The first seeds of The Foundation for Equity in Arts Education were sown in July 2009, when I gave a 30-minute presentation at The International Conference on the Arts in Society in Venice, Italy. The presentation was given at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, which was built in 1565 and now houses the Institute of Science, Arts and Letters. The Franchetti building, with its marbled floors, tapestries and gilded ceilings, is a late-gothic symbol of opulence and splendor left over from an era when participation in the arts was largely a privilege of the wealthy or those who were fortunate enough to be the beneficiaries of patronage.
My symposium was based on a graduate level research paper I had written the year before titled “Art Education and the Role of School Leadership in a Diverse Society.” The focus of the presentation was the well-documented role the arts can play in bridging the achievement gap that exists between students in low and high socioeconomic status school districts, the particular benefits that can be derived from the arts by at-risk students, and how the arts, through committed leadership, can revitalize the communities where students live. I also spoke about the impact that lack of exposure and training in the arts has had, and that the very students who stood to gain the greatest benefits from the arts were statistically the most likely to be denied access to it during times of fiscal crisis.
There is an ever-widening base of research that describes the role the arts play in economic and social mobility, and that many skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and dealing with ambiguity and complexity can be derived directly through a well-developed arts curriculum. My experiences in Venice that year and as an art teacher since that time have slowly and steadily led me to develop an education foundation to support the fine and performing arts in the Woodbury City Public Schools.
Gaining new perspectives
The irony of giving a presentation on the topic of socio-economic inequity in a venue such as the Franchetti Building was not lost on me. What did surprise me were the eye-opening perspectives of the K-12 teachers, university professors, museum curators, as well as visual and performing artists from other countries who came to hear me speak and discuss the topic afterwards. These visiting scholars were from places as diverse as Iran, Israel, Kenya, Singapore, South Africa, China and Denmark; many of the attendees expressed opinions that the strength of our American education system seems to be in our ability as a culture to instill free thinking and enterprising, creative habits of mind in our students. A conference participant from China shared his perspective that “American students are not afraid to come up with new solutions or try new things. In many cultures, this is discouraged.”
A South African professor asked me the following question: “In a future global economy that will rely more heavily on creative thinking, do you feel your [the United States] policies are going the other direction?”
This is obviously a very large, complex question to which there is no simple answer. I have since spent a lot of time thinking about how, in my own small corner of the world, I could work to advocate for the arts more effectively.
It is common knowledge that during times of economic hardship, budget cuts to the fine and performing arts, whether in the form of reduced school programs, federal and state grants to museums, or local community arts organizations, are often the first to feel the impact. As school budgets become tighter and mandates more prescriptive, it becomes increasingly difficult for districts to find funding for school programs if they do not directly link to math or literacy scores despite what the research on creative learning tells us. The insights I gained three years ago during this conference converged with the cold, hard reality of the more recent financial crisis in public education and provided the clarity and support I needed to bring this foundation to fruition.
Growing a solution: building a coalition of advocates
They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and if things need to change one will find a solution. So at the beginning of October, I began laying the groundwork for the Foundation for Equity in Arts Education (FEAE). The first step was seeking the counsel of an experienced accountant and lawyer to guide me in filing for 501(c) (3) status as an educational foundation. Since FEAE is looking to raise substantial funds over a long-term basis as opposed to holding short-term fundraisers, it made the most sense to file for charity status with the IRS and become incorporated in the State of New Jersey.
Finding the right people to serve as trustees has proven to be a vital component of this process. Woodbury City Board of Education member William Toole III, our Supervisor of Curriculum and Instruction Donna M. Cohen (grades 6-12), and chorale music teacher Theresa Savage all committed to the task. Bringing on board individuals who represent different groups of stakeholders and who have both a dedication to the arts and a vision for instructional improvement will ensure that, over time, the goals of the FEAE can be achieved.
Our four main organizational goals are to:
- Expand and sustain the commitment to, and resources for, quality arts education in the Woodbury City Public Schools, which serve low socioeconomic status student populations who historically have less exposure to the arts.
- Improve students’ access and exposure to the visual and performing arts through fundraising.
- Support and strengthen the teaching of the arts by increasing the existing pool of resources and professional development opportunities.
- Strengthen and increase collaboration through community partnerships with arts advocacy organizations to widen the support base for arts education.
The money raised by the FEAE will first be used to purchase items such as musical instruments, choir robes, smart boards, iPads, art history resources, computer software for graphic design courses and various types of equipment for our school band. In the future, funds will also be set aside to provide scholarships for students who are attending college as art, music or theater majors, and for field trips to concerts and museums. In order to improve and support instruction in arts-related content areas, monies will be used to cover fees and travel expenses for teacher workshops and professional conferences.
This July, I will spend eight days trekking the Machame Route up Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, to raise money for the FEAE. The Machame is widely considered to be the most scenic of the six routes to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Although I have participated in high altitude treks before, this will be the longest and most challenging.
I have been actively undergoing the recommended conditioning needed for this type of activity, running 10 to 15 miles per week, along with some strength training. I am undertaking this once in a lifetime experience as one of a group of 15 climbers, under the supervision of very experienced, reputable guides. A team of around 30 porters and cooks will climb with us as we navigate our way through the forests, moorlands, deserts and glaciers along the western breach of the world’s fourth highest mountain.
In addition to the Kilimanjaro Climb, I have made arrangements with an organization on site in the town of Moshe to set up school visitations and other arts-related cultural experiences in the days before the climb. This will give me an opportunity to explore the local villages, meet teachers and students, volunteer in a classroom, and learn more about the day- to- day life of a people whose lives are so very different than ours.
While in Tanzania, I will record video documentation of these school visits and cultural events, as well as a series of short videos that will document my ascent to Uhuru Summit, 19,341 feet above sea level. These videos will be posted on our foundation’s webpage, http://foundationartsedeq.org so that anyone who is interested can follow along with the adventure. As an art teacher with a habit of bringing my cultural explorations into my classroom, Artsclimb will serve not only as a vehicle for fundraising and to bring awareness to our foundation’s mission, but as an additional opportunity to share my experiences in Tanzania with my students and community. Providing students with diverse means of gaining knowledge and understanding about the world beyond their door helps to develop cultural intelligence embrace the differences of others, and give them a global perspective that will be important for their futures.
Please show your support by visiting our website, which contains our online student art gallery, a research base that focuses on arts learning, information about upcoming fundraisers, and a secure online donation link.
For more information, or if you’d like to discuss the creation of an arts foundation in your community, contact the FEAE at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 402, Mantua, NJ 08051, or visit http://foundationartsedeq.org.
Gina Friedman teaches art in Woodbury Public Schools. She can be reached at email@example.com.