The Power of Arts in School to Foster Peace
The arts are an integral part of any school curriculum and have positive impact on not just students, but entire communities. In all my years as a professional musician, music teacher, education keynote speaker, and creator of arts-based programs that bring together people from traditionally opposed cultures and religions, I strongly believe the arts are significant enough to have a real influence on progressive social change, such as promoting peace--I frequently witness peace being created before my eyes.
Finding Unity In Diversity
Art programs in schools can encourage students to see cohesion and peace as great themes for songs, poems, and plays. Beyond the constraints imposed by culture and language, the message can resound with art and transcend barriers to promote cross-cultural communication. However, such an agenda need not even be present. By being a bridge that unites people, arts organically create global citizens who have awareness, appreciation, and tolerance for the culture of others. The cultural competence inculcated and strengthened within art-based school programs reveals itself in everyday interactions by fostering good relationships, empathy for others, and safe contexts with which to experiment without fearing failure. As Michelangelo said, “It’s better to aim high and miss than to aim low and succeed.”
On the other hand, cultural ignorance and intolerance inform stereotypes and fear, and breed conflict. As I sometimes say in my keynotes, “We don’t need to teach kids cultural competence; we need to unteach them cultural incompetence.” Kids are naturally artistic but our society begins to erode their creative spirit and open-mindedness. Art programs ensure that learners from an early age maintain their curiosity, develop empathy, and embrace diversity while finding commonalities that exist within diverse groups.
Music and other arts deliver an emotive message in a way that words cannot. A song like John Lennon’s “Imagine” which exposes the horror of conflict by painting a picture of unity will be etched in the minds of those who hear it more than just hearing a news update. With that memory, those who hear the song will be moved to do what they can within their spheres of influence to change the situation. Emotions prompt actions. Art in its various forms evokes the kind of emotions such as empathy that compels one to take measured risks and jump into action as they do their part to create peace.
Music and other forms of art are also therapeutic and healing (The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature). Entire civilizations carry the emotional scars of traumatic events. Without proper healing, these are the same people who are likely to retaliate at the slightest provocation. The cycle of hurt and destruction will only go on, hurting any chances at real, lasting peace.
I have witnessed this personally, first when I launched my initial intercultural songwriting retreat in Jakarta, Indonesia in 2016 (Music can Unite the World). The two-week songwriting retreat saw 16 strangers from ASEAN nations collaborate and write a total of twelve songs in twelve days. They also performed at Jakarta’s U.S. Embassy cultural center, the U.S. Ambassador’s residence, and gave a public concert. Today, the group of Buddhists, Christians, and Muslims still remain close friends and share music online and in person.
Then, when I conducted my intercultural songwriting retreat in Iraq two years ago with Iraqis and Kurds (Iraq: Gaining New Perspectives On Life), I had four Muslim students from Mosul who were released as prisoners of ISIS only a few days before I arrived. Playing music and involvement in the arts was illegal and punishable under ISIS, so there were young children that had never been exposed to any kind of art. After our two weeks, they could return to a liberated Mosul and use their talent to help rebuild it. They performed in the streets to help collect books for the library destroyed by ISIS and went into Christian Churches (for the first time in their lives) and played music to bring life back to the houses of worship destroyed by ISIS after using them as classrooms to indoctrinate soldiers. If music can help overcome atrocities this significant, it can help curb violence in the US and unite our increasingly polarized population.
The 2020 Intercultural Songwriting Retreat in Chile
I am launching a new songwriting retreat next February in South America, in collaboration with the Curaumilla Arts Center located near Valparaiso, Chile. I aim to help overcome the rising tensions between the indigenous Mapuche communities and Chileans. The Mapuche Conflict (Wikipedia) arose out of the need for the Mapuche communities living in Chile to reorganize, seek greater autonomy and recognition of their rights, and recover their land. The conflict has increased tensions in the country, which has led to instances of violence and hate. The songwriting retreat will foster an opportunity to build cultural competence and empathy with a broader goal of bringing greater peace to the country.
I’ve seen how powerful and effective a location-specific, culturally responsive arts approach can be because of my programs in Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, and now, Chile (learn more here: https://raviunites.com/songwriting/). Today and going forward, I hope that initiatives like this as well as Ravi Unites Schools (see the latest update below) can foster cultural competence and empathy, and lead to global peace.
Can school art programs play a role in promoting peace? Absolutely. They do without even trying, and if we cut them back, we are directly working against the goal of creating a peaceful society. The values ingrained in these programs will stay with students and go far beyond the classroom.
Ravi Unites Schools Update
Two “Real-time Audio-Video Interactions” were conducted in May. These were unique because Ravi hosted them “live” at two different schools in Chile and was able to interact and hang out with these bright bilingual Chileans students.
The first was between two International Baccalaureate schools: Wenlock School in Santiago Chile and the MacArthur Middle School in Fort Meade Maryland USA. Approximately 20 students were one each side of the conversation and discussed everything from the mutual disdain for school food to their concerns about pollution and the environment. They also discovered that they play the same video games and listen to many of the same musical artists, so they exchanged Instagram ids and plan to share music playlists. See a 10 minute video edit of the 45 minute exchange here: https://youtu.be/gdmaX8o5snU
The second exchange was between The Mackay School in Vina Del Mar, Chile and the Orange Grove Middle School in Tucson Arizona USA. Also about 20 students on either side of the interaction, both groups shared their recommendations of what to visit when visiting each other’s countries, as well as ways to address global warming. They too found common interests in games, movies, and music, and like the previous interaction, exchanged instagram accounts to keep the connection going. See a 10 minute video edit of the 45 minute exchange here: https://youtu.be/YvIHrT9temQ