/her/hers), a 2016 Ambassador to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, a member of the Aspen Institute National Youth Commission, a member of the Gender Spectrum National Youth Council, and a contributing writer to Teen Vogue.

I had an opportunity speak with Grace about how arts education has impacted her life and how she believes arts education can be a catalyst for positive change.

Tell me about your arts education journey. What made you interested in arts education?

From the time I was a toddler I felt free when I dressed up. For me dressing up and putting on little plays was my way to express who I was. As I got older, theatre was the only place that I could escape the confines of gender that people put on me, but there was no chance for theatre in school except once a year for the elementary school play. When I found out about Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a place where my identity would be embraced and my love for theatre would be cultivated along with academic learning, it became my sole focus to get in.

What type of art is important to you and why?

I find that youth devised pieces are always the most interesting to watch and are the most important to produce and give a platform to. We are the next generation of leaders and are growing up in a new social and political climate, and naturally we have things to say. It’s also amazing to see young artists take back control over their stories and not let anyone else speak for them.

I agree that being able to express your own ideas without censorship and interpretation is critically important. What have you learned from your arts education? Have there been any lessons that have impacted your life?

Learning through the arts has taught me many things, possibly even more than traditional education ever could. One lesson that still resonates with me everyday is “You must speak for yourself or be spoken for.” As people of color and young people we are constantly being spoken for and about. We must take back our voices and use them to set the story straight and continue to offer opportunities to other young artists to take back their voices as well. This means through our art but also academic studies because there will always be someone ready to talks our place but it's up to us to be the best we can be.

Would you share an example of how arts education has made an impact on your community and how?

I’ve seen, in the past three years that I’ve been at Duke Ellington, each of my ensemble members grow immensely. They have all taken a charge of advocacy and service in their own way. Art made for no one is art with no purpose and I am so proud to be a witness to so many of my peers beyond even the theatre department making strides for change in their community and seeing my teachers give back to young artists like us. I believe that art has its own circle of life and that I’ve seen that in Duke Ellington.

I wish every young person had access to a learning environment like yours. What would you like to see for the future of arts education?

I would like to see arts classes at every school not just specialty schools because every child deserves to explore and learn through the arts. We miss out on so many amazing citizen artists because so many children never knew the potential of art and their space in the arts community.

We’ve talked a lot over the past year about citizen artistry. How can the arts positively impact your community, our country, or the world?

By sharing stories with each other through spoken word, dance, song, theatre, music, painting, sculpture, photography, exhibit, story, article, play, film, etc. we educate our local and global communities. We offer insight into the lives and experiences of others in turn building compassion and empathy. I've always thought that the world would be better if we could feel exactly what someone else was feeling and understand and I think that art is the closest thing to that we will ever find.

Grace was recently recognized as a leader in advocacy of LGBTQ youth by the Ad Council, which created a superhero in her likeness named Inspira for Love Has No Labels “League of Extraordinary Humans” game. The game is accessible via Google Play and iOS App and was premiered at PAX West on August 31, 2017.

Jeanette McCune is a member of Americans for the Arts.