#artssowhite - How can arts education help build equity in the arts?

Posted by Matt D'Arrigo, Feb 04, 2016 0 comments

Oscar season is upon us and rather than debating who will win Best Picture or Best Actor/Actress, the debate has been how “white” the Oscars are.  #oscarssowhite went viral and African American actors began to boycott. As a result, the Academy (which is 94% white) responded by making the bold move to change their composition to reflect more diversity.

The Oscar issue is reflective of a much larger issue across all sectors of the arts; lack of diversity. I just returned from the annual meeting of American’s for the Arts and all of their advisory councils. This issue of diversity and equity was front-and-center over the three-day meeting, as it has become a top priority for AFTA. On the Arts Education Advisory Council, on which I sit, we have worked to increase its diversity in a number of ways over the past years focusing on the gender balance, age and experience spread, and diversity of community with respect to urban and rural issues. However, as I looked around the room, the issue was apparent: race. And looking around the larger room with all the councils and the board gathered together, the issue was very similar. The first step is admitting you have a problem. The good news is that concrete steps are being taken by AFTA to begin reflecting the changing demographics of America and to help lead necessary change across the country.

We attended an enlightening talk by USC professor Manuel Pastor that outlined the dramatic demographic shift happening in America. His work and new book outline the issue (and opportunities) in great detail, but the bottom line is that the ethnicity, age, and income gap in America is growing wider and wider with no change in the forecast.

It’s no surprise that the Latino population is exploding, followed by increases in Asian/Pacific Islander. African American has stayed steady, while “Non-Hispanic Whites” numbers have decreased dramatically. What was surprising is that the increase in Latinos is not from immigration, but rather from newborns of settled Latino immigrants. Another surprising fact: the median age of Non-Hispanic Whites is 42 and the median age of Latino’s is 27 (Pacific Islander 35, African Americans 32). So there’s an emerging generation gap that’s also feeding into the growing income inequality gap between these groups. In 2013 California’s Annual Adjusted Gross Income for the top 1% was $1.6 million while the Middle Fifth is just $37,000.

Image credit: Interaction Institute for Social Change.Why does all this matter for the equity in the arts? Well, it all comes down two letters: “F-U” – Funding the Underserved, or lack there of. The emerging artists, audiences, and arts leaders of tomorrow do not reflect the majority of individuals who fund and lead the arts today – who, to be quite frank, are primarily wealthier white individuals (although arts leaders are not necessarily wealthy). I resemble that remark. Funding and power are being filtered through their lenses of the arts, leaving many of the underserved populations without access and exposure to arts opportunities that reflect their cultural heritage. Because there are finite funding dollars available, some hard choices will need to be made. Some will have to sacrifice so that others may gain. A recent article in The Atlantic, "Who Should Fund the Arts in America?" goes in depth on the issue at hand.

By the way, I would also argue that equity is not just a demographic issue but a geographic one as well. As I’ve traveled to speak in rural communities around the country I would say there is an even greater inequity in these communities. At least in urban and metropolitan areas, there are tons of arts resources around to access. Not so in rural America. There are literally no arts resources for hundreds of miles. A majority of America is made up of rural communities.

There’s no silver bullet to solve this extremely complex issue but I believe we can start through arts education. As I sat through professor Pastor’s presentation, one thing became clear to me: Low(er)-income Latino youth and young adults are the emerging demographic trend in America. So we must start there.

By providing greater arts access and exposure for underserved youth in culturally competent ways, we begin to develop the pipeline of artists, audiences, arts leaders and funders the country needs. We need to provide as many access points and creative pathways for underserved youth to engage in the arts as possible - both inside and outside the classroom. We took a big step this past winter when the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) passed in which the arts were identified as a core subject, a monumental win in arts education that didn’t get a lot of exposure outside our field. But it will have tremendous impact on getting more arts and arts funding into school environments in underserved communities, weather through arts integrations, straight arts education, or STEAM.

I am biased, but I believe community-based youth arts programs that focus on Creative Youth Development are uniquely positioned to address this challenge and can lead this change. Organizations like A Reason To Survive (ARTS), Say Si, Dreamyard Project, A Step Beyond, and many more are located in the center of underserved communities that reflect the emerging demographics. We work in a social change framework, using the arts and self-expression to give youth a voice. We achieve youth development goals to prepare them for a successful life by building skills needed in the 21st century such as resilience, teamwork, creative problem solving, workforce development, and civic engagement. These skills will translate into higher earning potential (future arts funders) and leadership positions (future arts leaders). We’re also building artistic skills and excellence to nurture the next generation of great artists, as well as promoting a wide appreciation of the arts, turning our students into avid audiences.

The numbers and data don’t lie. We must rethink and reconstruct arts programming, funding, and power structure to support a younger, more culturally diverse America that is emerging. Through arts education we can change the hash-tag from #artsowhite to #artssodiverse.


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