In the world of arts advocacy, we’re told to tell stories. Know your facts. Do your homework on the elected official you’re visiting. Make a specific ask. And tell stories. When making your case, statistics are important, even crucial, but stories are what will be remembered.
At Theatre Bay Area’s recent annual conference, I gave a shout-out to six of the most effective arts advocates I know. I’d met up with these activists in April at Americans for the Arts’ annual Arts Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C. Together we were making the rounds of the Bay Area congressional delegation. At each office, the six were polite but forceful. They presented the facts, then drove home the message of the value of the arts with succinct examples from their own lives and the lives of their peers. When they spoke, the frazzled congressional aides picked up their pens and took notes. These advocates were six high school students from Berkeley Rep’s Teen Council, who had raised their own funds to travel to Washington to make the case for the value of the arts and arts education.
What made a powerful impression was that these kids were the lucky ones, and they knew it. They were being taught theatre and the arts in their schools, and after school at Berkeley Rep. Far too many kids, they said, were not. The personal testimony from these students about how the arts had changed their lives—engaging them in classes, bolstering self-confidence, releasing their imaginations—spoke eloquently for the students in neighboring schools where the arts had been cut. How unfair it was, they stressed, that other public school kids just like them were being deprived of the opportunity to find their own voices and potential. Clearly these six had absorbed another benefit afforded by the arts: empathy.
A few days after the conference, I received an email from a theatre producer who had heard my address. She wanted to write, she said, because “When I saw you talk about those kids in Washington, I saw you really light up.” This artistic director wanted to share a story of her own about kids and the power of the arts:
“As you know, I’m a mom, and both of my kids (son, 21; daughter, 17) have had more than their share of arts exposure. I know dozens of kids who have not had very much, if any, arts in their lives. What’s more, my kids are not biologically related to each other, as my daughter is adopted. We are the nature/nurture experiment household. If both of my kids do the same thing, it’s because of their experience.
The short list:
1) They both have exceptional IQs—though my daughter has a minor hearing loss and severe auditory processing issues that affect school performance in many ways. Still, she’s a B+ student where experts say she should perform much lower. IQ and brain function are the real reasons that long-term arts exposure makes test scores go up; short-term, acquiring test-taking skills make test scores rise (assuming kids have been taught what’s on the test).
2) They are both unusually good at getting paid work and being responsible workers at a time when their peers can’t get jobs. The arts are the one environment where age just doesn’t matter, and children can be regarded as peers to grownups. Both have been “working” their whole lives.
3) They can both take comments from and give suggestions to a wide variety of people—adults, peers, little kids—and in a wide variety of ways: visual, aural, etc. They don’t have to lead, but they can.
4) Long-term exposure to the arts taught them important human lessons—they both recognize the subtle importance of timing and honesty in dealing with people, and that there’s no accounting for people’s tastes.”
This mother sent me her story from New York, where her son was graduating from Juilliard. The school’s president spoke on the merits of an arts education, knowing that not all the graduates would wind up with arts careers. Juilliard’s president assured that through the arts the students had acquired a lasting capacity for “imagination, discipline, determination and joy.”
At our conference, we screened a video made by the student advocates and the other members of BRT’s Teen Council. In it, students, their mouths sealed with duct tape, pored through school corridors, filed into classrooms, and slid into desks, unable to engage with their classes and each other. A litany of grim facts on cuts to arts education flashed across the screen. Later, one might not retain the statistics. But the image of the muzzled students—like a well-told story—is unforgettable. Claim your voice, the video urges. Claim your arts.
To watch the Teen Council video, click here.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.
"Caution" by avrenum-acceber on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.
Executive Director’s Note: