Above the door of my theatre teacher’s classroom is the saying, “Step into the fear.” This saying has become a motivation of mine during this turbulent environment where support for arts education is more important than ever before. The fear, the unknown, the worry about the future is something that students must step directly into and not shy away from. As the school-aged generation, we have a unique opportunity as both advocates and recipients of arts education; decisions that are being made today will affect us, the youth, and those students who will follow us for the rest of our lives. We have the opportunity to play a part in shaping arts education for ourselves and the next generation, and we must not ignore it. For those of us experiencing the benefits of an arts education, the fear and uneasiness we might feel toward this responsibility is something I think we’re well prepared to face, given what the arts have taught us.
As a theatre student, history and human behavior jump off the page and come alive, forming an ensemble of different perspectives from a wide range of characters. These characters help me better understand the evolving world in which I live and inspire me to make a difference. Theatre has taught me to speak up, and this skill is not lost on me as an advocate. As I learn more and more about the world through plays, art, and music, I find myself with a greater efficacy and understanding of the value of arts advocacy.
The lesson of empathy goes hand in hand with arts and advocacy. From a young age, theatre has taught me to put myself in someone else's shoes, to learn about their story, to discover their desires, and to empathize with what makes them who they are. I believe that empathy is the first step in effective advocacy. You must walk a mile in a wide array of shoes to gather all sides of whatever it is you are advocating for. Through the Educational Theatre Association, I have been given the opportunity to serve as one of five International Thespian Officers. As an officer, I travel around the country meeting students with a wide range of arts education and support for their school theatre programs. Rather than the one-sided perspective I have on my own, I get to learn and discover infinite points of view from students across the world through the arts advocacy workshops I teach.
On a recent trip to the Colorado Thespian Festival, I started off the workshop with a discussion around what different opportunities we all face at our schools with regard to support for the arts. In the workshop, I had around fifteen students from an arts high school with multiple theaters, lots of resources, and support. There were also another fifteen kids from a high school with no theater, no support, and no resources. I paired the two schools up for the workshop and had them work together throughout the morning. Together, they discovered new ways to cultivate unique opportunities at their own schools and it opened them up to perspectives they had never imagined. The workshop was successful because they were able to empathize with each other, to learn about where the other person was coming from, and to understand their different situations.
The arts—whether experienced in a classroom, on a stage, on a canvas, or on the radio—instill a sense of empathy that can readily be applied in arts advocacy. Learning from my peers has allowed to me to advocate for arts education bills at the Colorado capitol, inspired me to call my representatives to support the National Endowment for the Arts, to teach advocacy workshops around the country, to lobby on Capitol Hill for Arts Advocacy Day, and, most importantly, to step into the fear. I do that now in collaboration with a strong, diverse, and vibrant community alongside me, where together, I know that we can make a difference for ourselves and all those students who, like us, want to experience the joy and wonder of the arts.