youth arts projects & civic engagement

Last Wednesday, I was privileged to visit an arts program in Washington. A very diverse group of more than 50 kids work together all year, starting by discussing the issues that concern them most and ultimately producing an original musical about those themes. The students come from fancy private schools, from ordinary suburban schools, and from troubled DC schools. They represent diverse cultural backgrounds, but all seem to be articulate and confident, mutually respectful, artistically talented, and skilled at handling their differences.

As far as I can tell, they address issues connected to individual behavior and attitudes. For instance, a gay member of the group had recently been attacked by pipe-wielding bigots, which launched a discussion. Apparently, the group had previously discussed why its white members tend to take over conversations. One participant said she balances strong Christian faith with liberal attitudes toward sexuality–evidently creating some tension inside her family.

These are the concerns that will animate their musical production. They are important issues, they emerge from the students’ daily experience, they can be dramatized in a theatrical performance, and they allow kids to use the interpersonal and expressive skills that they are good at.

While I was talking to these kids, my wife happened to be attending a DC City Council hearing on education. There she learned that the DC school system spends $11,000 per student per annum, but only about $5,000 is spent in schools for each pupil who attends. Part of the extra $6,000 goes to an extremely expensive system for leasing private buses to transport special-ed kids. Some of it goes for overhead in the downtown headquarters.

As they work on their musical, it’s unlikely that the kids in the arts group will move from their personal experience with racism, sexism, class-inequality, and homophobia to issues like the DC school budget, or unemployment, or criminal law. Several said that they loved the program because it forced them to “take risks” and “move outside their comfort zone.” I respect those feelings, but I note that a different kind of program might confront them with the budget for their own school system and teach them to analyze it critically. I suspect that a balance sheet would fall much further outside their “comfort zones” than even the most emotional discussion of sexism. After all, they can observe other young people discussing personal behavior on reality-TV shows. They have volunteered for the arts program because they are interested in such discussions. But it’s unlikely that anyone has ever taught them to perform roles that are essential in their community: fiscal watchdog, policy analyst, expert witness, reporter, lobbyist.