Want to Make Art and Education Great? Start with Community.

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Two children at the Harlem Community Art Center in 1939. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “Harlem Community Art Center: II, 290 Lenox Avenue, Manhattan.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1939. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4ea1-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The traditional K-12 school environment is sometimes the be-all end-all location for resourceful learning opportunities in student’s lives. This is due to a myriad of alarming factors, including a lack of resources for after-school or community-based learning programs, the segregation of schools and a lack of pedagogical knowledge among some influential policy makers. These policy makers range from business leaders who invest in for-profit and non-profit Charter Schools, to the proponents of standardized testing and quantitative data that supports proficiency over growth. Some of these major deciders have little experience with the public education system, so how can they possibly bring about profound and practical reforms when they haven’t spent the time educating themselves on what is actually happening in these schools on a daily basis?

When you get to the crux of many of the issues affecting education today, it is largely because classrooms and schools are at a greater disadvantage if they are homogeneous, which means that the student body isn’t socially, culturally, or economically diverse enough. For example, if you look across the board in New York City, it is clear that educational settings with a more diverse student body have access to more of the support and resources students need for a successful experience in school. Diversity in schools is immensely important because it enables an equal, equitable and justice based education, which is essential in developing each individual student’s understanding of social responsibilities and what it means to be part of a strong heterogeneous community. Students are more likely to understand and relate better to each other if they realize that everyone is unique and comes to school with different experiences, prior education and cultural backgrounds that are just as valuable and significant as their own. Students need interpersonal skills and experience in dealing with diversity in order to be successful in the world outside of the classroom, which is growing more and more diverse by the day.

In addition to the lack of diversity in the student population, there is a lack of diversity in the content that students are being taught. Even though there is arguably more recognition of diversity in the topics taught throughout the curriculum today, it is apparent, through studies and assessments (see: Kim, 2016Teeple, 2013Washington, 2018) that more work needs to be done. In school districts where a majority of the student population is made up of individuals who identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian-American, Native American, or any other minority group, schools should be focusing on making the curriculum relevant to the student population. This means that topics and learning segments throughout the curriculum should support the students’ own experiences and cultural backgrounds in order to include them in an open-ended dialogue of what it means to be a part of the culture at large. This is not to suggest that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater by censoring or removing certain topics from textbooks. Rather, we as educators need to be conscious about how we present themes and subjects in the curriculum so that students never feel like outsiders within their school, their community and the world around them. Furthermore, we need to empower the voices of students who have been marginalized (many from the day they were born), so that there is a paradigm shift in this country, which gives everyone a chance to succeed and be a part of the collective culture. Students should never idly sit in a classroom and soak up canonical knowledge, which was selectively interpreted from the views of a biased historian (Hamblen, 1985; Carr, 1961) or curriculum developer. An equal, equitable and justice centered approach to learning is exemplified in the methodology of Paulo Freire (1921-1977; a frequently cited individual on this blog. See: archives), where students and teachers construct knowledge through inquiry, praxis and democratic collaboration.

Learning does not end when the afternoon school bell rings. In fact, the classroom should be a catalyst for praxis in social engagement, critical dialogue and activism. In other words, school should be just one of the steps to effective learning. The school environment should give students a thirst to learn throughout their lives. Successful learning is expressed and realized when students actively engage in debates that challenge the status quo when necessary and are inspired to participate in socio-cultural events outside of the classroom. Real learning happens as a response and a reaction to the world. In order for real learning to take place, students need to be engaged in a curriculum that takes into account their perspectives and gives them the platform to construct and apply knowledge in a meaningful and personally relevant way.

While some schools are struggling to address the aforementioned issues, there are progressive initiatives within the arts and cultural community that should serve as inspiration to educational administrators and curriculum developers. These projects include Theaster Gates’ Dorchester Projects (Chicago, IL), Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses (Houston, TX), The Black Lunch Table (New York and various locations) and The Black School (New York, NY). All of these projects combine activism, community building, collaboration and critical inquiry, through pedagogical methodologies and creative practices that support lifelong learning.

