This post is part of our “Broadening and Diversifying the Leadership Pipeline” blog salon for National Arts in Education Week 2018.

Cross the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and you’ll soon find yourself amidst towering redwoods in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, or perhaps strolling bayside between Sausalito art galleries, or maybe listening to a hot retro jam band at the historic Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley.

This is Marin County, where George Lucas filmed American Graffiti and still lives today, along with Isabel Allende, Carlos Santana, and many more of the great culture makers of our time. Marin is also known as an affluent area, with one of the top 20 median incomes in the U.S. Rich in culture and financial resources, surely Marin is a place where every child receives a quality education in the arts?

Sadly, no.

Youth in Arts new media students focus on family interviews about sea level rise. Photo by Shirl Buss.

Although the average household income in Marin is high, the income gap in the county is wide. And Marin public schools serving lower income families are as cash-strapped as any in California. Yes, Marin’s pricy private schools offer rich arts experiences. But most of our public-school students receive a haphazard mix of programs hustled together by hardworking PTAs. And in our lowest income communities, where schools often serve predominantly immigrant youth of color, many have no arts at all.

I know personally the difference the arts can make. I grew up in Marin, among those redwood trees, and I was a very shy child. As one of the only students of color in my school, I was determined not to stand out more than I already did. I certainly was not willing or able to speak up or speak out at school about what mattered most to me.

Change came the day a theatre artist strode into my classroom; she opened me to new ideas about who I could be and what I could imagine, while helping me start building practical tools to make myself seen, heard, and understood. As I continued to study and perform, theatre became not just a way to grow, but the roots of a career that has taken me around the world and brought me home to Marin, where I now lead Youth in Arts, an educational nonprofit.

Youth in Arts architecture student shows her “Tower of Power.” Photo by Shirl Buss.

Youth in Arts is now collaborating with a team of stakeholders from across the county around arts equity in Marin. On September 13, as part of National Arts in Education Week, Youth in Arts, the Marin County Office of Education, Marin Cultural Association, and the California Arts Education Alliance will hold an “Arts Now Kick Off Breakfast.” We will present data illustrating local inequities in arts services before unveiling the first ever Marin Arts Education Plan. This plan offers first steps towards addressing the arts divide and creating a framework for all students to access quality arts learning.

National Arts in Education Week in Marin also will feature events hosted by every major arts organization, as well as by schools with developing and advanced arts programs. Teachers will receive free professional development in five different arts disciplines, and we will begin to work on a pooled fund for arts education, helping to provide low-income schools with more access.

The arts helped me discover my voice as a young person, and I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to include youth voices in our planning process. We’ve held focus groups with children as young as 8 to ensure their perspectives are included. We are also featuring youth voices during Arts in Education Week events.

Former Youth in Arts student board member Emily Kibbe—now a junior at Tufts University and a 2018 intern for MASSCreative’s Create the Vote campaign—will be a featured speaker at the Arts Now Kick Off Breakfast.

Another former Youth in Arts student, Will Salaverry, now a freshmen at Yale, has written an essay that will be published in the Marin Independent Journal. Will writes:

“There is an undeniable pressure to succeed academically that comes with living here…daunting expectations for me, exacerbated by the fact that I am legally blind…I found that my answer is and always was art.

I love being on stage and interacting with an audience. The obstacles that come with the visual impairment I have melt away when I have a microphone in my hand…Performing is where I test my boundaries without worrying about my physical limitations. When I create without reservation, when I experiment without apology, I learn about who I am, what I can do, and I feel truly free.

Every student in Marin should have equal access to the arts.”

We need to listen to our youth, hear their stories, and work with them to reimagine an education that includes ample opportunity to learn in and through the arts.

Youth in Arts teen a capella troupe ‘Til Dawn performs. Photo by Curtis Myers.

We have all seen the impact of high schoolers from Parkland, Florida, who credit their theatre teacher with helping them build the confidence and techniques they needed to be heard on a national stage. As a society, we all grow, we all flourish when we can share who we are and learn from each other. Each and every student, of every background and every ability, needs access to high quality experiences in the arts.

Listen to the Youth. Change the Story. Change our Future.