Ed. Note: Champions of Change is a weekly initiative to highlight Americans who are making an impact in their communities and helping our country rise to meet the many challenges of the 21st century.
I am so honored to be named a Champion of Change, especially because my organization, Big Thought, works to radically shift the educational status quo. Our mission – to make imagination a part of everyday learning – echoes the emerging consensus that preparing children for success in the 21st century will be largely about creating agile, adaptable minds that are able to tackle problems with ingenuity and innovation.
Eric Booth, noted author on creativity, once described art as humanity’s birthright. Each of us, regardless of social, economic or geographic differences, possesses a visceral need to create and express, to relate our experiences and understand the world around us. This is especially true for children, for whom the academic and developmental benefits of the arts and creative learning have been studied and validated time and time again. With these things in mind, bringing the arts to everyone – not just those with the means or predisposition to pursue their imagination – becomes an issue of social justice within our educational system.
Unfortunately, the arts have been segregated not only to certain people, but in the entire academic setting, isolated in studios and band halls and in certain hours of the day. Yet the arts fortify skills -- imagination, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, collaboration, flexibility, inquisitiveness, leadership – that are essential to all areas of study. What is technology without adaptability? What is science without curiosity? What are the humanities without collaboration? In fact, if we allow creative learning to break free from restrictive silos, we find it has a critical place in every nook and cranny of academics and life.
Big Thought partners with The Dallas Independent School District, the City of Dallas and hundreds of cultural and youth development organizations to bring engaging and creative experiences to hundreds of thousands of students and families each year. Through a citywide, institutional partnership, students’ experiences in-school and out, year-round and in every neighborhood and school in Dallas are becoming a full integration of arts learning and academic support. A typical Big Thought program might teach the mathematical principle of fractions through dance – quarter steps and half turns, as it turns out, are a lot more relevant to children than numbers on a paper. Or we might take students to a nature conservatory where they learn, in a real world setting, how an ecosystem works by drawing and labeling the animals found in a pond sample.
We, as an entire community, have learned that the arts are powerful enough to do the seemingly impossible in large, urban school districts – keep students engaged and give them tools to succeed in school and in life. It’s incumbent on the entire education field, however, to embrace the shifting paradigm of what it means to educate students. If students are unable to imagine a different future for themselves, unable to pursue a passion as opposed to a profession, unable to keep up with the ever-changing demands of a techno-centric, increasingly complex world, we haven’t done our job. We must take down the silos that restrict art and make it a community-driven, national agenda.
Giselle “Gigi” Antoni is president and CEO of Big Thought, one of the nation’s leading nonprofits devoted to closing the opportunity gap in education through creative learning.