TEDxUCLA 2016: Push. Pull. Stretch.

It takes two to tango, and other things the arts teach us about partnership


About Kristen

Dr. Kristen Paglia is the CEO of P.S. ARTS, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving children’s lives by providing arts education to underserved public schools and communities. In addition to overseeing the quality, content, and evaluation of P.S. ARTS’ education programs, Dr. Paglia has led the organization through two strategic planning processes and works to keep educational equity and excellence for all children at the center of P.S. ARTS’ mission.


“It takes two to tango.”

It’s a phrase I have found frequent occasion to use in my winding career path from dancer to teacher to now nonprofit CEO. And if you asked me at a cocktail party what I did, I am just as likely to say any one of those things as the other, I think of them as interchangeable.

But that wasn’t always true. It was a collision of identities that got me here today. Administrator hat in one hand, and painting a picture of how badly our public schools need arts education in the other.

I can actually pinpoint the moment when it happened, when I stopped thinking of teaching as a day job on my way to more artistic greatness. I had just graduated college with a degree in dance and at time, at that time in California, you only needed a Bachelor’s degree to get something called an emergency credential in special education.

So I started teaching a special day class at a middle school in a small urban struggling school district, and I had never been trained in curriculum or pedagogy, but there I was in front of this class of kids that had a very wide range of physical, developmental, social, emotional communications challenges and they are looking at me.

So I did the one thing I knew how to do at the time: I danced.

If I could think of any way to get a concept on its feet, we danced it. We danced about the number line, we danced about sentence structure, we danced about atoms and molecules. And it was working. The kids were having fun, and I was having fun, and we were all learning.

But there was this one kid, Christian, and he just wasn’t gonna cut me any slack. He was disruptive and he was mean to me and to all the other kids. There was another boy in the class named Dominic who had cerebral palsy who was in a wheelchair, and Christian thought it was funny to throw wadded-up pieces of paper at his chair so they’d stick in places where Dominic couldn’t reach them.

One day I went off campus, going home, and had to come back, I had forgotten something. It was starting to get dark and I walked towards my classroom and there I ran into Christian, spray can in hand, about to tag the side of my classroom. And I stood there looking at him and in the back of my mind I recalled that I had heard about his brother being involved in a gang shooting just a couple of weeks before, and I, I realized it could get bad.

So we looked at each other, and after a long time he said to me, “Miss Paglia, how do you spell ‘sucks’?” And I said, “Oh my God, sound it out Christian!” S. U. CK. S. And he did. And we wrote it on the wall. And we added the word “life” and he sounded that out too.

And we got to talking and I found out that Christian’s brother had been killed in that shooting I’d heard about. And that night when I took him home, I dropped him off and I was in my car and I thought how awful it would feel to really say, to let someone know that life can suck and not have a powerful enough way to do it. And I decided whether it was a dance studio or a stage or a classroom, my art was going to be creating spaces where people, kids especially, could say what they needed to say and be heard.

The next day, when I went back into school, we talked to the other kids about it and they decided to help him clean it up, create a mural on top of it about recycling so he wouldn’t get in trouble and I wouldn’t get in trouble.

In every single one of my professional roles this most important part of the job has been building partnerships. Even in my work now with school districts, my dance experience has been hugely helpful in that. Partnerships between nonprofits like mine, P.S. Arts in Los Angeles, and school districts, they’re just unwieldy, right? Our organizational bodies are mismatched in size and in agility and in functionality.

So at a dance audition, you might get paired with someone who’s much better than you or maybe not as good as you, and you know already it doesn’t really matter because in that moment your whole job is going to be to adapt, to make the both of you look good. One of you might have to work harder, you might even have to downplay your strengths, but in the end what matters is that the production was successful.

One in six jobs, one in six jobs in California are arts-related. I use my dance experience, this idea to partner dynamically, every single day in my job, along with dozens of other lessons I learned from being an artist. Creative industry leaders say that creativity and, and critical thinking and collaboration, these are the skills that are going to help us be successful in a 21st-century economy. There is actually more state money being spent right now on the arts in schools in California than there has been in decades, and yet still only five percent of Los Angeles schools — that is the second-largest school district in the country — have adequate stand, y’know, up-to-standard access to the arts.

And my question is “why?” Why, when the resources exist, when the will exists, are these relationships between nonprofit partners and school districts — that are already, by the way, providing at least some arts education in over 60 percent of Los Angeles schools — why aren’t they being replicated and scaled all over the country to solve this problem of the arts only being an access available to the, to the very small few?

Having worked on this problem for 20 years now, I think we’re being too rigid. We’re thinking like administrators and not like artists. And just like the lessons that we want our kids to learn and live by, we the professionals in this field who are trying to make these things work, we need to be thinking artistically, we need to have an artistic mindset. P.S. Arts for example, we have kids in Los Angeles County, 25,000 statewide, fifteen different districts, all of them are different. A one-size-fits-all model just doesn’t work. We have to think dynamically. The, there are examples like this all over the country, of arts organizations that are working, and in every case they have a flexible collective mindset and a funding model that is both, that can accommodate all of the changes that happen in public school systems.

They think about potential, not deficiency. Instead of seeing a bare wall you see a blank canvas. They’re used to the fact that you’re going to have to depend on people whose talents and whose vision may not look exactly like yours. And you get very used to the fact that you’re going to have to share the spotlight — and very likely the rent — if you’re going to have a hit.

These are the lessons that I took with me back into the classroom that first year that I was teaching, and the kids taught me those lessons again and again every day.

That afternoon, after the graffiti incident, we were on the playground and I had the kids doing a dance about the water cycle for a science unit, and Christian, for the first time, was participating and Dominic was sitting next to me in his wheelchair and watching and he had no use of any part of his body that particular day, everything was a huge effort for him, but he was watching.

And he was watching a little girl who had a prosthetic leg and — normally very agile, but at this moment was having some trouble balancing under Christian’s raincloud — when Dominic looks over at me and he says, “It must be so hard. Not having your whole body. I am incredibly lucky.” And then wheeled himself into the fray and put his chair right next to Christian where this girl could use it to balance herself on. Saw potential and not deficiency. Made a space for himself in the composition that made it better. And I wondered, is Christian going to mess with this kid? What will happen? And he didn’t, the other kids moved around them very organically. and they didn’t seem to mind Dominic hadn’t been involved in the effort up to this point. And I just stood there and watched this group of kids, differences large and small, create an artful, balanced, poignant — and not for nothing, scientifically accurate tableau.

The arts make schools better. And the same goes for arts education and school improvement partnerships. The arts teach us how to be part of a community, with all of its moving parts, so that it’s good for everybody.

And it’s hard, I know it’s hard being an administrator, having an administrative job title, and thinking of yourself as an artist first. But you go into those classrooms and you see the kids and you see the potential for what public education infused with the arts could look like, and you know that if we keep arts at the center of everything we do as leaders, whatever sector we’re in we’re going to have a hit on our hands. Thank you.