“We must believe we have the power within us to create the world anew.” – Grace Lee Boggs
Art can connect, heal, reveal and celebrate people... but to do so, experiments in art must leave room for the mess, revel in the surprises, and come from a place of deep, sincere inquiry. It is a rare institution that can tolerate, let alone encourage, the type of mess that yields authentic discovery. I’ve been so privileged to experiment with the visual arts curriculum at The James and Grace Lee Boggs School over its first two years, wishing it to become such an institution. I’ve been driven to reimagine education, through my own skill set as an artist, for a group of phenomenally creative, explosively messy K-5 students on the east side of Detroit. They are my favorite artists. They are funny and weird and charming and deep. They inspire me in the ways their art pours from their hearts, and in the ways it doesn’t, but instead fortifies and protects them from a fairly baffling world.
As the visual art program I created was discontinued this coming school year *, I feel an urgency to reflect on what we accomplished with our experiment, but also remind myself –just when I might lie down defeated– of the continued call to reimagine education. After all, “There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes” (Buckminster Fuller).
I want to share with you how my kids at the Boggs School worked, in the slide show following this essay, and notice that, often, adults are in kids’ ways. I fear that we, as a nation, are creating education policy and curriculum from a place of frenzy and skepticism, training kids through our own scarcity mindset to get their piece of the pie, without questioning that reductive metaphor of a human life as a finite fruit-filled pastry.
Why would we keep educating for the world that is at best making us anxious and depressed and at worst killing innocent people through war, corruption, bigotry, pollution and false scarcity? When our system shortchanges kids, we throw out the chance to be led by the fresh genius of our youth toward a more peaceful, loving, joyful future we are too jaded and tired to imagine ourselves.
Let’s educate for the world we want, while acknowledging and more deeply understanding our complicity in the world we have.
Sure, I would like my eight-year-old son to stop pouring a half-gallon of milk into his cereal only to pour it down the drain. But when I take the milk jug out of his hands in advance, I am teaching him “You can’t.” (And “I can’t stand it.”) When I remind him we don’t like to run out of milk, but then back off, I am showing “I trust you to learn.”
O.K., that solves my breakfast, but how do we create 1. schools that trust kids to learn and 2. schools that trust educators as frontline researchers and advocates of childhood?
Fred Rogers said “Play is the work of childhood.”
How can we, with our adult cynicism, fears, and attachment to outcome, trust in the messy play of children? When we actively cut ourselves off from our own sense of play and joy in discovery, how can we embrace it in others? Let me put it another way: how many people do you know who appear to delight in their work? What are they doing differently than the status quo?
How do we structure the school day to allow students their own experiences of discovery, and, on the flip-side, avoid forcing them to sit and languish when they are ready to move on to something else?
How do we create safe space for every kind of learner to flourish, no matter how messy the path?
How can a generation of educators dominated by middle class, white females exploit our privilege to pass the mic to people of color and a range of backgrounds different from ours? [See Brian Mooney’s Hip-hop literacy lesson that inspired a visit from Kendrick Lemar to his diverse New Jersey classroom.]
At the Boggs School, I took on these questions and the challenge of creating curriculum that institutionalized play, celebrated difference among students, honored black lives as part of our national treasure, encouraged collaboration and community and, most essentially, celebrated place– Detroit’s place in the country and, as Grace says, on the clock of the world.
I wish to see the arts sustainably integrated into all schools in my lifetime. The arts are essential to educating the whole child –head, heart and hands – and it is unconscionable that students with fewer resources at home, the ones who need more support, are the same ones being denied opportunities in school for lack of resources. [See NPR “The Problem We All Live With” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations”].
Speaking in Baltimore after the 2015 police murder of Freddie Gray and ensuing protests, President Obama spoke to the systemic neglect of kids in high poverty areas, and implicitly acknowledged systemic racism and segregation’s devastation on African American quality of life:
...But if we really want to solve the problem, if our society really wanted to solve the problem, we could. It’s just it would require everybody saying this is important, this is significant -- and that we don't just pay attention to these communities when a CVS burns, and we don't just pay attention when a young man gets shot or has his spine snapped. We're paying attention all the time because we consider those kids our kids, and we think they're important. And they shouldn’t be living in poverty and violence.
I believe it is not just spiritual but a primary civic duty for each of us to manifest our fully-realized self, but we need to have a fighting chance to do that. Community, government and schools need to support this individual journey not out of altruism but because treating every life among us with care and hope will lead to a functional society, supported by sustainable and diversified economies/ecologies, and more truly representative (read: functional) democracy. Quality education is the most direct way to dismantle the institutional racism that conflates race, economics and political power. Black lives do matter. There is nothing so utopian nor radical about a world that regards all human life with respect that goes deeper than bare necessity and survival.
Though it should not be, in 2015, it is radical to extend quality equal education to the poor– period, but especially in the arts. Providing space within the school day to organically develop self-expression acknowledges the value and meaning of the lives of the poor, whose children you may have previously heard crassly referred to as “cannon fodder.” What will a desegregated America look like after we emerge from the current death-throws of Whiteness as the dominant paradigm? I have every confidence the students of the Boggs School and their illustrious peers will show us in due time.
For their sake, let’s envision an education that moves society beyond “jobs” to ensure the labor of humans matches the work that needs to be done, and that the work is done well, with integrity and passion. And what if, while laboring, people had what they needed with reasonable expectation of continued abundance? Just like the finite pie (of which we all want a bigger piece), money is not a root problem but a dysfunctional symbol. It is the current instrument of our human drive to dominate and control others: unchecked capitalism as currently practiced is destructive and inhumane. Inhumane systems undermine our collective humanity as well as our humanity as individuals.
Knowledge may be power but power is just another unchecked currency. It is not of intrinsic value, nor is it the true value of education. Empowerment is knowing how to learn; that is the most important thing. It is loving the self that does the learning. It is embracing the mess and process of seeking answers to our own authentic questions. It is the courage to question those in power. It is the courage to think and speak differently than the person we are speaking to. Einstein said “creativity is more important than knowledge“ because without it, we are doomed to recreate the dysfunctional systems that raised us, in infinite loops. With it, as Grace suggests, we can create the world anew. A relevant education nurtures creativity.
I believe it is only possible with Jimmy Boggs’s “...profound belief that every human being, each of us, needs community as the foundation of our human identity.” We must prioritize community celebration and exchange that recognizes different types of greatness within each of us, including us messy ones and not-yet-completed experiments. Let’s eat pie together, not horde and ration it. After all, it is only pie. Let’s create lives worthy of richer metaphors. Let the metaphors be about love and belonging. And let’s start by trusting our kids to walk (or gallop and bounce and slurp and slosh) beside us, not follow us, into a future more fit for their glory.
The following slide show details some every-day moments of discovery in my Engaged Arts program at the James and Grace Lee Boggs School from 2013-2015. They illustrate the multiple ways I see the arts as essential to schools in educating the whole child, including Traditional Art Education, Studio Art, Arts-Integrated Curriculum, Art in Service of Community, and through Crafts & DIY.