Commentary on Emerging ideas for a call to action
On the National Summit of Creative Youth Development - Strategic Priority 5: Facilitating Social Change and Social Justice
“Make young people’s work visible to, and their ideas heard by, wide audiences.”
The social reformer Jose Antonio Abreu often quotes the words of Mother Theresa—“the most miserable thing about poverty is not the lack of bread or roof, but the feeling of being no one.” The creative arts provide some of the best tools help bring up a new generation that feels more joyful and confident about their chances for success. And while we have done a great work already in the field, it is not always enough. Schools still suffer from budget cuts in the arts and after-school programming for youth does not yet include all those who cannot afford participating in a theatre school or a youth choir. Unfortunately, the arts are still a luxury in many communities, yet there is a great and growing hope in the fact that so many people are already committed to finding avenues to serving those with the greatest needs and most limited resources. Many examples abound, a quick look into the National Arts Guild non-profits membership and the US Sistema-inspired programs should give us a picture of the scope.
Upon reading the proposed National Summit Creative Youth Development policy agenda, I am hopeful in that the core of the social justice discussion today is centered in part on the ideal of student visibility and recognition. When I worked as part of a collective impact initiative to bring free music education to underserved children in Oklahoma City, I saw how important it was to provide opportunities for students to share their accomplishments with others. Open-rehearsals and concerts in churches, conferences, and universities provided for a space where families could attest to their student’s progress and feel proud about them. Our students felt acknowledged for their hard work and were encouraged to continue to strive for success. Newspaper articles and television reports highlighted many of their accomplishments. This public recognition is important for the sustainability of youth development programs overall yet imperative for the future of many a youngster in poverty who might feel disenfranchised from the potential of a life of value and contribution.
What can we do to make young people’s work visible to, and their ideas heard by, wide audiences? Here are a few ideas:
Programs need champions that will advocate strongly for their students. These individuals of influence can come from within and beyond the arts sector. But in order for them to participate effectively they must fully understand (and articulate) the nature and scope of the social change a program aspires to create.
Consider the impact of scale. When like-minded programs and initiatives come together as larger ensembles or collaborative productions their audiences grow and their messages of change can magnify and garner the attention of entities who might not have noticed their individual efforts.
The media can be a great ally to help promote young people’s accomplishments. Program leaders must always keep in mind that these opportunities can be scarce and hence must thoroughly prepare students to showcase their best possible and most inspiring work. Their pursuit of excellence will encourage the public’s ample support.
A student’s work can become socially relevant when shared with an empathic purpose. Young people can reap enormous benefits from being mentors to others, performing for people who might not have access to the arts experience, or inspiring others to also envision their life as purveyors of beauty.
In closing, the movement for social justice through the creative arts is alive and well. There are still many challenges to solve but the provisions enumerated in the “Strategic Priority 5: Facilitating Social Change and Social Justice” will be instrumental to helping hundreds of leaders, advocates, and students in the arts improve the mechanisms that will allow us to better serve our communities. Artistic experiences can be life-changing for those who have the opportunity to participate in them. Let us continue making sure that these truly become a patrimony of society.