Houston, Texas is one of the most diverse cities in the United States. As the fourth most populated cosmopolitan area in the United States, it is made up of communities with deep multicultural roots. One of these neighborhoods is the Third Ward, which is located in Southeast Houston. According to sociologist Robert D. Bullard, the Third Ward is “the city’s most diverse Black neighborhood and a microcosm of the larger Black Houston community.” The Third Ward’s citizens have persevered through racial segregation and poverty and organized community building initiatives including a chapter of the Black Panthers called The People’s Party II, which was founded by Carl Hampton (1948-1970). During the late 1960s, Hampton was especially successful in uniting the different social, cultural, racial and ethnic groups in the community to work together in support of each other’s quest for equality, equity and social justice. Hampton organized a chapter of the Black Panther’s Rainbow Coalition (not to be confused with the organization that Jesse Jackson appropriated from the Black Panthers) in the Third Ward. In addition to African American activists from the People’s Party II, the Rainbow Coalition consisted of The Mexican American Youth Organization (The MAYO Group) and The John Brown Revolutionary League. The MAYO Group was organized by Chicano activists, who utilized mass demonstrations and political action to address the civil rights of Mexican Americans. The John Brown Revolutionary League, named after the abolitionist John Brown (1800-1859), were a group of white activists who aligned themselves as allies of the Black Panther Party and MAYO. The Houston chapter of the Rainbow Coalition notably stood up against the epidemic of police brutality, systematic racism and violence perpetrated on Black and Latino citizens. Carl Hampton was assassinated by the Houston Police on July 26, 1970. He was only 21 years old when he was killed.

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Row Houses used as Artist Studios. Photo by Hourick

Project Row Houses is a contemporary community building model, supporting cultural diversity within the Third Ward through art-centered placemaking. Founded in 1993 by Rick Lowe, a contemporary artist from Alabama, Project Row Houses supports the local community by offering creative solutions to social, economic and educational issues within the Third Ward. When Lowe developed the idea for Project Row Houses –in collaboration with artists James Bettison (1958-1997), Bert Long, Jr. (1940-2013), Jesse Lott, Floyd Newsum, Bert Samples and George Smith)– he incorporated several specific projects that would uniquely address the needs of Third Ward residents. Project Row Houses provides local artists with studios; safe and affordable housing for those in the community; support for young single mothers; an incubator for small independent businesses and tutoring/mentoring services for students. In light of ongoing gentrification in many diverse working class and low-income neighborhoods, the need for affordable housing, job training, student-centered education and economical workspace is at an all-time high. Lowe realized that providing creative space could be a catalyst for other socially engaged projects that incorporate studio habits of mind in order to create much needed social, economic and educational improvements.

The role of an artist working with the community, instead of an artist working on a public work of art within a community, is a distinction that must be made. The artist who works with the community brings an open mind and a primary goal of finding answers to problems that are defined by local residents. The community is already very aware of the problems that need to be fixed, so an artist who solely creates a work of art depicting (making prevalent in a grandiose manner) these issues is not doing justice to the community where the work is displayed.

Project Row Houses grew from a realization that art can provide powerful transformative meaning within a community where art-centered solutions are incorporated into everyday life.  Lowe’s willingness to listen and accept criticism played an instrumental role in his shift from being an artist making public art to an artist making work in tandem with the public. In fact, according to Lowe who was quoted in an article by Michael Kimmelman for The New York Times, it was a high school student in the community that inspired his artistic transformation:

“I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.”

Because of Lowe’s process of addressing community service through the arts, he was able to successfully design an art-centered community that benefits those outside of the art world. Solutions for affordable housing, quality education, extra-curricular activities and socio-cultural empowerment are universally needed in every community, and therefore, the successful implementation of Project Row Houses’ public arts programming, education and social services, can serve as framework for communities across the country. It is important to have a place where people can go to feel safe and be among their peers, while developing skills, knowledge and experiences to make long-lasting contributions to their community.

