There have been times in my life where my educational story and politics have intertwined with one another. My first, that I can recall, was when I had applied and accepted a week-long internship as a page for the North Carolina House of Representatives during my sophomore year of high school. I was chosen as a student from my district, and I knew my representative very well, as we went to church together. I knew how the government system worked, and so I was excited to see the inner-workings of it. However, my teenage brain must have thought that it was going to be like the final courtroom scene of “Legally Blonde,” because I felt like I did not get a whole lot out of it, at least not at that time. 

You see, at that time, I already knew I wanted to be an arts educator, and quite frankly, never knew of the strong connection between public education and the legislature. I can, thankfully, state that I was wrong, and understand the full capacity of how they can work together. However, there seems to be a “language barrier” between the two systems. As artists and educators, we believe that our work, the art itself, is all the advocacy we need. While there is some truth to this, as arts educators, we forget some of those important elements along the way. Those three things are:

1. Data
2. Call to action 
3. Creating relationships

You see, our government representatives respond mostly to data. If you are a little like me, the word “data” may make you cringe just a little. As an educator, you are expected to record data, input data, and show your data. Also, as an arts educator, you just want your students to show off their talent and not sweat the data because that’s not the goal. But data isn’t a word you should fear because you embrace it all the time. Think about it: what are the numbers looking like in your ensembles when you started? What about now? That’s data. What’s the percentage of students who stay in your groups through graduation? Data. What’s the number of students who volunteer their time for art shows? You get my point. Data is your friend, not a frenemy. When making your case, use your own data and include some overarching data. Your district may have some data available or use the Americans for the Arts Education Navigator: Facts and Figures as a guide to help you succeed. Want to see how much you know first? Click here!

After you get your facts and figures together, you need to come together for a common goal. You need to pull together a call of action. A big mistake that a lot of people make is to just say “Support the Arts!”...OK, to be completely honest, I know I’m guilty of saying to someone “Support the Arts!” Is that really a bad thing? No, not at all. But what the heck does “Support the Arts” even mean? Well, it can mean a variety of things for a variety of people. Let’s take a look at how to put, “Support the Arts'', into action: The Arts Education for All Act (H.R. 5581) was recently introduced and supported by over 250 organizations, according to the Arts Action Fund. On this webpage, anyone can immediately compose an email to your nearest representative, simply by entering some information about yourself. To encourage those to call for action to support the arts, it is really that simple, and the Arts Action Fund has more ways to advocate for certain bills like H.R. 5581. You can view the article and support H.R. 5581 here. If you want to start on a smaller scale, you can ask for support for your classroom by asking for volunteers, setting up a DonorsChoose to receive funding for a project, or applying for a grant. Talking about action is different from taking action. Sometimes applause from the community isn’t enough to ignite change. Be specific for what you need

After considering your call for action, ask your audiences to consider contacting their representatives and your school board for what your program needs. Send your representatives a note, post- election, introducing yourself, how you can’t wait to see what they do for arts education in your community, and invite them to an upcoming performance, gallery, or exhibition, or even invite them to your classroom for a day. You need to create a relationship between your classroom and your elected officials. Ask them if they would help you celebrate by passing a resolution for National Arts in Education Week. If they look into your world and hear the needs of your community, they are likely to remember that later. They can’t represent what they don’t know about. You need to be proactive in your change by using your data and your art to call for action. 

I know that it can be very daunting, especially for someone that may not feel comfortable in the political arena. But everything will be fine, because you know what you do and can advocate for it better than anyone. You are showing them the truth about arts education and the education system in general through your art and your data. As artists, we also know, like in our own practice, we sometimes fail. You are not going to change the world the first time you speak to someone about the importance of arts education and that is alright. You need to practice, keep the conversations going, and show them what the arts can do for their communities. You already have your tools; what are you going to do with them? 

Emily Ann Copeland is an Arts Leadership Certificate student and is on full time staff in Student Affairs in the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life.