Building creative capacity: Arts education in the 21st century (Part 4)

by Guest Blogger

Several months ago, four students at the Harvard Graduate School of Education deliberated how to advance education from a passive institution to a driving force that develops essential learning and life skills. Brought together from four countries by Harvard, the role of art in each of their personal narratives inspired them to choose art as the agent of change. They formed Creative Capacities International, using music, dance, spoken word poetry, and visual arts to teach critical thinking, communication and collaboration, and creativity. From an idea in a classroom in Cambridge, they have recently brought the transformative power of the arts to the remote foothills of the Himalayas and dirt-floored classrooms on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. This is the final post of a four-part series on arts education.

By Meftehe Shebi, Ed.M. ’12

The journey of unlocking my creative potential began when I was very young. I developed a strong passion for visual arts, particularly in using it as a medium for expressing personal narratives. Visual arts and storytelling gave me the autonomy to recreate my surroundings to depict a better and more creative reality. Art became my instrument of change.

I was born and raised in Ethiopia, a country rich in cross-cultural and artistic history. However, art was not taken seriously in my household, as is true in most households in developing countries. The reason is very clear: It’s really difficult to take up painting or writing as a trade. When my grades in other subjects began to suffer, my mother threw out all my art supplies. Her intentions weren't malicious; my parents knew that I was fortunate to have opportunities that many others in our country don't. Spending more time working on subjects like math and science and less time on drawing and writing stories was non-negotiable.

I did well in those subjects and even became an engineer. However, my passion for the arts never faded. On the contrary, I benefited from the prodigy-like passion I had for arts because it not only enhanced my intellectual curiosity but helped me explore the sciences in ways that were unique and seamless.

But I could never completely let go of the power art held for me. The arts could serve as a powerful vehicle for intensely personal yet far-reaching healing and change. As a student ambassador for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), I witnessed the dynamic nature of visual arts and storytelling in helping people overcome the heart-wrenching challenges of isolation, suffering, extreme impoverishment and even loss of identity. The application of an arts-based curriculum in refugee schools proved to be a formidable educational tool in serving over half a million displaced refugees in the Horn of Africa rewrite the drastic memories of war, tribal conflict and natural disasters. I had to be a part of it.

[Caption: Meftehe Shebi]