Why arts education matters: A conversation with Jessica Mele

Jessica Mele, Hewlett Foundation

By day, Jessica Mele is a mild-mannered program officer in the performing arts at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation specializing in arts education. By night, she’s a sketch comedy maven best known as a founding member of Chardonnay, a cheeky San Francisco-based troupe. She’s also a writer/performer working on a solo show about the drama of motherhood, “Eat the Mama.”

A lifelong arts advocate, from serving as executive director at San Francisco’s Performing Arts Workshop to being part of the national advisory council of the Teaching Artists Guild, Mele recently made time to chat about the inequities in arts education in California, where research shows only 11% of schools offer access to a comprehensive arts education, and how Proposition 28, the groundbreaking Arts and Music in Schools initiative which launches this fall, may be a game-changer for creativity in learning.

Q: How did we ever let the arts get cut from the public schools?

A: The public divestment from arts education in California is directly tied to the public divestment of education in California. Prop. 13, coupled with other anti-tax legislation from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, has led to a financially starved system. In that state of starvation, cultural expectations about the arts as “enrichment” or a benefit for the “talented” kids drive funding decisions that de-prioritize arts and culture. This feeds existing racial and class inequities in arts education access and teacher demographics because those educators who are more likely to have firsthand experience with the arts tend to be those whose families could access the arts through private means, often white or Asian, and wealthy.

Q: How do you feel about the passage of Prop. 28 in 2022? 

A: Prop. 28 is something to celebrate. I never thought I would see so much money for arts education in California schools in my lifetime. It isn’t perfect, and it will require a lot of adjusting on the part of the California Department of Education and schools to distribute and spend the money wisely. It’s not nearly enough, given the size and scale of the student body in California schools. And at the same time, it’s more money than we’ve seen for arts education in this state in decades.

Q: What challenges lie ahead?

A: Principals and schools are going to be challenged to figure out how to spend it. Arts teachers and arts organizations will have a responsibility to do something they’ve never had to do before: instead of plugging holes in a school’s arts education program, they can provide thoughtful guidance to principals on how to develop an arts education program that is responsive to their school community’s culture and needs. It is a game changer. And now it’s everyone’s responsibility to ensure that it’s implemented thoughtfully.

Q: How does being a mom impact your view of the arts in education?

A: I guard my child’s right to imagination. I try to cultivate that at home in play, drawing and painting. I try to ask questions about his thought process, his feelings as he was creating his artwork, the creative choices he made. In early childhood education, this is just good pedagogy. But, often in arts education at the secondary level we stop at the product: “What is it?” But those comments and questions don’t treat the artwork for what it is: an expression of a child’s learning process and their view of the world. I try to help him make meaning out of the things he creates. And I try to say “yes” to every creative impulse he has, even if I feel silly. And I tell him that his imagination is one of his most important assets.

In preschool, my son would come home with artwork that ignored the lines. He used so many colors – he loves colors – and filled the page with shapes and scribbles. It was impossible to understand what something “was.” And he was disappointed because kids in school told him that his art wasn’t “good” because it didn’t look like the thing it was supposed to be, a train or a car or a Pokémon or a rainbow bear.  I tried to … encourage him in his own creative journey. Art doesn’t have to look like something to be beautiful. It doesn’t have to be clear to be interesting or to have meaning.

Q: What do you think people outside the arts most need to know about how arts ed can touch children’s lives? Perhaps especially now, post-pandemic? 

A: Art and creativity is not a panacea. But it is certainly a balm, especially for many teens right now who are suffering from mental health issues post-pandemic. The creative process involves a reflective process of observing a creative problem, making a judgment about it, responding or expressing within an art form, and then – this is key and often missed in arts education — reflecting and revising. In other words, the creative process is a way of learning that helps young people make meaning out of their world, express their take on that meaning, and reflect on the interaction between their artwork and their surroundings, school, community, friends, family. In adolescence in particular, this cognitive process is key to developing abstract thinking skills.

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