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Conference Reflections: Telling Our Stories with Honesty

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Dec 11, 2014
Aliza Greenberg

In our Conference Reflections series, delegates from the 2014 Conference for Community Arts Education share their insights and take-aways from their time in Los Angeles. Our first post comes from Aliza Greenberg, COBALT Manager at the Metropolitan Opera Guild (New York, NY).


The National Guild's annual Conference for Community Arts Education brought me to Los Angeles for the first time, and while I loved escaping the east coast cold to enjoy some warm weather and palm trees, what struck me most was the honesty with which we told our stories and the way we wrestled with our challenges together. At the conference, I knew I would be exploring how to make our work more legitimate in the eyes of those outside our field---“Building Public Will” was the topic of Kevin Kirkpatrick's keynote address after all---but I didn’t expect that having the space to talk about challenges and missteps would bring such relief and excitement. These discussions were energizing and inspiring but left me wondering how this honesty could live so harmoniously with our quest for legitimacy and external support of our work.  

The conference brought me to two community arts centers in two different areas of Los Angeles where the strong sense of a community working toward social good was felt in full force: Plaza de la Raza in East Los Angeles and the Watts Towers Arts Center. The staffs at these centers welcomed us into their spaces and shared the full picture of their work.  At the Watts Towers Art Center we met the staggering work of Simon Rodia who built these incredible towers and we were inspired by the persistence he had in realizing his artistic vision. We were also inspired by the director Rosie Lee Hooks and the staff whose work has included fights for the land which now holds their community garden, constant letters to the city to protect their space and their funding, and the challenges of being in a neighborhood that is still rebuilding following the Watts riots of 1965. 
My time visiting these community centers made it clear that arts education is a legitimate force in the development of our society, but hearing their honesty about their challenges also made clear our need for legitimacy outside our own sector, and that we do need to build that public will. We fight for land and space in buildings, we write letters, and we gather data to tell our stories. As Kevin Kirkpatrick pointed out during his keynote, we seek believers. 
In the pre-conference workshop I attended, Kamella Tate from The Music Center in Los Angeles said, “When does belief count if we don’t have evidence for it?” If we want to be seen as a legitimate force for social good, we need to get scientific, to research our work, and to show results. That means we may not like what we find. “If you don’t want to change, don’t evaluate,” Tate cautioned. What followed in my conference experience were continuous interactions with people interested in further developing their work, in changing.
The conference gave us a time to tell our stories more honestly and to share the challenges. How do we bring the authenticity we established at the conference into the public space?  Margie Reese of Big Thought said in her acceptance speech at the awards luncheon, "The greatest tool for a measure of success is holding your head up! This is who I am!"  The conference gave us a space to hold our heads up and be who we are. We know we are legitimate. “And when the troglodytes do catch up,” as actor Tim Robbins said in his acceptance speech, “when our leaders finally understand that arts education is an essential and necessary part of a child’s development...let us have the grace and improvisational skills and the open hearted empathy that we have been blessed to learn from our own arts education to applaud our leaders for their vision and forward thinking policy.” 
At the Conference for Community Arts Education in Los Angeles I found beautiful warm weather, but I also found a place where we can tell our stories honestly and be who we are. I can’t wait for this space at the conference next year in Philadelphia, but I hope we can find this space in our daily work as well.
About Aliza
Aliza Greenberg is currently the COBALT manager at the Metropolitan Opera Guild, where she manages a USDOE AEMDD project investigating the impact of opera-based learning in schools. Previously, Aliza held the position of education program manager at Roundabout Theatre Company. She is also a chair of Continuing the Conversation ( and an alumna of the National Guild’s Community Arts Education Leadership Institute (CAELI).

This resource brought to you by the National Guild for Community Arts Education.