Teaching Between the Lines | Michael B. Schwartz

The dilemma Linda Bruning describes in her recent ALT/space post Funding, Social Responsibility and the Teaching Artist is bouncing around in my head. As Teaching Artists we have to deal with the pressures of controlled chaos in making art with huge groups of people, in complicated neighborhoods, with limited finding and sometime we inadvertently step on funders’ toes.  It’s easy to do here in Tucson, Arizona where one of our best teachers, Sean Arce and the award winning Director of the recently outlawed Mexican American Studies Program was fired for excellence while our school board representatives are making fools of themselves on national TV .

And then there is the new list of outlawed books. A group called Librotraficante is helping smuggle these banned books into Arizona. The books include “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire and “Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 Years” by Bill Bigelow.  A closer study quickly reveals that almost all the 88 books are by Native and American and Hispanic authors including classics such as “Yo Soy Joaquin/ I Am Joaquin” by Rodolfo Gonzales and “Zoot Suit” by Luis Valdez. (The list is a great reading for everyone interested in understanding the history of the American Southwest.)

In such a hostile cultural environment the question I have to consider is – are the arts suddenly deemed too dangerous and unpredictable? Can I show slides of Judy Baca, Susan Cervantes, Jane Golden and Juana Alicia? Diego Rivera? Picasso? Anything? What if I deliver a mural slide presentation and a “banned” image is shown?  Who deems what is “safe” and what is not?

My approach has been to teach from the heart. If a group I am working with decides that something is too risky, or could be misperceived as such, then perhaps that image is edited, transformed or replaced with a new idea. But when does editing become censorship?  At what point do we begin to censor ourselves?   And, if we as Teaching Artists are ultimately fostering our students’ unique poetic and creative sensibilities, isn’t it our job to also teach about civic and social responsibility? That is to say, once a student has the power of storytelling, what are our ethical guidelines, moral and civic responsibilities in teaching them how to use this new power?

Each project is different I guess; each partner agency, school or community center has their own values, standards and rules. If we are able to create great art with our students we can transcend many fears, even if just for a moment. In that moment there can be possibility and inspiration.


I had a similar experience to Linda’s recently, trying to juggle difficult themes in teen artwork in a project entitled PLACE. It’s a project with youth, ages 8–18 living in and around the 29th Street area in Tucson, about the places we live and spaces we occupy. The project is part of the 4R Neighborhood Coalition’s multi-year efforts to improve life in the area. The coalition includes five neighborhoods: Julia Keen, Myers, Alvernon Heights, Roberts and Naylor.

The prompting questions for this project included: “Can you tell me about the place you live? What would you like to change, and why?” As you can imagine the answers and artworks that are emerging are intense and beautiful, dealing with issues youth would like to resolve such as gang violence, graffiti, bullying, domestic violence, foreclosure, water conservation, recycling, healthy eating, teen pregnancy, drugs and abortion.

I looked at the list and realized I was going to be getting some calls from parents. A week later I was on the phone explaining to a Mom why her eight year-old daughter had just learned the word “abortion”. I explained that the youth were asked to talk about their lives and the things they would like to change in the world around them, and the issues of abortion and teen pregnancy came up. I took the time to address and listen to the parents’ concerns; after hearing more about what specifically was going on, the parents felt much more comfortable.  As a Teaching Artist I guess I’ve learned to try and win over anyone who opposes what I do – I want them to get involved, to come in and be a part of the conversation, to paint, listen, tall a story and ask lots of questions. That’s not always easy or possible, but the invitation alone can break the ice.

Back in the classroom youth had questions about how government worked, and what the adults in area thought. We also had to consider that our final artworks would be seen by thousands of people who rode the Suntran Busses about town.

Over the next several weeks residents of the surrounding neighborhoods came and described some of the issues important to them. Keeping the area safe, friendly and clean corresponded to the youth’s themes. We created a diagram game and filled in the blanks of who represented our concerns from the grassroots all the way to the President.

Another of our visitors was Pat Richter, the community outreach director for Suntran. He shared examples of the current ads shown on Suntran and helped the students focus their ideas and messages. One of the questions was – what will get people’s attention – what will set the tone or environment on the bus? We talked about the transformative power of beauty, and how that could be used to drive our message home.

Ultimately, youth are interested in sharing messages of beauty, and in organizing and beautifying the places we live using restorative landscaping practices such as water harvesting. Perhaps the most exciting outcome of working with youth in this area the past several years has been to get a glimpse of how they see the world, and their ideas for transformation and abundance. On May 9th we will unveil our artworks and first round of posters for exhibit.

The social and transformative powers of Teaching Artistry are not to be understated. We are proving a place where healing and mending can authentically take place. When we are confronted with challenges to our work the best we can do is be honest and tell people  – the future stewards, leaders, parents, employers and surgeons have something to say, and it would be wise to listen.

As Linda Bruning points out, the intrinsic value of the arts may not be considered “fundable”, or understandable by a few funding agencies. However they might consider that our new economy demands workers who are able to operate as a team and are divergent, holistic and creative problem solvers. This is something Teaching Artists can do better than almost anyone else.

The 29th Street Creating PLACE project has been made possible by support from the Puffin Foundation, Pantano Christian Church, Pro-Neighborhoods and the Tucson Pima Arts Council’s PLACE Initiative funded by the Sorros and Nathan Cummings Foundations.

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