Preserving the Arts and Humanities Means Protecting the Best in Us All
– Washington Post
– Luis Javier Rodriguez
At Engaging the Senses Foundation, we passionately believe that the arts are not a luxury to be dispensed with in the life of a culture, but a vital necessity to be supported. By participating in the arts as both creatives and recipients, people become more aware as individuals and more engaged as citizens. Engagement with the arts can move us from a state of habitual response to the world into a state of focused attention, awakening us to other people’s realities, to beauty, and to the call to honor and protect our precious earth. By opening up our imaginations and expanding our horizons, poetry, literature, the visual arts, and music help us become larger and more compassionate in our everyday lives.
Our current US Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, who we have the privilege of working with on various projects, received her first NEA Literature Fellowship in 1977, when she was a single mother with two children. The grant allowed her to gain the momentum that helped her become a major voice in the US for the feminist movement, for Indigenous peoples, and for preservation of the environment. “Art carries the spirit of the people. Arts are how we know ourselves as human beings. They show us who we’ve been, who we are, and who we are becoming,” she has said.
We’ve seen the impact of the arts in so many arenas, such as watching children from a foster care home in Los Angeles blossom under our eyes as they were introduced to poetry and encouraged to write poems about their own lives, giving many of them their first experience of speaking their truths in a way that others could hear. We’ve seen a sold-out audience moved to tears and shouts of joy as HI Poet Laureate Kealoha Wong presented a multi-media production called The Story of Everything that reveals our history — and hope for our future – in an entirely new light. We’ve stood beside children and people old enough to be their grandparents in museums throughout the country as they drank in paintings and sculpture that opened the world to their gaze, and sat amongst mixed audiences transported by a piece of music from another time, or celebrating music that reflects our collective now. In these moments, we’ve all come together as one.
The federal funds given by NEA to state arts and culture agencies make access possible to everyone, directing support for specific programs in all parts of the country, reaching citizens not only in all 50 states but in all 435 congressional districts. These are programs like Poetry Out Loud, now in its fifteenth year, a national arts education program that encourages the study of great poetry by offering free educational materials and a dynamic recitation competition to high schools across the country, helping students master public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life. Or the NEA’s Aspiring Educators Program, which has become the leading voice for the next generation of educators who reflect the passion, commitment, and vision of members who believe in public education and its potential to uplift individuals, families, and communities.
A significant percentage of grants go to those who would have few, if any opportunities to participate in the arts otherwise. Forty percent of NEA-supported activities take place in high poverty neighborhoods. Thirty-six percent of grants go to organizations that reach underserved populations such as veterans, people with disabilities, and people in institutions. Take for instance Creative Forces, a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs and the state and local art agencies that serve the special needs of military patients and veterans with traumatic brain injury and psychological health conditions. This is a vital program that places creative arts therapies at the very core of patient-centered care at clinical sites throughout the country, with an added tele-health offering that increases access to community arts activities to promote health, wellness and quality of life for military service members and veterans, plus their families and caregivers.
Or marvel at the success of the vibrant Shakespeare in American Communities initiative that provides opportunities for theater companies to partner with the juvenile justice system to engage youth within that population with the works of Shakespeare; evidence has shown that participation in the initiative promotes positive rehabilitative outcomes and prevention and reduced recidivism rates.
“Federal, state, city, non-profits, businesses, and other private foundations like ours all work together for the public good. But it takes us all to shape-shift this world for the better,” stresses ETSF Chief Executive Officer Mona Abadir. We are writing letters to our congressional representatives in support of continuing to fund these vital federal arts and humanities organizations and request that you — for the flourishing of our spirits and our culture — do the same.