A common dictionary definition of an advocate is one who pleads the cause of another, or one who defends or maintains a cause or a proposal. If you ask art educators if they are advocates for the arts, you’ll get a resounding “yes.” But, when asked to articulate what they are trying to accomplish with their advocacy efforts, many art educators are often hard-pressed to communicate their issues, objectives, and strategies for effecting change.
A common dictionary definition of an advocate is one who pleads the cause of another, or one who defends or maintains a cause or a proposal.
If you ask art educators if they are advocates for the arts, you’ll get a resounding “yes.” But, when asked to articulate what they are trying to accomplish with their advocacy efforts, many art educators are often hard-pressed to communicate their issues, objectives, and strategies for effecting change.
What Is Effective Advocacy?
What most art educators call advocacy is more aligned with being a fan or cheerleader for the arts—enthusiastic and vocal efforts to get people motivated and excited about the value of the arts. Effective advocacy is more than that; it is a complex phenomenon that involves many parts and players.
As with a sports team, it’s easier to win if you have a lot of enthusiastic supporters. To take the sports analogy further, it takes a multiplicity of people assuming a variety of roles to produce a successful season and a winning team: (a) the fans, loyal individuals who care about the team and are there to cheer them on; (b) cheerleaders, who provide important support for the team with their ability to get a stadium full of fans enthusiastic about the game; and (c) the team, and each member of the team is focused on one issue—winning the game. To achieve that, they have a playbook with strategies for using it effectively. They do the actual work of playing the game.
A Team Effort
Effective advocacy in art education needs comparable groups of people. Seldom is any major change effected singlehandedly. A lot of fans and cheerleaders are needed, but a team of advocates who focus on winning is also needed. There are certainly similarities between fans, cheerleaders, and advocacy teams, but there are also distinct differences.
While it takes a team to plan and complete a major advocacy effort, often a single person will emerge as the team leader or captain and will direct the efforts toward achieving an advocacy goal. That person will provide guidance in keeping the efforts positive and upbeat, ensuring that advocacy is not adversarial, but is informative and convincing, helping those who are not on board to understand why they should be.
A Targeted Focus
Effective advocacy in art education needs to be focused on a specific cause or issue and targeted to audiences who can affect the change or provide the support that is desired. It also needs to be well-planned, with objectives and strategies to ensure that the time and effort expended are used effectively to achieve the desired outcome. An advocacy project or effort should be evaluated using predetermined criteria when it is completed.
Targeting an Audience
At the outset, advocacy team members need to understand the situation and environment in which they are working. An essential first step is to understand how the targeted audience conducts business, whether it be a city government, a school district, a state legislature, the federal government, a foundation, or an individual.
Know as much as you can about the inner workings of the target audience. Know the political lay of the land. Know who the leaders are and how they stand on various issues. Know those individuals who can get things done in the target audience. It is also important to know how the members of the target audience view the issues that are of concern.
If your focus is a school district, know the organizational structure, size, demographics, student population, number of staff, and budget. Know as much as you can about the leaders and the decision-makers (school board, school administrators, etc.).
If the state legislature is your target, know as much as you can about the people in Congress and who has the most influence on the issue(s) you are concerned about. Most importantly, know the legislators’ staff members, what their interests are, and something about their personal backgrounds. Getting acquainted with professional lobbyists who may have the ear of one or more legislators can also be useful.
In any situation, it’s important to be able to describe the environment accurately and articulately, and to know the context of the environment—the individuals, organizations, or other entities involved, as well as the social, political, and cultural climate of the situation.
Once this is done, you are ready to do some preliminary planning for your advocacy efforts, which will be the focus of the next article in this series.
Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a series of four that will consider how one can be an effective advocate for art education.
D. Jack Davis, Ph.D., is professor emeritus and founding dean of the College of Visual Arts & Design, University of North Texas. D.Jack.Davis@unt.edu
Art teachers inspire students to consider all layers of their identity and to celebrate their differences through a variety of exciting lessons. High-school students use photography to create abstract representations of their favorite icons, middle-school students envision their future selves while illustrating college IDs, elementary students celebrate their differences through self-portrait collage paintings, young students learn the value of collaboration while assembling a mural that combines all of their artworks, and more.