#WeAllDeserveArts: Erika Hawthorne – Engagement Specialist, Arts Education Partnership

February 26, 2021

The arts have been a constant throughout my life, interwoven with my family, community, education and professional experiences. I’ve come to value the arts as a medium for self-expression, connecting to others, creating vibrant communities and exploring new perspectives. My most transformative arts experiences were rooted in community-building and understanding myself through a broader world lens. This is why, to me, a quality arts education includes diverse representation of cultures and tools to challenge ethnocentrism when engaging with content from cultures different than our own.

Arts in my Family and Spiritual Community

My early exposure to the arts started with my family. Throughout my childhood, on any given day the dining room table may have had a tambourine, triangle, marimba or cymbals set on it, along with stacks of drum cases from my dad unpacking or getting ready for his next gig. My mom and I did all sorts of crafts together, sometimes spreading out to create charcoal drawings on the living room floor or dancing around singing our favorite 90’s R&B hits. My uncle (who is more like an older brother), nurtured his artistic abilities through drawing, playing trombone, learning keyboard and making beats on his computer. I remember rap battles in our basement with his friends and them producing music in his bedroom. I have more poems than I can count from my Nana (grandmother) and remember the sounds of her harmonica and piano from when I came to visit. My maternal grandmother and I took trips to the Japanese garden to create nature drawings by the pond, and we also attended various local arts events. Even my grandfather played the guitar, although he was more private with his art form. Given that my parents had me as teenagers, I spent a lot of time with my maternal grandparents – we alternated from living with them to living on our own as our financial situation fluctuated. Even with the various hurdles my parents faced, my mom made sure I had access to quality arts experiences through my family, community and school. 

My spiritual community felt like extended family, and the arts were built into the fabric of how we engaged. I grew up in the Baha’i faith and remember frequent drum circles, theatrical recitals and various cultural events featuring performances from members of our broader community, including Hoop Dances and Indigenous Northern Plains flute performances from Kevin Locke, folktale reenactments rooted in West African and Caribbean culture like Anansi and the Moss-Covered Rock, traditional Myanmar and Serbian folk dancers, along with countless other cultural experiences. Community arts nights were a constant in my upbringing, and my closest mentors in the Baha’i community were also local leaders in the arts education field. Pairing these arts experiences with spiritual teachings rooted in the oneness of humanity helped me develop a reverence for the arts. 

Arts in Community-Based Programs

My family recognized my passion for the arts at a young age and placed me in various programs outside of school to supplement my learning. I enrolled in all sorts of programs exploring dance, poetry, visual and media arts, including a student-led newscasting program in middle school.

Where I thrived the most was in a community-based summer arts program hosted by the Rockford Area Arts Council (RAAC). The art classes were all about exploration, creativity and building community. Perfection was never the goal.  I was surrounded by a diverse group of kids, including many that looked like me, and teaching artists I could relate to. As a biracial black kid raised in a mostly white family, being around peers and mentors who looked like me was important for developing my identity and self-worth.  

I also participated in RAAC’s artist apprentice program, ArtsPlace, where I spent the summer learning from professional artists from our community, strengthening my technique and finding my artistic voice. The apprentices and teaching artists came from diverse backgrounds, and we had opportunities to share our unique experiences and perspectives through our work. We sold our art at the local city market and a culminating public showcase, and we kept most earnings. In this setting, the arts were valued, and I was valued as an artist.

Working under Maya Simmons in the painting program, I learned self-discipline and patience and gained new perspective on what it means to be an artist. I remember being in complete awe of her work; the hyperrealism in her oil paintings and charcoal drawings seemed impossible to create compared to my flat, abstract approach to figures. I specifically admired her technique for mastering the undertones of brown skin and the detail she put in to capturing Black hair styles. I am still grateful to have had her and other Black artist role models through my experiences at RAAC, something I came to learn is rare for some learners. The growth in technique I achieved in one summer under her guidance taught me that art wasn’t about talent; it was about learning. Learning to be disciplined, to see beyond my own perception, to be patient and to trust the process. 

Arts in my Creative and Performing Arts High School

After that summer, I entered a creative and performing arts (CAPA) high school where I participated in dance and visual arts courses every day of the week. The arts content was prioritized as a core subject, which was different than my elementary and middle school experiences where the arts were treated as “specials,” rotating throughout the week. In visual arts I had freedom to develop my style through painting, drawing and mixed media projects while improving my technique and art history knowledge. In dance, we were pushed physically and mentally to learn choreography and create some pieces of our own using new techniques and dance styles. Conveying stories and emotions through my body was empowering. Learning all the ins and outs of designing and implementing a showcase (lighting, staging, costumes, ticketing, etc.) exposed me to the management side of the arts. Dance taught me grit, hard work and humility while embracing the awkwardness of training my body to master new movements. In this program, the arts were a core and equal part of my learning experience.

A Career in the Arts

As I now sit in a national arts education organization, I work to strategically support arts and education leaders across the country. Together, we work to achieve equitable access to an excellent arts education for all learners, especially those that have been historically marginalized. I am pulling from my various experiences and taking stock of what I can do to support systems change so that other kids like me have access to quality arts education as a given and not a privilege. While arts are embedded in families and communities, the experiences students have in schools should also include and value the arts.

For me, quality arts education is rooted in culture and helps students feel seen as full people through the content validated in the curriculum and interpersonal interactions in the learning environment. Quality arts education challenges learners to think in new creative ways, validates arts as a core subject and benefits students in other areas to achieve a well-rounded education. Equally important, arts education must be supported by a diverse and equitable workforce where kids from all backgrounds can see viable career paths in the arts if they wish to pursue one.

The arts are personal, educational, professional and systemic priorities.

One thing I’ve learned about systems is that they are made up of individual people that either uphold that system or challenge and help that system to do better. While we exist at various levels within the arts education ecosystem, we can all play a role in identifying and removing barriers to create a national community where all learners are supported in achieving their arts education goals. Because we all deserve arts.

Erika Hawthorne is the Engagement Specialist for the Arts Education Partnership, a national network of over 100 partner organizations administered by the Education Commission of the States and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and U.S. Department of Education since 1995. At AEP, Erika focuses on cultivating relationships with arts and education leaders to build leadership capacity and knowledge and work toward systems change to ensure all learners have access to a quality arts education. She also serves on the board of the Arts Administrators of Color Network. Erika holds an MA in Arts Management and Graduate Certificate in Nonprofit Management from American University and a BA in Communication and Culture with a minor in Psychology from Howard University. Erika can be reached at ehawthorne@ecs.org.

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