An NEA Story: #SaveTheNEA

arizona_desert-1218One of the most impactful projects I have every worked on would not have been possible without a modest $32,000 investment from the National Endowment for the Arts*.  The project embedded nationally renowned visiting artists and ASU Herberger Institute faculty artists in Phoenix and Mesa youth communities to create a series of original, meaningful, multi-disciplinary performance works showcased at South Mountain Community College in April 2012 and subsequently in an expanded site-specific performance in December of that year. This comprehensive and innovative program connected art, science, technology, culture, and communities. Young people examined their desert city and their experiences through an artistic lens and used collaborative, creative tools to find new ways of knowing and understanding their desert home. Some even decided – against all odds – to go to college because of it. This collection of activities entitled “At Home in the Desert: Youth Engagement and Place,” consisted of three inter-related performance projects.

The three strands of the program were:

  1. Desert and Land/Desert and Place: Cassie Meador of Dance Exchange (Washington, D.C.) with Mary Fitzgerald (ASU) and Elizabeth Johnson (ASU) partnered with youth from the Arizona Cactus-Pine Council Girl Scouts and South Mountain High School as well as ASU students to create dance work that encouraged young people to re-imagine and re-enliven their relationship to the desert via an unconventional solution to environmental education. Their experience was enriched by site visits from ASU scientists affiliated with the School of Sustainability. High school dancers worked with ASU students and faculty to create a site specific performance from their experiences of the ‘Moving Field Guides’ in the BioDesign Garden on the ASU campus during the Desert One Festival.
  2. Hip Hop Oasis. Pop Master Fabel (NYC) Raul Yanez (Phoenix) and Sarah Dimmick (Phoenix) with Rick Mook (ASU), Melissa Britt (ASU), and The Gabel Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix (BGCMP). This thread explored the many points of connection between desert life and hip hop culture through collaboration between leading figures in hip hop and members of the Boys and Girls Club of Phoenix. Guest artists collaborated with local D.J.s and spoken word artists and youth in the Warren A. Gabel Boys and Girls club of Phoenix to create original music and lyrics through the lens of the desert. The metaphors of light, heat, space, and flow were explored in the creation of the music and choreography. Participants related these elements to desert adaptation/survival, the cultural development of new music forms and their personal experiences and subsequently added urban dance forms to their beats. A selection of the products of these fruitful collaborations was performed by the youth for a public audience at South Mountain Community College and as part of the Desert One Festival.
  3. Story Geocaching, Locative Digital Storytelling. Stephani Etheridge Woodson (ASU) with Center for Digital Storytelling (Berkeley, CA), Mesa Office of Arts and Culture (Mesa Arts Center, Mesa History Museum, Mesa Natural History Museum), and the Mesa Boys and Girls Club. Acknowledging that youth are producers of culture and community assets, locative storytelling is a fresh way to engage an intergenerational public with art. This strand partnered ASU artists trained by the Center for Digital Storytelling with local youth. The partners created digital stories exploring cultural history that were showcased for the pubic audience at the Desert One Festival.

Yes, just $32,000 was able to catalyze all of that activity. By the numbers:

  • Youth participants: 60
  • Guest artists: 5
  • ASU-based artists: 12
  • Family-members of youth participants: 100+
  • Scientists and other collaborators: 5
  • Community members: 50+


  • In a post-performance discussion, one youth commented, “Now I think about keeping things not so dirty. I think about heaven, how you would want it to be in heaven, and make it so.”
  • A Girl Scouts staff member noted, “They loved being here; they felt so special.”
  • From a Boys and Girls Club staff member: “This is the first time any of these kids have had a chance to perform anything – even for friends and family. The boost it has given to their self-confidence is awesome.”
  • One fourth-grader from the Girl Scouts, who had never envisioned college, said: “You mean I can go to ASU?”
  • 100% of the Boys and Girls Club participants chose to remain with the program, as did a majority of South Mountain High School participants, despite the program moving from within the school day to after-hours even after the initial NEA funding sunsetted
  • A South Mountain High School student commented, “it really helped me understand where I am, cause you know, I’m not from here.” And my favorite…
  • Running into an alum of the program who had not been sure he would attend college six months earlier: “When I worked with the ASU students, it really helped me want to come here.” This young man decided to attend college because of this NEA-funded project.

For those of you keeping financial score, because an adult with a BA will earn approximately $650,000 more in their lifetime over someone who just has “some college,” just this one participant will likely return in taxes more than 3X the initial NEA investment; there were 60 youth participants. Furthermore ASU Herberger Institute and its partners directly invested an approximate 3:1 match of federal dollars (only a 1:1 match is required), with additional indirect investment in facilities.

The NEA is a good investment for the United States. #SavetheNEA

*This is just one of dozens of stories I could tell about work on NEA funded projects or NEA funded organizations or state arts agencies.

Project co-director Elizabeth Johnson created this video:

About lindaessig

Linda Essig is Dean of the College of Arts & Letters at Cal State LA and principal/owner of Creative Infrastructure LLC. The opinions expressed on creativeinfrastructure are her own and not those of Cal State LA. You can follow her on twitter @LindaInPhoenix.
This entry was posted in Arts education, Arts funding, arts infrastructure, Arts policy, Culture and democracy, Higher education, Institutional Infrastructure, Personal infrastructure, Physical Infrastructure and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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