We Need Their Voices

Originally posted on our old website in July, 2016.

I believe everyone should have a voice. I’m not talking about an opinion, because everyone’s got one of those. I’m talking about the strong, controlled voice that can connect with others, not alienate them.

Social media can be used for a lot of things. Even in countries where poorest of the poor reside, they find a way on to social media. My husband met and conversed with many people in the Philippines while he lived there for two years, and though for many of them they are so poor that if they don’t work one day, they will be without dinner that night, they still often pop up on his newsfeed.

Although sharing a status or a picture can be good and even noble at times, it’s not always going to have that connective tissue that binds writer to reader. Sometimes that message needs something more.

Undoubtedly, a major thing that helps one gain a strong voice is education. Yet, education is often undervalued, and at times, even feared.
Why is it, that throughout history, leaders have withheld education opportunities from the “lower” classes? Is not what they have to contribute important? What message are we sending to these people?

In preparation for this piece,  I asked some people why it is important for one to have a voice in the first place.

One friend said it had something to do with being able to order burritos, and whilst I advocate for the deliciousness of a burrito to be able to get itself into everyone’s belly, these other answers were more pertinent:

“To accept, refuse, defend, enjoy, learn, teach, love, heal 🙂 If you don’t have a “voice” in the conventional term – it is still very important to have a “voice” e.g. signing/ pictures/ voice generating devices, etc.”
-Tara

“Because life is made richer by diversity….without your voice we are all poorer.”
-Terese

“Because your experience and your perspective is important.”
-DeeDee

“We all need to feel a part of something important and share our talents to uplift others as well as ourselves. We all need to listen and be listened to.”
-Anne

I also had the pleasure of seeking out the opinion of School Principal, Leisa Neaton, who recently ran a very close race for the seat of Capricornia in the Australian Election. I asked her why every child deserved a fair chance at education.

I believe education is the key to social mobility and is the significant investment we make collectively as an inclusive society. When students have the support they need to succeed to the best of their ability, their lives become richer and more fulfilled. It is possible in just one generation to lift a child out of poverty and into a future of possibilities through investment in his/her education. And we should never see education as just the 3Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) because there is so much more to learning.”

As of 2014, the percentage of people below the poverty line in the United States was 14.8%, 21.1% for children. The rates are higher for minorities. Australia’s rates were 13.9% and 17.7%.

Every year, over 1.2 million students drop out of school in the United States, in Australia one in four do not complete year 12. Too many of those that don’t make it through schooling are disadvantaged and minorities.

I grew up with very little in a western world context. Perhaps it is this that has taught me to hold fast to what is entirely free in this society: words. I needed to be able to have a voice. I needed to have a voice that was effective and listened to, even if it was just me hearing myself.
Yet, for the sake of the integrity of this piece, I am one of the one in four. I struggled with undiagnosed mental illness’ throughout high school, but the education I did get put a love of learning in my heart. I kept my eyes and ears open.
One thing kept me going for as long as I could.

“It was only in the theatre that I lived” – Oscar Wilde

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What was it that Ms Neaton thought should be involved in education above the 3Rs?

There is a recent push for governments to invest in areas which are deemed important for the jobs of the future like science, technology, engineering and maths. There is no doubt these subjects are important but we should not ignore the arts because they make an important contribution to the quality of life of our people and also bring significant economic growth through creative industries. As a teacher I have seen first hand the joy that creative arts, drama, dance and design bring to students. The arts can bridge the cultural and ethical divide and provide pathways for all students, including those with disabilities.”

I would call myself an oddball. The type of oddball that’s revitalised by other oddballs.

In my high school world, these were called drama kids. Being a drama kid went beyond simply attending drama because it was fun or supposedly easy, it got you excited to go to school, helped you relate to others, and feel less alone.
When you were up on stage with this group, it didn’t matter what was going on with the popular kids. You didn’t care if they liked your performance. For once, you felt powerful standing before them.

Even when they decided to mock you, you focused that energy into your performance; no one in the audience kept talking and laughing over me after I was done with my Lady Macbeth going insane scene. I think that was the best I had done it.

A few months ago I was talking to a stranger in the park. As an academic, she spends a lot of time researching how to make education effective.

