Ms. Barb Whitney
How Tools from Americans for the Arts Aided Arts Education Advocacy Efforts in My Community
Ms. Barb Whitney
I will be forever grateful to Americans for the Arts (AFTA) for the timely research and training they provided for our region’s arts education advocacy efforts in the spring of 2013. Americans for the Arts’ Narric Rome reached out to the Arts Council of Greater Lansing after hearing headlines regarding the Lansing School District’s decision to disproportionately eliminate arts, music, physical education, and media teachers. As we were later to discover, news had quickly traveled to multiple national conferences, delivering fear of similar situations to follow in communities across the country.
As the Program Manager for the Arts Council at that time, I worked closely with Arts Council staff, arts organizations, and artists in the greater Lansing region. As an arts administrator with a background in arts education and a teaching artist myself, I had directly witnessed the benefits of exposure to the arts for youth. I was personally devastated by the decision and professionally willing to garner support for an arts advocacy campaign.
Narric’s call was welcomed by the Arts Council of Greater Lansing’s Executive Director at that time, Leslie Donaldson. At the time of the coverage, the Arts Council was unaware of the decision. In our ensuing research and advocacy efforts, we found many factors were at play. We sought out the truth behind the headlines and made stronger connections within the arts and cultural community and beyond. We were supported through it all by our national partners at AFTA.
Although Leslie and I were already experts in the arts, we recognized our own need to self-educate regarding a potential course of action in this relatively unprecedented situation. In June 2013, supported by a professional development grant through the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, Leslie and I attended the Americans for the Arts Conference in Pittsburgh. I was delighted to learn, network, and join in fellowship with other like-minded arts professionals there. I eagerly attended the convention sessions regarding arts education. Through these sessions, I had the good fortune of meeting, and scheduling an arts advocacy consultation, with Kristen Engebretsen and Narric Rome.
I simply cannot say enough about the difference it made for our work that Kristen and Narric took the time to meet with Leslie Donaldson and me. Kristen and Narric exemplify professionalism and serve as engaging, thoughtful, and intelligent representatives for Americans for the Arts. They provided resources to us directly. They advised us in determining a course of action and considering next steps. As a result of that meeting, Leslie and I were encouraged, informed, and inspired to take action.
Upon returning to Lansing, Leslie and I began engaging stakeholders in discussions surrounding the vital importance of the arts to school communities and student achievement. According to Kristen and Narric’s suggestions, we created a survey of the field, established long and short term goals, and defined roles of those providing arts education, including: Certified Arts Educators, Community Arts Educators, and Certified Non-Arts Educators. In the months that followed, Leslie announced her departure to become Director for Interlochen College of Creative Arts. In the interim and with Arts Council staff, I convened representatives from Lansing School District, leaders in the community and arts advocates at the NAMM Music Forum. Throughout this work, we regularly referenced and shared the resources they provided, including the Arts Education Field Guide. We were empowered by the understanding of how to build more effective relationships within schools, the community, and statewide.
While we do not yet have the data regarding student test scores, attendance, or retention after the adoption of Innovative Arts and Fitness, the Arts Council has not been idle over the past year and a half. The Arts Council, under new leadership (Deborah E. Mikula, Executive Director), continued leading the region toward equitable arts education for all students. In 2014 the Young Creatives Program created awareness of local community arts agencies’ work and financial support for youth attendance at arts and cultural opportunities. The Arts Council provided support to the Lansing School District and the Innovative Arts and Fitness team directly through regular meetings.
Seeking to share our story in Lansing and provide arts education advocacy resources to other communities, I presented at Americans for the Arts' 2014 Arts Education Preconference. I shared, along with Ms. Mikula and Dr. Mitchell Robinson (Michigan State University), the challenges and opportunities regarding arts education in Lansing, MI. The presentation and our attendance at the Preconference legitimized our local arts advocacy work. It allowed me to present the Field Guide and other regularly-utilized tools in our work building more effective relationships. I am tremendously thankful to Americans for the Arts for a forum to share, learn, and grow, and for supporting my attendance through an Arts Education Preconference scholarship last year.
For those faced with adversity in their own communities, I would suggest taking advantage of the valuable resources provided by Americans for the Arts, such as the new Encourage Creativity suite of tools. I would urge arts education advocates to read the Field Guide from cover to cover. For communities in need, I would suggest contacting Americans for the Arts directly. They can help navigate the plethora of resources, research and reports available. These tools gave the Arts Council of Greater Lansing an understanding of the important ecosystem to consider when pursuing arts education advocacy. Finally, I would suggest directly engaging stakeholders as soon as possible. Share data, but also share student-based arts education successes through stories, performances, art exhibits, and more.
Americans for the Arts offers valuable opportunities for arts professionals from across the country to engage with one another. As arts administrators, we gain the opportunity to share and to stay abreast of current figures, trends, and tactics. During my tenure at the Arts Council, we regularly utilized the knowledge, resources, and connections made through AFTA to support arts education in our region. It is my hope that through this support the Arts Council will continue to engage additional stakeholders such as parents, principals, businesses, and statewide officials to advocate for the benefits of the arts for students. I believe it is this work that will eventually lead to access for all students to regular, sequential, curriculum-based instruction by certified arts specialists.
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of a miniseries about the suite of tools called Encourage Creativity. Here the director and one of the actors reflect on their experience creating these videos.