New Haven public school students learn about the traditional Indian folk dance Garba. Jennifer Diaz

“Before a child speaks, it sings. Before they write, they paint. As soon as they stand, they dance. Art is the basis of human expression.” –Phylicia Rashad

During the month of June, I witnessed some beautiful community and art unfurling in New Haven. 

2023 Community Editorial Board CEB Thumbnail

One of my all-time favorite International Festival of Arts & Ideas events took place on the New Haven Green on June 13, Elements of Abundance: Fashion Essentials and Royal Couture. It was an incredible visual and performing arts experience, encompassing fashion, music, dance, storytelling, and history originating from various places in Africa and the African diaspora.

Part of the program was learning history from young students of SĀHGE Academy through dancing and drumming. It showcased how their daily school learning integrates the arts and takes an interdisciplinary approach that is culturally sustaining, centering and affirming who they are as whole humans as well as affirming their families’ and communities’ histories and cultures.

I had the privilege of connecting the International Festival of Arts and Ideas staff with educators that I know in various New Haven schools. This led them to have Heena Patel from Garba360 teach young people about Garba music and dance, an Indian folk dance and music tradition, ahead of her performance on the New Haven Green. 

I was able to participate in several school-based workshops and cannot fully express how wonderful it was to watch young people and educators whose families are from Gujarat, India, see themselves in the classroom anew and share their culture. It was such a pleasure to witness young people and educators who knew little to nothing about Garba learn the basics, while everyone experienced the joy of being in community through these arts.  

Jennifer Heikkila Diaz

These learning experiences are an integral part of what builds the types of school communities that all children, families, and educators deserve — ones that include mirrors and windows for every young person and their communities to be valued and for every young person to learn about other people’s communities and cultures.

Art is fundamental to our humanity. It is where we start and it is where we are headed. This is why, as an educator and a parent, I know that art should be interwoven and integrated into our learning experiences both in and outside of schools, so we can continue to grow into who we are as whole human beings.

This is also why I have been watching with great concern and distress the most recent rounds of continuous cutting of the arts in schools in our state. The latest example is how Area Cooperative Educational Services (ACES) was planning to cut all department head positions at the Educational Center for the Arts (ECA) and consolidate those roles into one administrative position in New Haven.

Each ECA department head leads one of the arts at the school, working with teachers, students, and community partners to co-create a multitude of opportunities for students to explore and create art both in and outside of the school building. Even with all of the alumni and the data that shows how impactful ECA’s structure and community has been up to this point, this plan to reorganize was headed into the final decision-making processes with little notice given to students and families. Fortunately, due to the organizing efforts of many ECA community members, the plan was significantly altered, retaining most of the department head roles.

Almost 25 years ago, when I became a teacher, most schools where I worked did not have any art classes that all students could access. A couple secondary schools where I worked had some performing arts courses, but again, they were not available to all students who wanted to participate, let alone all the students at the schools. One school where I worked had performing arts courses available to all students every single day — incredible access, though there were limits to student creativity and self-expression because the majority of the lessons were teacher-led and technique-focused.

I offered supplements. I would weave performing and visual arts into my classroom whenever I could, allowing students to bring into lessons and projects their artistic and creative identities, inclinations, hobbies, and talents. I would put together after-school and ongoing Saturday opportunities, from origami lessons with my very crafty mother to Ballet Folklórico experiences with a professional dancer and teaching artist.

People have rightfully harped on how too much of our K-12 schooling is about learning the things we are told to learn and not thinking for ourselves or becoming our best and full selves. The continued reduction in investment in the arts is part of this problem.

Students do not get the time and space to explore and create and tap into their full selves. In fact, they are often told to hide or suppress their full selves; that certain ideas, identities, and parts of themselves do not matter in the classroom or in society because they are not deemed as lucrative or valuable, and thus should be sacrificed in the name of academic learning.

Our world is becoming more complex with the problems that we humans have created for ourselves. We need radical and creative problem solvers, people who seek the connections between everything and are willing to take risks and get to the root of our issues. We also need hopeful people who can communicate and critique, and imagine a better world. Creatives and artists do this. Our children naturally start from this place of curiosity and creativity. We should be cultivating and nurturing this in them, not stamping it out.

Again, art is not just where we start. It is where we are headed together.

“We do not make art to document our catastrophes but rather to show what’s possible…”–Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Jennifer Heikkila Díaz is a Member of the Connecticut Mirror Community Editorial Board.