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Reflecting on the 2018 Creative Advantage Summer Institute

The 5th annual Creative Advantage Arts Partners Summer Institute took place on August 16th at Seattle Art Museum. One of the themes of this year’s institute was to think about our education work through the lens of the past, the present and the future. When planning the institute, we worked with advisors to think about how to consider this present moment, how to contextualize it with an understanding of the past and how to imagine a new future. Below are excerpts from interviews Tina LaPadula, Creative Youth Project Manager conducted with teaching artist, activist and performer Jéhan Òsanyìn and artist Julie Trout the visual arts teacher at John Muir Elementary on the 2018 Creative Advantage Summer Institute.

Tina LaPadula: How do you process what’s happening nationally and in our communities? How do you bring these topics or educational justice to your classrooms?  

Julie Trout: We are experiencing a transformational time. It is a deeply painful time in our history which sadly is cyclical in nature. Being immersed in the work of education for over 20 years has taken a certain survival mentality and persistence to resistance. It is a juggling act of trying to stay present and hopeful without becoming numb. Being a minority in my classroom is an honor that I don’t take for granted…It would be completely disrespectful and perpetuating our white supremacist underlying’s if I didn’t actually try and lead with narratives of racial equity through the arts. To me, it is connected to everything. I also make sure to work with my community of educators to make these connections by supporting core subjects and showing them how the arts can support educational and restorative justice. 

Jéhan Òsanyìn: Part of the issue is that I don’t always process it; it can be a lot. Every minute of most days feels like the stakes are so high stakes in ways that weren’t high stakes before. When I do process it, I do so through my art forms…For students, it’s important to me to be authentic. I don’t always have the opportunity to insert every socio political into a lesson plan (especially under this administration) but I do center my lessons on youth voice so that the young people with whom I work have a place to process through their art like I process through mine. While teaching theatre I encourage students to check-in with themselves as we do our physical warm-ups so that they can become better attuned to the ways what we take-in through the world sits on our shoulders or in our jawlines. As we prepare to play characters we explore how their given circumstances affect them onstage. Then we can tune into what our bodies are telling us about the circumstances we’re within.

TL: You were invited to participate in the Institute as a follow up to Dr. Wayne Au’s keynote about his experience and the new book he contributed to called Teaching for Black Lives. How are you teaching towards liberation? How can educators and TAs model resistance for their students?  

JO: I’m teaching toward liberation, I think, because I have to? Everyone’s (literally) everyone’s liberation is tied to my own as a queer Black person of color. That means that all of my curriculum is rooted in the idea that we are more than colonizers have taught our ancestors to teach us what we’re worth. It’s important that students know that their version of their world is at the center of their learning. In classrooms where that is true you can facilitate learning that is applicable and connects all student learning to each other’s and to the world’s. 

JT – To me, arts education is the ultimate practice of freedom and resistance…The natural process of creating any sort of art is to lean into the struggle…In our systems of institutional racism to experience a feeling of liberation in the artistic process is an empowering precursor living a more liberated life…If I am asking my youth artists and community to take risks and trust themselves, it is crucial that I am consistently practicing the same vulnerability while staying grounded and consistent in my expectations and rituals. This takes a lot of intentional and daily reflection of how my own privilege takes up space in my classroom, community, and world…Dr. Au writes and spoke about our John Muir act of resistance for event called “Black Men Uniting to Change the Narrative”. This event was organized by co educator DeShawn Jackson as a way to show our community, especially our students of color, that we love and see them. I designed a shirt with the image of a tree representing hopeful growth that can create change while we standing together like a trees in a forest. However, the real strength was in the three words “Black Lives Matter”…In the words of many of our community members of color “ Black Lives Mattered the day I was born”…Of course, this work HAS to transcend the mere act of wearing a shirt , but at that time, at that place, we needed our youth to see their lives mattered. Originally that was the act of love and dedication to our students is what created a flurry of hate, threats, and violence towards our community. The greater community of educators and disruptors then transformed our declaration to an opportunity for others to start uniting in making the three words of Black Lives Matter an intentional part of changing the narrative in the way we approach our work our educational mindset.

