Prompted by two very different but related events of the week I’m thinking about how the arts shape our lives. First, against the backdrop of white supremacists marching in Virginia I was left wondering about who those marchers were as children, who and what helped shape the perspectives and alliances they formed and then shouted on the street. How did their fears and limitations become their dogma?

Second, I presented a workshop this week for teaching artists who provide arts programs for homeless and abused children. Free Arts Arizona, the organization that asked me to present the workshop, provides programs for youth using the healing powers of the arts to help build resiliency and trust.

Discussions have and will go on and on about the value of the arts; art for art’s sake and participatory arts in communities; in learning and training, in civic engagement, in medicine, in therapies. We don’t need to decide the relative impact or value of watching extraordinary theatre on stage versus a performance devised by youth finding their voice. The relative value is, well, relative – housed in our own experiences and the impact of making, listening to, and seeing the arts.The arts have to do with communication, with artists melding talent, skill, creativity, and reflection to make work that didn’t exist before they did the making.

As I left my workshop I couldn’t stop thinking about all the kids throughout this country who are abused, fearful, on the street, without resources or hope. What can we do to keep them from banging up against limitations that may lead them to become marching neo-nazis or members of the KKK who exhibit racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and antisemitism? How can we help them build their health, find options, develop curiosity and access humor as they recover from being thrown off kilter by the circumstances of their life?

There are no simple answers to these questions. The interplay of emotional, physical, economic, and social circumstances that influence individual lives is complex and dynamic. The arts help us recognize and navigate that complexity, igniting our creativity and connecting us to our inner and outer lives. The arts provide us a way to move forward, expanding our comfort zones and building tolerance and interest in other ideas and people. When we do something we didn’t know we could; sing a song, perform on a stage, create a film, painting, or sculpture, dance with another, we find greater possibilities in life. If we don’t offer these options to struggling youth now what will our society be in the near future? The challenge is upon us to be less tolerant of violence, bigotry, and hatred and more responsive to the human heart.

Alison Marshall

Free Arts of Arizona:http://www.freeartsaz.org

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