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Arts education engages student voice and makes the unseen visible

posted Aug 25, 2019, 8:17 PM by Ontario East
How Equity and Social Justice are interwoven with Making at The International Society for Education through Art World Congress
 
Written by Geneviève Cloutier

I drove to Vancouver this summer to participate in the International Society for Education in the Arts (InSea) World Congress. There, I was moved by many presentations and exhibitions that worked through the power of the arts in relation to identity, multiplicity, inclusion, and equity. As someone who is passionate about art and social justice, I believe that RESKN would appreciate how the arts break barriers and open up possibilities. The arts can and should play a pivotal role in creating equitable spaces. For this reason, I am very excited to share a few examples from InSea. 

This conference is international in scope, and had not been hosted in Canada since 1995. Having it in a University that has made wonderful advancements in processes of Reconciliation was inspiring. The Conference Chairs and organizers appropriately designated 4 themes under the crucial umbrella of “Making”, including: Place, Indigenize, Identity, and Experiment. Within art education contexts, “making” reveals and/or creates many processes, experiences, and bodies of knowledge. Researchers, teachers and artists were asked to bring this to light. These spaces get at an important component of what equitable education is in need of: creative spaces whereby everyone is heard – whereby everyone can create and reflect their own voice, and be seen in ways that honour who they are. Here, we can begin to honour equitable education. 

Doctor Leah Burns presented her PhD about equity and community art education at the Conference. Her definition was something that I looked towards as I found connections in the Conference Programming. As she seeks to demonstrate how inequity permeates many educational contexts, she defines Equity as follows: 

Equity can be defined as fair or just treatment, as opposed to equality which refers to equal treatment. Equity recognizes the impact of unequal historical   and contemporary conditions that create an unequal environment where beings exist on a spectrum from highly privileged to highly disadvantaged. Equal treatment therefore does not constitute fair or just treatment. How equity might be conceived and enacted must take into account the multiple dimensions of being. This may include: class, race, gender, sexuality, culture, ethnicity, language, ability, health, age, religion, spirituality, geographic region, species, etc. (Burns, 2018, xiii).

Hence, working towards equity requires that we understand how multiple forces result in reinforcing inequality and exclusion. Moreover, it necessitates that we make space for place, Indigeneity, identity, and experimentation. As many authors who presented at InSea contend, we can begin to combat this from an art context, it is all about wayfinding for learner and voice-centred processes. In times of social crises, we can reimagine equitable possibilities for the future through the arts, because the arts play a crucial role as we listen, honour traditional knowledge, consult, ideate, design, and respond.
 
The conference themes have been taken up by many researchers who are looking for equitable spaces. Settler colonial processes are happening Internationally, and researchers are looking towards art and making in order to find reconciliation practices. Sylvia Esser, for example, presented “Indigenizing Art Education in an Inclusive Learning Context: Reforming Art Education in Namibian Schools”. Here, she promotes the crucial praxis of honouring Indigenous modes of making in the classroom by bringing light to how traditional knowledge creates stronger connections between home and school. 

Shannon Leddy and Lorrie Miller offered a workshop titled: “Weaving Together Slow and Indigenous Pedagogies: An Axiology for Making”. Shannon Leddy, a Métis teacher and PhD in British Columbia, has made it her mission to create equitable and decolonized education through Indigenous art education. As an accomplice and ally, Lorrie Miller has witnessed equitable pedagogy in Indigenous African contexts. These practices were interwoven in order to give an experiential glimpse into to international and connected Indigenous pedagogies. Equitable pedagogies were abundant as researchers, knowledge keepers and allies were attuned to mindful relational dialogue within creative processes. Here, “Making” activates the conference themes with equitable spaces in mind. As we shall see, equity becomes more possible when diverse voices are honoured through the arts.

This is true in multiple contexts and spaces. Rolf Laven offered compelling reasons for why arts-based storytelling creates space for social inclusion. He finds in his work, for example, that graphic novels (visualized stories) that children create in Refugee Camps in Nigeria result in self-empowerment. This work extends to refugees in public school contexts, and with anyone experiencing displacement in institutional settings. Similarly, Kate Collins shared work being done in an after-school program called Youth Artists and Allies taking Action in Society (YAAAS!), a University graduate course that partners with a Refugee youth space. They have an interdisciplinary program that is “linguistically responsive, culturally sustaining, asset-driven, and trauma-informed”. Importantly, in both examples, the arts are employed as a method for learner-centred expression for those who have been displaced and marginalized by political, social and racial displacement.

Art plays a crucial role in combatting marginalization in many contexts. In another example, Juan Castro speaks about a project geared towards honouring multiple voices in pluralistic settings. The SOMEONE (SOcial Media EducatiON Every day) initiative “consists of a web-based portal of multimedia materials aimed at preventing hate speech and building resilience towards radicalization that leads to violent extremism”. This project is digitally and visually responsive towards hate speech against marginalized communities in and around schools, and offers a generous amount of conceptual and practical tools for educators to implement in their classrooms. For example, “visualizing empathy” is about teens giving “voice to their identities, cultures and values” through artistic representations of their lives on social media. Consequently, it is about experiencing the feeling of being in others’ shoes – a common thread in arts-based pedagogies.

Art, by way of creating empathy and connection, can be a vehicle to work through social exclusion. Ricardo Marin-Viadel expressed his generative experiences of implementing collaborative arts-based research in situations of social exclusion in Spanish schools, for example. Here, he creates spaces whereupon artists, researchers and teachers experience shared trust through participatory contemporary art. This happens through large scale collaborative art projects that permeate social fabrics and disrupt social exclusion in favour of a common experience.

In each of these examples, teachers, artists and researchers are employing the arts to engage student voice. In all instances, Indigenization, place, identity and experimentation become embedded and/or reflective of spaces that require self-empowerment. These authors demonstrate a potential (and need for) making equitable space through the arts. Engaging student-driven processes in pluralistic and diverse settings is often taken up in art education contexts. Through the arts, students have space for self-expression. 

This is a call for more researchers and teachers to turn to the arts for hands-on solutions to deal with systems that have built-in inequitable practices. Remain attuned to traditional knowledge and Indigenous arts practices. Be willing to allow students to tell their stories through the genre of graphic novels and other visual methods. Create after school programs for communities that need them. Build visual journals and online communities to combat exclusion and hatred. Facilitate contemporary and collaborative art projects. Be willing to turn to the arts, because educational spaces need to have practices that allow voices to be heard –the unseen can then be made visible. The arts are an invaluable part of the conversation when it comes to building equitable pedagogical practices. I am grateful to the International Society for Education through the Arts for underscoring this fact! 

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