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December 1, 2018
Vol. 76
No. 4

Arts Education as a Human Right: A Conversation with Alfre Woodard

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    The renowned actor says access to the arts is crucial—and shouldn't depend on a child's zip code.

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      You may recognize her as the formidable Mariah Dillard in Netflix's Marvel series Luke Cage or from popular films like 12 Years a Slave. Alfre Woodard, an award-winning actor on stage and screen, has spent a lifetime in the spotlight. But her work behind the scenes as an arts education advocate is equally notable. She served on the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities under President Barack Obama and is a mentoring artist for the Kennedy Center's Turnaround Arts initiative, through which she works with impoverished schools in New Orleans and Hawaii. In this exclusive interview, Woodard makes an impassioned plea to give all children, especially the most vulnerable, the support to express themselves artistically.
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      Actor Alfre Woodard with a student at Kamaile Academy, one of the original Turnaround Arts schools in Hawaii.
      Photos courtesy of the Kennedy Center

      What was your exposure to the arts like in school?
      I immediately start to smile thinking of my artistic expression at Ralph J. Bunche Elementary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I remember that we made things all the time. We made cigar boxes covered with macaroni. We would just let go and see what we came up with. I'd overhear my mother saying, "She brought another one of these little tchotchkes home that she made. I'm going to have to put it somewhere." Bless her heart, my mother kept a wax sculpture tree that I made in 4th grade in her very well-appointed living room and hung my picture of Jimi Hendrix in our den that was still there when we cleared my parents' house.
      The thing was, back then in public schools, there was an emphasis on art. Even by 4th grade, we were learning who the artists were: We'd learn about where Monet lived, the time that he lived, and we'd go look at a Monet in the museum. We were being exposed to not just the art form, but the people who had practiced it before us. So you got the idea that you were capable. You would celebrate the person who did that, but you were capable of creating that thing as well.
      Everybody did art. It was how we expressed ourselves. By the time I got to 7th grade, the Tulsa philharmonic would come to our school. We had exposure to professional art at the same time we were given entrée into creating art. I want to stress that it was not about creating artists, it was about nurturing a whole individual. And that's why we can't leave art out of education. Art is the way that we express our humanity.

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      Fifth graders at Waianae Elementary say "aloha" to Alfre Woodard, who adopted the Hawaiian school as a Turnaround Artist in 2015.

