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Transforming Trauma Into Art: How Arts Education Is Changing Lives in NYC Public Schools

A teacher/playwright/performer shares her story of bringing arts education to communities in need.

Photo Credit: Tracy Whiteside |


When I listen to politicians like Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich talk about immigrants, I end up making sick jokes as a survival tool. According to their proposed policies, most of the people I work with would be offered a "trampoline to self-deportation." I am the founder and director of a non-profit arts organization dedicated to uncovering and portraying stories of the uncelebrated. I work with new immigrants and refugees, mostly teenagers and college students and young people. The future of America and the future of the world.

As part of this organization, called EarSay, in 2001 I founded an educational project in partnership with the International High School at LaGuardia Community College to provide healing through artistic expression to teenagers who have recently migrated to the United States. We offer young people who are new to the language, culture and cultural references in this country additional tools to express the truth of their lives. That we should be providing arts education from “outside” the school does not make us unique: as arts funding and teaching positions in the arts were cut in the 1980s and 1990s, many small and large non-profits began to take up the slack and provide arts training in public schools where there otherwise would be none. Out of that need, a new breed of artists began to emerge throughout the country – “teaching artists,” who are artists who teach and artists who make art. We are not members of the full-time teaching faculty, but have the ability to complement curriculum in programs that are truly collaborative within a school. 

While there is a somewhat sinister financial aspect to all this (i.e., the school system does not have to pay us full-time salaries and health benefits), it also means that students and teachers have access to professional artists, as artists have filled a void in a nation that continues to devalue both art and art making while privileging celebrity culture and fame. 

What happens to a society when young people are not given the opportunity to experience a range of cultural and artistic endeavors? There are numerous studies showing that audiences for the live performing arts are eroding; as those audiences erode so too does the understanding of the practice of art-making, whether that is in music, theater, dance or the visual and media arts. My colleague at NYU, Michael Dinwiddie, often talks about how during the Reagan era, public funding for public schools was cut, musical instruments were not provided, and kids did what kids know how to do anyway: be creative with whatever is at hand. They followed in the footsteps of the birth of hip hop and began rapping and making beats, while poetry slams created the ground for poetry to re-emerge as a "cool" art form for youth self-expression. You don’t need a lot of money to stand up with yourself and a piece of paper, or to bang out beats on a table: people will create no matter what. 

But it’s not enough for young people to make art out of nothing. When young people don’t have access to musical instruments, performance and visual arts training, or when funding for school trips to museums, concerts or plays is cut, we no longer have a growing educated audience for art and fertile ground for art-makers. For young people, especially teenagers who have already been through tremendous displacement, the process of creating, going through frustrations, problem solving and completion is not simply a matter of hard work. There is a need for guidance and training.  

One of the real measures we have been able to track with teenagers who have participated in our theater workshops is their ability to tackle challenges and make choices for their futures – whether those challenges include choices about colleges, professional careers or how to handle stress. The combination of storytelling and theater training gives students tools to make connections between cultures, shed light on the complexity and humanity of each individual, and deepen what it means or could mean to be part of a global community, while also allowing them to explore their own cultural identity and stories of migration and displacement. Our program gives teenagers an opportunity to increase their confidence, attention levels and focus in ways that more traditional/hierarchical environments often cannot. 

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