Sunday, December 14, 2014

Reflections from the Conference for Community Arts Education from Talia Gibas

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on…………………"

I wanted to attend last month's National Guild for Community Arts Education conference, and blog on it, but a conflicting schedule made that impossible.  I reached out to Guild Executive Director Jonathan Herman to see if someone on his staff might want to report on the outcomes.  I had in mind Heather Ikemire from the Guild, as I had long been an admirer.  But, of course, that was a really inconsiderate thought on my part, as Heather was one of the point people for all the planning and operations of the conference. Heather was kind enough to find me someone to report; and not just someone, but Talia Gibas, who to my mind is one of the best of the new cohort of arts administrator leaders on the horizon. Her work is impressive on multiple levels.   I am deeply grateful to Jonathan, Heather and especially Talia.

Here's Talia's bio:

Talia Gibas

Talia Gibas is Arts for All Manager at the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and a member of the editorial team of Createquity, a research-backed investigation of the most important issues in the arts. Arts for All is the Los Angeles County arts education initiative dedicated to making the arts core in K-12 public education. Working closely with the Los Angeles County Office of Education, Talia is responsible for arts education professional development programming for school district leaders. She also manages grant programs that support those leaders and connect school districts with teaching artists and arts organizations throughout the County.  With Createquity, she works to make high-value information and analysis about critical issues in our field available to current and emerging decision-makers across the sector.

Talia earned her A.B. in Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities from the University of Chicago, and Ed.M in Arts in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  She currently serves on Americans for the Arts’s Arts Education Council. In her non-arts life, she is an avid endurance athlete and proud member of California Triathlon.

Here is Talia's informative personal report on this important conference:

Reflections from the Conference for Community Arts Education
By Talia Gibas

The National Guild for Community Arts Education recently held its 77th annual conference in Los Angeles, California. As a first-time attendee, I was asked to share personal reflections from the gathering, paying particular attention to high-level takeaways.  My observations are informed by my background, the difficult choices I made in attending sessions, and work commitments that required I miss highlights such as the conference keynote address. I was impacted nonetheless, and what follows is a synthesis of the big questions, concerns, and points of inspiration that remain weeks after the fact.

As you read, please keep a few things in mind about me:

 My expertise is in in-school arts education. I work for Arts for All, an initiative that supports school districts and arts organizations in their effort to strengthen arts education during the school day. Much of what was covered at the Guild focused on out-of-school time – new territory to me.

I heart data. A big chunk of my work is to support assessment and evaluation practice. I’m also a member of the editorial team of Createquity, a research-backed investigation of the most important issues in the arts. I believe strengthening our research and assessment practices can make things better for students.

I jumped around a lot. The conference offered several tracks to promote “field building.” One explored the Creative Youth Development movement (more on that later) and the other focused on teaching artist development and pathways. In an attempt to get outside my comfort zone while attending sessions that relate to my work, I charted a winding path that touched on a number of different themes.

The Color and Chaos of the Big Tent

Two things stand out as the most delightful aspects of the conference. The first was the opportunity to interact with an inspiring array of individuals who represented in school, out-of-school, and community practice. The second was the energy of the gathering. The conference theme, “catalyzing positive change through arts education,” resonated through an emphasis on social justice that ran through sessions, presentations, and informal conversations. We gathered during a fraught week. President Obama announced executive actions to change our immigration system. The conference plenary speaker, Ron Chew, took the stage with mixed emotion, noting he was the son of illegal immigrants. The grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, had not yet been announced, but hints of frustration and despair drifted in the air. I saw three people weep openly in sessions. Yet through it all was a palpable sense that we have a critical role to play in making change. More than anything, I appreciated the Guild’s efforts to demonstrate how our work pushes up against big, thorny issues.

Those efforts, set inside the colorful and chaotic tent of people who identify as “arts educators,” left me with a number of questions. To what extent can and should we seek firm definitions around and within the work that we call “arts education”? As a group, how do we come to consensus amidst competing – and sometimes dissonant – priorities? Do we even need consensus? And if we don’t, how do we make sure we learn from one another despite the pressures of time, funding, and occasional divergent ideology?

Firming up the Edges 

Many of these questions germinated during the first day of the conference, when I attended a full-day session on Creative Youth Development (CYD). A relatively new focus area for the National Guild, the core principles of CYD have been around for a while, but began to formalize last year during a national summit in Boston.

