The Privilege of Voice
This post is part of our “Broadening and Diversifying the Leadership Pipeline” blog salon for National Arts in Education Week 2018.
In Where We Stand: Class Matters, bell hooks writes, “We live in a society where the poor have no public voice.” It is a privilege to have a voice in the world, and I see how this disparity trickles down to our youth each year when reading applications for the MOCA Teen Program. Applicants from affluent backgrounds often present a written voice that is more developed than applicants from marginalized communities. How do we invest in the empowerment of critical and creative voices without making the privilege of voice a barrier to our field?
The MOCA Teen Program, which I co-manage, is an academic yearlong paid internship for 18 students that supports teens on a journey of self-discovery through learning about art, the museum, and the world. In the process of selecting candidates, we look for individual voices that can become part of a diverse and connected community.
The study Room to Rise: The Lasting Impact of Intensive Teen Programs in Art Museums, in which MOCA was a core participant, emphasizes the need for creating a diverse group of interns to maximize the learning outcomes. We learn from those who are different than ourselves. Therefore, we are also seeking students who represent diverse identities, geographic locations, size and type of schools, and cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. This diversification supports our program and extends outward to the field: teen programs, such as MOCA’s, form pathways to careers in the arts. According to Room to Rise, 79% of program alumni go on to hold professional positions in the arts.
The MOCA Teen Program application asks questions about a student’s school, related experience, and any challenges to accessing the arts, as well as three essay questions originally taken from college applications.
Our current process for narrowing down our 80+ applications is to first read the essay questions and then look at students’ demographical information. By reading the essays blind we aim to prevent biases from influencing our evaluation of the writing content. We read for critical thinking, self-awareness, enthusiasm about art, and individual voice—a budding curiosity about the world and a growing capacity for empathy. After my teaching partner and I agree on the strongest essays, we select around 20 applicants that represent a diversity of perspectives and experiences to be interviewed.
Where this process falls short:
Last year, seven of most impressive application essays were from female students who attended expensive, progressive private schools. While the perspectives of the voices differed, their backgrounds were similar. These students came from educational settings that empower them to be critical of the world and develop their voice. Perhaps this is why we found their applications to be so strong.
Ideally, critical and creative thinking and the arts are included in every school’s curriculum and cultivated by families outside of school. This, unfortunately, is not the case and we must face the fact that the voice we seek to find in our teen program applicants is not equally cultivated in students.
Art and creative thinking are not a priority in a school that is working to support students who are not reading at their grade level. Nor are they a priority in a working-class immigrant family that worries about their safety in this country. Alternatively, both in school and at home, students from privileged backgrounds are pushed to be critical and creative and more likely to be encouraged to pursue careers in the arts.
Students who come from privilege are empowered to have a voice from a young age. Students with fewer resources are not, and face a disadvantage before even applying for the MOCA Teen Program. The unequal empowerment of student voices illuminates a systematic barrier for youth to be prepared and competitive candidates for art and leadership pipeline opportunities.
Once students are accepted into our program, they are given equal access to experiences and knowledge within the program to support their development as critically conscious and contributing citizens with expanded career horizons in the arts. We strive for equity of voice in the program through inclusive activities and individual feedback. Sometimes we ask students to either hold more space for quieter students by speaking less, or to practice and find their voice by speaking more. Whether a student is learning to talk more or less in the program, they are learning that they have a voice—and that they can use that voice to promote and enact a more critical and creative society.
While the MOCA Teen Program aims to empower the voices of our program participants, we may be perpetuating cycles of privilege if our selection process gravitates towards privileged applicants. We must put more resources and thought into equitable recruitment and application processes to creative pathways if we are to overcome this barrier to diversity in our field.
To my fellow teen programmers:
Please shed some light! How are you addressing the privilege of voice? What mechanisms do you have in place to ensure an inclusive and equitable selection process?
 MOCA Teen Program Application Essay Questions:
- Select an artwork that has influenced the way you view the world and the way you view yourself. Discuss the work and its effect on you.
- Tell us about a conversation you had that changed your perspective.
- If you had to formulate the perfect application question for this program, what would it be, and how would you answer it?