Zoë Ackerman
Jul 4 · 8 min read

Inequity around access to arts education in LA County is rooted in two knotty, interwoven problems. First, while theater, music, dance, visual arts and media arts are available to some students at nearly every school in LA County, the quantity and quality of that education varies widely. Second, the students who receive the least arts education are most often Black, Latinx and Asian-American children, and children eligible for reduced and free meal plans

Art of Leadership planning team (left to right) Marie McCormick, Emily Jane Steinberg, Grace Shim, Liz Alperin Solms, Denise Grande, and Gillian McCarthy. Photo: Monica Almeida

These findings catalyzed the LA County Arts Education Collective, in collaboration with the Presencing Institute, to bring together hundreds of likely and unlikely allies committed to scaling arts education in a collective impact process rooted in equity and justice. How are they carrying this out?

Unifying the Field

The first move was the Arts Education Innovation Lab in 2017. More than 60 leaders convened to co-create a shared vision and “framework for action” around which this often dispersed and disconnected field could align their efforts. Gillian McCarthy, Program Manager at LA County Department of Arts and Culture, described the Lab as “bringing together people who are chronically not able to be in the same space.” Stakeholders included theater, music, dance, and visual arts educators and artists, city and county government officials, arts nonprofits, and school administrators — who over six months used Theory U as a process frame to engage in deep listening, learning journeys and distillation of that framework for action.

The five pillars of the “framework for action” that now animate the County’s arts education scaling strategy are:

  1. Every LA County resident acts on the belief that the arts are essential for healthy, thriving communities.
  2. A complete education includes the arts.
  3. The arts are interwoven into all aspects of teaching and learning.
  4. Every learner accesses new, innovative technologies that allow them to engage in the arts within and beyond the classroom, independently and with others.
  5. Creative, collaborative communities nourish all learners.

A key early insight was that the arts are viewed as a dessert to the main course of academic subjects — not essential to a student’s education, but rather a luxury or an afterthought. To effectively and equitably scale arts education, the Lab would need to disrupt this mental model.

A visioning exercise on “Clues about Scale and Equity” from the Innovation Lab. Photo: Grace Shim.

As the group drove towards a “framework for action,” they landed on “The Arts are Essential” as a key goal and theme of a public will campaign. “This is not your grandmother’s public will campaign,” says Pat Wayne, Program Director of CreateCA. Instead, it’s a bold and experimental set of actions that will communicate to policymakers and broader audiences that the arts are essential for every child in California — for social-emotional health, for brain development and as a tool to tackle the problems and challenges of modern society.

The Lab inspired leaders to partner strategically with and across County agencies including Parks & Recreation, the Office of Violence Prevention, Workforce Development and others. Denise Grande, Director of Arts Education at the LA County Department of Arts and Culture, explained:

“I came to think of [arts education] like a cell — and realized we’ve been focused on only the nucleus for a few decades. So we started to ask ourselves, what if we loosened up that focus and attempted to allow for other communities and systems to push on the external parts of the cell? Would this allow for different kinds of transformation?”

Participants in Art of Leadership share insights during 3-D sculpting. Photo: Monica Almeida

With the common agenda uniting them, Lab participants spun into action in a number of directions.

The California Arts Education Leadership Cohort

Eight leaders from across the state attended the Presencing Foundation Program in Berlin and when they came home, they co-initiated the California Arts Education Leadership Cohort — a network of 20 emerging and established arts education leaders from across California to collectively carry out the common vision of “arts as essential.” With equity at the heart of the work, a crucial decision was recruiting emerging leaders of color. This leadership development program was facilitated by Grace Shim and Marie McCormick from the Presencing Institute, an emerging and established leader pair themselves.

The network grappled with scaling arts education with principles of racial and economic justice at the fore. One of the urgent issues, as Grace Shim describes, was that “the work would require a different competence and way to hold yourself, a different understanding of how to ask questions when you’re looking at how racial prejudice is baked into systems.”

For example, in discussing Theory U’s “Four Levels of Conversation,” members highlighted the many ways structural racism oppresses the voices of people of color. In a deep dive conversation led by three members, the group sensed into specific examples where people and communities of color have been excluded, silenced or eclipsed in arts education conversational spaces. Through the consciousness-raising session, the group considered ways to build spaces where all participants were able to be fully and authentically present and represented.

