A Moral Imperative

Posted by Ms. Erika Atkins, Matthew Greene, Mar 19, 2019

We’ve had the great fortune of working with multiple programs that have helped shaped the lives of young people through arts education. It’s incredibly fulfilling to see impact happening at that moment ... but what about after? Those of us who work with underserved communities know how critical our work is in leveling the playing field, and are so proud when we see our students finishing school and utilizing those skills to move on to the next phase of their lives.

But what about those who can’t make that leap quite as easily? They have all the lessons and skills from what we’ve taught them through the magic of an arts education; they should be able to figure it out, right? Not always. Think back to when you were in college or starting off in the real world. While some of us may have had the social-emotional skills to immediately jump into adulthood without missing a step, many of us needed the support and guidance of our families or other trusted and more experienced adults to push through the adjustments. This is an experience any young person could struggle with, regardless of what resources are available to them.

Additionally, even if a student has the social-emotional skills to navigate the college experience, they may be first in their families to go to college, and may be looking outside of that unit for additional support. While schools often have staff dedicated to helping students figure out their next steps, they may be overwhelmed or not have kind of trusting relationships with individual students that are naturally built with instructors through after-school programs. Many of us organically fill that role for alumni of our program—if they reach out for help. But what would happen if we committed to that structure? What happens when arts education programs consider it a moral imperative to support our alumni in the transition from childhood to adulthood?

Imagine a scenario where a young person stepping into their after-school theatre workshop is not only rehearsing for an end-of-year performance, but is knowingly and intentionally preparing for their future. Imagine an ensemble of young artists who understand that the collaborative spirit and network of support they experience in the rehearsal room will be available to them through their academic and professional journeys to come. Imagine how it would feel for that student to know that the stage where the story of their life will play out is bigger and grander than they ever could have imagined.

This is precisely what Opening Act is working to create with its Act 2 College and Career Readiness program. The program seeks to bring together successful theatre practice, social-emotional development, and community building through ensemble to enrich the experiences of our students navigating the college and career access space. All of this is done not simply to get students to matriculate in college or graduate with a profitable career, but to develop the skills that will allow them to ideate a positive future and challenge the systems that would attempt to hold them back. Central to this mission is an ongoing investment in program alumni, providing them with ongoing support, programming, and opportunities to teach and lead their peers.

We all know implicitly that arts education is a firm foundation on which our students can construct whatever life they’ve dreamed up. We know that the programs we work with provide transferable skills that will set students up to succeed in a variety of fields. We know that the workshop space lends itself to building relationships that can strengthen and empower students throughout their lives. But knowing these things isn’t enough; we have a moral imperative to put them into practice, to empower students and educators alike to connect the joy of creative expression to the work of forging a pathway into the “real world.” Artistic programs may open the door for students to learn, grow, and dream; but it is our responsibility to walk with them through that door and set them up for success as they progress.

As arts educators, we need to continually ask ourselves the question: what can I do to support my students’ development at every phase of life? Otherwise, we run the risk of letting the curtain fall before our students have an opportunity to shine into adulthood.