Freeing Ideas

In 1997 I had the privilege of supporting some of Brown University students as they explored the idea of creating a youth arts program for young  people who have been told and convinced that they are not creative.In my own education I had experienced the kind of sorting they described, although I’d been on the other side of this particular experiment in educational tracking: I had been told I was creative (but not very proficient in math and science). It was intriguing to consider how an experience of being tracked as “the art kid” — that I considered limiting — was being viewed as a lost opportunity by some very smart students.

The result of their inquiry was the founding of New Urban Arts, a nationally recognized interdisciplinary arts studio for high school students and emerging artists in Providence, Rhode Island. This essay was included in New Urban Art’s book documenting the 2010 Institute of Other Significant Pursuits, published in August 2011.

Freeing Ideas |  Pete Hocking

In the years before his passing, Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Research and Education Center, told a story about the day in 1961 when the governors of several Southern states successfully conspired, in an effort to curb the Civil Rights Movement, to close Highlander. Several reporters witnessed Horton laughing as state troopers padlocked the school’s door.  Asked why he was laughing as his school was being closed, Horton replied, “My friend here thinks he’s closing the school. But Highlander is an idea.  You can’t padlock an idea.”

Through a much different lens, but no less profoundly, I was reminded of this story when, in late August 2010, a small group of alumni mentors from New Urban Arts gathered to have a dialogue about how our association with the program impacts our creative and pedagogical practices. The gathering, The Institute of Other Significant Pursuits, was a mix of skills workshops, reflective exercises, and opportunities to build relationships across several generations of Art Mentoring staff. Repeatedly it was made clear how the idea of New Urban Arts infuses our collective vision for what arts education – indeed all education – can be.  Perhaps even more intriguingly, there was a explicit agreement amongst many of those gathered that teaching in the program had been among their most profound learning experiences.

Like Highlander, New Urban Arts is not a content-based educational program. Although many people think of it as an “arts education” program, it is not the most efficient place to learn technique or skills.  While young people can acquire skills through the relationships they develop with mentors, the real mission of the program is to develop a lifetime of creative practice – in the full diversity of forms implied by that phrase.  While Highlander “works with people fighting for justice, equality and sustainability, supporting their efforts to take collective action to shape their own destiny” through popular education methods that emphasize peer learning and problem-solving, New Urban Arts encourages youth and mentors to explore a variety of media and methods for expressing personal meaning, inquiring into personal and community questions, and discovering one’s potential.    Many art programs establish limits based on the flexibility of media. New Urban Arts begins with the intellectual and expressive passions of youth and finds the media to match the young person’s line of inquiry.  It may seem like a subtle distinction, but just try to build a house with a sewing machine or hem pants with a power drill. At New Urban Arts, youth don’t have to paint poetry, although a few have certainly tried!

The progress and growth of a culture relies on those places and people who act on new hypotheses and in service to testing new ideas. New Urban Arts doesn’t begin with the supposition that it’s preparing anyone to learn or live within the limitations of the status quo. It understands that people – learners and mentors alike – can imagine a world that works better than the one they  — and we – have inherited.

While the experience of being in a learning community committed to this kind of creative experimentation can be exhilarating, for young people who are, perhaps for the first time, engaging their leadership it’s easy to take for granted that their voices will be heard and valued.  New Urban Arts has come to understand, over the course of many years and through the various experiences of participants, that the kind of educational context it cultivates is unusual and highly valued.  While this is useful and affirming feedback it raises vexing pedagogical and organizational questions.  If there are not an abundance of other learning communities committed to its values, how does it prepare its learners and mentors to navigate work and educational spaces that are not committed to the same values? How is it preparing people who may find themselves working and living in communities opposed the learner-centered pedagogy to which it’s committed? How is it helping young people create new sites of creative experimentation and transformation?

I started by comparing New Urban Arts with Highlander because as part of the Institute I was asked to map my genealogy as a progressive educator. When New Urban Arts was beginning, I was an advisor to the founding executive director. He had been a student at the Howard Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University, which I directed. The Center’s approach was deeply influenced by Highlander, as well as by the teachings of John Dewey and, more contemporaneously, bell hooks, Maxine Greene, and Paulo Freire.  In many ways, in the years since my departure from the Swearer Center, New Urban Arts resembles more the Center’s pedagogy during my tenure than the Center does today.

This observation about my own lineage helps me to understand the urgency and necessity of the Institute in three ways. First, the pedagogical lineages that we inherit, build upon, and embrace are not possessions; they are relational tools that we can apply in our work, teaching and learning. Second, it’s important to make known the philosophical genealogy of organizations – especially of those that support human freedom and self-determination — and to help participants in these organizations become aware of the intention that goes into establishing a  learner-centered culture.  Third, it recognizes the ways that those who participate in these kinds of learning environments are often the best suited to bring their values into the world. It’s this final point that I want to underscore.

The easy thing for New Urban Arts to do would be to give in to philanthropic and political pressure to replicate itself, expand its programming, or otherwise risk the integrity of its programming in service to an external social agenda.  However, many small education programs are effective precisely because of their scale and the ability for all the people in the community to recognize and truly see each other. Importantly, New Urban Arts has an established organizational policy intended to forestall this risk.

Instead of potentially diluting its work, New Urban Arts has initiated this Institute as a means for supporting the development of the creative and pedagogical practices of former and current mentors.  Understanding that the best way to share the knowledge that emerges from its practice is to support its distribution through the professional and artist practices of it’s mentors and students, the Institute provides a space for self-reflection, skills development, and a deep consideration of means through which artistic and educational communities can be developed and nurtured. By developing perspective, skills and a network of mutual support, New Urban Arts is advancing its reach into the world. By helping mentors understand the structures that scaffold the program, their approach will become more widely available through mentors who explicitly incorporate the ideas into their professional practice.  In addition to preserving New Urban Arts’ scale and success, this approach also allows for its “idea” to have a life of its own and to develop in ways that are distinct and specific to the context in which they’re growing. Practices of freedom require that they be true to their context, and not another cultural attempt to franchise the particularity of experience. In this way, just like the padlocked Highlander campus of the early 1960s, it’s quite likely that the idea of New Urban Arts will outlive its current space and incarnation.

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