On Friday, March 9, 2018, twelve 4th-8th graders from four Turnaround Arts: Milwaukee schools boarded a plane for Washington, DC—a city largely defined to them by what is depicted on television, on the internet, or in a textbook. Their purpose: to perform in the Turnaround Arts National Talent Show at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Many of these twelve had never performed before on a national stage—let alone a stage at all, for those whose schools don’t employ arts educators and have only what we refer to as a gym-a-cafe-torium. Some of them have discovered their passion and love for the arts as a means to motivate them to higher academic and social levels, while others had been selected knowing this would be their first time ever performing!
For example, Maurion, who took on the role of Abraham Lincoln in our piece, came to Roosevelt Middle School of the Arts in mid-year last year and struggled with finding his place. He auditioned for the school’s dinner theater performance and discovered a natural talent for the stage! This year he has committed himself to getting his grades and social behavior in order so he can continue to participate in his newfound love. The arts do that!
Regardless of experience, we held all the students to high expectations—not only to practice, prepare, and perform, but to represent their school, district, city, and state. We held them to an even higher level of expectation by choosing to perform a piece with an important political and historical message. Milwaukee is often featured in a negative light in national news: It is one of the most segregated cities in America; the worst city in which to raise a black child; and home of the Zip code with the highest percentage of incarcerated black men. Many of our students come from traumatic home situations and/or low performing schools in a flawed and often volatile city where the environment can be toxic to creativity, trust, and growth.
The Turnaround Arts: Milwaukee team knew this had to be different. We felt a deep responsibility to create a space and an opportunity for and with them where their “bag of rocks” (the phrase we often use to refer to their daily burdens and barriers) could be put down to free them up to shine the way we all know they can. They saw hundreds of children of just about every walk of life. They visited historical places and felt the spirit of that history move them. They listened and absorbed every moment. They existed, rehearsed, and performed outside the shackles of prejudice and stereotypes. The arts do that!
We chose an original piece about the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass. The piece held an even more special meaning, having been written by the students’ own teacher, Mr. Ja’Rahn Leveston (in the style of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton), and took the students to new levels of understanding, empathizing, and empowerment by not only learning but internalizing and also sharing this message of black history and liberation through education. The arts do that!
Every student that went on this trip and fulfilled this purpose they were called to, impressed everyone they met. Really understand what we mean when we say that:
im·press: verb; imˈpres/; 1. make (someone) feel admiration and respect
Throughout the course of our four days in our nation’s capital, many of the students experienced emotionally heavy moments, some deep group bonding, and most certainly gained confidence in their voice and message. With every impromptu performance they chose to do or were asked to do prior to the actual show (at Reagan International Airport, at the home of Frederick Douglass, and at Busboys and Poets) they left even more filled with inspiration, encouragement, and confidence in their voice and message. The arts do that!
Charlena, from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. African American Immersion School, was our only 4th grade student (everyone else was 6th-8th grade). She was cast as young Frederick and was the lead in opening the piece! After attending a professional performance of The Wiz at our local First Stage Children’s Theater and participating in a group workshop, Charlena brought a newfound energy to her part, and learned through experience that her skills are unique, that she should be proud of them, and she should use every opportunity she gets to exercise them. The arts do that!
We believe the Obama Administration (and now the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts) intended the business of Turnaround Arts to be showcasing how the arts change children’s outlook and frame the lens through which they see life. The arts also change the adults who educate and care for the children because we see them in an all new light now. We, as adults, should be congratulating and praising the youth for having demonstrated a new standard they can now be held to. Young people can’t afford to be let down by the misuse of their great success. They put in hard work, but they also know their hard work isn’t done … it was born.
What else can change the very cellular structure of our principals, teachers, and students the way this experience did? We can try to teach these lessons, but you can’t make someone feel admiration and respect for themselves. In order to truly and deeply feel that, they must experience true change. We all have come back from this experience changed. Possibility is no longer a dream; it’s a plan. The arts do that!
Written by Kendall Harris, Sherman Multicultural Arts School
Blinding light, chilling spines, doing things that feel just right.
Tears from a story lost to years. Ending in very loud cheers.
Teachers inspiring me to face my fears, now i’m looking at shiny chandeliers.
First day of walking the cold streets of a far away state. Harsh winds blowing towards my face, but i still walk straight. This experience feeling too good to be fake.
Wisconsin being too far away. Thinking of what we’re gonna do, what pictures to take.
Thinking of ways to not procrastinate.
Second day waking up with no energy, getting up eventually.
The light shining brightly, seeing the 11 brings out a better me.
It’s still very early practicing.
Day three, it’s time. On a stage shinier than a dime. I almost start to cry, shaking trying to remember my lines.
They dim the lights, we all fall into line. Time speeding by, not realizing that was one of the most important times of my life.
Day four with learning my history. So much tragedy so many untold stories.
Leaving to fly back to my everyday life. My ears popping, my heart and tears dropping.
Landing back in my city, leaving the people who were close to me was hard to believe.
My last goodbye hugs meaning too much to me.
Watch the Turnaround Arts National Talent Show (Turnaround Arts: Milwaukee’s performance begins at 24 minutes in)