Empowering Arts Education to Design an Anti-Racist World: Part 1

By Joni Starr

Over my career as a theatre practitioner and educator, I have heard and also said many times that theatre is a reflection of the human condition. So wow! Now, in this time of civil turmoil and struggle for black individuals to be seen, heard, and valued, I feel it truly is a time to reflect on what it means to be human—what it means to wrestle with the difficult self-examination of being a part of the human race.

In the making of theatre there are two essential elements: the actor and the audience; or the participant and the spectator. A spectator often sits in a darkened space listening to the dialogue, letting the story wash over them and hopefully move them to some reaction: laughter, contemplation, celebration, frustration, empathy, understanding. The participant, by contrast, stands in the light and embodies the story. They spend weeks in preparation, living fully inside of the character. They are actively making choices about their performance. They are presenting the human condition for all to see.

At this time I ask myself: Am I more of a participant or spectator in this current human condition? What value does each role bring in my life? As an arts educator, what is my responsibility to myself, my students, my colleagues, my community?

With these questions in mind, I recently read Black Lives Matter, An Open Letter to Arts Educators on Constructing an Anti-Racist Agenda by Dr. James Rolling, Jr. He is the President-Elect of the National Art Education Association (NAEA), Chair of the NAEA Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Commission and a Professor of Arts Education at Syracuse University. His letter touched me deeply, especially this:

So, what if? What if art educators associated with NAEA honed in on this broadest definition of art as a meaning-making system—well-suited to generating new understandings in the face of senseless acts of violence and inhumanity? What if art teachers taught students not only to make the world more beautiful, not only to express their ideas and emotions, not only to ask provocative questions, not only to solve problems creatively—but also to design an anti-racist world? 

 Well, this makes sense to me! I will fully embrace the role of participant, not of spectator, and I will use my art to make meaning, not only to reflect the human condition. I will pay attention to the critical process of making choices for a clear purpose. This is a shift in my artistic educational paradigm and one that excites me.

In his letter, Dr. Rolling includes a framework of suggested interventions supported by 12 actions steps, from the micro to the macro levels, that speak directly to how arts educators, artists, arts professionals and arts supporters can start to “design an anti-racist world.”

So, now there are new questions to ask and I want to include you, too. What can you do in your sphere of influence? How can you contribute to the meaning-making system? How will you use arts education to design an anti-racist world? How will you become a participant and not only a spectator?

I recommend reading Dr. Rolling’s letter as a start.



As a part of the Michigan Assessment Consortium (MAC) the MAEIA project also adheres to and supports the recently posted Statement: Equity and Justice for Michigan Students. Click here to read. To learn more about the MAC, click here.

Joni Starr is an Arts Integration Specialist and Theatre Educator. She served as a MAEIA Founding Contributor.






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