From the time a young person starts walking, they can find an athletic opportunity in their community, regardless of income. There is an expectation that youth play at least one sport at some point in their lives – even if their future career has nothing to do with professional sports. In low-income communities, there is a menu of options for youth sports free of charge or low-cost because there is a belief that youth who participate in the sports are able to work in teams, are more confident, and physically healthier, amongst other benefits. When it comes to the arts, low-income communities are often blank canvasses, and young artists are forced to relegate their passions to the margins of their identities – one art class within four years of High School (if they are lucky) or inside of their lined academic notebooks while they daydream in their STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) focused classes. At , we imagine education as “STEEAM” – with the “e” and the “a” in the middle standing for emotional/social development and the “a” for the arts.
Imagination Missing in Schools
Prior to serving as the Executive Director of Donda’s House Inc., I served as a High School teacher in a variety of settings from alternative schools to selective enrollment (Magnet) schools. I knew our educational system was in trouble when I started assigning students essays and projects and they couldn’t (including those with nearly perfect standardized test scores) use their imaginations without prompting. I’d say “you can do whatever you want,” and they’d stare at me and the paper puzzled. “Can you give us an example?” They’d ask – which really meant, can you give us a template, that we’re all going to use.
What has happened to imagination and what has happened to our society when youth are frustrated and anxious about freedom of expression? I have also been privy to budget meetings where the “arts” were treated as “extracurricular” activities and not an essential component of a child’s learning program. Growing up, the arts were essential for me and I was fortunate to attend a High School that actually allowed me to concentrate on “Writing As Performance.” My art classes were my lifeline.
Building the “Little League” for Creatives
What we envision is an infrastructure for young creatives that mirrors the little league and youth sports. Essentially a network of arts-based organizations that starting from elementary school through college, can support young people’s exploration of the arts – photography, music, dance, Creative Writing, etc. Additionally, at the High School level, arts programs and employers can “scout” students, offering them scholarship and learning opportunities. According to the National Report “Art & Economic Prosperity III,” the nonprofit arts & culture sector generates $1.662 billion in economic opportunity and 5.7 million full-time jobs domestically. This notion of the “starving artist” is one that we must tackle, and we must build this pipeline as studying the arts promotes more positive life outcomes. Furthermore, a career in the arts is both a realistic and economically viable option for teens to pursue.
If you are interested in partnering or sharing ideas on how to further develop this pipeline of opportunity for young creatives, please reach out to me, Donnie Smith, via e-mail at