Student art is not simply a program outcome

Eve ewing A recent New York Times article, “Young Inmates Find a Voice Through Short Films,” tells the story of Tribeca Teaches , a program based in New York and Los Angeles that teaches high school youth the art and craft of filmmaking. Tribeca Teaches sounds like a great example of a program that uses the arts to provide youth with a platform for storytelling, a chance to develop some valuable life and career skills, and an opportunity to experience the trials and triumphs of the creative process. Unfortunately, the article also provided an example of how easy it is to draw attention to youth arts programs without drawing the same attention to youth as artists.

In the piece, we meet Amirah Harris, a 20-year-old who created a short film with Tribeca Teaches while she was incarcerated and enrolled at East River Academy , a high school on Rikers Island. We hear that Amirah is viewing her film for the first time outside the confines of jail, that she “felt loved” after the screening, and that she got to meet the actress Taraji P. Henson. We hear from Amirah’s teacher about her experience teaching in the program, and get lots of details about the challenges of teaching at Rikers.

“She is portrayed as a successful program participant. But Amirah is not portrayed as a filmmaker . She is not portrayed as an artist.”

It is always exciting to hear about great new arts education initiatives, but too often we focus on narratives about how the art has some kind of instrumental utility (job preparation, self-esteem, “keeping youth off the streets”) and less about the powerful voices of the youth making the art. In this article, we never learn what Amirah’s film is actually about. Although she undoubtedly spent hours conceiving, creating, and revising it, we never hear from her about her process or her inspiration. In short, she is portrayed as a successful program participant. But Amirah is not portrayed as a filmmaker . She is not portrayed as an artist.

Does arts education bring with it lots of benefits that have little to do with the art itself? Sometimes, yes. Absolutely. But if students just make incredible art, that’s pretty phenomenal too, and we have to treat them with the same respect we would accord to any other artist. We have to see their art as art, not just as a program outcome, and we have to talk about it as such.

What do you think: Is something lost by highlighting the program instead of the art itself?

Eve L. Ewing is a writer, educator, and a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a teaching fellow for the Arts in Education master’s program at Harvard, and one of the coordinators of the Louder Than A Bomb youth poetry slam festival, as well as the development and communications manager for the Urbano Project.