April 9, 2021
Before becoming an arts administrator working in government philanthropy, when asked how I made the decision to pursue a career in the arts, I would say I was lucky. Lucky to have attended a public K-5 elementary school that in the 90’s transformed its mission and curriculum to become a performing arts magnet school in a predominately Black community. By chance through the transformation, the school increased the level of grade ascension and I was lucky enough to stay there through middle school. That school taught me the origins and theory of the music that I sang in church on Sundays and the music I danced with my family to at summer cookouts, alongside Brahms, Mozart, and Gregorian chants. I would talk about how that experience eventually led me to become accepted to an arts magnet high school where the arts were equally academically rigorous. I was lucky enough to have had the foundation of music theory in elementary and middle school to excel in the program. I would speak nostalgically about the teachers and administrators who supported my passions, encouraged my pursuits, and ultimately inspired me to follow in their footsteps. By chance, it all worked out for me. I did not have to leave my immediate community in order to find high quality arts educators, after school programs, and culturally relevant arts experiences that fostered opportunities, increased my network, and enhanced my education.
In my story, by luck and chance, my educational experience prepared me for my career. Well, chance encounters and luck are things made for romantic comedies, like finding a shiny dime on your daily walk, or your favorite song coming on a music streaming app at the perfect time. Access to arts education and life affirming arts experiences in public schools should not be left to luck and chance encounters.
There is inequity in luck and chance. In my freshman year of high school, it was extremely clear that my series of luck translated to an uneven playing field; not because of personal talent, but their lack of access to sequential, grade-weighted, fully-integrated arts education in elementary and middle school, that which prepares a student to enter an arts rich high school environment. The research shows time and time again, when the arts are a basic part of education, school dropout rates decrease, grade point averages increase, standardized test scores increase, and there are intrinsic social and emotional benefits. While these outcomes are positive, by only looking to the arts through the lens of indicators of success in other subjects and social outcomes, we value what the arts can do for us, but we devalue its importance as a standalone subject like math and science.
Today, we expect schools to prepare children with a foundation of skills and knowledge that propels them toward the path they desire to travel. That should include the arts as a standard so that all children can benefit from the intrinsic value of an arts education but also, have the tools to succeed if they choose to pursue a career in the arts similar to other subjects.
Now, my story about why I decided to choose a career in the arts goes something like this:
I became an arts administrator because I choose to break the cycle of inequity that plagues our public schools where some children are prepared for anything and some children are marginally prepared for some things. Because access to culturally responsive arts education should not be left to luck, chance, space in the day, a “special”, or whether a school district has leadership that cares about the arts. I wanted to recreate the arts experience that I had in early education for all students. Because someone, somewhere made a decision to invest time, dollars, and resources into a school district in a predominately Black community to ensure the arts were a basic part of education, I was afforded advantages that created further inequity within an already marginalized community. I want to break that cycle.