Cultivating the next generation of diverse leaders in the arts requires the radical and immediate commitment of resources to low-income youth and youth of color. Equity of access to artistic programming for these underserved youth is vital to the health of our arts ecosystem.

All children deserve access to quality arts programming, which means that we must not only support in-school arts education programs across the board, but also prioritize schools in low-income neighborhoods and community-based organizations that specialize in mentoring these students outside of school. Serving every student also means providing culturally relevant and economically accessible opportunities in the arts for the overlooked and under-resourced youth between the ages of 14 and 18, especially if we are to create effective pipelines of leadership in the arts.

Why must we serve our low-income students first?

We live in a society in which those in power restrict resources, so scarcity is real. Pretending that creativity is free does not put food on artists’ tables nor brushes in our students’ hands. Making and teaching art costs money, so those who can afford it, have it, and those who can’t, go without. Yes, we need to continue to work together to demand a bigger piece of that pie (ahem, you know the story, the NEA is 0.003% of our 2016 national budget and 0% of the currently proposed budget), but we also need to recognize that equity demands a re-prioritization. 

A recent publication from Teacher’s College Press states that “economically disadvantaged students are shown to benefit the most from arts education, yet they are the most likely to have little to no access to the arts.” Another publication by Meredith Phillips interpreted the data from a longitudinal Panel Study of Income Dynamics, Child Development Supplement, by the University of Michigan. Phillips found that, by the age of six, “children from high-income families will have spent 1,300 more hours in novel contexts,” such as music lessons, travel and summer camps, “than children from low-income families.” Can you imagine how this is compounded by the time a student is 13?

I can. I see it every day.

This brings me to my next question: why must we prioritize programs that serve our high-school students?

A high-school student isn’t as cute as the five-year-old covered in finger paint or the fifth-grader in a George Washington costume, but providing them access to art may be more valuable because high school is the time when students begin to forge a concrete path toward a career. Unfortunately, high school is also the time when socio-economic forces exert an inordinate amount of pressure on those budding painters, playwrights, and media makers.

Socioeconomic status should not dictate any student’s career possibilities, no matter the field of interest. Parents who come to our Youth Art Center are often skeptical that our 30-hour workshops cost only $18 and a report card. Students are hesitant to register for an art class because they think that we will charge a $50 materials fee like their public high school, an expense that may be the equivalent of their family’s groceries for the week. Moreover, art is often seen as something that “isn’t for me,” because these teens are forced to choose between their future passions and low-skilled work that pays today. Extracurricular activities and internships are a luxury not all teenagers can afford.

And to add to it all, minority students especially have few role models in the arts that look like them. I am so tired (really, truly exhausted) of being the only person of color in the room. I need these students to pursue a career in the arts, not to simply take my place at the table, but to have a seat right next to me.

During my decade as an art professional, and the five years I’ve spent in the trenches of arts education, I am constantly searching for other effective models for authentic youth development through the arts. As I grow and evolve in my vision for Working Classroom, I look to programs like Expanding the Walls at the Studio Museum in Harlem, The Saturday Program at Cooper Union, and Say Si in San Antonio to see how others are taking on the challenge of innovatively serving our low-income and youth of color first.

Building diverse audiences, staffs and boards is a long-term investment that begins with building robust and innovative arts education programs for our most underserved families first. The time is now!