Similar to Houston’s Third Ward, Chicago’s Grand Crossing neighborhood is a historical and culturally significant setting for the Windy City’s African-American community. In 2009, Theaster Gates, a contemporary artist native to Chicago, developed vacant neighborhood buildings into cultural centers focused on celebrating rich cultural history. His impetus for the development was to maintain interconnectivity and participatory action within the African-American community. The artistic development, called Dorchester Projects is made up of several components including the Stony Island Arts Bank, the Black Cinema House, the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative, Archive House and Listening House. Within the Archive and Listening Houses, Gates has preserved the history and cultural legacies of important and beloved Chicago businesses that closed down due to economic hardship such as Dr. Wax Records Store and Prairie Avenue Bookshop. By purchasing the remaining stock of these stores, a venerable academic archive now exists in an equitable and egalitarian environment for the citizens of Chicago’s South Side to utilize.

Other endeavors within Dorchester Projects include youth art making workshops; a communal neighborhood dinner (See: Food for Thought on how sharing meals can be an art form) and a theater that hosts film screenings and discussions of films from the African Diaspora. Additionally, the Dorchester Art + Housing Collaborative offers affordable housing and workspace for contemporary artists in exchange for their participation in community building initiatives and art-centered education programs.

As both Project Row Houses and Dorchester Projects exemplify, teaching students and adults about their cultural history should be an embodied experience, which is also the foundation for two artist run collectives called Black Lunch Table and the Black School. Both artist collectives celebrate the progressive education theories and artistic contributions of artists from the African diaspora through communal discussions, interactive workshops, archives and exhibitions.

The Black Lunch Table, which takes its moniker from the literal and figurative school lunch tables raises awareness around the void of African Americans in the Western Historical cannon. In addition to increasing the voices and visibility for African American artists and cultural leaders, the collective creates a welcoming environment for a diverse range of individuals to discuss issues affecting contemporary communities such as sexual violence, systemic racism, income inequality and gentrification. These group discussions take place throughout the United States and abroad and are archived online for the public to access. The Black Lunch table also organizes ‘Wikipedia Edit-a-thons’ where volunteers collaborate on adding articles about Black artists or editing existing articles on Black artists. The need for this edit-a-thon is apparent, as stated on the Black Lunch Table’s website:

“91% of Wikipedia editors identify as White and 77% identify as men. We artists of color working in the field of mainstream contemporary art are still marginalized within our field. Much of our history is omitted from broader art historical narratives and from vernacular arts studies. We endeavor to create spaces, online and in person, that mirror the creativity present in sites where Blackness and Art are performed.”

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Augusta Savage posing with her sculpture Realization, created as part of the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Identification on verso (handwritten and stamped): Art Service Project; 137 E. 57th Street, New York City; Location: 137th St. and Edgecombe Ave.; DAte: 6/10; Negative No. 1060I; Photographer: Herman. Identification on accompanying note (typewritten): Augusta Savage

Because of communal edit-a-thons, we are able to learn more about the lives and work of Black artists whose contributions to the field have been monumental, albeit largely underrepresented in the academic discourse. Augusta Savage (1892-1962) is one of the many historical Black artists that deserve a larger chapter in the art historical narrative. Savage was born in Green Cove Springs, Florida on February 29, 1892. Her father was a Methodist minister who discouraged Augusta’s early interests in making art. Thankfully, Augusta Savage persevered and dedicated her life to art and teaching others to live artfully as well.

Savage began achieving accolades as an artist in 1919 when she won the prize for the best exhibition at the Palm Beach County Fair. In the Fall of 1921, Savage was accepted into Cooper Union ahead of 124 men who were on the waiting list. Her talents as a sculptor were obvious to her teachers and contemporaries. She received commissions to sculpt busts of seminal African-American activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963), Marcus Garvey (1887-1940) and William Pickens Sr. (1881-1954). In 1929, Savage travelled to Paris to study sculpture at the prestigious Académie de la Grande Chaumière and won two awards for her art when she exhibited it in two Paris Salons. When she returned to the United States in 1931, she became the first Black woman to be inducted into the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.

