The Implication of Cutting Art Education for Youth of Color

05/03/2017 10:38 am ET Updated May 03, 2017

This contribution is in response to a recent article, U.S. Students Are Struggling In The Arts. Donald Trump’s Budget Would Make The Problem Worse by Hayley Miller.

During his recent visit from California, I was helping my six-year old multi-racial nephew with his homework. During one of his assignments, where he was tasked with drawing a picture, he remarked me to me, “I’m not a good artist. I’m a horrible drawer.”

After my initial feelings of surprise subsided, I realized how odd his statement was. At six years old, you have not even been alive long enough to have mastered—let alone have failed—at anything. So, how would a six-years-old kid know if he’s bad at drawing?

The second thought that came to me was the overall failure of the U.S. education system with respect to the arts and art education. Young people should be exposed to the arts as much as possible to cultivate the skills to become confident in their own artistic abilities. All young people deserve the opportunity to become “a good artist” through quality school-based art education programs.

While disappointed to hear my nephew’s remark, I’m not worried about him. He is a socially engaged and well-loved child who is supported by two involved parents. They will ensure he has access to the arts in some way. However, I am worried about the other children of color who have limited access to the arts and who—through proposed funding cuts recently highlighted by Huffington Post—will potentially lose access to art education altogether.

While the recent article acknowledges that art education can help close the performance score gap between students of color and their white counterparts, it is important to stress that children of color in public schools are disproportionately affected by the lack of exposure to the arts in their classrooms. Access to art education has been under persistent threat in people-of-color communities, long before these cuts were ever proposed. For instance, according to a 2011 study by NORC at the University of Chicago, while art education among white children has decreased since 1982, black and Latino communities experienced most of the decline in art education. As such, youth of color—now the majority in public schools nationwide—are often finding themselves with little to no art education.

As the Executive Director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE), an arts organization based New York, I have seen the effects of the absence of an art education. Working primarily with communities of color, we have served schools that include the word “arts” in their name, yet lacked the resources for a permanent visual arts program on their campus.

As a community-based organization, we are tasked with providing an arts-based curriculum to students so they can produce public artwork on the human rights issues that are most important to them. For many of these students, their participation in ARTE marks the first time they ever pick up a paintbrush.

While we love our work, the schools we partner with, and the students we serve, we understand that an educational system where the arts are enormously de-prioritized and defunded is deeply flawed.

As one of many nonprofits dedicated to ensuring youth have access to the arts, ARTE is committed to providing quality art education to students of color. We use the arts as a platform for young people to amplify their voices on a human rights issue by which they feel deeply impacted.

For instance, at one of our partner schools in Manhattan, ARTE program participants give up their Friday lunch hour and Saturdays to paint a mural because it is the only exposure to the visual arts they receive. Another one of our students travels across town from Queens, several hours each way, to participate in this project because she has no access to the visual arts at her school this semester. Through our programs, we fill a void. We develop a safe space for young people to be creative and to express themselves through a human-rights lens.

The capacity for self-expression through the arts is especially vital for the youth of color we work with. Since our inception, time after time, we have found that young people are most interested in learning about and acting on the injustices that impact them. For instance, many students who identify as female chose the issue of gender discrimination because they were sexually harassed on the street the very day they were coming to paint a mural. Other students feel that racial injustice is relevant to their own lives because it isn’t something they just read about in books. It is a lived experience they face every day.

Despite these injustices, many of the young people we work with are becoming leaders in their community. Some of our high school students who are working on a mural about discrimination on their school campus will work with students in middle school who have equally limited access to the arts to lead art workshops focusing on discrimination. So, in spite of the proposed funding cuts, our students want to ensure that everyone in their community has access to the arts. They grasp what their federal elected officials do not—that the arts are necessary for skill-building and development and critical for building imagination and creativity.

While ARTE and other community-based arts organizations will continue to advocate for funding of the arts in communities of color, we cannot be as successful without the support of our community. Through recent advocacy efforts, there have been some victories, including a bipartisan agreement to continue to fund national arts and cultural agencies and programs through fiscal year 2017. However, the reality is that the proposed cuts remain looming over our heads, and now more than ever, we need the grassroots support to continue to advocate our elected officials for federal funding for arts programs for all of our young people.

Please visit our website to learn more about our projects and join our movement. Please contact us if you are interested in sponsoring one of our upcoming mural project, if you are an art gallery willing to donate 1% of the proceeds of your next show to our organization, or if you are someone who wants to make a recurring monthly donation.

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