Opinion: Why students make the best arts education advocates

There’s an irony surrounding education reform and advocacy.  Namely, that the beneficiaries of so much work and effort – the students -- are rarely consulted. 

Granted, student involvement in education reform has its limitations. Most students in the K-12 public education system cannot vote. As full time students, there sometimes aren’t enough hours in the day for sleeping let alone effective advocacy.  But most importantly, many students think their voices don’t have the weight that adult voices do. This last reason is the easiest to change because it’s simply not true. 

Arts education is exalted as a way to find your voice. So why not allow studentS to speak up for their right to keep speaking? Interning at the California Alliance after years of being a student involved in a public school’s drama, dance, and choir programs made me realize arts advocacy doesn’t have to (and arguably shouldn’t) be as exclusive as it may seem.

1. They know what they’re talking about
Unlike adults who more likely than not are removed from the realities of arts education in public schools, students in these programs experience daily what they are fighting to save and the deficiencies they must ameliorate.  Their vision is driven not by memory or nostalgia, but by an intimate familiarity. 
2. Sheer numbers
Let’s be honest. There’s a whole lot of students in the state of California. Over 6.2 million in fact.  Even if a fraction of these students wrote a letter to their representative, organized an event to celebrate the arts, or just flexed their social media skills in its favor, the arts education cause would gain unprecedented amounts of visibility.
3. Trained Voices
All students have the capacity to be effective advocates, but arts students in particular have the advantage of tremendous experience in expression.  Advocacy may evoke the kind of public speaking entailed only in theater, but truly it exists across all the disciplines: all artists - whether actors or painters - have a finely tuned ability to say something. Why not use one of the most esteemed outcomes of what we are fighting for to help us fight?

Students are an invaluable and integral part of effective arts education advocacy.  This relationship, however, goes both ways. Advocacy offers students another way to develop their voice and become politically empowered young adults. It creates a transparency in a process that otherwise leaves students to be helpless spectators.
From my own experience, I found that my high school’s once a year “Celebrate the Arts” performance – intended to encourage support of the arts in a school district poised to cut them out – evoked the most passion from the performers, despite being secondary to productions like the musical and dance concerts.  Singing about the death of a far off king’s son is moving, yes. But the threat of the death of something so close to the heart produces performances that shatter.

Join us: If you’d like to be involved in student advocacy efforts, join us the Student Voices Page on Facebook. If you’re in Northern California consider joining the  Berkeley Rep Teen Council; if you’re in Southern California check out  Center Theatre Group’s Student Ambassadors Program.

Astghik Hairapetian is the LA County Arts Commission Intern for the Alliance this summer.  She graduated from San Marino High School after an inordinate number of hours spent in the theater, gaining an appreciation for the arts as a core component of a well-rounded education. She will enter her second year at the University of British Columbia come September.