#WeAllDeserveArts: Mary Dell’Erba – Senior Project Manager, Arts Education Partnership

June 18, 2021

My earliest memory in arts education unfolded when I was four years old, watching one of my older siblings perform in a school production of the Wizard of Oz. It isn’t just the opening night performance that has stuck with me all these years, but the whole experience: watching my siblings rehearse the songs and dances and wanting to be a part of the action, hearing my dad create sets that transformed the stage into the Land of Oz, and feeling the fabric scraps of the costumes my mom sewed for the performers. It was magical, and because I saw my whole family engaged in the process, it also felt like home.

When we got home after the first show, I was inspired to deliver an encore performance, complete with singing and spinning on our wood floor. Almost immediately, I slipped, fell on my face, and ended up in the emergency room for stitches.

This memory is an apt example of the many ways that arts experiences can be transformational for young people. This entire memory — including falling on my face — gives me needed perspective as an arts education professional now that not only do we all deserve the arts, we all deserve an arts education that promotes safety and wellness, honors the process of learning in addition to the product and is centered on youth and their communities.

#WeAllDeserveArts that promote safe and healthy spaces:

In this memory, safety might be in a physical and injury prevention. But more broadly, arts education allows students to express themselves in new ways and take emotional risks—which can be extremely vulnerable! Schools and other arts education providers need to ensure that all educators, staff and volunteers are prepared to reduce mental and physical risk factors for the students in their care. They can also support protective factors for children that promote their safety and well-being during times of vulnerability within and outside of the classroom.  Without dedicated care and attention to creating safe spaces, the benefits of arts education may not be fully realized for students.

#WeAllDeserveArts that honor the process of learning, not just the product.

This early theatre experience for me resonates even years later because it was bigger than the final performance. Though I didn’t understand at the time the kinds of learning taking place, or how important it is that the arts can bring together communities towards a common goal, I did fundamentally see that the time and dedication of the students, teachers and volunteers alike is what made the show feel so special. Even being on the sidelines of the process made me excited to become a part of this community when I got older. The process of arts learning is as inherently valuable as the final product, and educators, artists and administrators alike should celebrate this as an integral part of the arts education experience.

#WeAllDeserveArts that centers youth and their communities.

This memory of the Wizard of Oz performance sparked a lifetime love for theatre because I saw myself in it—I already loved the characters, could sing the songs by heart, and I recognized the people onstage. This same experience would not resonate with every single young person—and that’s ok! It’s important that arts education is culturally affirming and responsive, and provides both mirrors and windows for students — meaning the stories should reflect their experiences, in addition to experiencing worlds different than their own.

My collection of arts education experiences even from a very young age taught me that not only do we all deserve arts education, but we deserve arts experiences that offer safe spaces for students to take risks and to contribute to something bigger than themselves.


As a senior project manager for the Arts Education Partnership, Mary creates work plans and oversees the development of AEP research, reports and convenings. Prior to joining AEP, she worked for the Arts Education in Maryland Schools Alliance, where she served in a variety of capacities in programming, administration and advocacy. She received her Master’s Degree in Public Policy with a focus in Education to connect her passions for the arts, education and policy. 

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