Americans for the Arts calls for community transformation

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By Anne E. O’Keefe
From Rockford Area Arts Council

This will likely read like “what I learned this summer at the AFTA Conference.” It was more thought provoking and engaging than summer camp so please read on.

First, about Americans for the Arts; AFTA’s mission is, “to serve, advance, and lead the network of organizations and individuals who cultivate, promote, sustain, and support the arts in America. Connecting your best ideas and leaders from the arts, communities, and business, together we can work to ensure that every American has access to the transformative power of the arts.”

There’s that word–transformative. We need to be bold, take risks, spread the word, demand equity in the arts for all. I mean, for all, not just all students but veterans, ex-offenders, people with disabilities, older adults, arts for everyone.

It always makes me proud to represent Rockford on these occasions because we are involved in programs and grants that can be transformative. The U.S. Department of Education grant is a prime example.

In 2014 Rockford Public Schools District 205 received a grant for professional development in the amount of $295,248. Our school district is one of just 34 in the country that received funds “to help arts educators grow and improve arts instruction, and share effective models of arts in education that support student achievement in the arts and other areas.”

This grant will have long range impact on the District’s vision for how the arts can impact students in preparation for success in the 21st Century workforce. This program enables the implementation of high-quality model professional development programs in elementary and secondary education for music, dance, drama, media arts, visual arts, including folk arts, for educators and other arts instructional staff, K-12 in schools with high-poverty rates.

AFTA serves as a great resource to us as we look to set Public Art Policies and Procedures. They provide tools, including studies and data so that we can to talk to legislators, local politicians, school board members as to the importance of the arts for a community the thrives rather than survives.

We toured the Pilsen neighborhood to see the murals that line 16th Street and tell the stories of the community. We saw the once gritty neighborhood gentrifying, almost before our eyes. The conversation turned to the struggle between gentrification and preservation.

This is not a new topic, and there doesn’t seem to be a clear answer, but there does seem to be this incredible ability on the part of artists to be flexible and accepting of change.

The highlight of the conference was spending time with my esteemed friends who serve the people of Illinois well every day. I’m very fortunate to be a member of the Arts Alliance Illinois Board of Directors ( The President and CEO, Ra Joy, continues to inspire those of us serving on the front line. Ra Joy offers words of encouragement, support and inspiration, pushing us to be transformative.

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