      When did you find your calling in acting?
      By the time I got to Bishop Kelley High School, I was kind of an odd kid. My parents would take me to get checked all the time for worms and things [laughs]: "I don't know why she's acting like this." Then one day Sister Rachel Ann Graham invited me to audition for our play. Afterward, she called my parents and said, "Do you know Alfre is an artist? She is an amazing actor." I could sense the relief in my parents, "Oh, that's what's going on here." That's when I discovered my artistic self. I felt like I had been walking around on dry land doing the breast stroke—having a good life but just a little off-kilter. Once I was led into the recognition that I did have a strong creative bent, it was like somebody just tipped me in the water, and suddenly that stroke evoked such incredible freedom and identity and purpose. And I always say, it is a sixth sense, those of us who surrender to creativity. You have it like you have your breath and your fingerprint.
      So to be encouraged to develop that and to be given the opportunity, from a very early age, it helps unlock the breath in the same way as when a baby is born. However you get the breath that is innately there flowing, that's what needs to happen for a young person's creativity. Like breathing, it is a way of living, of staying alive, of expressing yourself.
      Back then I was a regular Negro girl in Oklahoma. But I had parents who would take me places, to museums, my father was an interior decorator—untrained, but one of the most sought-after decorators in the Southwest. I had support and access then, not only from my family—but from my Catholic and public school education.
      How did the arts become so much less present in our schools?
      As we as a society moved on, and the economy would get tight and shift in different directions, somebody in charge decided that to trim the education budget, we needed to get rid of the superfluous things like "play time," otherwise known as art, otherwise known as music, otherwise known as painting or writing or dancing.
      And so we ended up in this era where the thing that is the bedrock of an education, a complete education—artistic expression and exploration—is gone. It got pared down to just the facts. Cramming all of those into a brain isn't an education, but that's what we ended up with.
      We keep failing our young people. The vast majority of our kids, for maybe two or three generations, have come up without access to the nurturing of the human person that an arts education provides. When we do Turnaround Arts and all of the other arts programs at the Kennedy Center, yes, there will be some brilliant people who come out of that as professional artists. But that's not why we do it. We're not producing artists. We're nurturing citizens and human beings.
      Until we can bring those who hold the purse strings around to understanding how crucial, not just important, how crucial arts education is, we have to rely on all the "first responders" across the country with their isolated arts programs. Not just the Kennedy Center, but in every hamlet across the country, somebody has stood up and realized, "If it's not happening, I'll make it happen." The thing that we have to remember is that when you look at a child and expect things of them, they buy into it. They think they can deliver.
      I say all this, too, because I come from a family of educators: My sister was a principal in Oklahoma who turned two schools around with no money at all, my brother was a teacher and school counselor, and his wife was also a teacher. That's where my insistence comes from that every American child deserves a complete education.
      Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the lack of access to arts education in some high-needs schools is a "civil rights" issue? Do you agree?
      He called it civil rights, I call it human rights. Yes, it's a rights issue. With Turnaround Arts, we're working with the lowest-performing 5 percent of Title 1 schools in the country. These kids, who are mostly black and Hispanic, have historically been denied access to arts education. You have to be in the top economic strata to actually have the civil right of arts education, and it's usually because it is bought by the parents, not supplied by the government.
      What impact do poverty and trauma have on the students you mentor?
      I could take any one of our Turnaround schools and describe to you what the neighborhood is like. When viable employment is not available, one parent might not be able to show up at school because they're working more than one job. I mean, we're lucky if there are two parents in a household. But that's what economic imbalance does. It breaks the family; it cracks it open. One parent might be substance-addicted, another parent might be incarcerated.
      Even if somebody is loving them in those households, they have to get out of that house to come to school and walk through desperate situations in their communities. They have to live with the skills of how to survive active shooters, how to survive without enough police protection, and they have to look out for each other and hold hands going to school so no one snatches them. So when they get to school and they shut down, teachers get frustrated because they think they should be receiving a 5-year-old, a 7-year-old, or a 9-year-old who has come to open up their little eyes and minds and have this great exchange. But you've mainly got hundreds of kids who don't believe that they can be seen.
      How does that shape the work you do as a Turnaround Artist?
      As an actor, most of my work in those first encounters is to get a young person to stand up, to say their name in a way that's audible and understandable, and to look me in the eye when they say it. Sometimes somebody is so broken that we have to get the whole class to stand up with her to say her name. I'll tell the kids, "Come on, everybody, on three we'll say 'Nadia!'" And finally, in that moment, Nadia can kind of open her mouth with her classmates supporting her. When we talk about teaching acting at that level, we're helping pry the hands of trauma off of these kids' hearts and minds.
      The whole purpose is to get to a place of understanding where joy is possible—then we think of ways to create that joy. Express yourself, even if you're not writing. Just tell me. Let's tell stories, let's share. What we do in those moments is build community within that classroom. We turn around the culture of that school within a few months because we charge these students, we say, "You may not have control over what happens outside this building as you walk through the drug dealers or speeding cars on the way home, but you can control this environment; you can make it safe by looking out for each other, by being kind to each other."
      Turnaround artists like Yo-Yo Ma, Chad Smith, Citizen Cope, and DJ IZ help kids with technical skills like drumming or working on harmony. But they're also just being there for those kids in the moment.
      How do we change the narrative that the arts are an add-on—that arts education is nice to have, but doesn't amount to much more than "play time"?
      We have a 72-page document [from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities], Reinvesting in Arts Education. Take it to your state legislature, to your school district, to parents and the community. That document is the proof. Even if you aren't into the humanities and philosophical discussion of what arts do for a human being, those are the facts right there. If people want excellence in math and science scores, in comprehension and attendance and behavior, they can see what happens—the numbers are there in controlled situations—when kids have access to art in their schools. That's how we can do it. We have to talk to people who don't know this and just keep presenting the facts.
      We have to get it in every town, in every school, in the PTA meetings: Get the facts to the parents, and then the parents will start to insist. We should be up in arms, and we have been up in arms when there are no vegetables in the school lunch or when there's no time to go outdoors and run around. We have to be that adamant about this, too. We cannot lose another generation by not providing everything that they need for a viable education.

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      What message do you want to leave with teachers and principals?
      The reason I am the person that I am in the world is because my teachers and principals looked at me and everybody that was my age, starting at 5 years old, and they expected things from me. Every single teacher I had from kindergarten all the way through high school. I remember them standing in front of me. Back then, the best and brightest black women taught school because that was all that was afforded to them. They stood before us and they insisted that we realize our potential. They loved us, but they insisted.
      It's a different world now. Parents face new pressures and are often distracted and busy. So across the board, our kids are unattended, unrecognized. We must do our part to recognize them.
      As educators, you've stepped into a calling. You've taken on this incredibly tough task. Just know, as well, that there are people around you—citizens, moms, dads, and others—who are working on your behalf. And we're going to try to make sure that you get not only the funding and the salaries that you need, but the respect you deserve from a culture that has shifted so far into greed and self-promotion that it doesn't understand that you are doing healing work.
      Editor's note: This interview has been edited for space.
      End Notes

      1 President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. (2011) Reinvesting in arts education. Retrieved from www.americansforthearts.org/sites/default/files/ReinvestinginArtsEdu.pdf

      Sarah McKibben is the editor in chief of Educational Leadership magazine.

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