So, this past weekend was my second time participating in Arts Advocacy Day, an event hosted each spring in Washington, D.C. by American for the Arts (http://www.americansforthearts.org). My second year was just as exciting as my first, but brought to mind, and put in perspective, my experience last year.
Before I attended last year, I had heard a lot about the event and been told by others who had attended that I had to attend. They all said, “You have to attend Arts Advocacy Day.” So I went to Washington last year and was excited to learn about advocacy. The learning sessions were relevant and fact-filled and detailed. Training lasted an entire day (but was followed immediately with a performance at the Kennedy Center by Yo - Yo Ma). Experts presented lots of research and lots of statistics and lots of numbers. For a person who believes himself to be number dyslectic, I was simply overwhelmed. It was all convincing information, but outside of my ability to remember and use it fluently, like so many of the other advocates. I felt unprepared.
But the message I kept hearing as to tell my story.
The night before our Capitol Hill visit, when we would be thrown into our prearranged congressional visits, I felt totally inadequate and figured I’d be the story the staffers would laugh about over beers the next evening. But before going to sleep, I reviewed the facts and figures, selected the ones I thought would be the most convincing and could remember, and mentally wrote my story.
The next day, on my Hill visits, I was paired with two students from SCAD (Arts Management graduate students) for most of my visits. One problem. They were both from China and spoke mostly Chinese. Congressional Representatives and Senators care most about their own constituents, and it certainly didn’t help when one of the students started talking about how she thought China supported the arts better than America did. My plans to tell my story and spit out facts now had a different twist to it. I need to incorporate the stories these graduate students had to tell as well. I suddenly had to take charge and be the leader.
I rose to the top of my game (after all, I am a teacher!) and told my story of a career educator who knew first hand the power of the arts to change lives and to teach to both sides of the brain (not just that math/science one so popular these days). I spouted my facts (students who study the arts are more likely to stay in school, be involved in school, be school leaders, score higher on high stakes tests. Results hold true across cultural and socio-economic groups). I invited the SCAD students to tell their American stories of studying in an American school and looking for American employment in the arts.
Okay, so I wasn’t like those model advocates they show you at the end of your training day in a role-play congressional visit (which is lots of fun and a great way to end a mind-numbing day). Those people know everything about everything. Those people can spit out numbers and research like their own birthdays (I forget mine sometimes, by the way). They know every angle to play and every buzzword to say.
But I knew my story and my experiences. And I knew I was just beginning. And I did okay. I don’t think I said anything that would become bar-talk fodder later on. I left the Hill with a sense of accomplishment. I felt I had done something important – sharing the message that the arts matter and we need more support for them, not less. I was the human face behind the numbers and the research.
In a day, I lost my apprehension and gained confidence in my personal power to affect change.
I became an arts advocate.