#WeAllDeserveArts: Ahava Silkey-Jones – Executive Director, DaVinci Academy of Arts and Science

July 9, 2021

The smell of fresh flowers and warm breeze calmed my nerves a bit as I sat in the courtyard of my host family’s home in Costa Rica, hours after landing for a 7-day exchange program with my high school Spanish class. As a 15 year old from rural Minnesota my travel experience and Spanish proficiency was limited. As we sat together in those first few hours, attempting to communicate, we didn’t get far, that was until my brother turned on the radio. I remember feeling the joy and energy of the music through my body and it immediately put me at ease.  Then my host sister Norma and I started dancing together. I was a dancer and instructor and I loved kids, the moment brought out an authentic and joyful part of me. Norma was five at the time, and in those moments together as host family and visitor we found a way to communicate, share joy, and develop a bond that is still strong 23 years later. I had a similar experience as a college student, the first time I met my students in Chicago.  I walked into the cafeteria in a 100-plus year-old building on the south side of Chicago. From an external perspective, my students and I hadn’t had a lot of shared experiences to that point, but I quickly learned that we shared something that transcended our life experiences, our love for and connection to the arts. 

Throughout my life I’ve had many moments where the arts connected me to the world outside of the one I knew growing up. As a child, dance was my art of choice. It helped me feel purposeful, it gave me a place to dream, focus, escape, and connect. I can’t imagine having survived my youth without the studio, and as an adult I can’t imagine having gone out into the world as bravely I did without the universally understood language of the arts to connect with others. What I didn’t fully realize until stepping into my first workshop as an arts educator in Chicago, was how fortunate I was to have that studio growing up. I quickly learned what a privilege my formal arts education was, in addition to the studio, arts courses in school, choir, training that gave me language to be able to talk about and share what I loved. It was a currency in the world, and I found my students, although they shared a love for the arts, were often denied the formal space to explore their passion, and the tools to pursue where their artistic passion and talent might take them. It was in that moment that I found my professional trajectory as an arts advocate and educator, or rather it found me, because #WeAllDeserveArts.

I fought for the investment and creation of a dance program at the charter school where I worked in Chicago and over the course of 6 years we served over 1000 students, held annual productions that brought in 800+ community members (we were fortunate to have the space to house large audiences)/ I took my top dance scholars each year on performing arts college tours to schools in Chicago, New York, and Minnesota, we attended broadway performances, and even had the opportunity to perform with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. My students saw the world, learned the professional techniques of their artistry, and saw where the arts could lead them. They went on to college to study and work in many different fields, including the arts. As they were a part of building the arts program with me from the ground up we talked a lot about how precious and challenging it was to fight for the arts to be prioritized in schools. Many of those same students went on to become arts educators and advocates as they experienced first hand the power of the arts in their education. Access to the arts shouldn’t be a privilege #WeAllDeserveArts. 

I went on to become a school leader at a statewide arts agency, the Perpich Center for Arts Education, which brings together students from throughout the State of Minnesota in their final two years of high school to receive an exceptionally rigorous formal education in the arts and education. What makes this program so important is that it draws from communities that are isolated and also communities that are arts rich and it brings together the most passionate and talented artists to receive formal training. It helps to bridge barriers in place because of geography or socioeconomic status because #WeAllDeserveArts. I now am working for a K-8 district increasing the visibility and access to arts for that school community. As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic I know funding and resources will be tight for state, national, and local governments, and often in times of scarcity the arts and arts education are disproportionately impacted. The research shows us, and we see it in the youth and artists we support, the drastic impact access to the arts has on life outcomes both personally and professionally. We must all do our part to ensure that this generation of artists and youth continue to have access to the arts and continue to be supported in pursuing their passion because #WeAllDeserveArts.

Ahava Silkey-Jones is an accomplished non-profit arts and education leader. She currently serves as the Executive Director of DaVinci Academy of Arts and Science, a K-8 award-winning charter school, serving 900+ students and 150+ staff. Prior to DaVinci, Ahava served as the Principal for the Perpich Center for Arts Education, Minnesota’s statewide arts high school; as Vice Principal for Newark Public Schools; and as Director of Fine Arts for the University of Chicago Charter School. She holds an Ed.M. in Arts in Education from Harvard University and an M.A. in Educational Leadership from Roosevelt University. Ahava is a licensed principal and superintendent. In addition to her professional accomplishments Ahava is engaged as a civic leader, appointed to serve as a Commissioner with the Minneapolis Arts Commission in 2020, representing Ward 7, is a Co-Founder and Board Chair of the the Professional Theatre and Dance Youth Academy (PTDYA); a Council Member for the National Arts in Education Advisory Council with Americans for the Arts, and Board Member for the ROHO Collective. Ahava was a 2019 fellow with the New Leaders Council Twin Cities Chapter and a 2013 recipient of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute’s Employee of the Year recognition.  She is fiercely committed to addressing system-level inequities in our educational system and building school and community partnerships to improve access to the arts for all students.

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