A Day of Purpose: Decolonizing Arts Education with Black Lives Matter at School

By Bailey Clemmons

On April 1st, 2023, Black Lives Matter at School and the Teaching Artists Guild hosted a special professional development opportunity for teaching artists. Its focus was on the ongoing activations and reflections from Black Lives Matter at School’s Year of Purpose, whose objective leans towards uplifting students of color and undoing institutional racism.  

The centerpiece of this event was to meditate on the artist’s role in their own work in relationship to antiracist pedagogy and abolitionist practice, persistently challenging themselves to center Black lives in their classrooms. The first workshop in the series had two parts. The first half was a recorded discussion and Q & A on issues that teaching artists face with school districts and employers that are banning reading material in their classrooms. Teaching artists also shared resources for others to use in expanding their curriculum with a lens on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and how to start conversations with their employers about broadening the canon of artists that are represented in their programming. After the panel, participants had the opportunity to have an intimate conversation with each panelist in breakout rooms. 

The moderator, Tamara Anderson, who is a multi-talented actor, singer, writer, director, and member of TAG’s National Advisory Committee, started the discussion off with the question, “What is one thing that brings you joy or  makes you smile?” People volunteered to share their responses. This ice-breaker approach was a fun way for artists around the digital room to express their source of joy & happiness. As an artist, each person has his or her creative outlet and source of inspiration. Posing this initial question allowed everyone to tap into his or herself to find that source, which is different for each individual.  

A website was dropped into the group chat that leads to a map of indigenous territories across the world. This website has a mission that states, “We strive to map Indigenous lands in a way that changes, challenges, and improves the way people see history and the present day. We hope to strengthen the spiritual bonds that people have with the land, its people, and its meaning.” The website raises awareness through mapping, community & education, specifically, educational resources to correct the way that people speak about indigeneity and colonialism, and encourages territory awareness in colloquial speech and actions.  

Then, the panelists shared the BLM at School Curriculum. This website shares histories of Black education including, but not limited to, the history of Black history month, the history of independent schools, and the history of prison education.

Tamara Anderson is one of the founding committee members of the National Black Lives Matter Week of Action at Schools, a founding member of the Racial Justice Organizing Committee, a founding member of Melanated Educators Collective, a founding member of Opt Out Philly, a previous steering committee member of the WE Caucus, a diversity consultant for the American Association of Physics Teachers, a Teach Truth organizer with Zinn Education Project, and on the National Advisory Council for Teaching Artists Guild (TAG). She shared: Principles for Building Anti-Racist Theatre Systems. This list is of the principles for building anti-racist theatre systems including an equitable presence, code of conduct, and a plethora of transformative practices. 

Panelist, Ayva Thomas, Assistant Director of Racial and Educational Justice for the Northshore School District in Washington, works to create the institutional conditions that are necessary for justice in education. She discussed means to decolonize education, specifically strategies in moving forward, unapologetically, building collectives, tangible change to contribute to change. People love people who are creative, but many times creativity/art is cut out when budgeting.  

Here are some examples from Black Lives Matter at School Week in DC this year—many of which include art. 

The room was asked, “What activities have you done with young ones to assist with the Decolonizing Arts Education with BLM schools?” Ayva mentioned having visits from local artists come & speak, and do activities with the children. She had recollections of her experience doing this one-on-one with a student of color. They paired off and just colored, engaging in colloquial conversation while doodling, building trust through art. It can be the little things, doesn’t have to be a formal activity.

Other specific ideas include:

  • Have students write poems about themselves and share with the class
  • Trace and cut out a shoe print and write, ‘in whose shoes we are walking in.’
  • Self-portraits to hang on the hallways
  • Having ‘themes of the month to showcase and update monthly such as Women’s History Month, Disability Awareness Month, etc.’ 
  • Make a giant poster of things that make us feel powerful. The word “powerful” was written on the center of a large piece of paper and people contributed by writing down what makes them feel powerful. At times when their source of what made them feel powerful didn’t come through, they could then lean onto their peer, when feeling less than powerful, recognizing power can come through variegated sources. 

In summary, every panelist shared their passion to creating accessible, inclusive, and uplifting environments collaboratively. They asked, “when you take your race away, who are you? What are you left with?” in reference to a quote by Tony Morrison. It is important for us as teaching artists to understand strategies to continue this pathway of decolonizing arts education with BLM at School. We have to recognize the reality of our social location, not just race, but culture. Walking down the street in New York is different than in Nebraska. No matter where we are, we can build a community within that space, make the space welcoming for all. From engaging in cross collaboration to understanding the norms of our upbringings, we ourselves have to continue to be consumers of art. It is imperative that we peel back the layers, come at it from a different lens, advocating within school districts and leveraging students voices. 

Resources shared during the panel:



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