Rosie Perez on Bringing the Arts to Underserved Children

Rosie Perez made her acting debut in Do the Right Thing in 1989. Since then, she has tried to live up to the title of Spike Lee’s film. She is a fierce advocate for children, especially those growing up in poverty.

A Brooklyn native, Perez serves on the Artistic Board of Urban Arts Partnership (UAP), a leading arts education program in New York City. I recently met with her and Philip Courtney, UAP’s Executive Director, about their program and the role that arts education can play for kids in underserved communities. Here are excerpts from our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity.

What is UAP’s mission?

Philip Courtney: We’re a nonprofit organization that uses art to engage young people in their learning. We partner with about 100 public schools in New York City and 10 in Los Angeles. We have 150 teaching artists. They are working artists in their communities, but also highly trained educators who go into thousands of classrooms across the country.

Our teaching artists partner with the classroom teacher—whether it be English, social studies, science or math—integrating arts into the curriculum. That can mean teaching social studies through filmmaking, or teaching history through hip-hop music. It can also mean helping students who are recent immigrants become more fluent in the English language through storytelling. Our goal is to inspire classroom instruction through the arts in a way that is culturally responsive, especially for underserved young people of color.

How has your curriculum shifted with the Common Core Standards?

PC: For us, the Common Core has offered a real benefit. I say that as a parent who has young children in public school, one of whom is extremely shy. In a Common Core classroom, we ask young people not just to create work, but also to defend it and be ready to be critiqued about it. These are elements that have always been part of any UAP. Teachers are now being challenged to make learning more holistic and multi-dimensional.

All of our lessons are CCSS-aligned. They incorporate critical thinking, reflection, presenting work both orally and visually, and even using technology.

What do you tell policymakers about arts education?

Rosie Perez: Arts education gives a child opportunity, plain and simple. A lot of children have no access to the opportunities that should be there for them. Arts-integrated curricula work. We are proof of that. We want parents to go to their local politicians and say, “These things are necessary. We need to move away from an antiquated learning system.” We also need money, whether it’s corporate sponsorships, more grants, or private donations.

PC: When you’re a bright young person, you need to come into a school system where you see yourself reflected. You need to be able to see a future version of yourself. What an arts-integrated classroom creates is a classroom where questions are asked, and you, the student, are not just being told what is important to know. If you’re in a class that integrates poetry or film, you’re being asked: “What do you think about this? What can you bring to this subject matter?” We need to find a way for young people to meet the curriculum halfway.

What makes an art class so engaging to kids?

PC: You can’t come in, sit in the back, and put your head down. You have to “show up” every day.

RP: If we see a kid sitting in the back and not participating, our staff, fellow students, and even alumni will reach out. Kids who are poverty-stricken—and I was one—are often ignored. We’re judged. We’re pitied. Pitying a child is one of the worst things you can do, outside of physical abuse. If you pity a child, you’re saying, in effect, “I don’t expect much from you.” That’s insulting. That means you’ve already concluded that my intelligence quota is miniscule. That my capacity for learning is miniscule. That my ability to be successful is miniscule.

With our arts education program, we’re asking everything, but without a forced hand. Class is exciting. It’s fun because it uses all different parts of your brain. When you’re a poor kid, and you’re coming to school with an amount of stress that is unbelievable—that no child should have to endure, but many, many, many do—what would you want to do? Would you want to hear a teacher barking orders at you? Or would you want to look out the window instead, or put your head on the desk, or play around? You need some relief, which can come in a number of ways, most of which are self-destructive. An arts-integrated program provides that relief and the proper environment for kids to become engaged. Kids feel important when they’re part of the process. We see that all the time. That validation is key.

PC: Something wonderful happens in the classroom, too. Suddenly, a child sees his teacher and our artist learning from each other. Everyone becomes a learner. The dynamic changes, and things become more open and improvisational.

Is there a success story you could share?

PC: There are many. One of the children in our program who came from a homeless shelter developed her literary and filmmaking skills with us. She earned an academic scholarship at Long Island University, as well as one of the scholarships that we give out every year. The $10,000 that we provide will enable her to get out of the shelter, live in a dormitory, and start a new phase of her life. That’s what we’re about.

Middle school students in Brooklyn, New York, perform a song by Jay Z at the annual Urban Arts Festival; actress and advocate Rosie Perez. Photos courtesy of Urban Arts Partnership.