The summit, co-hosted by the Guild, the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, generated a policy agenda and five broad priority areas:  building collective impact to improve youth outcomes; contributing to community development; facilitating social change and social justice; documenting and communicating program impact, and funding and sustainability. Long-term goals include aligning the efforts of CYD practitioners and illuminating work across the country. There was also, at several points throughout the session, mention of the possibility of unlocking “arts-adjacent funding.”

“Arts-adjacent funding” is an intriguing but awkward term, one that I think refers to money that currently supports youth social services. I say “I think” because while the CYD conversation had palpable energy throughout, it did not leave me with a clear understanding of what creative youth development is. When the session concluded my best guess was that it refers to programs that a) take place primarily outside of school, b) target adolescents and young adults, c) incorporate creative endeavors, and d) promote social change. The subtleties of the definition are still being worked out, and the role of social change appeared particularly contentious among session attendees. To some, framing CYD as a social change effort makes it distinctive and creates a home for arts organizations whose primary goals for youth are neither purely academic nor artistic. To others, the focus was unnecessarily exclusive. A community music school, for example, may not see social change as part of its mission, but believes it contributes to youth development. Shouldn’t there still be room for that school in the CYD movement?

We are an inherently welcoming and collaborative bunch, and putting firm definitions on things is not easy.  CYD may evolve into a commonly accepted label for a small but vibrant subset of our sector, or into a trendy term used to refer to pretty much any arts education program. With all due respect to organizations who worry they will “miss out” if their missions do not align with the CYD framework, I hope it is the former. Arts educators have an important role to play both inside and outside our outmoded systems of K-12 and higher education. Too many young people fall outside of or suffer through those systems. Engaging with them to build new and different safety nets is vital.

Conversations about CYD are exciting but underscore the need to create constructive boundaries while maintaining a commitment to open exchange. Other aspects of my conference experience, all against the backdrop of the national sociopolitical headlines of the week, reminded me how hard that can be.

From Rallying Cry to Next Step

At the closing awards luncheon, three young women from the wonderful local organization Get Lit delivered a powerful spoken word piece on the unconscious, ugly “truths” we reinforce for students every day. The performance punched us in the gut; then the lights came up and the rules of luncheon dictated it was time for chitchat and salad.

My bewilderment in that moment reminded me of a late night years ago when I finished the first draft of a piece of fiction I’d labored over for a month. The piece contained turns of phrase I loved, transitions I hated, and a good deal of rambling. I was at once anxious to keep working at it, and at a near-exhausted loss with where to start. Staring at the pages I could only think, “But… now what do I do?”

I doubt I was alone in my impatience. Given the state of our world, impatience -- not to mention frustration, or even anger – is a given. We know things need to be improved, and we know those improvements are urgent. How to reconcile urgency with pragmatism or thoughtful prioritization is something we all struggle with, illustrated by my mixed emotions moving from one focal point of my conference to another.

I balanced my sessions on creative youth development and social justice with sessions on student assessment and data-driven decision making. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I felt I was moving between two different conferences. The passion, excitement, and slippery definitions of the former were balanced with charts and graphs in the latter. By the time National Guild Service Award recipient Margie Reese, in the middle of a fervent call for us to “launch a revolution,” declared paying evaluation consultants to be an unconscionable decision when children have immediate needs, I realized research and assessment are still widely perceived as millstones rather than supports. “Data has been banged up a bit at this conference” one participant ruefully observed after the luncheon. I was left wondering how the sense of sincerity and spontaneity Margie recalled in talking about the civil rights movement can reconcile with the pragmatism and patience “data-driven decision making” implies.

To me, both derive from our natural impulse to ask questions – questions that challenge authority, the status quo, our own assumptions, or the assumptions of people who came before us. We must ask questions – thoughtful, probing questions—without falling into paralysis, and without waiting for some abstract sense of permission to do our work. Sometimes we seek the permission in the form of a glossy report; other times we wait for a broad consensus on the best way to move forward. As I noted earlier, however, consensus may not be possible in a tent as colorful and crowded as ours. Perhaps our challenge is not to move in lockstep together. Perhaps our work – and the role of organizations such as the National Guild – is to create meeting spaces where we can put creative pressure on one another. Our tent is a noisy, frayed space where we bump up against each other, look each other in the eye, and ask questions. New people enter, others leave, and some set up new camps next door. If it’s a chaotic space, fine. It’s still a place where we can imagine how to transform the field outside into a more vibrant and fertile place.

Thank you Talia.

Have a great week, and stay sane during the holidays.

Don't Quit

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