The Importance of Equity and Diversity in Art Education

by Wisdom Baty

I believe art has a universal language of engagement, transformation, and education. I've come to realize through teaching and parenting that art is not only vital to the growth of young people, it is necessary. Art creates a vehicle that can change the hearts and minds of people. For as long as I can remember, visual art has always been fun and challenging; it came natural to me. It’s been my safe haven. However, in school there were always two spectrums where I resided: the first being in art classes engaged and committed to assignments, the second being the only black girl/woman student in the class. I slowly, but surely became aware of the absence of my own reflection. Most artists I learned about rarely looked liked me. These artists and art styles were far removed from my everyday living experiences. Even when introduced to higher level art history classes in college, I noticed that there were little historical references to cultures outside of Europe.

Why wasn’t I being explicitly taught African American art heritage by my teachers? I began to contemplate what institutional systems of race, class, and gender were in place. Who decided which stories were worth telling, and which ones to be omitted? Where was my reflection and why was it so small compared to European artist contributions? Who had the lessons and books on global artists and movements that essentially ‘birthed’ this thing we call art?

Access to instruction, access to points of view, and transparency to critically analyze these points of view are three major concerns for arts education today. Black and brown students make up the majority of Chicago Public Schools population, therefore these access points are affected by class, gender, social status and race. According to CPS statistics, African American students make up 39.3%, while Hispanic students make up 45.6% of the current student enrollment. White students in stark contrast, consist of 9.4% of CPS student enrollment as of 2014. Even with this demographic makeup, art works by artists of color continue to remain at the margins of the art educational system in America.

The National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) has estimated that 85% of public schools in the United States offer some level of art instruction. Although this sounds like a passing grade, there lies an equity gap between low-poverty schools and high-poverty schools. Art students who are economically disadvantaged are not offered the same enrichment experiences as affluent suburban art students. This gap widens when we look at access to educational resources, availability of arts instruction, accurate historical references, diverse course offerings, and course content. Historical art contributions from Asia, Africa, Australia, Antarctica and the Americas are of significant importance, yet our schools continue to uplift a Euro-centric role of art appreciation. This equity gap denies children of color insight to see themselves in a rich historical narrative. Current educational art practices in schools continue the perpetuation of inaccurate and incomplete art education nationwide, limiting possibilities for a truly honest learning experience.

There are three major effects on students overall development in schools that do not foster fair and truthful art education. First, students that have limited self-reflection in art education produce low self-esteem because a child is constantly searching for their likeness in the visual world. As Frida Kahlo said so eloquently “I paint myself because I am often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” This is absolutely correct. What better place to see oneself than in an art class?

Second, inadequate art education causes an increase in school dropout rates. Due to the lack of relevant cultural exposure and positive personal connections in educational environment students tune out and begin to act out. Statistics show teenagers and young adults of low socioeconomic status who have a history of in-depth arts involvement show better academic outcomes than low-socioeconomic status youth with less arts involvement. Students exposed to a rich arts education earn better grades and have higher rates of college enrollment and achievement. It has also been proven that art allows students to access multiple areas of the brain. Art encourages students to become well-rounded and better problem solvers. Consistent exposure to art education in schools creates curious children with increased higher order thinking skills. A variety of artistic disciplines foster self-management and impulse control for children, awakening in them their unique creative ability.

Third, a culturally inclusive art education helps to put an end to the continuation of negative racial and gender stereotypes, greatly benefiting the holistic developing of all children.

When I started teaching visual arts, I wanted and needed to make a change. With the support of the elementary school I work at, I have been crafting the type of curriculum that wasn’t present in my art education. In my art class, students learn about purpose in art from a world perspective. We expose students to various artists and techniques who bring awareness to social change, both ancient and contemporary. We examine issues of class, race and gender. My curriculum includes project-based instruction that covers such visionaries as Kerry James Marshall and his use of melanin; Frida Kahlo and her portraitures; and Ai Weiwei and his use of history and text in pottery.

Students are encouraged to look at their neighborhoods with a critical art gaze. In class we’ve turned plastic bags into wearable jewelry and made campaign posters about issues of gang and domestic violence in their communities. When students learned about the middle passage and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, they wanted to become super heroes and re-imagine how they would help save enslaved Africans, as well as dismantle the unjust system of American chattel slavery. We’ve even crocheted together—both boys and girls. This type of curriculum truly empowers innovation.

Art tells the story of a people. By teaching and creating with cultural appreciation in mind, art increases student empowerment, helps destroy negative stereotypes, promotes innovation and equips students with the necessary tools to become more aware of their own agency on a local and global perspective. Art informs us of cultures past and present. Without art, we couldn’t possibly understand the world we live, learn, play, work and love in. In order for educators to accurately understand our world there, has to be equity in this storytelling, especially in our schools, or else we will continue to omit legacies of truth and beauty from diverse cultures.

Photo: Shutterstock

Wisdom Baty was born in Brooklyn and raised on Chicago’s North side. She identifies herself as being an urban-based artist. She is skilled in drawing, painting, mural-making, and printmaking. Wisdom earned her BFA in Studio Arts from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She currently makes art and teaches art in Chicago.

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