TL: We received many questions from the audience about ways to teach about race, racism and whiteness in an arts classroom. Do you have thoughts or specific strategies on that? How do bring your personal identities to your practice? 

JO: I have never seen my own language in a master text. I have never seen the language of my family reflected in the academic texts from which my learning stems. That’s bananas. So find other master texts that reflect the populations that you are teaching. Call out the canon for what it is: “What do these texts all have in common? They’re written by cis white dudes. They reflect cis white culture. What is your culture? Who are your experts? Bring them in. Or, if you’re teaching in your community then you should be so entrenched in the culture, or so humble in your distance that you already know some of what’s applicable. Know your content area enough that maybe you don’t have examples until your students discover them in the midst of your teaching.

JT: One of the most important things to me as an educator is to make myself vulnerable in a way that shows our students that they are a partner with us in sharing in the struggle of learning. This is a tricky process of being solid and grounded at the same time shifting the dynamic of power to empowerment. One of the subtle ways I do this is all the visuals I place in my classroom and throughout the school on a consistent basis. If students are constantly seeing themselves throughout the walls of our buildings and classrooms it is a validating practice of being seen. It is also a reminder to our non students of color to look beyond themselves to challenge the status quo. I lead with artists of color and infuse story telling, personal narratives, examples, and make connections to other core subjects to reinforce this… Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. In our culture, white privileged folks have the luxury of having that choice of being comfortable all the time. Make a conscious effort to flip that paradigm. Community outreach is also important. Do what it takes to bring in artists of color to be leaders and get out of the way…For me as a white privileged educator, I use this privilege to get opportunities for my students. I ask, advocate, showcase, and listen to show my community of students I love them. Finally do your own work!! A big part of that is self- care. Again self- care has become some sort of privilege within itself- who has access to healing tools/spaces, time, resources etc. For me, I have to make sure I do things that make me feel calm and grounded such as taking walks around Seward Park and I instinctively listen to what I need when I need it. Sometimes that is just taking a bath after a toxic day. As an arts educator, I have to make art for myself. Even if it is on the smallest scale, it is life saving and keeps me feeling authentic. Find doable ways to take care of yourself and realize that it is a crucial part of this work so you can continue to uncover your own narrative and have space for students to include their own narratives.

TL: New Superintendent Dr. Denice Juneau met the arts education community for the first time at this event. She offered wonderful opening remarks that ended with an anecdote from an educator she knows who has been teaching for 30 years…who said “I’m so excited for school to start, this is going to be a great school year”. What are you looking forward to this year? What gives you hope? What keeps you motivated?

JO – I’m looking forward to developing curriculum that is so different from what’s in my current practice. I’m bored with my own teaching so I’m reinventing my curriculum. I look forward to taking so much of theatre – and academic theatre is SO ROOTED in white culture. There is more to storytelling than that. I’m also incorporating more language of performance with language of justice. When we talk about objectives and tactics and story development how does that connect to us as people and, as a result to us as performers and artists? What gives me hope? Young activists who make me uncomfortable. So often I find that my inherent reaction to disruption is disengagement. I’m so curious about that. Even though I live on a path that is headed toward liberation. What is it in me that wants the world the remain as it is? I try to challenge that discomfort, be transparent about it in my teaching, and welcome challenges from the students I serve.

JT – I am so excited to deepen our arts partnerships that were supported originally by the Creative Advantage initiative. After many years of organizing, our community is embracing the vision of arts as a practice of race/equity. I will continue to stream line that process. I am also super excited about a big textile project I am planning with our 4th/5th grade students that will connect reusable resources, teaching an important life skill of sewing, showcasing, and partnering with Prairie Underground, an amazing local clothing design company. Some of my established projects are always one I love and continue to find ways to improve upon- for example deepening our Indigeous and Ethnic studies with projects using resources and inspirations that are part of our local landscape. It is also very exciting that many of our former Muir students will be at Franklin and take part of our clay creature collaboration between ceramics students and our kinders. I love reconnecting the past with our current and future students. As teachers we don’t always get to see what is beyond our classrooms as we act as cultivators and it is the best when we can revisit our past in his way. The real motivation is the privilege I have to spend time with the amazing youth that have a huge part of my heart.

Photos by Jenny Crooks.