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What it really means to support the arts for kids

Tori Pelz, executive director of Culture Works.

Jo-Ann VanReeuwyk, art professor at Calvin College.

Lori Slager, board member and co-founder of the Creative Youth Center

Kim Dabbs, executive director of WMCAT.

Casey Stratton, music program co-ordinator for the Boys and Girls Club.

Last week, when Michigan’s public school students headed back to class across the state, many of them returned to districts where repeated annual per-pupil funding cuts have forced increased class size and decreased budgets for things like art, music, world language, and physical education. In fact, the Michigan Department of Education estimates there are 108,000 students in the state who don’t receive any arts education in their schools.
 
That gap in arts education in Michigan leaves some of our community’s most vulnerable children falling through the cracks. And in a city where we’re currently gearing up for the fifth year of a very high-profile arts competition, it’s unacceptable: “If we don’t provide an equal education for all students, we have a civil rights issue.” That’s according to Kim Dabbs, WMCAT’s Executive Director and one of the panelists who tackled the topic at Rapid Growth’s August Speaker Series.
 
Dabbs joined Boys & Girls Club Performing Arts Director Casey Stratton, Creative Youth Center’s Executive Director Lori Slager, and Calvin College’s Chair of Art and Art History Jo-Ann Van Reuuwyk to talk about why – and how – West Michigan should advocate for arts education for all of its children.
 
In the schools
 
As a professor at Calvin College, one of VanReeuwyk’s jobs is to work with student teachers and prepare them to be art educators after graduation. “I tell them that from the moment they hit the ground, they’re going to be advocating for what arts can do,” she says.
 
VanReeuwyk says that colleges need to do a better job of teaching future art teachers how to organize, advocate, and fundraise. “You never have to go out and argue for math or language arts, but you’re going to have to argue for the arts.”
 
She agrees with Dabbs that the arts should be accessible to everyone. “Everyone can do art. It’s not just for the privileged. Every child is capable, every child is meant to be there, and every child can benefit from the arts to the same degree.”
 
Parents who want to support the arts in their children’s schools should consider running for the school board, VanReeuwyk says, or at the very least attend board meetings and speak to the board. “Ask, ‘what about the arts?’ Find out what’s going on in the art room, form a committee to raise funds for the arts, volunteer in the classroom, lend your support,” she says.
 
After school
 
For children who can’t currently access arts education at school, local after-school programs aim to fill the gaps. Both Stratton and Slager spoke to the audience about the importance of providing safe, meaningful, and relevant arts experiences that are affordable and accessible to all.

Stratton, who directs music and choral classes, bemoaned the fact that most of his kids come to his after-school programs with a complete lack of musical knowledge. “I had to back way up and start from basics,” he says, noting that most children served by the Boys & Girls Club go to schools with “no band, no choir – nothing.”
 
After-school programs throughout West Michigan contend with these kinds of challenges creatively to make it possible for all children to participate. Tori Pelz, executive director of CultureWorks in Holland, says their organization is intentionally located off the beaten path and provides free transportation for the 175 kids it serves per year. “We position ourselves to be a place where everybody is comfortable and welcome, where under-resourced kids can get here from home, public schools, or charter schools. It’s rewarding to watch the walls come down,” says Pelz, who taught art and design courses at the college level before joining the organization two years ago.
 
Pelz says the value of after-school arts programs like CultureWorks is as important as it is difficult to measure. “The value of the arts that we can’t quantify is they prepare kids for the unknown.” As today’s students prepare for tomorrow’s jobs, “we’re going to need to prepare people to imagine something that’s not there. And I don’t think that can be undervalued,” she says.
 
To that end, the Holland nonprofit offers classes in graphic design and product design, among other things. It’s a smart programming move in an area known widely for its design prowess, but Pelz asserts that the classes fill another need, too. “Design is inherently about seeking to understand other people’s needs. So when you provide that training to a teenager, not only do they learn self-expression and creativity, but design gets them out of their own mind and teaches empathy.”
 
Pelz says supporting the arts means, among other things, getting serious about social justice and about acknowledging the way art  “shrinks the academic achievement gap between racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. “ Going forward, she says CultureWorks wants to be more of a communal space for children and adults alike, where creativity is celebrated and critical discourse is encouraged.
 
A community responsibility
 
Whether West Michigan’s kids are getting their arts education in school or after school, the consensus from the speaker series panel was loud and clear: All these kids are our kids, and they all deserve a quality arts education. Americans for the Arts tells us that 93% of Americans believe that arts education is important, and in a city so proud of its design history and art scene, Grand Rapids should be no exception. But what does it really mean to “support the arts”? How do we ensure that our city’s children grow up with art in their lives?
 
“Pick up the phone. Make the call to your legislator,” says Dabbs. She instructed listeners to visit AmericansfortheArts.org, click on “advocacy” and enter their zip code to find out just who their elected officials are.
 
VanReeuwyk concurs. “I tell my students all the time: If a politician receives as few as five memos from constituents, their ears perk. It takes energy to actually write or call. Take the time to become informed. Write that letter.”
 
Dabbs and VanReeuwyk also recommend P21.org, nationalguild.org, and artservemichigan.org as online resources for education and advocacy about arts issues. Beyond education and legislation, the Calvin professor says there are other things a community that supports that arts can and should consider doing.
 
“Volunteer your time as a chaperone, rehearsal aide, costume designer, stage manager, or classroom aide,” says VanReeuwyk. “Forge partnerships. Attend arts events in the community. Take a class yourself,” she says.
 
And the list goes on: sponsor a field trip, buy local art, visit a museum, donate to one of the many worthy after-school programs that provide rich arts experiences to all kids. There is no shortage of ways Grand Rapidians could choose to support the arts. The question is, are you going to say you support the arts? Or are you going to actually do it?

Stephanie Doublestein is the Managing Editor for Rapid Growth Media.

Photography by Adam Bird 
 
 
 
 
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