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The Importance of Arts in Youth Empowerment

August is Artist Appreciation Month and we welcome Executive Director Nancy Schwalb from to speak about the important influence of artistic creativity on youth development and empowerment. The D.C. Creative Writing Workshop, based in the Congress Heights neighborhood of Southeast D.C., unites parents, teachers and professional writers-in-residence to transform the lives of youth through self-expression and the power of the written word.

What happens to a child who repeatedly fails every standardized test? With three interim assessments in Reading and Math, followed by the high stakes tests that help determine the future of their teachers and their schools, children can hear it up to eight times a year: “Basic. Below Basic. Failure to achieve Proficiency.” In the middle school at which our creative writing program is based, more than seventy percent of our students heard it again this year. Most of them have heard it throughout their school careers. And, if they’ve learned nothing else of importance in their young lives, they have learned one crucial lesson: “I am a failure.”

New students enter our after-school Writing Club nearly every week with the same message. “I’m no good at writing, but my friend said I could come here”. It can take days of one-on-one instruction with an older mentor before they feel comfortable putting their own thoughts and feelings into words. And then it happens, over and over again, with about 75 kids each year they’re hooked. When they are finally asked for more than just the right answer, they suddenly discover that they have something of value to contribute. When they see their poems published in our twice-yearly magazine, and when they read that work in public, their pride is immeasurable.

And that’s part of the problem. We can distribute surveys among the students, their parents, and their teachers; we can evaluate portfolios of their work; we can find reductions in the number of disciplinary incidents they are involved in; but we can’t show the glow in their eyes when they step up to the microphone, the excitement in their quivering voices, the tears of sheer joy as they are overwhelmed by applause from their families and friends. The impact of the arts can be measured, but the results don’t provide an adequate picture of the importance of arts instruction. When success comes only after years of failure, it’s more than just success. It opens the door to a world of unimaginable opportunity.

After they’re done writing and they’ve all shared their work, our students have an hour or so of free time. Some of them want to work on art projects while others want to go out in the hallway, plug in a radio, and dance. They develop amazing confidence by doing what they feel good at, and when they are allowed to choose an activity, they begin to feel some sense of control over their often chaotic lives. In nice weather, most of them want to go outside. There’s a creek that runs behind the school, and a playground nearby where they can run around and just be kids. It’s something they’ve forgotten how to do, but the arts, creativity, and self-expression give them a way to remember. And the value of that is incalculable.

Nancy Schwalb founded DCWW in 1995 and currently serves as the Executive Director.

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