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To help our young people heal from gun violence, give them more access to the arts

When young people are given opportunities to pick up an instrument, choreograph a dance, paint a mural or write their generation’s song of forgiveness and hope, they’re likely to feel less despair and more positive connection.

Braulio Vasquez, whose 19-year-old cousin Neftali Reyes Jr. was shot to death in 2017, speaks during the unveiling of a memorial mural to young victims of gun violence, located underneath the viaduct of The 606.
Braulio Vasquez, whose 19-year-old cousin Neftali Reyes Jr. was shot to death in 2017, speaks during the unveiling of a memorial mural to young victims of gun violence, located underneath the viaduct of The 606.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

How can students process their pain, anger and trauma due to gun violence?

In 2021, 57 Chicago school-aged children died from gun violence, compared with 49 in 2020, as the Sun-Times reported recently. Also in 2020, dozens of 18-year-olds, some recent graduates and others still in school, were gun violence victims.

Undoubtedly, students all across Chicago are coping with trauma caused by gun violence, which has been made worse by the ongoing threat of COVID-19 and school disruptions caused by the pandemic.

To help students cope with the trauma of gun violence, many school administrators are providing access to therapists, psychiatrists and social workers. They are offering time-out rooms reserved for screaming and peace circles for sharing feelings to support teens — and their parents, too — as they manage their frustrations and grief.

Another way to help young people is through the arts. Chicago schools have struggled for years to provide rich programs in music, theater, visual and literary arts. Such programs are needed now more than ever.

Young people traumatized by gun violence would benefit from increased access to the arts, both in schools and their communities, as an outlet for healing. Recent research shows exposure to the arts may help children and young people cope better, express themselves creatively and find their joy again.

According to the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2020 Arts Education Data Toolkit, studies have found the arts can boost students’ communications and critical thinking skills, support their social and emotional development, nourish their creativity and improve their performance in school.

A sense of optimism

Despite the benefits of arts education, lack of funding has long been a major barrier. In Chicago high schools, access to in-depth arts instruction declined from 64% in 2017-18 to just 60% for 2018-19. The arts budget in CPS schools decreased in 2019–20 compared with 2018–19. The median budget per student for arts programs and materials in high schools decreased from $9.29 to $8.73; in elementary schools, it decreased from $6.58 to $5.56.

Ingenuity, a nonprofit established a decade ago to fund, support and research arts education in CPS, reported in its 2018-19 annual report that 35% of students — most of them Black and lower-income — do not have “consistent access to high-quality arts education.”

There’s ample evidence that more access would help our young people.

In a study by New Victory Theater’s Spark Change program in nine New York City schools from 2014 to 2019, researchers found that student participants “not only deepened their empathy and creative thinking — (but) also built a sense of optimism about what the future holds.”

After one year in New Victory’s arts education program, students’ scores on measures of future orientation increased over 10%, compared to a decrease of 5% among students who didn’t participate. In other words, as the group’s report stated, providing robust performing arts programs is a way to “create hope” among young people.

Another recent study of Syrian refugee youth who had lived in the U.S. for approximately a year showed that a 12-week art therapy program provided them with coping skills and reduced stress.

Chicago is starting to “get it,” it seems. In 2020, the National Youth Art Movement Against Gun Violence was established here as the first non-profit dedicated to using a combination of art activism, commercial billboards and augmented reality technology to support the creation of art in response to gun violence. Young people from ages 13 to 28 will create interactive, mobile art that expresses the impact of gun violence. Long term, the vision is to spread the project to other cities, eventually creating a national cohort of youth artist-activists against gun violence.

When young people are given opportunities to pick up an instrument, choreograph a dance, paint a mural or write their generation’s song of forgiveness and hope, they’re likely to feel less despair and more positive connection.

As our schools search for ways to help young people heal from trauma, it’s important to remember the arts. Better access to arts education can help many of our young people cope — and heal amid the chaos.

Diane Claussen is head of Theatre Management and an assistant professor at The Theatre School at DePaul University and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.

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