Institute for Women & Ethnic Studies’ art program helps New Orleans’ children find their voice

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Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies
The Institute for Women & Ethnic Studies launched Artvoice as a creative outlet for students dealing with the impact of poverty and violence in New Orleans.
Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies
Students who participated in the Institute for Women & Ethnic Studies Artvoice program display their hand-drawn art projects.
Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies
Artvoice serves as a therapy program for young people to express their feelings through art projects, and then talk through what their art is saying.
Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies
Enabling students from all backgrounds and races to come together, Artvoice is helping to instill a sense of pride and community for children in New Orleans.
Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies
Students from low-income families face high rates of violence and community-wide trauma in New Orleans. Artvoice helps students connect what they’re feeling with how they are behaving to affect making better choices to a brighter future.
Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies
Artvoice serves as a safe place for students to discuss their feelings as expressed through art. As a result, students are doing better in school and on track to promote on time.
Institute for Women and Ethnic Studies
One student said drawing is a release when she’s overwhelmed with stress. Another added, “It helps me to do the right things instead of doing the wrong things that I would do before, and now I do the right things.”
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In New Orleans’ Central City neighborhoods, children bring a lot to school – and not just the kinds of things you’d find in their backpacks. High rates of violence, poverty and the community-wide trauma created by Hurricane Katrina have left even the littlest learners with high levels of stress that foster negative behaviors and hinder their ability to learn.  

What is missing for most of these children is a way to process their emotions – to give voice to what’s going on inside. But thanks to the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies (IWES), an innovative program called Artvoice is helping children express that stress while also fostering positive behavior. First used with a group of fourth grade girls, ranging in age from nine to 13 years old, at Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep, the seven-week art therapy program gives children an outlet to express their feelings through drawing and then talk through what their art is conveying.

“It’s been incredibly successful,” said Principal Amanda Aiken. “Girls that were once very distracting and disruptive, bullying one another and suffering academically, are now treating themselves and others better. They are focused on being kind to each other. They are getting better grades, and, they are on track to promote on time.”

Dr. Denese Shervington, President, CEO of IWES, said Artvoice helps young people learn how to connect what they are feeling with how they are behaving, taking responsibility for their actions and learning a kinder language than what they see in the world around them.

“In communities of concentrated urban poverty, children grow up in what is much like a war zone,” she said. “When they go home, they don’t know if they will be alive, or if their parents will be alive. They see terrible acts of violence, and it causes intense trauma. As a society we haven’t been paying attention – not until they enter the criminal justice system.”

Cuts in funding for mental health services, both for schools and nonprofits, has overwhelmed the existing school system. For example, Principal Aiken’s school has funds for one social worker, but she has a need for five. Artvoice, which was made possible in her school through a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, has reduced some of the need for mental health services for students.

“Ninety-nine percent of our student population is on the free and reduced lunch program,” she said. “They live in the part of the city that suffers from the highest murder rates. Many have witnessed murders and shootings. Others have parents in prison. Still others have been abused. Post-traumatic stress disorder occurs in high rates in this community. And all of this comes together in our classrooms.”

According to Shervington, New Orleans posts PTSD rates that are two to three times that of the general U.S. population. IWES has been working with a cohort of local teachers to help them identify signs of PTSD in their students and then train them on what to do to help. 

Artvoice helps students “discharge” the stress they are feeling. Shervington explained, “One of the students in the class said, ‘I realize what I want to do when I am overwhelmed with stress. I want to draw.’”

One of the girls in the art therapy program felt safe enough in that space to disclose that she was being abused, which allowed the school to take action to protect her. 

In fact, an evaluation of the pilot program found that the students significantly increased their levels of self-esteem, self-efficacy and sense of school membership. They indicated feeling more included, respected and accepted by others in their school. They also felt that others knew that they were capable of doing good work.

One student said Artvoice helped her understand how her feelings impacted her actions, stating, “It helps me do the right things instead of doing the wrong things that I would do before, and now I do the right things.”

Another said, “It helps me, because if I believe it, I can do anything I believe in, and be the best I can be and do the best I can do.”

There have been several other positive outcomes from the program: one of the girls discovered she truly had an artistic talent; another student’s work will be displayed in the Louisiana governor’s mansion. 

 “I think we are still seeing the benefits of this program, and we will continue to see the benefits,” Aiken said. “There’s much more to this story yet to come.”

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“Empleen el dinero del modo en que crean conveniente, siempre y cuando promueva la salud, la felicidad y el bienestar de los niños.” - Will Keith Kellogg

“Sèvi ak lajan an jan w vle depi se sante timoun, byennèt timoun ak kè kontan pou timoun w ap ankouraje.” - W.K. Kelòg