Rising third-year Louisa Liles will combine her background in performing arts with focused studies in mathematical economics to bring hands-on arts enrichment to disadvantaged youth in Dallas as a 2016 Dalai Lama fellow.
The Dalai Lama fellowship awards grants of up to $6,000 to highly motivated students at select colleges and universities worldwide. Fellows design and launch ambitious, mentored, yearlong Compassion-in-Action projects. Over the course of the year fellows are immersed in a reflective leadership curriculum, where they explore universal human values, including contemplation, compassion, emotional resilience, discernment, and courage.
Liles, a native of Plano, Texas, is using the grant to build a model for high-quality instruction in dance and music for children in West Dallas, an impoverished region that has long been plagued by environmental and institutional racism. Beginning this summer, she is launching West Dallas Harmony, a coalition of performing arts educators committed to empowering youth who have been underserved in the arts.
Growing up just north of Dallas, Liles—a ballerina and violinist—attended the public schools in Plano, where she says she was extremely fortunate to have benefitted from a strong arts program in her district. She began lessons in dance at age 3 and violin in kindergarten. She was so committed to dance that she hoped to become a professional ballerina, but a major injury before her senior year of high school made her re-evaluate her career ambitions.
As an economics major, Liles says she is interested in researching the economic impact of extracurricular and co-curricular activities—which factors determine whether those activities are offered in public schools, how enrollment correlates with family income or race, and to whom these programs are most marginally beneficial.
Liles became familiar with the West Dallas community and the economic barriers that families face as an AmeriCorps teacher in summer 2015. With another college student, she team-taught a group of 30 fourth- and fifth-graders in an eight-week summer camp, BX3, at the Wesley-Rankin Community Center (WRCC). She returned to volunteer at the community center for her most recent winter term.
She says the WRCC is a fascinating example of community leaders coming together to resist institutional barriers that keep West Dallas families from accessing educational resources. However, she noticed that the center has not been able to harness the performing arts resources that greater Dallas had to offer.
“While science, math, and reading subjects had continuous curriculum with interactive lessons, all of the music and dance lessons at BX3 were taught by one-time volunteers and centered on exposure rather than participation. Classes did not build off each other and offered no opportunity for students to grow their skills as artists.”
Her project, West Dallas Harmony, is recruiting instructors to teach consistent, continuous, hands-on arts lessons. She says the curriculum will be informed by the National Core Arts Standards and Tools for Achieving and Sustaining Quality in Arts Education, a guide reported by the Wallace Foundation. Her colleague from BX3 last summer has also agreed to assist her in facilitating the curriculum.
During BX3, instructors will teach weekly lessons, meeting at the end of the week to debrief and reflect on what did or didn’t work, Liles explains. “A huge part of my project’s mission is to offer lessons that not only supplement but directly connect to and expand on ideas learned in other subjects,” she says. “For example, the students will be choreographing dances inspired by processes emphasized in the camp’s science curriculum, such as the water cycle or earthquakes. In music classes, we will focus on rhythm, because it has so many applications to math and language. I have already used some of the grant funds to purchase Boomwhackers, Djembe drums, and other exciting handheld percussion instruments.”
The project will also bring in guest performers and teachers from a variety of disciplines and traditions, including a local Raas team (a traditional folk dance from Gujarat, India). Small ensembles from the Greater Dallas Youth Orchestra also will be performing and giving workshops.
West Dallas Harmony will not provide classes in the fall, but Liles will closely examine the data and correspond with her mentors to develop an improved curriculum at WRCC that will be implemented in January 2017. One of those mentors is Cleveland-based Lisa Yanofsky ’13, Cleveland Opera Theater’s education and outreach director.
Liles credits the support she has received from Beth Blissman and the Bonner Center for Service and Learning through a module-length private reading of community engaged research. “Under Beth’s guidance, I researched the factors that determine a quality arts outreach program, started working through the Dalai Lama Foundation’s Tilling the Soil curriculum for fellows, and brainstormed ideas on how to execute my project.”
Liles says she believes in the transformative power of each person’s unique voice and vision. “We will help the youth of West Dallas discover and cultivate this power by matching them with arts education to create and and critique music and movement. Our classes will create a laboratory environment that encourages imaginative experimentation and empathetic communication.”