Susannah Rosenblatt,
Founder and Chief Strategist, Rosenblatt Communications
WWPR Pro Bono Committee Member

When schools face tight budgets, arts classes are often the first to be cut. Music and painting are often viewed as “extras” in comparison to reading and math. But at WWPR’s nonprofit pro bono client Sitar Arts Center, leaders, parents and volunteers passionately believe–and observe every day–how exposing young people to the arts builds essential skills that carry them through college and life.

March is Youth Art Month, a national opportunity to celebrate the incredible impact Sitar has well beyond its Adams Morgan neighborhood. It’s also a chance to raise awareness of why music, art, theater and dance are transformative for Sitar’s 900-plus students–more than 80% of whom are from low-income households.

“The arts are a fundamental part of an education,” said Loretta Thompson, Sitar’s Senior Director of Operations and a visual artist. “They’re not an extracurricular.”

That passion powers March 3, Arts Advocacy Day, signaling the constant need to fight for continued support for arts education for every child. “The city is still under-resourced for arts education opportunities for students of all backgrounds” said A. Lorraine Robinson, Sitar’s Senior Director of Programs and an award-winning theater director. “That is always a concern…this is really something valuable for young people’s development,” Robinson said.

And the powerful demand for arts education for young people has propelled Sitar’s growth. It launched in 2000, a small program offering music lessons to 50 kids in a subsidised apartment building basement. Since then, Sitar has moved into a 10,700-square-foot state-of-the-art facility with 130 volunteers and 12 artistic partners reaching students from across the District with daily after-school classes, a six-week full-day summer camp, including a summer musical, teen leadership programs, and an engaged parent network. Students, from infants to young adults, can learn anything from Bollywood dance to playwriting to knitting to stop-motion animation, all at affordable rates.

The impact of Sitar’s work is undeniable. Regular evaluation of students, alumni, and volunteers reveals that arts education increases children’s vocabulary, creativity, critical thinking and collaboration abilities. Teens at Sitar take on leadership roles, gain confidence, and expand their worldviews. And Sitar alumni are engaged with their communities at higher-than-average rates.

Arts education can give kids a voice and a means of self-expression, can improve public speaking prowess, and sharpen self-awareness, Thompson said. It teaches them it’s ok to try, and to fail. And young people carry those lessons far beyond the stage, the studio, or the practice room, she added, applying them to lessons in the classroom and in life.

These results align with scientific studies featured in Education Week that demonstrate how connecting young people with the arts boosts empathy and attention to detail. Other studies have also found that access to the arts improves the well-being of residents in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Robinson recalls one Sitar student explaining how, through arts classes, “When I don’t have something, I just make it”–and how that outlook is inspiring.

“For a student of limited means, their mindset is now open,” she said. “There’s nothing they can’t do.”

Sitar alumnus Angel Perez became a celebrated visual artist while still in elementary school. At age 10, he taught workshops on making art out of trash, creating a delicate parachute from a Safeway grocery bag, Robinson recalled. He went on to win awards, and his visual art talent empowered him to become the first in his family to attend college, earning an art degree from California College of the Arts. He now works as a muralist, educator, and community advocate in Berkeley, California. Thompson remembers another Sitar alumna, Nikki Hendricks, a mural arts student who now shows her fashion designs on runways across Europe.

“You have to at least provide these opportunities for young people,” Thompson said.

Walking through the warm, inviting, space, you might encounter a gaggle of little ballet dancers twirling in purple leotards, bright white tights, and soft pink ballet slippers, or tween boys in practice rooms with their necks craned over electric guitars. The diverse environment at Sitar is designed to be welcoming to all, a place where artistic minds are accepted, Robinson said.

The Center is a community institution, with plaudits including Sitar educators honored with special Tony Awards, and recognition by the Catalogue for Philanthropy, the D.C. Mayor and the Washington Post, among others. Even as Sitar grows and gains national recognition, the mission of inspiring young people across the District through the arts remains the same.

“Arts education,” Robinson said, “is something that all students need.”