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Awareness + Advocacy = A Better World for Students and the Rest of Us, Part 1

By James Palmarini posted 07-27-2017 14:44


On July 21, EdTA did something new: we held our first ever Theatre Education Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C., It was an amazing event, driven by the commitment and passion of the state organization leaders who participated. For those of you who were not there, don’t worry—we’ll do this again. Stay tuned. I want to share some of the highlights of our Capitol Hill journey, best told by members themselves and I will in the second part of this two-chapter blog.  But the event, my own work as EdTA policy director, and our other efforts regarding improving access to theatre education got me to thinking about why we do this and how. So, your indulgence for this Awareness and Advocacy blog, part one is appreciated.

Because you who work with students every day on stages and in classrooms you know how important theatre education is to the well-rounded education of our next generation of leaders, thinkers, and artists. But do others understand its value, whether in education, business, or in any endeavor that engages young people as they transition into adulthood and the workforce? The truth is, probably not. So we have a responsibility to inform and advocate on behalf of theatre education—to individuals and organizations who are empowered to make decisions regarding access and equity to rich and meaningful experiences for students, no matter their socio-economic, geographic, or academic status.

The Educational Theatre Association’s core mission—honoring student achievement, supporting educators, and influencing public opinion—supports this need through a range of events, programs, and policies, both nationally and in the wonderful work that our state chapters do.  But there is always more to be done. Some months back, we had a staff discussion about the difference between public awareness that showcases the value of theatre education and advocating directly on its behalf.

Here’s my take on what distinguishes each us: Public awareness raises the understanding of what theatre education can and does do for the well-being of students in and out of the school environment, both in the short term and for the rest of their lives. It is education in itself that sometimes leads to advocacy action. Direct Advocacy is the act of attempting to influence the decisions made by government officials regarding theatre education--most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies, at the school, district, state or federal level who shape policies, regulations, or legislation. To put it more simply, Smith High School’s presentation of a performance and a talk back in which students articulate to the audience how important theatre has been to them is a public awareness moment, but it’s not direct advocacy. On the other hand, asking the Smith Board of Education to allocate $2,000 towards the annual budget of the high school’s theatre department is. 

In the last year, we’ve done some of each: Working in collaboration with our sister theatre organization, the American Alliance for Theatre & Education, we co-sponsored Theatre in Our Schools month in March, a campaign designed to raise public awareness about the impact of theatre education and draw attention to the need for more access to quality programs for all students. To support the campaign, EdTA’s created a toolbox that featured ideas, planning tips and resources designed to get students and teachers alike invested in spreading the word throughout their communities during the month and beyond.

TIOS.pngThen, this month, we added direct advocacy through the Theatre Education Advocacy Day, held in conjunction with the organization’s annual Leadership Summit that gathers state chapter directors and board members. 

I think that both of these initiatives have tremendous promise in their ability to raise the bar on why theatre education should be more widely available, in and out of the curriculum. Certainly public awareness efforts (such as TIOS) are definable as a form of indirect advocacy in that such campaigns educate members and the general public and may in fact lead to some direct advocacy such as a focused ask for financial support or policy change in a letter or presentation before a school board The Washington, D.C. event did something considerably different in that members went to Capitol Hill with a specific EdTA Federal Ask for Support that addressed dollar amount appropriations and requests for policy support, ranging from the National Endowment for the Arts to wireless microphone access. 

But here’s the catch: Theatre in Our Schools month success is most apparent in the shared posters, videos, and stories by students and teachers from throughout the country. We need a lot more of those moments and products, so now’s the time to start thinking what you can do for this campaign in 2018.  And regarding direct advocacy: One of the goals of our D.C. day was to equip members with knowledge, skills and confidence that they could take back home to their state capitols, districts, and schools. The federal work is great, but where true change can happen is in your own community. For example, if you have thought about participating (or starting) a state or district arts/theatre advocacy day, or making an appointment to talk to your local state legislator to about arts education funding in your district, please do it! We need you. The field of theatre education needs you. And students need you.

Here’s one shameless pitch: one of the ways we’re trying to move the needle on EdTA grassroots advocacy is through the Advocacy Leadership Network that was launched this year. The mission of the ALN is to training and empower EdTA state adult members in national, state, and local advocacy efforts on behalf of theatre education. We’ve got 10 state chapter members so far, and we’d love to have ten more in 2018. Interested? Application launches November 15.

As Americans for the Arts Executive Director Bob Lynch, put it at our Advocacy Day breakfast: “What is the ROI for your work? Better child, town, better nation, better world.” How true. Let’s get to work.

Want to hear about our Advocacy Day from those who were there? Check out part 2 of this blog.