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Art Education and EcoJustice
University of Akron
SANDRA SPICKARD PRETTYMAN
University of Akron
Informed by ecojustice perspectives, as well as service-learning and art education pedagogies, this study grew out of an opportunity to explore an existing arts and service-learning program for urban high school teenagers. The study investigated Arts UP, a program that uses art as a vehicle for engaging students in issues of ecojustice. We questioned whether such a program could engage its participants in deeper understandings of self, Culture and place and offer its participants an increased sense of individual and collective instrumentality. This paper presents findings about the ability of such a program to foster cultural and environmental awareness and change, and to help students and teachers move "from the artist's personal experience of aesthetics to development of an ethical point of view" (Billings 1995, 22). Findings highlight how the Arts UP program works to preserve cultural, environmental, and social spaces and traditions through art education, thus assisting in the sustainability of diverse cultural practices and knowledge of local eco-systems.
An integral component of ecojustice pedagogy and reform rests in assuring future generations are adequately and ethically cared for. Paramount to inciting such an ethic of care and ultimately action is helping today’s youth develop an eco and cultural conscience, as well as the technical and conceptual skills to promote sustainable cultures and environments within their communities. This paper explores ways art educators can help youth involve themselves in acts that affect decision-makers and assist them in becoming decision-makers for the common good and for the good of “the cultural and ecological Commons” (Bowers 2006). It also examines the ways in which young people evolve an eco and cultural conscience through arts-based experiences, and how the concept of the commons can provide a model for understanding the role of humans in effecting positive change on local and larger communities.
The commons essentially “represent both the naturals systems (water, air, soil, forests, oceans, etc.) and the cultural patterns and traditions (Intergenerational Knowledge ranging from growing and preparing food, medicinal practices, arts, crafts, ceremonies, etc.) that are shared” without monetary cost by all members of the community (EcoJustice Dictionary, retrieved from www.ecojusticeeducation.org, May 18, 2008). Historically, the commons, biologically and culturally, were varied depending on the characteristics of regions; and served as sites where intergenerational knowledge represented sources of resistance to industrial or corporate culture (Bowers 2006; Bowers 2004).
While young people have the elementary capacity to understand the commons as a concept, most have never been challenged to explore ways in which the commons, locally or globally are important to the wellbeing of their lives and of their communities. In our research, few students had ever learned about contemporary examples where the commons are kept from becoming privatized or “enclosed” by corporate ownership. For example, State and National park systems, cultural and historic preservation sites, food co-ops, and ceremonial events all represent current efforts in maintaining and revitalizing the commons.
Some critics of contemporary schooling practices posit that many students will not have the necessary resources to address current conservation issues. Educators such as Giroux (1996) and Lesko (2001) emphasize that modernist ideals like self-governing Individualism, competitiveness, national strength and growth, objective knowledge, subjective realities, racial Progress, and male dominance still shape the ways adolescents are taught in the 21st century. In contemporary Western schooling, there remains a great push for conformity, competition, and objectivist knowledge. These phenomena are evidenced by the use of standardized testing. The residual effects of schooling in which modern ethos still exist make it difficult for youth to recognize and combat confronting crises (like privatization) to our ecological and cultural wellbeing. This type of education may also make it increasingly difficult for young people to maintain cultural and ecological attachment or an investment in their futures (Hawkins & Catalano 1992; Lesko 2001). Particularly concerning is the question as to whether young people living in environmentally degraded communities will care if they are unequipped to address cultural and ecological crises they encounter where they live (Hicks and King 2007).
Education reformers advocate for an ecopedagogy at the public school, university, and community levels “that analyzes and critiques the increasing destruction of the world’s diverse ecosystems, languages and cultures by the globalizing and ethnocentric forces of Western consumer Culture” (EcoJustice Education, n.d., Home page, para 1; retreived from www.ecojusticeeducation.org may 18, 2008). Martusewicz (2007) challenges us to “recognize both the interactions between cultural and ecological systems, and the ways that certain practices, beliefs and relationships are oriented toward the future security of both” (11).
Artists of every era have dealt with ecological and cultural issues and have often provided a conscience for society (Brenson 2001). Social issues dealing with environment, racism, homophobia, gender, sexuality, homelessness, and AIDS, to name just a few, are recognized sites for artistic interventions (Desai 2002). For example, in our nation’s early history, the colonists worked hard to domesticate wild nature both by practical need, as well as by what wilderness meant (Hicks and King 2007). “In the 19th century, artists began to re-imagine the natural world around them…and their works helped convince society that environmental appreciation and conservation were socially and politically significant” (Hicks and King 2007, 333).
