Teaching to the Future: Community Activism and Art Education

By Emme, Michael J. | School Arts, January 1998 | Go to article overview

Teaching to the Future: Community Activism and Art Education


Emme, Michael J., School Arts


In its broadest sense a community activist is one who works for change in the community. On a national level the collective actions of the Guerrilla Girls and Group Materials (see references) have focused art world and media attention on social issues such as inequities that result from race, gender, economic advantage or sexual orientation. As stated in But Is It Art? activist art "is the culmination of a democratic urge to give voice and visibility to the disenfranchised, and to connect art to a wider audience."

Local Activism

Nationally recognized artistic interventions are undoubtedly significant, but their impact is probably not evident in the places where most of us live and work. The kind of activism that affects us is smaller and more local. Whether through public artworks such as murals and installations, or a visual celebration of the individuals in a community, local activism is the result of specific people responding to injustice, need, or unrecognized accomplishment in their own community.

Community activism, like education, can be about the past, present, and future. In both, we draw on the past and work in the present to build or rebuild our society for the future. Community activists work in and with the community using critical insight and creativity to encourage positive change. Educators, while often having similar goals, typically limit their work to the school environment and often place the acquisition of knowledge and skills far ahead of student development of critical insights.

Teaching the Past

Facts, information, and proven processes are the past. The past gives us continuity and an efficient way to transmit shared values.

Teaching about the past is the easiest form of education to market because it seems so stable and measurable. Our biggest challenge as teachers of the past is generating student enthusiasm for this kind of learning. But our power to include and exclude our students' experiences and beliefs from that past is enormous.

Teaching the Present

Personal integration and adaptation of the past with a student's current reality is the present. When they integrate the present with the past, students test their capacities and discover their place in society. Art educators encourage their students to explore and take risks as they develop skills and ideas. When we encourage students to bring their lives into their work, our programs move into the present.

But what happens when our students leave their schools? Will they have the capacity to adapt what they know to new beliefs, insights, and situations in the future?

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