#WeAllDeserveArts: Dana Carr – Executive Director, Leaders of Tomorrow Youth Center

#WeAllDeserveArts: Students deserve arts education now more than ever

July 24, 2020

The arts have always been part of my life. I knew at a young age that I wanted to take my talents not to Broadway or to a movie screen (much to the dismay of my family), but to a classroom, to inspire the next generation of artists, arts educators, and leaders. I have always believed that everyone should experience and have access to opportunities in the arts, especially our youth. This is something not only that we all deserve, but it’s something that we need and should require for our children.

As a young twenty-something artist, I had a desire to give our children everything that I experienced as a budding artist and everything I didn’t get a chance to experience. I wondered how I might pass the baton and etch out a legacy. The artist in me wanted to act and take on characters, yes, but I also wanted to enlighten audiences and to spark conversations. This work was never disconnected to who I was as a human being and I made a choice to always speak for social justice, peace and freedom-regardless of my path. 

This yearning to create impact led me to the path of teaching. The arts are a critical part of every child’s academic experience, and yet they are often left out of the conversation or seen as something “extra” in the daily schedule. It is shocking that anyone can see it as extra when most of the world also knows the benefits students receive when participating in the arts, such as creating safe spaces that welcome mistakes, encourage risks, and provide endless opportunities to develop, discover and explore. Still, in our state, the figures are alarming, showing that students, particularly those in underserved communities, disproportionately do not have access to a high-quality arts-rich education (undoubtedly this will continue with the impact of COVID). It is an injustice.

As a classroom teacher, it was imperative for me to choose content and to tell stories that were reflective of my students’ lives – their struggles, their dreams, and their questions. This helped them to craft and to decide who they were, what they cared about, and what they stood for. It allowed them a window into worlds that were both familiar and new, to make connections between those worlds, and to develop empathy for all of the people contained in those worlds. I often sit and imagine if the world really understood and practiced empathy, how differently we would treat each other. Theatre taught me to be empathetic amongst other things. All arts disciplines teach these life lessons, allowing students to think critically about themselves and their world through examining a song, a painting, or a piece of movement.

Having taught in public schools for almost 15 years, I am also very aware that the texts, contributions, and artistic works of Black artists have often been left out of the curriculum and conversation, in an effort to erase our significance to the overall arts (and American) landscape, and help ease the concerns of those teachers who are uncomfortable discussing slavery or other matters that are part of all of our history. But these (our) voices are needed and deserve to be heard, studied, and used as a foundation to help influence the current climate in our world.

Paul Robeson is a celebrated Black American singer, actor and, activist, highly criticized for his political views, often making a stand for justice through his art and work. In 1937, Robeson wrote, “the artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I have no alternative.”

Currently as the leader and Executive Director of Leaders of Tomorrow Youth Center, Inc. it is my commitment to create curriculum, content, and programming out of the needs and interests expressed by the community. As a human services organization first, we strive to always be where the need is and help to address it, to provide the light in the dark places, and to make it a priority to be “on the ground” with the people. We are clear that the arts are key in accomplishing this and we utilize the arts as a vehicle and tool to be able to provide youth and families with exploration, healing, and discovery. There has never been another “choice” for me, as the arts and education have for a long time also been about activism and igniting change.

The arts have always been a reflection of the times and they are more critical now than ever before in helping to create an anti-racist world, heal trauma and injustices, build and mend relationships, provide the space to express anger, hurt and frustration, and support positive mental, social, and emotional health. The community of arts educators and leaders, artists and arts organizations are essential to building new systems and dismantling old ones as we all learn to navigate what will hopefully be a newish world – an opportunity for pause and reset.  This new normal must include the arts not only because it is what our students deserve but because it is what we should be requiring for them. As the adults helping to frame their futures, we owe it to the students to make the right “choice” – to continue to advocate and fight until every child’s educational experience is enriched with the arts, inclusive of Black people’s stories and voices. We must actualize the belief that the arts is a critical piece to a future world that has less racism, oppression and injustice, and more hope, community building, and action. As the leaders, teachers, and artists, we must all believe, like Paul Robeson, that there is no alternative.

Dana Carr is the Executive Director of Leaders of Tomorrow Youth Center, a non profit organization whose mission is to empower youth through the arts, academics, and social development. She has served as an administrator, curriculum writer, mentor, teacher and instructional coach, giving her a diverse background of experiences to share. She is passionate about ensuring that all students have equitable access to a quality education that is inclusive of the arts. 

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