For PI’s Liz Alperin Solms, these kinds of moments have “called on all of us to up our game. What is our racial justice philosophy? I feel a ‘cannot sleep’ kind of urgency around this.” Denise Grande articulated another important mental shift: “If you’re looking for systems change, what are we doing in every moment? Are we perpetuating the kind of collaboration or interaction that we want to spread?”

Art of Leadership participants work together in Seed dance. Photo: Monica Almeida

One of the challenges was around how to include emerging leaders in a meaningful way, beyond tokenism. Two leaders from the Cohort design a one-hour session on effective mentorship, which was delivered to Create CA’s Leadership Council, a guiding force in the development of the Public Will Campaign. Without the work of the CA Cohort and collective impact more broadly, Pat explained, “I might not have gotten here on my own. Systems change and collective impact work is being an agitator to unlock roadblocks,” whether that’s nurturing and building deep relationships with emerging leaders or strategically framing new public narratives.

The Art of Leadership

The “Art of Leadership,” a bespoke 5-day Theory U-based workshop series for a diverse group of 50-plus emerging and established arts educators within LA County and the surrounding region over 3 months followed. Its purpose was to give hard-worked arts educators the time, space and support to shift their own leadership mindset and practices to build their professional field around the vision of equity and justice. Grace Shim and Marie McCormick facilitated all three sessions, with Kate Johnson, Liz Alperin Solms, and Emily Jane Steinberg contributing Social Presencing Theater and Visual Presencing practices as guest artists and facilitators.

Members of the Art of Leadership cohort organized themselves around a set of prototypes — small experiments to break through some of the toughest obstacles to preparing professionals in the field to achieve the goals of scale and equity. Some include: accredited higher education courses for teaching artists; online database for professional development; an open online platform to share best practice; a pay equity information sharing and advocacy project; an Equity and Diversity index for funders; paid internships for low-income high school students and other efforts to co-create career ladders. Marie McCormick noted:

“These prototypes beautifully address the real needs and possibilities of Arts Education ecosystem — moving the work from intention to action. They build on the passions and skills of cohort members.”

Some of the lasting impacts in personal practice that participants report include:

  • I am trying to hold on to my daily morning meditation practice.
  • I am thinking and speaking about the arts ecosystem in ways that I have not before.
  • I am letting go of fears and being brave enough to participate authentically.
  • I am really committed to abolishing racism, and really digging deep to really understand it, and committing to my own contribution to this work.
  • I am bringing pleasure into my own work and claiming space to contribute my voice in an authentic way.
  • I am really considering the pacing of my facilitation with the intention of providing space for people to experience depth in their thinking.
  • I am challenging myself within a culture that can often feel competitive for resources, and breaking open to share whatever resources I can within the arts ecosystem.
Art of Leadership participant journals in response to her 3-D sculpture. Photo: Monica Almeida

Taken as a whole — the Lab, Art of Leadership, CA Cohort, and statewide Public Will Campaign — have made significant waves in California. In addition to the launch of the campaign, here are some things to watch for in 2019–2020:

  • The Lab’s work forms the foundation of a comprehensive scaling strategy, with partners from 40 other County departments that touch youth and families.Transformational relationships are coming out of the regional planning process. The group expects more of these kinds of synergies in the year ahead.
  • A project coordinator has been hired to support prototypes that resulted from the Innovation Lab and additional prototypes developed through the Art of Leadership. The goal is to learn from specific prototypes that aim to effect broad-scale systems change and to generate strategies to activate a new LA County Regional Plan for Arts Education.
  • Collaborators are thinking about how to strengthen regional and statewide leadership networks, including the Art of Leadership, the California Cohort and the Youth Advisory Council. The group knows that people at different times in their career, from different communities — regardless of positional authority — are leaders. The challenge is to design structures that can effectively hold and nurture leaders at all stages in their careers.

In just a few short years, LA County has shifted from an ecosystem with several exciting but disconnected arts education programs and leaders to a connected and empowered ecosystem — unified by a robust framework for action, a solid scaling plan, exciting prototypes to scale equity for professionals in the field and students, and a few very promising networks.

Graphic facilitator Emily Jane Steinberg captures ideas and connections during group reflections during Art of Leadership. Photo: Monica Almeida

Thank you to Hannah Scharmer for her help with conducting interviews and brainstorming for this piece. A big thanks to the interviewees and Rachel Hentsch and Sarina Ruiter-Bouwhuis for their editing support.

Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

Zoë Ackerman

Written by

MA Candidate at Tufts in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning, interested in popular education, writing, and transformation.

Field of the Future Blog

We believe it’s possible to create results that serve the wellbeing of all

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