Well it's been a minute since my last post and much has transpired. The South Dallas Cultural Center is extremely active and the community is solidly in here! We completed our summer arts institute which always has me thinking about children and their innate sense of creativity. Since we typically work with South Dallas children exclusively, I can also say that the aftermath leaves me thinking about the impact of arts and cultural programming on children from low-income households.
Every year we host approximately 70 children and youth in our Summer Arts At the Center Program (SAAC). The children are not pre-selected, that is to say they are not "creamed" from the art stars in the community. Instead, we open our program to all children and it's first come, first served,making the playing field as even as possible. Over the years we do, however, tend to get families returning which makes for a wonderful opportunity for sustained learning. I am never disappointed in the outcome of the program no matter how hairy the start-up! In fact I almost always find myself in tears at the end when the children showcase their achievements for their parents and the community. The sight of them exploding with creativity, singing, reciting their poetry, acting, drumming and dancing is often overwhelming, particularly given how many of them have never done these things before. This is why I am so adamant about offering the highest quality program possible to our children. They deserve it and they make me proud every summer with their enthusiastic embrace of their culture. Since the methodology employed is quite intentional, the SAAC staff can see direct results of their efforts correlated with measurable outcomes. So its not just a feel good experience for us but a true measurably successful educational one.
So it is no surprise that I am livid when the first thing to go are the arts programs when public school systems are stretched for money. They are still seen as frills even after years of study indicate their direct impact on academic achievement and self-esteem. We know that children who have a daily diet of arts perform more successfully in their other subjects. They have a greater sense of discipline and understand the notion of team work more so than their peers who do not have the arts included in a meaningful way in the curriculum. Children from low income households, in my 28+ years of experience, tend to be even more creative and resourceful in their creativity than middle-class and upper class children. I suspect this has a lot to do with the fact that they have to be creative in order to survive their circumstances; they are always thinking of new ways to do things, ways that don't require purchasing expensive supplies or materials. They are the original recycled art makers! I taught a sculpture class this summer to 6-8 years old students. Sculpture is usually a difficult subject to teach to little kids primarily because all the focus in public schools (if there is any art at all, that is!) is on 2D work. Conceptualizing in 3D is a challenge for most children. Yet I witnessed some amazing works come out of the creative minds of my students, most of who were working with materials totally foreign to them. They watched me do a demonstration and then enthusiastically dove into their work, never worrying about whether it was "right" or not, a worry I usually encounter when I work with non-low income students. The assignment that involved recycled materials produced even better results. My observation is that the less traditional the material provided for artmaking, the more sophisticated the artistic outcome.
Which leads me to my primary reason for this blog: advocating for keeping the arts alive and well in our community, specifically in those areas of our community where they are woefully lacking. No matter what our school systems decide to do about arts education, we as thinking activist artists must keep it alive for our children! We must realize that the challenge ahead to keep African Americans moving in a positive direction goes far beyond just achieving a better economic status. We must be ever vigilant about making artistic & cultural literacy a priority for our children since we know that this sures up their intellectual foundation and thereby gives them a leg up in our society. It is no secret that the best private schools for the wealthy always include the arts and cultural study of European societies as an essential ingredient in their educational curriculum. They understand that the arts provide one of the best ways to document the history of a people which is why training ones young in the cultural & artistic traditions of your society ensures its perpetuity. What we know of ancient civilizations we know largely from the arts left behind upon their demise. It is why the first thing to be attacked when an aggressor is conquering a country is the cultural community. Wipe out art and artists and you wipe out the spiritual glue of any society. It is why the culture of the African was attacked, trivialized and destroyed when The Transatlantic Slave Trade was instituted. The enslavers knew that a people secure in their culture and allowed to express themselves creatively can never be spiritually or intellectually enslaved.
So let us not be fooled by the argument that the arts are a "frill" and can be sacrificed in hard times. The arts for our children are often their savior, particularly in a system that is designed for their failure. Let's make sure that we keep art in the lives of African American children at whatever personal cost to us as a community because I know that a child grounded in his or her culture, a child who has the wherewithal to create on a consistent and high quality basis, is a child who grows up to be an asset to the community, not a predator on that community. Invest in the creative and cultural education of Black children and you invest in the productive future of the African American community.