Throughout history, art has played a vital role in driving and fostering social change. From paintings to music, artists have created works with important messages, and many are committed to making art that changes the way we perceive the world. At Blair Academy, students are encouraged to explore their artistic interests to better understand themselves and the community around them.
When “Art for Social Change” was proposed as a new, semester-long course starting in spring 2021, fine arts teacher Evan Thomas saw the potential impact it could have on students. The class was designed to be a successor to “Meaning & Media,” a fine arts course in which students develop a language for constructive critique and media literacy.
“I wanted to keep the elements of ‘Meaning & Media’ that I loved—including reflection, social and emotional learning (SEL) and visual literacy—while offering a new experience that was unlike any other course I had come across,” Mr. Thomas said. “I wanted to create a space that embraces student voice and choice, and empowers students to be agents of change.”
A Look Inside the Course
“Art for Social Change” explores the power of different art forms—such as drama, dance, visual arts, media, music, poetry or film—as educative, imaginative and innovative art forms that are catalysts of change. During the early overview of the syllabus, Mr. Thomas noted, students responded strongly to the opportunity to explore the topics of identity, charity, empathy and protest art. Students were also excited about the prospect of a culminating social change project or collaborative art installation.
The class is structured to give full autonomy to students and their imaginations. For each project, they are given a prompt or question to answer and are directed to select the medium best suited to their artistic inspiration. The class also collectively looks to different artists for inspiration in drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, literature, music and media.
The group of seven meets weekly in the Chiang-Elghanayan Center for Innovation and Collaboration, with a mix of both in-person and virtual attendance. At the core of the course is a strong emphasis on student-led discussion and independent learning, as students support and seek guidance from each other while they learn to foster dialogue and action in the community.
Miki Wang ’21 and Megan Donaghy ’22 both chose to enroll in “Art for Social Change” due to their mutual interest in visual arts and topics relating to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). They knew this course would give them the opportunity to learn more about art and its power as a catalyst for social change.
“When I saw this class being offered I knew it bridged my two interests,” Miki explained. “It has also allowed me another avenue to explore my identity and issues surrounding DEI through the lens of art.”
In the Classroom
To date, the class has focused attention inward on self-exploration, mainly through self-reflection and identity. During the first exercise of the semester, students studied the roles of artists throughout history, how that history is told and who tells the story.
Students also watched a TED Talk called “The Danger of Single Story” by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and then created artwork in response to a single story that was told about them or a story they knew about someone else. This first exercise produced drawings, an acrylic painting, original photographs, collages and ceramic sculpture.
The class is currently exploring cultural identity and the factors that influence one’s worldview. This includes discovering more about who they are, their values and what issues matter to them. Students will then begin working on projects to act on these issues.
“It's been an impactful experience to hear about the way my classmates, even my teacher, see and define themselves,” Miki noted of the exercise. “This has definitely made me gain perspective on their lives and the impact identity has on us overall.”
Besides actually creating art, Meghan likes the course for its enlightening group discussions. With an intimate class size, students have gotten comfortable discussing a number of different, sometimes controversial topics. Miki agreed, noting that this is her smallest class of the semester.
“Even though some students are virtual, our class is very open and reflective during discussions, presentations and projects,” she said. “It really feels like our own small community.”
The Lasting Impact
Mr. Thomas is looking to the future of the course and developing the curriculum further using student input and suggestions. He noted that it is gratifying as an educator to have the opportunity to develop a diverse and inclusive curriculum. From the lens of an artist, however, it’s gratifying to see the variety of approaches students are using to solve problems, explore meaning and dig deeper as they learn more.
“The course is a perfect mix of education, meaningful discussions and art creation, which is hard to find,” Meghan said. “The way in which we are able to learn and communicate in this class is unique, and I would highly recommend it to my peers.”
Ultimately, Mr. Thomas hopes that students will feel empowered to create the change they wish to see in the world, both within the “Blair bubble” and beyond.
“I’m so proud of this group's willingness to talk about their ideas and observations,” he said. “I’ve often needed to modify my plans for each class as discussions will run longer than I originally expected, and it’s been a gift to work with such a talented and thoughtful group of learners.”