First Lady Michelle Obama Honors Youth Arts and Humanities at The White House (2011)

First Lady Michelle Obama speaking at the White House.  Photo taken by Tonya Fitzpatrick

Photo:  Tonya Fitzpatrick

As a product of the public school system, a student of the arts (well, if you count Jr. High orchestra and High School theatre and choir) and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, I am sensitive to what educational advancement opportunities are being offered to our youth.  Growing up I enjoyed ‘traveling’ vicariously through music, literature, theatre, dance, etc.  The arts opened my eyes beyond the small boundaries of my home town of Lansing, Michigan to a world of possibilities. 

The arts and sciences are critical to knowledge and personal development and I am a zealous advocate for the inclusion of these programs in our educational systems.  Because of the arts I have gone beyond vicarious exploration and have experienced new cultures and multiple countries.  Thus, when the White House honors the arts, sciences and the humanities I make sure that I am available and properly credentialed to cover the events. 

Photo by Tonya Fitzpatrick
Photo:  Tonya Fitzpatrick

On November 2, 2011, I had the pleasure of covering First Lady Michelle Obama at a President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) ceremony at the White House.  This event honored 12 arts and humanities after-school programs with the National Arts and Humanities Youth Award.  Twelve young people from across the country accepted awards from Mrs. Obama on behalf of the after-school and out-of-school time programs that changed their lives.

Chosen from a pool of more than 471 nominations and 50 finalists, the 12 community-based programs were recipients of the 2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award, the highest honor awarded to such programs in the United States.  The awardees were recognized by Mrs. Obama for using engagement in the arts and humanities to generate a wide range of outcomes, including increases in academic achievement, graduations rates, and college enrollment, as well as improvements in literacy and language abilities, communication and performance skills, and cultural awareness.

“If [students] can deliver a monologue up on stage with all the grandeur that goes along with what you do, then maybe they can make a presentation in front of the classroom on something not so dramatic,” said Mrs. Obama.  “If they can conduct a quartet or direct a play, then maybe they can lead a student group.  Maybe they can, one day, run a business or a city or a state or maybe even the United States of America, right?”

The 12 students who received awards from Mrs. Obama represented a wide range of arts and humanities programs, including one program that takes 11th and 12th grade students on a 10-day journey through five Southern states following the path of the Civil Rights Movement (Sojourn to the Past), another that uses art history and poetry as vehicles to inspire, challenge and motivate pregnant and parenting teens (Humanities Rock), and another that engages children and youth ages 5 to 18 in free, high-quality art-making classes that provide students with a positive means of self-expression (Fleisher Youth Arts Program).

A program that I was particularly excited to see recognized hails from my home state of Michigan—ArtWorks in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  ArtWorks is a comprehensive continuum of innovative job training programs for creative youth, ages 14 to 21, offered by the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts.  Every single one of the awardees were dynamic and deserving of this recognition.  This year the PCAH also chose to give an International Spotlight Award to the Youth Community Media Project in Indonesia.  The program ended with a spectacular performance by the Young Peoples Chorus of New York City.  Mrs. Obama was so transfixed by the performance that she had to be prompted to go on stage.  “Oh…I was waiting for another song,” she said.  “That was excellent!”

It was so touching to see the glowing faces of the students, most who were visiting Washington, DC for the first time, at the White House when Mrs. Obama presented them with the awards.  A couple of the students earned chuckles from the audience when they ran up to the First Lady and held her tightly and longer than was "normally customary". 

Indeed the arts and humanities education has been transformative for these young people, but I am certain this trip to the White House will be one of their most inspiring and memorable experiences.

The 2011 awardees are:

826 Seattle, SEATTLE, WASH

ArtLab, Platteforum, DENVER, CO

ArtWorks, Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, GRAND RAPIDS, MI

Fleisher Youth Art Programs, Fleisher Art Memorial, PHILADELPHIA, PA

Hands-On, Zumix, EAST BOSTON, MA

Humanities Rock, Community Adelescent Resource & Education Center, HOLYOKE, MA

Native American Composer Apprentice Project, Grand Canyon Music Festival, GRAND CANYON, AZ

Positive Directions Through Dance, The Dance Institute of Washington, WASHINGTON, DC

Saturday Academies of American History, The Gilder lehrman Institute of American History, NEW YORK, NY

Sojourn to the Past, SAN BRUNO, CA

Young People's Chorus of New York City, Inc., NEW YORK, NY

Young Shakespeare Workshop, SEATTLE, WA

About the Author

World Footprints co-host Tonya Fitzpatrick with a lot of monkeys on her back.

Tonya Fitzpatrick is the co-founder of World Footprints Media.  A self-described “recovering attorney”, she found her purpose as a cultural connector.  Tonya shares a life full of adventure, dark chocolate and champagne with her husband and business partner, Ian.   She has a deep love for animals and would be happy owning a zoo if she weren’t traveling. 

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