By Janna M Hall
In 2009, the Obama administration announced the 2009 “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which focused on motivating and inspiring students to learn and excel in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math, also known as STEM. The administration’s goal was to get American students, who typically fall somewhere in the middle when ranking internationally, to rank at the top of the pack over the next decade when it comes to these subjects. Since rolling out the campaign, Americans have become more involved in programs and initiatives that encourage young students—and particularly young girls—to see themselves majoring and working in STEM-related fields.
With the help of organizations like Black Girls Code, YesWeCode, Code.org, and Girls Who Code, young black children from all backgrounds are learning to code and seeing first-hand how easy it is to create their own website or video game. CodeVA, located in downtown Richmond, focuses on supporting children and families in their quest to learn and excel in coding and programming. The programs and support systems these types of organizations have put in place expose inner-city youth to a world beyond what they ever thought was possible. They’re learning what goes on behind the screen of their favorite video games, and are able to view technology as something they, too, can create. Thanks to these programs, African American children can see that a field that’s often dominated by white, Indian, or Asian males has a place for them, too. They, too, can break into these industries and shape the future of technology.
In actuality, it’s imperative that our children, especially inner-city youth, explore career options outside of what they’re exposed to in their daily lives. The sky’s the limit for our youth, but they can never be what they never see. Success lies in careers beyond a pro-athlete or famous musician. Our educators should show students that they can create and develop the next Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat. They have the potential to break records by going into space with NASA, or invent a tool that makes life better and easier for generations to come. When developing well-rounded students who have a future of promise, it’s important that we provide options for them.
One option that’s not often considered, however, is the Arts. In the haze of science, technology, engineering, and math, society as a whole has forgotten that there’s a creative aspect to even the most technical of careers. Every mobile application has a captivating logo. The functions of a website have to be unique in order to gain repeat visitors. Graphic design is a need nearly every company has. If presentation matters for every small and major company, why don’t we focus more on the careers that perfect presentation? The arts are so often overlooked, and creative majors are often dismissed as “starving artist” majors. We’re told that majoring in English is fine, but don’t expect to make much money. Taking art as an elective is great, we’re told, but don’t you dare focus your studies there. But the arts are rarely understood on a granular level. They’re rarely broken down into the concentrations that provide skills necessary in today’s world.
Graphic design students learn the creative ways in which to captivate an audience either in print or digitally, using their own unique eye to make visual statements. They bring a company or organization to life, developing the logos that separate them from competitors. In fact, in 1971, Carolyn Davidson invented the Nike “swoosh” while attending Portland State University as a graphic design student. Given only the instructions to create “something to do with movement,” she worked for nearly 18 hours and produced the iconic logo, which she sold to the Nike founders for just $35. Because of her keen eye for angles, outlines, and ability to bring a simple concept to life, the symbol of her creativity is now immediately recognized around the world. Every magazine you read, website you visit, and CD you buy has benefitted from a graphic designer.
Another art form is photography. Photography is all around us, so much so that we don’t even realize that we’re constantly consuming it. Nearly everything we see online is a product of a photographer. Magazines are simply books with pages and pages of visually stunning photographs. Our favorite movies and documentaries are completed by photographers and videographers that can bring a story to life behind a single camera. And it all takes a special creative eye, the eye of only someone who’s embraced the arts and understands how prevalent they are in our daily lives. For those looking to perfect their craft, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts offers classes and workshops helping photographers understand the intricacies of photography and printmaking. Their workshops, which range from pottery to design and mixed media, help Richmond artists bridge the gap between historical art forms and how they play a role in today’s world.
Finally comes writing. Even when we don’t readily realize it, writing is art. In fact, almost every form of writing can be considered art. Too often we view writers as the famous poets and novelists whose works we read long after they’re gone, but writers have a critical role in our daily lives. Not only are they writing works that we’ll read decades from now, but the digital and printed content we read in newspapers and magazines daily are written and copy-edited by an artist. They have a keen eye for how words, when crafted properly, can sell any product, explain any concept, and convince any skeptic that they should support a cause or business. The technology world doesn’t thrive without the writers who craft press releases, descriptions, and slogans that introduce them to the world.
Self-expression—be it in the form of graphic design, photography, writing, or even painting, is not only therapeutic, but contributes greatly to society as we know it today. Too many of our youth lack a true outlet for their creativity; schools focus so much on STEM and leave creative subjects an afterthought, an elective. But it’s time to change STEM to STEAM and recognize the creative talents of youth who aren’t into number-crunching, technology, or coding video games and mobile apps.
Tiona Bland, a Chesterfield, VA native whose daily work focuses on the creative development of young children, believes the arts are so critical in developing well-rounded students—and people in general.
“What arts does is it allows children to begin exploring at an early age who they are. When you’re doing math, you’re learning specific formulas: this plus this will always equal this. And with science, this component mixed with this chemical is always going to create this. These are things that don’t change, and they’re embedded in us at an early age. But when it comes to writing and the arts, a person can explore themselves and who they are and learn to express themselves in other ways.”
And that’s key in early childhood development as it relates to who they are and what field they’ll embark on growing up. In addition to exploring the STEM fields, they need room to discover their personal passions and talents and find ways to express themselves. Such freedom not only allows them to develop a uniqueness that will take them far in their creative career later on, but it also breaks down communication barriers among students, Bland found during her time as a Chesterfield County Public Schools teacher.
“If you have a child that’s experiencing some type of anger issue or shyness—really any social issue—introducing the arts is a way to help them work through it. I’ve worked with kids who won’t speak in front of a crowd, but will flourish when put in a performance, or can write a beautiful story or create a beautiful drawing. They express themselves through that.”
All in all, we need to provide a safe space where children can explore their creativity without limit or bounds. There’s a place for everyone at the table, and it’s not a matter of which table. It could be the creative writer’s table for the next hit TV show, or the table comprised of engineers designing a more-efficient aircraft carrier. Our young boys and girls deserve to know that they have a safe space to express themselves, and plentiful options for their future.