Arts Education Advocates Must Be AT the Table Before We End Up ON It

Posted by Erin Gough, Apr 23, 2013 0 comments

Erin Gough Erin Gough

It has been an exciting few weeks for arts and arts education professionals and advocates in the nation’s capital.

After a week of activities hosted by the Arts Education Partnership, Kennedy Center Alliance for Arts Education Network, Emerging Arts Leaders at American University and Americans for the Arts’ State Arts Action Network, training for Arts Advocacy Day began on April 8 and we were off to the races to meet with our congressmen and women all day on April 9.

Quite honestly, by the time I headed home, I expected to be totally wiped out—overloaded with information and overwhelmed by the situation at hand. Instead, it felt like the more time I was able to spend with such passionate people, the more energized and inspired I became.

People do not work with students, schools, community organizations, or become advocates because they are passive. They do it because they see a need to ensure arts opportunities for all of America’s students, but they know that the annual Arts Advocacy Day activities are only a small part of the work that needs to be done.

Coming down to Washington to learn about and discuss federal issues is a change of pace for me, and for most of us who work at the state and local levels.

It is absolutely important to learn about, and try to influence, federal education issues that impact the arts such as the reauthorization status of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (Delayed. Again. Still.), Race to the Top requirements (which require teacher effectiveness evaluations for all subjects, including the arts), and No Child Left Behind waivers (which allow for more flexibility at the state level to pursue changes in graduation requirements and assessments).

These issues are the hot topics in Washington, and are important, but they are implemented in our states, and in our districts. It is important to share the Arts Advocacy Day asks with your congressmen and women; but it is imperative that you remain active in your home district and state throughout the year as well.

The idea that all politics is local is more relevant now than ever. In fact, lately, inaction at the federal level has created a necessity for action at the state and local levels.

It is great to share the policy asks with the data and research that Americans for the Arts provides for advocates (it really is—view this year's Congressional Handbook), but what they really need to hear are the stories about how these policies and the arts are impacting students and families in their home districts.

Earlier on ARTSblog, Charles Jensen wrote an excellent post about how the messaging and work of your own organizations is also an advocacy message. This is absolutely true.

Those who work in education, however, don’t often have such a naturally existing vehicle for messaging. Arts teachers in public schools don’t have a marketing budget. Where other arts organizations may structure their programming around what will bring in audiences and grow a reputation, arts educators work within the constraints of policy decisions that are made by individuals for whom the arts may not be a priority, or even on their radar.

Without collective and strategic action, arts education can be swept under the rug by policymakers in discussions about budgets and academic requirements. As many proclaimed throughout the week, “Arts education advocates must be AT the table before we end up ON it.”

For so long, the work of arts and arts education advocacy was the work of arts organizations. We had siloed ourselves off from the actual decision makers and spent our energy “preaching to the choir,” and then wondered what happened when new policies are enacted that didn’t benefit the arts. We often speak amongst ourselves talking about the benefits of arts education, but only share them with “others” when we’re playing defense.

In Pennsylvania, our Arts Education Network is housed and staffed by the Education Policy and Leadership Center. Because of this, the organizations and individuals who helped develop our policy inventory and policy agenda were those who knew, understood, and influenced how education policy was created and enacted. Their institutional knowledge helped to include arts education issues in the discussions that policymakers were already having, and has helped to grow an nontraditional network of support.

Yo-Yo Ma alluded to this in his Nancy Hanks Lecture on April 8 at the Kennedy Center. He spoke about how, at age 7, he was transfixed when Danny Kaye came down to the eye level to “meet at the crucial edge that divides adult and child.” Ma said he has continued to try to internalize that gesture and that attitude, to meet people at the edge that divides one person from another. (Read/see more on Yo-Yo Ma’s inspiring lecture from another ARTSblog post).

The idea that the arts can bridge divides is nothing new for arts educators. We’ve always known that the arts enhances understanding in all subjects—but now we need to apply it to our own work, to create and enhance relationship with crucial decision makers to better influence education policy at all levels, and at all times.

On a lighter note, arts advocates should be encouraged. We must be doing something right as we are now getting credit for the advocacy efforts of others.

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