By Ileyana D. Mabone
Over the last year, we’ve heard of the importance of continued investment into community safety and recovery. However, arts programming, which leads to youth empowerment and skills growth, is often underfunded. Our state’s history of racist and repressive policies has created and maintained massive wealth disparities which prevents many BIPOC youth from accessing the arts. White school districts received $23 billion more than predominantly nonwhite school districts in state and local funding according to 2016 data.
Donnika Jackson is a student at Seattle Central Community College majoring in Fashion Design - a young Black woman pursuing a career in the arts. As a young, aspiring fashion designer, Donnika creates many pieces such as bodycon dresses and flowy bell bottom pants - items that tend to be popular in black fashion. She continues to design in new realms using different materials and prints. Her presence in her field subverts the Eurocentric fashion standards and creates space for the representation of other races in their varied shades, shapes, and sizes.
During COVID 19, the digital divide has widened, creating additional challenges to online education and learning. The divide between students and teachers, student to student, and student to technology has increased. Since going remote and switching to online classes, Donnika finds herself spending a lot of time squinting at Zoom screens trying to differentiate between stitches. Her classmates and her teachers are frustrated by how difficult it is to do art interpretations and critiques virtually. And since COVID-19 removed the one-on-one support she usually gets from the college, Donnika is finding it harder to find support that will help her excel in school.
It is important for art programs to exist, especially in socio-economically challenged communities of color. The benefits of art programs are vast and include greater diversity in art disciplines. Art has historically been centered on the European perspective, which already discourages BIPOC people from joining the art field and making a change in it. This often discourages communities of color from engaging with the art community toward positive impact. Inclusive spaces within the art field could possibly give rise to representation, greater diversity in the arts, and a change of perspective and narrative.
Donnika is proof that when a city invests in art programs, students of color flourish. Donnika shares that she was a part of a sewing class in third grade which helped her find her love and passion for fashion design. Attending a sewing class in her youth illuminated the path for the pursuit of a career in fashion after college. As Donnika rises in the arena of fashion design, she will heighten the representation of young black women in spaces dominated primarily by non-BIPOC communities. Incorporating BIPOC people, the economically stifled, and those furthest from justice in these programs is paramount to the emotional, mental, and physical wellbeing of all.
One reason why our state-funded arts education lacks resources is because of the unequal way that we gather the funding. Washington’s current tax system is regressive, which means it asks for more taxes from low-income earners than high-income earners. Because of this regressive tax system, the majority of community funding is from low-income earners. If the tax system was reformed through progressive taxes like the recently-passed tax on capital gains, there would be more money to go towards community projects and programs.
Funding for arts programming benefits all stakeholders. Donnika had the privilege to experience these programs, including acting, singing, and dancing along with sewing. Unfortunately, she knows many kids are able to have these opportunities because of lack of funding and the associated fees. In addition, COVID-19 prevents participants from being able to learn various forms of art through a “real” in-person experience. Donnika saw that budget cuts were keeping students from being able to learn enough material from their teachers.
Budget cuts to the arts are incredibly damaging to communities of color and youth because they constrain their artistic potential. When programs that were once free become expensive, parents and guardians are forced to choose between these programs and other necessities. The arts are amongst the first to get cut when budget cuts are in question. When they happen, the youth in those programs feel displaced, as if they have no creative outlet.
Art is therapeutic. Art allows students with home instability and disruptions the ability to express themselves in more positive ways. Preventing youth from engaging in art limits our opportunities and options for peace. BIPOC students in the arts may already face non-acceptance, microaggressions, and implicit biases - they should not also have to overcome financial barriers to engaging in the arts.
To be able to prevent further damage to BIPOC and low-income communities, we must demand that Washington take initiative and turn our tax code right-side up. The wealthy and those whose incomes are in the upper 5% should pay their share in taxes without loopholes. The outcome of this will bring more money into often overlooked programs like the arts, giving more opportunity for art to be funded and for students within the programs to excel and flourish. This change could mean more opportunities for people like Donnika, giving life to more diversity in the art community.
Ileyana D. Mabone is a student organizer with All In for Washington, a statewide, people of color-led effort to clean up our upside-down tax code and reinvest in communities of color so our economic system serves all of us.