Apr 08 2012

Art and Social Change

by at 9:49 pm under Uncategorized

Chapter 5 of Learning Power examines how various educators in L.A. bring social justice into their classrooms. The photograph on the first page of Chapter 5, which shows a group of young learners studying the “Freedom Train” in the front of the classroom reminds me of a group of first graders I worked with over spring break at Kenilworth Elementary. One way Kenilworth Elementary students were learning about social injustices and race relations was by gathering around their teacher reading a picture book about Martin Luther King Jr. and his sermons. Together, eager first graders gathered around their schoolteachers with questions like “What is racism?” “Who started it?” “Does it exist today?”

As I watched the teacher expertly explain the answers to these questions in a way that first graders could understand and juniors in college, like me, could digest, I started to think back on my own personal schooling. I cannot remember precisely the first time I learned the terms “racism” or “prejudices,” but I do recall that I was older than ten years of age. It seems like students are being introduced to new ideas, new technologies, and new ways of thinking much sooner now than they did when I was younger. One way of introducing complex theories and advanced topics to those who are younger is by using art as a means of conveying ideas.

On several occasions in Chapter 5, Oakes, Rogers, and Lipton tell of how students looking for ways to actively develop their voices within their schools turned to poetry for inspiration. For example, Teaching to Change LA, an online journal with UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, began their first issue with a student reading Walt Whitman’s “Chants Democratic” (79). What followed was a series of submissions from students who wrote speeches that politicians could give if they actually cared about conditions in South L.A. (80). Some submissions were even Whitmanesque in their composition and challenged students to engage their creativity constructively to best convey messages.

Later in chapter 5, the authors tell of Laurence Tan’s fifth-grade class at 99th Street Elementary in South L.A. that participated in a spoken word festival for their respective district. Some of his students created a hip-hop poetry dance entitled, “Equal Education Now.”

Art has often been utilized by some as a means for social change. In the twentieth century, some critics called Ralph Ellison’s, Invisible Man, a political novel that advocates for social change through art and music. In Scotland, a country grounded in literature, Robert Burns’ poem, “A Man’s a Man for A” was sung at the reopening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.

While art certainly has its advantages with respects to raising awareness, cultivating voice, and projecting ideas, like some critics, I would argue that it is limited in scope and power. Even though the efforts using art proved effective at expading student horizons, from what the authors write, it does not seem like it encouraged other forms of larger changes in society. The activities described in Chapter 5 seem to have been efficient at collecting and organizing data as well as producing original art yet it could only do so much for a school let alone a district or state or nation.

This is not to say that I think the work done in South L.A., which is described in Chapter 5, is useless. On the contrary, it serves as valuable lessons for young learners who might carry those lessons with them in future advocacy or professional work. However, I think more needs to be done.

What do you think the role of art should be in fostering social change? Does it serve a purpose? If so, what? Have you yourself ever participated in the type of artwork describe in Chapter 5 (maybe something like that of the “Equal Education Now”)?

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