By Diane Brigham, Executive Director
I’m grateful for Thanksgiving. Amidst the turmoil of raucous debate in our nation, I am grateful to have a formal reminder to pause for gratitude. I am more grateful than ever to do our work at Ryman Arts, because every day I see how it makes a positive difference in the world.
In visiting class over the past two weeks, I see more clearly how Ryman Arts is a haven, a safe space for our kids. We focus on the work at hand. When there is chaos outside, the quiet focus on making art has enormous value.
Does it seem like art education might not feel as urgent as other causes today? It’s worth remembering that we not only teach art, we transform lives. During challenging times, art is critical.
“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” - Toni Morrison, March 2015.
We are artists. When you see Ryman classes in action, you notice something special: this is a nurturing, inclusive community of artists.
Students here learn how to have productive conversations with each other about stuff that is very tangible and yet so personal -- their own art. That goes a long way to strengthening their ability to have respectful conversations beyond the studio.
Most of our kids would never have the opportunity to meet each other if not for Ryman Arts. Their high school worlds can be “bubbles” of one kind or another, just like adult worlds. Ryman Arts introduces them to new people, new ideas, and models a positive way of working and learning together. Our diversity is a rich and invaluable component of the Ryman Arts experience. Adults and youth work side by side. Our teens come from the full spectrum of socio-economic levels, cultural backgrounds, immigration status, sexual orientation, faiths, and neighborhoods.
We ask our kids to bring their best work to the table and their best selves to the studio. Because we have high expectations of each other, it becomes mutually reinforcing. We want to be our best selves for each other.
A core principle stated on the first day of class is that everything we do is based on mutual respect – between students and adults, among students, among adults – everyone at Ryman Arts. We are overt about that value. When our staff gathered post-election, we reiterated and re-affirmed that value to each other. We know our kids are watching us. We are all role models.
It’s not business as usual—there have been student protests at local high schools, colleagues are tearful, people are worried, others may feel that previously unacceptable rhetoric is somehow ok now.
On the other hand it IS business as usual—we’ve always had to be vigilant for language and behavior that might marginalize someone, examine our organizational and personal practices for ones that might inadvertently make one student feel “less than” another, we already knew we had diverse points of view in our midst and must consciously model mutual respect.
"The arts also affect the values of young people, making them more tolerant and empathetic. We suspect that their awareness of different people, places, and ideas through the arts helps them appreciate and accept the differences they find in the broader world. Arts experiences boost critical thinking, teaching students to take the time to be more careful and thorough in how they observe the world." - Greene, Jay, et al. Art Matters: We Know It, We Measured It. Education Week, 12.2.2014
I think our job as leaders is to continue doing this work we have been doing without complacency or despair. Let’s be vigilant about ensuring access to excellent creative education for all, work extra hard to hold space for the artistic visions of the full array of creative youth and cherish the community we have created here.