The Democratic Republic of Congo has long been despoiled by immense poverty, war, and the accompanying infrastructural problems. Amidst what seem, to many, like unassailable difficulties, it would be easy to question the wisdom of focusing energy or resources on anything other than survival – what good is art when millions of people are starving? But, as chronicled in the 2010 documentary Kinshasa Symphony, art finds a way: Armand Diangienda has spent the last twenty years building Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguiste, central Africa’s only symphony orchestra. In those twenty years, the musical project has grown from twelve to more than two hundred musicians, who play purely for the joy of making music.
This story is a powerful example that people are driven to make art in even the toughest conditions and that, as some studies suggest, the arts play a huge role in the development and regeneration of communities. In the United States, the issues that accompany poverty are very different from those in the DRC, but nonetheless, children living in poverty in America face considerably more risks in their daily lives than do children living above the poverty line.
In Arkansas, there are few consistent initiatives to bring art into culturally impoverished communities, and to bring art into the lives of at-risk youth. Most organizations working to bring art to at-risk young people do so as sort-of additional projects through schools. For example, the Arkansas Arts Center uses grant money from the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame to bring its Artmobile and Children’s theater to KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools in Helena and Blytheville and to Blytheville Public Schools, attended by mostly low-income students.
Arkansas’ Thea Foundation is another organization that is committed to improving creative instruction in schools throughout the state. The Thea Foundation operates with the basic principle that all people can benefit from creativity in education, and that an artistic education through their arts-centered A+ Schools Program, the organization fortifies “the power of the arts to improve the lives and learning of students and teachers.” Obviously, the organizations’ commitment has implications for schools in at-risk communities, but the larger commitment is not specifically to these communities themselves.
Arkansas is among the nation’s most economically impoverished states, and many of the state’s most impoverished areas are sorely lacking in access to creative and expressive outlets. Even schools with active art programs frequently overlook at-risk youth, who are often forced by difficult circumstances to miss school or to focus their energy elsewhere. Many organizations in the state are doing a wonderful job trying to serve these communities. Still, it would be refreshing to see an organization created expressly to offer at-risk and low-income children the empowering opportunity to become involved in the community-lifting potential of artistic expression – within schools or outside of them.