Students across the country are grappling with difficult feelings, situations and events as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and there are no easy solutions. A national study published in November found that over 80 percent of young adults reported a decline in mental health during the two months after the start of the pandemic.
But arts education has the power to emotionally and academically rebuild students — and the world around us.
I come from an immigrant community, where people routinely shift between English and Spanish in everyday conversation. I also attend the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, a nationally well-regarded public arts high school. While I share many similarities with my friends at home because of our common backgrounds, my high school is a predominantly white institution.
Straddling the divide between these two communities was hard, and I molded different versions of myself to exist in each space. Thankfully, I found that art can spread ideas and facilitate cultural exchange. As I grew through my artistic practice, art became a way for me to manifest the society I dreamed of: a place where disparate identities and cultures can coexist with empathy and equality, while nurturing joy and justice.
In California, I serve as the student ambassador to a statewide organization, Create CA, working to ensure every student has access to a full arts education. California’s Education Code promises classes in music, dance, theater and visual arts to all students, but even before the pandemic, only 12 percent of secondary schools met that requirement.
At the start of this crisis, I saw people in need of a way to heal, and I knew using our imagination was a solution. When I realized I had the tools to aid those around me, I started an online, student-run organization called The Art Hour providing free visual and performing classes for students from the Los Angeles area and beyond. Most students learn about our classes through word of mouth, through social media, or through their school. We give students a platform to express themselves and indulge their imaginations. They make glitter and sparkle costumes inspired by Nick Cave’s “Soundsuits,” act out fantasy worlds to inhabit, and dance with the zeal of prima ballerinas. Teaching young students across the country how to take charge of their own narratives showed me the power the arts hold.
Recently, in a class I hosted, I showed students artwork and posed a question: “What would you like to say to your community?” One student drew a singer that put on an anti-racist, Black Lives Matter concert. The singer was surrounded by phrases like, “Your skin is beautiful” and, “You are loved.” This young girl, who was only 7 years old, used her voice to create an uplifting message for her community. Creating art has made me conscious of how I observe and interact with the world, the same awareness that little girl expressed.
This coming fall, I have the privilege to attend one of the nation’s most prestigious universities on a full scholarship. Because of my arts education, I see endless career and academic possibilities in front of me. I want every student to have the same opportunities.
In California alone, 1 in 10 jobs is in the arts and culture sector, which doesn’t include the innumerable jobs that rely on creativity — a skill refined with exposure to the arts. What many people don’t realize is that participating in the arts in school opens up opportunities for students beyond the classroom and into their adult lives.
As I’ve engaged with the arts more broadly, I’ve seen the art world greet my white, affluent peers with open arms, while I’ve had to claim my own space. Because I’ve pioneered my own path, I’ve had artistic opportunities that seem unfathomable — from my first gallery show at the age of 14, to working with arts museums across the county to create bilingual public programming. While arts education has the power to rebuild our students, we must implement it with equity in mind.
We need to give students, especially students of color and those who are low-income, an arts education that reflects, respects and builds upon their culture, language and background. When we recognize that all art and methods of creating are valid, our art becomes the future.
Art has the power to heal students’ trauma and rebuild our economy in the wake of the pandemic. Arts education is necessary to rebuild our society and country. We can use art to reshape our society and culture in a way that is more equitable, and in doing so we can rewrite our own legacy. We just need schools to provide our communities with the tools and resources they need to succeed. Students, parents and teachers need to raise their voices by asking their school board members and administrators to ensure every student receives a full and accessible arts education.
Arlene Campa, 18, is a senior at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, the 2020-21 Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate, and the founder of The Art Hour, a student-run nonprofit that provides free art classes to students in grades K-12.