During the Great Depression, when spirits were low, Savage opened an art school in the basement of her West 143rd Street home in 1932. The school was open to anyone from the community who desired to learn how to draw, paint and sculpt. Savage’s school grew into the Harlem Community Art Center, which received funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Savage was the first director of the Harlem Community Art Center, which served students of all backgrounds and was an inspirational  environment for African-Americans to learn about their culture through the study of visual art. Some of Savage’s students included the renowned artists Gwendolyn Knight (1913-2005; who later succeeded Savage as the director), Jacob Lawrence (1917-2000) and Norman Lewis (1909-1979). Many of Savage’s students achieved widespread notoriety in the fields of art and social justice, including Kenneth B. Clarke (1914-2005), who along with his wife Mamie Phipps Clark (1917-1983), was instrumental in providing research to Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional.

Despite all of her acclaim and notoriety, Savage was largely forgotten when she passed away in March of 1962. However, Savage’s legacy as a seminal artist, activist and educator who inspired many individuals, is more rightfully re-presented in this current era. Her work is being revisited by new generations via major museum and gallery exhibitions.

The contributions artists and educators like Savage, Lawrence and John T. Biggers (1924-2001) made to socially engaged Black art education is reflective in the Black School’s contemporary practice. The Black School is also influenced by community schools such as The Harlem Community Art Center, The Civil Rights era Freedom Schools and The Black Panther Party’s Liberation Schools. Guided by revolutionary Black educators and progressive Black pedagogical theory, The Black School designs and implements experiential learning opportunities as a means to social justice and activism. Through discussions, selected readings and creating works of art, The Black School seeks to empower individuals to become lifelong learners and community activists (listen to an in depth interview of The Black School founders and principals in conversation with Hyperallergic’s Hrag Vartanian here).

School leaders should consider applying the beneficial principles and methodologies described in the work of the aforementioned artists to the curricula of their schools in order to make learning equal, equitable, just and relevant to a wide range of students. If we truly want to make education great again, it needs to begin with community and the celebration and deeper understanding of diversity.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Carr, E.H. What is History? Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1961.

Crichton, Ayana & Jodi Grant. “Lack of federal funding for afterschool programs will hit home.” Warwick Beacon Online, 22 Mar. 2018. http://warwickonline.staging.communityq.com/stories/lack-of-federal-funding-for-afterschool-programs-will-hit-home,132548

Greene, Peter. “How to Profit From Your Nonprofit Charter School.” Forbes. 13 August 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/petergreene/2018/08/13/how-to-profit-from-your-non-profit-charter-school/#7a0749de3354

Hamblen, Karen A. “An Art Education Chronology: A Process of Selection and Interpretation.” Studies in Art Education, v26 n2, 1985.

Huggins, Ericka. “The Liberation Schools, the Children’s House, the Intercommunal Youth Institute and the Oakland Community School” http://www.erickahuggins.com/OCS.html

Kim, Audrey. “A culturally rich curriculum can improve minority student achievement.” Flypaper, 18 Feb. 2016. https://edexcellence.net/articles/a-culturally-rich-curriculum-can-improve-minority-student-achievement

Kimmelman, Michael. “In Houston, Art Is Where the Home Is.” New York Times, 17, Dec. 2006.

Strauss, Valerie. “Why strong afterschool programs matter.” The Washington Post, 15 Dec. 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/why-strong-afterschool-programs-matter/2011/12/14/gIQAvtUpuO_blog.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0c1fde8a036f

Teeple, Joseph, “A Void to Fill: Recognizing a Lack of Diversity in the High School Social Studies Curriculum” (2013). Education Senior Action Research Projects. Paper 31. http://scholar.valpo.edu/sarp/31

Washington, Samantha. “Diversity in Schools Must Include the Curriculum.” The Century Foundation, 17 Sept. 2018. https://tcf.org/content/commentary/diversity-schools-must-include-curriculum/?session=1

Wong, Alia. “Where Are All the High-School Grads Going?” The Atlantic, 11 Jan. 2016. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/01/where-are-all-the-high-school-grads-going/423285/

Wood, Roger. Down in Houston: Bayou City Blues. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.

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