Opening doors in Washington: sending students to speak up for theatre
The most important national arts advocacy event of the year will soon be upon us. Arts Advocacy Day, sponsored by Americans for the Arts, takes place April 8-9, in Washington, D.C. The event draws hundreds of arts advocates from throughout the country, all of whom are committed to speaking up on behalf of the arts and arts education. Registration is still open.
Also there is still time to encourage your students to submit an essay to Democracyworks, the Educational Theatre Association’s annual essay competition. The winning essayist receives $250 in cash and $1,500 toward expenses to attend Arts Advocacy Day. That student, along with everyone else in attendance, will spend one day learning how to make an effective advocacy pitch, and another on Capitol Hill visiting Congressional offices. Ben Martin, a long-time Thespian Troupe director and former EdTA Board member, has been a regular at this event for several years. Currently, Ben is the interim executive director for the Missouri Alliance for Arts Education. Here’s his take on Arts Advocacy Day and what it’s like when students step up on behalf of arts education.
The office door opens and you see a calm room with two or three young, professional-looking individuals busily occupied with various tasks. One politely approaches you. You tell her name and that you have an appointment. She invites you to sit down until you can be seen. The Congressional representative (or more likely, an aide) enters the room and a cordial but reserved conversation ensues. You present your position on one or two legislative issues, a few questions are asked and you depart wondering whether you have had any impact at all. That sums up the sort of standard meeting I’ve had numerous times in the offices of Congress during Arts Advocacy Day in Washington, D. C. However, there have been some notable exceptions and some of them have involved the winners of EdTA’s DemocracyWorks Essay contest. There is an entirely different energy in the room when a conscientious and concerned young person walks in. Even the most hardened congressional aide views this as an opportunity to show someone who is just starting their citizenship journey that the system does work. They listen as our student speaks. They ask questions trying to engage the student in talking about themselves. They do everything they can to make the student feel comfortable. And in so doing, they open themselves up to the message the student has come to promote.
Over the four years that I’ve been attending Arts Advocacy Day, I’ve had the privilege to escort some of our essayists to Congressional offices. I have come out of those meetings with some wonderfully positive reactions, even when I know the representative in that office is not likely to be a great friend of the arts or arts education. But because the visit was led by a student, he or she listened more carefully and came away from the meeting touched by a real-life example of how arts in education and the community can make a difference in someone’s life.
It has been a joy for me to be able to support DemocracyWorks with a monthly contribution. I know that my dollars are going directly to a student who is having a life-changing experience for those few days in our nation’s capital. I also have witnessed the impact that an impassioned young voice can have on people who were probably once just as idealistic, but may have lost some of that optimism in the rough and tumble world of Washington, D.C. politics.
I would urge you to consider supporting this or other programs that give our students a chance to have an impact on our decision makers. We have an incredible resource sitting in our classrooms and working in our theatres. Not only do these wonderful young human beings have the potential to inspire us with their artistic dedication and skill, but they also possess the ability to re-ignite the passion for public service in our leaders. When that happens (and I’ve seen it), it’s an incredible moment. When a student walks into a Congressional office and connects with his or her representative, they just might change a vote, a policy, or a long-held attitude. The meetings at Arts Advocacy Day might be brief, but I do believe that the energy created by a student visit persists for a very long time. So think about attending if you can, or offering financial support for Democracyworks. You may change a student’s life, and maybe a vote.