Forest and the Trees: Perspectives in Music Education Advocacy

Laurie Schell • AdvocacyJanuary 2022 • January 19, 2022

What is your point of view in arts education advocacy?
Are you the arts educator, working everyday to advance students’ knowledge and experience in the arts? Are you an artist or corporate partner, creating meaningful connections in your community? Or an administrator, working on policy levers that will improve quality, equity, and access for all students? Can you see the forest and the trees?

It begins with us—who we are, what we know, and can do. No matter where you are standing, your perspective is valid. 

Where Do You Stand?
In my view, there are three perspectives that are most often represented in music and arts education advocacy. 

Practitioner Advocate: Teachers, community arts partners, teaching artists, parents, and administrators would fall within this group. They are doing the everyday work of providing the arts to students, directly in the classroom and indirectly through parenting, partnerships, administrative support.

Field-builder Advocate: Researchers, funders, corporate citizens, higher ed, arts service organizations, and professional educator associations are in this group. It is in their interest to support the practitioners and the policy advocates, to build understanding and knowledge, and to build capacity in the field.

Policy advocate: These are the folks who advance positive budgetary and policy agendas in support of arts education at the local, state, and national level. Their work is informed by the practitioners and the field-builders. They educate policymakers and advocates, amplify messages, mobilize constituencies for action, and seek to influence (lobby) the policymakers. 

Effective advocacy is accomplished by first understanding where you are, then taking action by embracing perspectives beyond your own. Forest and trees.

Go to the Balcony
In Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky use a balcony metaphor to describe a multi-focused perspective. 

“Let’s say you are dancing in a big ballroom with a balcony up above…. Most of your attention focuses on your dance partner…. You let yourself be carried away by the music, your partner, and the moment.

But if you had gone up to the balcony and looked down on the dance floor, you might have seen a very different picture. You would have noticed all sorts of patterns…. 

Achieving a balcony perspective means taking yourself out of the dance, in your mind, even if only for a moment. The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray.”  (Heifetz and Linsky, 2002, p. 53.)

And I would posit the opposite is true, as well. The only way for a balcony observer to understand what’s happening on the dance floor is to join the dance.

Enhance Your Perspective
Getting on the balcony may be as simple as taking on the role of observer at a meeting rather than being a participant. Or setting up rigorous data systems that enable objectivity. One strategy for achieving multiple perspectives is to establish solid channels of communication through a network of advocates.

Own Your Expertise
Claim your knowledge and experience. If we (the education sector) are to craft effective policies, then we need to hear from the practitioner advocates about what works (or doesn’t work). If we want to earn the trust of a policymaker, then our policy advocates must guide us to create compelling stories with data as well as heart.

Embrace Learning
Take advantage of advocacy learning opportunities in your community and at state and national conferences. The sessions are both useful in presenting a big picture perspective and practical, providing concrete action steps. Colleagues at the NAMM Foundation, National Association for Music Education, Americans for the Arts, Arts Education Partnership, and others are providing rich opportunities to advance knowledge and professional learning for our field.

Commit to Action
Take a moment to experience the treetop canopy if you typically dwell on the forest floor. Observe patterns, relationships, and pathways that one can see only from a distance. Similarly, if you work from a removed perspective, get down to the ground to understand the day-to-day challenges and workings of music education in the classroom. We all have an important role to play in the education of our youth. We can better advance our cause through multiple perspectives. Forest AND trees. 

Heifetz, Ronald and Marty Linsky. Leadership on the line: staying alive through the dangers of leading. Harvard Business Press, 2002.

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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