What the Arts Can Learn From Our Youth Activists

Image Credit: Museum of the City of New York website

I am excited by the numbers of young Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) activists, supported by young white allies, who are leading the waves of protests and social justice movements that have sprung up across the globe in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Drawing upon the legacy of the American civil rights movement, these emboldened youth, many of them young women, are determined and fearless in their efforts to keep the spotlight on the issues of police brutality and racial injustice, while also becoming sustained catalysts for change.

This groundswell of energy makes it clear to me that arts organizations and cultural institutions need to attract the vitality and conviction of these youthful leaders as part of their efforts to expand Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access to the arts. As our nation’s demographics become younger and more multicultural, we will need their input to sustain these essential institutions. I believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed our world of the arts. Consequently, it will be invaluable to seek from the people most profoundly impacted—the group that already has been dubbed “Generation-C.”

First and foremost, I think we need to begin now, rather than waiting until the pandemic has ended. (Will it ever end?) What would that look like? It could take many forms, including the hosting of youth-inspired and youth-led dialogue sessions (via Zoom) about the relevancy of art to this present moment; the formation of a youth advisory council and/or adding at least one youth to the board of directors. And don’t forget the importance of mentorships—such as with an artist-in-residence; with your community engagement department, or with a member of the board.

The value is two-fold—maintaining organizational or institutional relevancy and building for the future. For many of us, this may require an attitude shift. Youth have a right to sit at the table where the decisions are made; decisions that determine the present and future impact of both the arts and culture. Think about the impact of the rich and heroic stories of the youthful participants during the Civil Rights Movement, such as the 1964 Freedom Summer or members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The works of the artists and arts organizations whose lives were shaped by those experiences continue to reverberate, including the works of Gordon Parks, Betye Saar, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Elizabeth Catlett, and the Negro Ensemble (Theater) Company.

We already are witnessing the “reimagination of the arts” through the work of the well-known Hip-Hop music producer, rapper, DJ and entrepreneur Swizz Beats (Kaseem Dean). Swizz Beats has thrown his multi-million dollar empire behind creating opportunities for visual artists to showcase and sell their work without having to pay a commission—The Dean Collection—and promoting the work of past, present and future musicians via the “Verzuz Effect,” which he co-created with fellow rapper, DJ and music producer Timbaland.

About these endeavors, during a TED2020 interview Swizz Beats said he launched these projects to ensure that artists understand the business of being an artist: “If we’re not protecting the arts, we’re not protecting our future, we’re not protecting this world. Creativity heals us.”

This is the type of foresight and discernment the world of the arts needs right now; insights that are reflective of our changing world as it continues to evolve. As readers of Arts & Culture Connections, what do you think? Please share your thoughts below.

Be safe, be well and be strong!

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