Environmental and cultural issues have made their way into the research and practices of not only artists, but of many art educators. In particular, art educators like Hicks (2007) and King (2007) are increasingly intent on helping people participate in a culture that promotes the health and integrity of the commons. They explain that:
The arts and visual culture generally have always provided tools and a medium for negotiating the interface between culture and nature, the human and ‘more-than-human’….By representing the non-human world in art we invest it with meaning and personal or cultural relevance. Thus, humans make a home in nature not just as engaging with the biophysical world in the practical search for food and survival, but also in by articulating nature’s meaning and import and imagining how their aspirations fit within the context of non-human realities….The arts must help guide human beings towards a more informed and responsible engagement with the natural world” (Hicks and King, 2007, 332).
The study of community and ethnic arts, of local and cultural wisdom, and of social and ecojustice issues is encompassed by both ecojustice educators’ and art educators’ pursuits. By introducing youth to such constructs, by including them in collaborative arts efforts, and cultural and ecological restorative efforts, and by welcoming their contributions in creating art in the service of community, art education programs built on principles related to community conservation encourage participation in maintaining and revitalizing the commons. For these reasons, art education is well situated to address ecological and cultural problems that “emerge at the point of contact between nature and social life” (Hicks and King 2007, 334).
This project investigated a program for urban teens, Arts UP, that is designed to provide a space for the development of cultural, and environmental awareness and action through the vehicle of art education. The Arts UP program seeks to marry the ideals of service-learning and conservationism through arts inquiry and production by heightening a sense of consciousness in teenagers. It allows for students to connect learning with the real world, something essential to revitalizing the commons, and provides opportunities for them to make choices and decisions about what, why and how they learn. The program works to promote a sense of responsibility in students by providing a structure which is built around experiences that allow them to feel a deeper connectedness to their social, environmental and cultural communities. A major goal of the program is to help students recognize and claim their learning potential and instrumentality and through these to begin to (re)claim some of the traditions and environments in their local communities. Arts UP attempts to free students' imaginations and help them (re)gain control of and over their lives and their communities by doing what Hicks and King (2007) describe artists as doing for generations: “communicating ideas, documenting events, calling attention to problems and harms; by being reminded of our cultural and natural histories and our obligations to future generations, and our ability to actively preserve, restore, and make whole” (335).
The overall purpose of this study was to observe if and how Arts UP influenced the urban teens it served. Did they see a connection between their art, their communities, and ecojustice issues? These are issues Bowers sees as “becoming more acute as a result of the drive to bring more aspects of culture and biological life under the control of the industrial culture, the importance of conserving the diversity of the world’s cultural approaches to maintaining viable commons, the need to foster greater responsibility for renewing intergenerational knowledge that can serve as the basis of mutual support systems and self-reliance within communities—thus reducing dependency upon consumerism to meet daily needs” (Bowers 2006, 129). In this paper, ecojustice is referenced as a broad theoretical and conceptual model for understanding how youth can come to embrace the goals of ecological and cultural renewal and reform through the vehicles of arts-based activities and experiences. Like Bowers, we use the term ecojustice in this paper to refer to certain aspects of an ecojustice education that function to eradicate the causes of eco-racism, to revitalize the commons, to ensure that the prospects of future generations are not compromised by the Globalization of the West’s industrial culture, and to reduce the threat to natural systems to reproduce themselves rather than to have their existence contingent upon the demands of humans (Bowers 2008, retreived from http://www.cabowers.net/CAbookarticle.php May 18, 2008).
Could an art education program like Arts UP help develop and sustain an ecojustice awareness and the commitment to create change? Our findings suggest that many participants in the program became more aware of the environmental issues facing their communities, and of traditional cultural practices in their communities. They also became more aware of the power and responsibility they had to use their art as a mechanism to convey important social messages. In addition, over the course of the four years of the program, many students remained engaged in justice activities. By providing opportunities to recognize, participate in, and conserve local traditions and spaces (both built and natural), this program was able to help students analyze, critique and find ways for countering the increasing destruction of local and global ecosystems and cultures (Bowers and Martusewicz 2005).
The Arts UP program reintroduced teens to the kinds of local and cultural knowledge that have been lost over generations. It utilized a curriculum and mentorship that modeled some concrete ways youth could begin to change their behaviors and attitudes toward environment, toward renewing local traditions, and toward other independent and group life practices.
Ultimately, this paper provides some evidence that community based art education programs hold the potential to guide young people in the revitalization of their commons by learning traditional skills and applying intergenerational knowledge of farming, art making, site based design, local ceremonies, value sharing, and community renewal.
Participation in the Arts UP program encouraged adolescents to think about and talk about environmental and cultural issues of importance to them. The Arts UP program appeared to bring youth to consciousness of their individual and collective roles in creating cultural, environmental, and social awareness and change. Several factors helped to initiate such consciousness and action. Arts UP provided a safe haven, physically, socially and emotionally, where students could come together and engage in meaningful, creative work. Arts UP helped them recognize their own responsibility in creating cultural and environmental awareness and change by engaging students in critical thinking about such issues, by providing students with skills to research and implement ideas about art, culture, and society, and by providing them with opportunities to represent themselves and their ideas publicly.