Of Safe Havens and Wide Awakeness: Arts Educators as Agents of Transformation

This is the second year that I have taught a freshman course at Berklee College of Music about Neurodiversity. Over the 15-week semester, we examine topics and issues in neurodiversity and their relationship to the arts. We start by talking about the origin of the term “neurodiversity,” and we go on to consider issues of language, power, and representation as they relate to individuals with disabilities. We work with scholarly writings in disability studies and the arts to better understand and question the rhetorical frames at play in various cultural contexts when it comes to artists with disabilities. Every time I teach this course, I am struck by the openness with which these freshmen—brand new to Berklee, just getting to know each other, only recently living on their own—share their personal experiences and challenges. The respect and kindness that they show their classmates helps us all to create a safe space for learning and vulnerability for every student.

Arts Better the Lives of Everyone

At the Berklee Institute for Arts Education and Special Needs, we believe that the arts better the lives of everyone. This is something other countries have figured out, but we still need to learn it here. We still need to learn to welcome all—including people with disabilities—into spaces where performances and exhibits take place. We still need to learn to broaden our understanding of who can be an artist, and what an artist looks like. We still need to learn how to open up our classrooms to all students and break down barriers to arts learning so that arts education, artistic expression, and artistic engagement can be a powerful, meaningful, and significant part of everyone’s life.

Arts Education becomes Arts Advocacy

I was excited to enter Randolph High School back in 1980, mostly because of its thriving music program. I couldn’t wait to sing in the different choruses, and to audition for the competitive show choir. Yet when I arrived at school, I learned that, as a result of Proposition 2 ½, music had been cut from the high school curriculum—along with other reductions to busing, foreign languages, sports, and library staff. I was devastated. My arts education came to a sudden end, but my education as an arts advocate was just beginning. Along with other students and parents, I wrote letters and attended meetings, imploring administrators not to abandon the music program. And our efforts began to pay off.

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