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Come About! Music Ed Advocacy in Changing Times

Laurie Schell • AdvocacyJune 2021 • June 12, 2021

Come about! is a command used in sailing when tacking— changing direction when the wind is in front of you. You are responding to external forces of wind and tide in order to reach your destination. When you come about, you change the hand that holds the tiller (steering thing) and sheet (line that controls the sail), move your body to the other side of the boat, and duck your head so the boom (horizontal bar) doesn’t hit you. Think of moving in a zig zag pattern rather than a straight line.

I am a white-knuckled sailor at best but am quite experienced in ducking and changing tack to adjust to incoming headwinds in the arts education seascape— without losing sight of the ultimate goal. Now is a time that requires a local response to wind shifts / changes in response to a return to in-person schooling. The key to staying on course is to be prepared, stay convicted, and act strategically. And, above all, don’t go it alone.

A long-term preparation mindset in strategic planning, coalition building, and relationship building will give you a leg up in times that require reaction and response. However, if you are facing immediate threats to your music and arts education programs, begin your advocacy planning with these questions:

What is at stake?

Is your school district considering specific cuts to arts teaching positions or class schedules? What do you know and how do you know it? Get the facts right. Will the reduction result in loss of access to music and arts education for students in your school? All schools in the district?

Important note: Local district policies are governed by state and federal policies. Most states have strong policies governing the provision of arts education. Go Arts Education Partnership’s ArtScan to check your state policies. How the policies are implemented at the local level is often the issue when scheduling or budgetary shifts come into play. Remind local leaders that the intent behind the policies to provide universal access to music for all students—emphasis on universal.

What is your message?

Articulate your message in positive terms—inside a frame that speaks to community values. For example: Music and arts education is essential to a quality, well-rounded education for ALL students in XXXX district. The framing here points to quality, well-rounded, and equity —all important values to community leaders. Be positive and inclusive. In crafting an effective message, it’s not what you want to tell them, it’s what they are willing to hear. Test your message with your target audience.

What is your ask?

When you craft a specific ask, use positive language. Make it about the students!

We ask that all students have continued access to an equitable delivery of arts education that includes dance, media arts, music, theatre, and visual arts that supports their educational, social, and emotional well-being, taught by certified professional arts educators in partnership with community arts providers. (modified excerpt from Arts Are Education pledge)

Who are the decisionmakers?

Are the proposed cuts or schedule change a site-based decision by the principal? Or a district decision recommended by the superintendent and school board? This is important to know so you can correctly identify your advocacy targets and potential messengers who can reach those targets.

Who is in your kitchen cabinet?

Who are your allies? A cadre of teachers? Like-minded community and school colleagues? Identify a small group to help plan, strategize and implement. Work across disciplines and departments and reject silos.

Who are your champions?

Who can carry your message beyond your immediate circle? Identify community and business leaders, parents, nonprofit partners, and/or administrators who can amplify your message at school board meetings, with community leaders, and on traditional and social media. Student voices are important also, as long as their participation is authentic and not exploitative.

What solutions do you bring to the table?

Come to the table with concrete solutions that address the underlying issues. With budgetary threats, it’s important to establish all the positive benefits the arts bring to the students, school and greater community. And articulate the loss as well. What will happen if students were to lose access to the arts?

Are you taking full advantage of all the advocacy resources available to you?

For starters, take a look at Arts Are Education, a national campaign in support of arts education. Reach out to state and national advocacy partners, such as NAfME and The NAMM Foundation.

What’s in your tactical toolkit?

There are a variety of tactics to reach your target audience. That said, strategy drives tactics, not the other way around. It’s important to set out the Why before the How. Potential tactics may include presentations at school board meetings, board resolutions, op-ed in local paper, one-on-one meetings or calls with decisionmakers, leveraging grants and awards, email letter writing campaign, and petitions.

What will you do when the immediate crisis is over?

You know what they say— wash, rinse, repeat. An advocate’s work is never done. Keep sailing. And if you need a crew, sign me up!

Laurie Schell is a lifelong advocate for music and arts education. She is founding principal of Laurie Schell Associates | ElevateArtsEd, providing consulting services and issue expertise in coalition building, public policy and advocacy, strategic planning, and program development with a focus on arts education.

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