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Girls’ Installation in Local Dental Office

Kiona Millirons, PhD.,
executive director, Oklahoma City Girls Art School, artist and arts educator in Oklahoma, USA


Kathryn Rawdon, PhD
is professor in the University of Alaska Anchorage School of Social Work and serves as the school’s director.


David P. Moxley, PhD
PhD, Senior Lecturer, University of Jyväskylä, Kokkola University, Consortium Chydenius

The Importance of Arts-Based Social Enterprises in the Full Educational Development of Children in Communities with Limited Resources

The dominance of science and mathematics and its relationship to what public educators now call STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) overlooks the distinctive features of arts education and its contribution to the development of children, and the intrinsic value the arts serve in communities (Elliot, 2012). Especially important is how potent engagement in the arts can be for children in fostering imagination, generating their ideas, stimulating and deepening creativity, and expanding a sense of agency as students interact individually, and within collaborative groups, to express their own thinking and emotions. And, children’s involvement in the arts can improve their performance in other academic areas (Smithrim & Upitis, 2005), although this can obscure the distinctive contributions of the arts to children’s development. The movement to integrate the arts and science is gaining ground particularly in the design of functional objects (Edwards, 2010a, b). And, there is evidence that social workers are actively involved across the globe in facilitating community arts-based opportunities for children (Butterfield et al., 2016).

Arts education is increasingly important since imagination and creativity become central to innovation in community life. Offering arts-based education is important now more than ever for children who have limited access to formal training in the arts and humanities. Social workers can play a vital role in advancing alternative educational settings in which the arts are a principal focus for children who do not have access to them in their schools. The purpose of this paper is to illuminate how one school operating outside of the boundaries of formal public education is making arts-based and related education available to girls whose households and communities face resource challenges. Social workers can advocate for arts education as a means of advancing the full development of children, especially those whose communities struggle with providing a full range of educational options.

Making Arts Education Central in the Lives of Children and Youth with Limited Access

Emerging in many communities, particularly high need ones, are community-based social enterprises devoted to expanding arts education outside the boundaries of public schools. Led by local arts educators who value their disciplines and recognize the distinctive contributions of arts education to children’s development, they are creating innovations in the provision of arts education in communities facing economic challenges and for children whose families cannot afford to supplement their education in the arts. These social enterprises adopt a specific focus on the provision of arts education to underserved neighborhoods, prioritize the creative development of children, and compensate for the withdrawal of public schools from arts education occurring through either rationing of such education or its total elimination.

The authors refer to these entities as social enterprises because of their innovative organizational forms, use of local community arts assets to nurture the development of children through the arts, and the tenacity of their leaders to make arts education a reality within low income or poor neighborhoods. These leaders recognize the importance of investing in arts education not only as an avenue for instilling creativity in children but as an avenue of children’s holistic educational development (Egan, 1997; Eisner, 2008). Community-based arts organizations can expand the developmental options available to children who can increase their knowledge of the world, knowledge of self, social and interpersonal skills, and problem-solving capacities through their involvement in the arts, their development as artists, and their interactions with professional artists.

The community-based arts alternatives populating Oklahoma City, USA reflect the broad nature of the arts within the context of culture. Within this southcentral American city, several alternatives focus on music education and seek to broaden their students’ engagement in the world of music, knowledge of the diversity of music and performance, with the latter involving both the technical means of making music, and the presentation of self in performance before audiences. Cultural aspects of music for some of these entities may involve the intersection of race or ethnicity and musical forms, such as the Blues and Hip Hop. Students learn not only about particular musical forms or traditions, but also about their relationship to cultural experiences and social innovations of certain groups, such as African Americans or Hispanic or Latino Americans. Music and its relationship to spoken word, rhythm and bodily awareness, emotion, and the technical and business sides of the arts also can fall within the educational curriculum of these entities. Other arts options within the city include visual arts, design and production of murals, and opportunities to engage in lyrical arts, like poetry.

The Oklahoma City Girls Arts School as Social Enterprise

The Oklahoma City Girls Arts School represents one of these social enterprises. Formed by the lead author in 2015, the school’s formation recognizes the contemporary crisis in public education so visible in the United States in low income or poor neighborhoods. That local public schools in these neighborhoods too often cannot afford arts education amplifies the relevance of this new entity in the provision of visual arts education. The focus on girls, and the prioritization of girls from minority backgrounds, implicates their limited access to arts education and prioritization of boys for special educational opportunities. The sex segregated character of the school recognizes that girls working together apart from boys can develop differently and more positively than those girls who are students in sex integrated learning environments in which educators may attend more to the learning needs of boys than girls. The school seeks to nurture the full development of girls through their involvement in the arts.

The school engages in the development of students through a multi-dimensional curriculum. The curriculum incorporates (1) arts education to expand students’ knowledge of the arts across different genre and historical periods, (2) art making as a way of taking perspective, communicating ideas, and expressing the self, (3) art making to broaden students’ involvement in the use of diverse media to produce art individually, with adult artists, or in small groups, (4) community service through the arts in which students collaborate with artists to produce exhibits expanding audiences’ appreciation of the arts, (5) orientation to the business of the arts in which students learn from arts entrepreneurs about how to shape careers as artists, (6) financial literacy through the accumulation of savings from art sales in micro savings accounts, and (7) social development achieved through collaborative projects in which small groups of students conceptualize, plan, execute, and engage relatively large scale projects requiring the involvement of all group members to produce an art project.

