Cultivating Equity and Access in Arts Education

By Caryn Cooper

Excerpted from the 11th issue of the TAG Quarterly

November 2017, marked the 19th annual National Dance Education Organization (NDEO) conference. Dance educators, administrators, artists, and advocates gathered in San Antonio, TX, to discuss ways to mobilize as a collective field to increase equity and access in the arts (and specifically dance education) for all students. It is the vision of the NDEO that all people regardless of their gender, age, race, culture, socioeconomic status, ability, and interest will have access to quality dance education programs.

As part of the conversation of cultivating equity and access in the arts, Kerrianne Cody- dance educator at a New York City public elementary school, and myself- arts administrator for Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts (FCCA)- an arts organization based in the NYC area, led a discussion on advancing community partnerships between K-12 schools and arts organizations.

Working in the arts is about collaboration. There is only so much that we can do separately. We are often limited in our resources- whether it is space, funding, supplies, etc. The arts tend to be on the chopping block when funds or programs need to be cut- which has been even more visible recently on the national level. But, despite these challenges, how can we ban together and create partnerships to ensure our students have equitable access to the arts? How can we use our limited resources as opportunities for our communities that are often underserved in the arts? In what ways can we develop and enhance community partnerships through the arts?

As a public elementary school based in the New York City area, as part of the school’s programming, they offer students in grades Prek-5 a scaffolded arts standards aligned dance curriculum with a balance between creative movement and performance technique. FCCA offers education programs to schools that provides meaningful connections between classroom subject areas and the arts. As both her school and my organization are located within the same neighborhood, it seemed that we could both work together to provide access to high quality and equitable arts education experiences.

Before developing our partnership, there were five things that we considered:

1. Commonalities in our missions and goals
Although we worked in two different sectors within the field of arts education (a public school and a community based arts organization), we realized that it was the mission and goal of us both to expose children and their families to a variety of arts and dance experiences that one wouldn’t traditionally have access to.

2. Who is in our community
Kerrianne and I both knew each other prior to working in our respective jobs. However, despite that both of us worked in the same neighborhood, she had no idea that my organization was located only a short 10 minute drive from her school! She often took her students on a 45 minute to an hour bus ride into Manhattan for similar programs that we offered right in her own backyard. Once she learned about FCCA and the services we provide to schools, it was a no-brainer that she now wanted to collaborate.

3. Knowing the populations that we serve
Since we are both located in the same community, we also noticed that we are looking to serve the same populations- students in schools through the arts. We asked ourselves, why compete to serve the same people, when we can work together and provide even more access and equitable arts programs?

4. Working with/Support academic disciplines
As artists, we already know that not all students learn the same way, and that the arts can be used as a vehicle to teach different subjects and skills. To us, the connections are clear between seeing a cultural dance performance and social studies. These are the cases that we were able to present to school administrators and fellow classroom teachers to get them on board.

5. Flexibility with funding
Who is going to pay for these wonderful arts programs? That is the question that we (and I am sure many of you) ask. Funding in the arts is always something that is scarce. It requires a level of flexibility on both ends to work within a limited budget, all while not totally compromising the artistic integrity of the program. In our case, we were able to meet each other in the middle to help cover the costs.

As you seek to develop new connections and contacts in the new year, I encourage to consider the following as you build partnerships and collaborations:

1. Research who is in your community
As much as it is attractive to see a performance or exhibition at a large, well-known arts institution, there may be a number of small community based organizations located in your neighborhood. Or, you may feel that you are alone in your neck of the woods. I encourage to research the different arts organizations, companies, museums, arts councils, and networks. You may be surprised by what you find!

2. Connect on commonalities in your mission and goals
You as the school, the arts organization, or individual artist may work in completely different sectors and have your own personal goals and missions. But if you actually are able to sit down and hear more about what the other person or organization does, you may find that you are not that different after all. Schedule meetings with folks you see as potential partners and look to find out more about each other and possible collaborations. You may find it is a perfect fit. But, you may also find that it is not a good fit, and that is ok. But you will never know until you sit down and talk.

3. Know the populations you serve (or seek to serve)
If the two of you are located in the same community, chances are that you are serving the same people. In addition to that, actually know what your populations are interested in, what kinds of programs are they looking for. Don’t assume!

4. Flexibilities to work across academic disciplines
Working in the arts is about collaboration, not only with each other within the arts, but also outside the arts. Have an open mind. You may be surprised of the kinds of projects and programs you can do.

5. Be creative on where to find funding
As much as we struggle to find funding for the arts, in some cases, it is because we are all fighting after the same sliver of the same pie. There are other pies out there that we may not have traditionally thought of. Reach out to your local community/neighborhood banks, research smaller or lesser known family foundations, talk to your local elected officials. They may not be able to offer large sums of money, but in our case, every dollar helps.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out the rest of the TAG Quarterly, here!

About the author: Caryn Cooper is an arts administrator, educator, and writer from New York. She has trained in ballet in the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD), teaches dance under the direction of Dr. Martha Eddy- Moving for Life, and works as the Education Coordinator at Flushing Council on Culture and the Arts