Empowering and Inspiring Student Voices
For many students, the words “arts advocacy” make us feel small. Upon hearing that phrase three years ago, it sounded like something I was not old enough to know about. How can my voice matter in changing things so far above my power as a teenager? In school, we are taught to get the best education possible to become someone who can affect change, but often we aren’t told that, as kids, our opinions matter. When policy makers shape decisions about arts education, they are making decisions about us, the students. Yet for some reason, it is the students who feel as though they are out of place in a Senator’s office.
As a senior in high school, I will be attending my third National Arts Advocacy Day (AAD) this year. My relationship doing work for arts advocacy happened by accident. I heard about the Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) Democracyworks Essay Contest my sophomore year, where the winner would travel to Washington, D.C. for the 2015 AAD. I entered because the prompt coincided with a project for English class, and I love the arts; by some incredible chance, I won. It was pretty inconvenient for me to go to AAD that year. I had to miss two days of school and leave mid-performance during our high school Thespian Troupe’s final performance of Once on This Island. But when I arrived, the hassle instantly became more than worth it.
Not only was I welcomed by dozens of friendly new faces and flooded with staggering facts and figures; I felt like for the first time in my life, my voice was needed. People from different backgrounds all over the country wanted to talk to me. They valued my perspectives and opinions for being exactly who I was—a teenager. Since then, I’ve gone on to travel across the country representing EdTA and the International Thespian Society as an International Thespian Officer, teaching workshops on student leadership and arts advocacy. The two years that I’ve attended AAD brought new experiences and opportunities to learn about advocacy on the national level and has given me the skills to take it back to my state and school. I have stayed connected with fellow advocates from across the country, promoted the experience to my peers, and helped college students I know learn how to apply for and obtain grants to come to AAD (which I plan to do this upcoming year as a freshman).
This March, I am excited to take the advocacy language and statistics I’ve gathered at AAD in the past and learn how to adapt them to our evolving political climate. The experiences that I have had as an arts advocate have taught me so much about what advocacy is, what the arts mean to students, and the complex process you must go through to make a real impact. Attendees are so kind and generous to the students they see at AAD; but, of the hundreds of advocates present, usually only a handful are high schoolers. The message I’ve received loud and clear from my experience is that in order to be successful advocates, we must recognize the power of the student voice. When Congress people and staff meet with students at this event, they are surprised. They don’t expect that students will understand what we are advocating for and are willing to go all the way to our nation’s capital to fight for it.
What I’ve learned from AAD is not just about the arts. Advocacy on all levels, particularly the national one, promotes the importance of public speaking and networking. This opportunity needs to be promoted not just to adults and teachers, but to students whose interests should range outside of the arts to areas like speech, debate, journalism, and law. Programs like Theatre in our Schools Month are sparking the fire to help students take the initiative themselves to advocate and spread the arts education message they support. In the future, I hope to see more students participate in not just National Arts Advocacy Day, but arts advocacy events in their communities and states. The stigma many young people feel—that their voice doesn’t matter—needs to be reversed, and it can start here. Instead of letting words like “arts advocacy” make us feel small, we must transform them to empower and inspire. The arts teach students to be bold and brave, and advocacy gives them a channel to use their voice. Promoting access in this way will hopefully invite all students—from all backgrounds and skillsets—to speak up, speak loudly, and make their message heard.