The Key Properties of the Girls Arts School as a Creative Enabling Environment

The school serves as a holding environment of social learning in which girls interact with adult artists, art educators, and each other to foster self-efficacy, the belief that students can make creative products that resonate in positive ways with others in the arts community. The idea of the school as a creative holding environment elevates the status of the arts and underscores the importance of the kind of creative learning inherent in the girls’ production of original objects. The school as a holding environment of creative action is one way it seeks to counteract oppression visible in the economic limitations experienced by the households and neighborhoods in which the girls reside. Most if not all of the girls come from households in which English is not the principal language, and therefore one could characterize the girls as constituting a linguistic minority.

The holding environment seeks to empower its students: the sense of agency that they are valued human beings who possess desire, aspirations, and purpose in their lives. Consistent with the trend resulting in the exclusion of the arts from public education, the Oklahoma City Girls Art School offers access to a supportive and nurturing studio and instructional settings in which girls can learn directly about the arts and how to mobilize their own distinctive creativity inherent in imagining their world in either positive or negative ways. Augmented access to the arts compensates for the retrenchment of the arts or its exclusion from the girls’ public school experience. There is nothing within the school competing with the arts, and therefore the arts experiences in which the children participate hold primacy while they are involved in the world of art the school constructs as an essential quality of its organizational culture.

This primacy means that neither science nor mathematics nor any other subject matter compete directly with the girls’ involvement in the arts. The arts themselves stand as the principal pillars of the school, and the learning experiences the school offers. The culture of the school prioritizes the arts and make them a reality within the girls’ educational life space. That students are exposed to powerful role models who themselves are practicing and successful female artists means that students have sources of identification guiding them through the process of making, displaying, interpreting, and selling their art work. The exhibits extend such interpretation into the world of the arts in which there are people who serve as audiences of the children’s work, adding more value to the affirmation of the students as creative beings. Installations of the children’s art projects reveal the collaborative feature of their work, as Photograph 1 reveals. This photograph is an installation a group of girls prepared for a dentist’s office in Oklahoma City. Fifteen girls prepared this installation, each one contributing a tile to the full installation. The primacy of the visual arts within the school validates the perspectives of the students whose stance on their experiences become important subject or thematic matter of their art projects. Self-expression through the arts is an important property of the arts holding environment the school offers girls. Through their art work they can learn about their own perspectives, and the perspectives of others, whether those are held by practicing adult artists, the arts educators, or other students. By taking perspective in the production of their art work, and by expressing this perspective through the qualities they instill in their art projects, the girls can establish an evocative form of knowledge. For the students, the arts can evoke perspective, feelings, and ideas from others, first those closest to them, such as fellow students or art educators, and then second from members of audiences who attend the girls’ exhibits or shows including family members. From the evocative nature of the girls’ work they can learn that the arts influence the perspective, thoughts, and feelings held by others who often times are either adult artists or those adults who appreciate the value of the arts.

Reinforcing the girls’ formation of agency is their experience of group life. Group life can buffer girls from the exigencies of daily life, facilitate their development of identity, and make them a vital part of the school’s fulfillment of its mission. Within this group-oriented community engaged culture, the school facilitates the individuation of the girls. Not only is it a place in which students can discover themselves as artists, or better yet come to experience themselves as creative agents, it is a place in which students can form their aspirations and seek support for their fulfillment. Even though the school remains in its early stages, such aspirations are materializing in the realm of work and career, volunteer activity and citizenship, higher education, and profession.

What emerges from the principal qualities or properties of the school as a creative holding environment? Given the children’s origins, and the issues they must address in their families and communities, and the absence of enabling opportunities in their public schools focusing on creative engagement, the school represents an alternative opportunity structure. The school literally opens up opportunities for the girls they would otherwise not have available in their daily lives. This observation is not a criticism of the girls’ families or their schools, but rather a recognition that families, communities, and schools face considerable limitations in meeting the developmental needs of children and youth given an underinvestment by society. The school represents a novel opportunity structure in which the creative development of girls is the primary focus of institutional purpose and mission. In this sense, the school reflects social work’s efforts to create and sustain opportunity structures inherent in alternative organizations that prioritize human development.


If one frames the expression of creativity as a vital opportunity in contemporary society, then the arts learning the school offers can have a profound influence not only on the girls’ sense of agency, but the self-awareness of their potential, and how to fulfil it within domains of life they value for themselves, such as vocation and work, career, further education, community engagement, and friendship. Social work can serve as a vital source of leadership in developing and supporting efforts to make the arts available and accessible to children whose schools may eliminate arts education altogether or assign to it a secondary status. Social work’s concern for the full development of children legitimizes the profession’ advancement of the arts as a vital community development effort.

Given the profound limitations society imposes on contemporary families with its imposition of considerable expectations about work and income, and the limitations society imposes on schools, alternative locality-based institutions that can support the development of children and youth have an immediate relevance. The Oklahoma City Girls Art School is one of these alternative institutions in which a creative holding environment of arts-based learning can foster the creative and social development of children and youth. Social work can be influential in fostering such learning environments.


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