Though here in Australia arts education topics are still taught, it was this stranger who said that because we are placing so much emphasis on academic scores, she felt that if a teacher had the choice of spending an extra half hour on NAPLAN or on the arts, she felt the NAPLAN preparation would take preference.

Now look at the United States, where roughly 6 million children are missing out on an arts education. In this article, Emily Deruy looks at the widening gap between wealthy children and minority and disadvantaged children;

…children from wealthy families seem to benefit from many variables outside the classroom, including enriching home environments, safe neighborhoods, good childcare, after-school activities, and the education level of their parents. Highly educated parents in these towns seem to have a “heightened focus” on education, (Sean) Reardon said, and they are increasingly willing to spend resources to ensure that their children are academically successful. While less-educated parents certainly want their own children to do well, they tend to have less disposable income. Because white parents are more likely than parents of color to be highly educated and to earn more, white children are more likely than their peers of color to have access to enriching educational experiences outside of the classroom.”

When we cut the arts from schools, where do we expect our disadvantaged kids to go?

I have been sitting here wondering why I was so lucky, when so many children and youth are going without.

I didn’t just have drama. I had music. I had dance. I had art (though, I didn’t do it for as long because that was one arts subject I was terrible at.)
Above normal classes, I was involved in a school run extra curricular rock band and soul choir. I did the school musical, and the rock eisteddfod.
In the one Primary School I didn’t feel like an alien, the teachers read out my stories before the class like they actually mattered. They nurtured and appreciated the artistic soul in me like it was something of value.

We often talk about what we can do for the underprivileged, but the truth is, we badly need them.
In this society of increasing divisiveness, we need voices that will invite understanding, tolerance and inclusive behaviour.

When we don’t allow a space for these children to grow and share their voice, we cut off opportunities for our own world view to change or expand.
What is it like to grow up with barely enough money to live on? What’s it then like, to grow up surrounded by the desperation, violence, and other traumatic elements that may result?
What is it like to be displaced, uncertain and afraid because you don’t have anywhere to belong?
What is it like to grow up in a culture that isn’t like those around you, and is potentially feared through lack of understanding?

Well, a kid could say, “it was really hard.” Even if they manage to break the chain they are linked into, would the message get across? Would it help the child move on from the hardship they could barely escape?

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What if that child could express all the hate, anger, loneliness, isolation, longing, whatever else they are feeling, through startling reds and blacks on a paintbrush, through a heavy beat of a drum or the deep, mournful cry of a cello?

What if they could move their body in frantic, fast movements in a dance piece, instead of the frantic, fast movements of a desperate act? What if they could write a creative story or a poem, using themes that may otherwise be too painful to relate or read in prose?

What if they made their own documentary, or expressed what it was really like through monologue, or song?

The kid who hasn’t grown up with that life, they may not be able to understand exactly what it was like, but they will be able to feel the rawness of emotion expressed through mediums that cut us to the core and invite our hearts and souls to listen and, most importantly, act.

We are doing ourselves a great disservice if we do not allow children from diverse backgrounds the opportunity to share their voice with us. For the sake of all that is human in us, we cannot allow opportunities for real growth, empathy and understanding to pass by, unseen and unheard.

The Find Your Light Foundation has provided funding for many groups who are trying to bridge this arts education gap. Just one of these groups is Little Kids Rock.

“…we have given more than 400,000 underserved schoolchildren across the U.S. access to fun, engaging, Modern Band music classes and brand new instruments at no cost to the students, teachers, or school districts.

Little Kids Rock trains public school teachers and donates all of the instruments, curricular resources and support they need to ensure that their kids receive the right to rock! What makes Little Kids Rock different is that they do more than just donate instruments like guitars, drums and keyboards; they build lasting music programs that focus on teaching kids to perform, improvise and compose the popular music genres that they already know and love, like rock, pop, blues, hip-hop, country, reggae and R&B.”

Why just read about it? I dare you to watch this video without your heart melting!

We can support organisations with our time and means, but we can also share OUR voices. We can bring attention to these groups by sharing them with our families and friends, but we can especially plead for a more inclusive educational system in whichever country we reside.

One day, it is my hope that all children feel their true value, and that the world will start communicating like we give a damn about each other.

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