When school resources are scarce, it is the arts that are one of the first disciplines to be removed from the curriculum, despite research proving that creativity is of significant importance to a child’s development and academic success. And after witnessing this transformative power first hand, philanthropist Andrea Kerzner founded the Lalela Project, which has now been enriching the lives of at-risk children for over five years.
The catalyst was a visit to a remote South African village ten years ago. There, Andrea saw how quiet, withdrawn children became curious and engaged during a mask-making project. Four years later, the first Lalela program was set up in a township in Cape Town with just 20 students, and today, the organization’s work extends to 11 communities in South Africa, Northern Uganda and New York’s South Bronx, providing over 3,500 students (and growing) with access to a curriculum of innovation, art and music.
We spoke to Andrea about the power of art and how the Lalela Project is empowering today’s young people.
What do you think is a unique challenge for today's generation of children?
Today's youth are faced with an unprecedented pace of technological innovation. These rapid changes create challenges for both youth living in disadvantaged communities, as well as youth who have access to the technology.
Computers make it exceptionally easy to find answers, completing a homework assignment can, in many cases, be just a Google search away. This immediacy means there is no persistent search for knowledge, no need for the drive to dig deeper. Students may not develop the grit to stick with a tough problem when they are faced with something they cannot Google.
Outside of the classroom, the reliance on technology for communication may be creating a disconnected youth. Before the advent of texting and social networking, there was much more emphasis on visiting with friends and interacting face-to-face. For youth today, so much communication takes place while looking at a screen.
For disadvantaged youth, lack of access to technology may lead to a greater disparity in academic and economic achievement in comparison to those who have access. Those who do not have computers are at a disadvantage to learn and access information. Meanwhile, their connected peers have access to a global mindset that can lead to a competitive advantage for both academic and professional success. Furthermore, in today's professional world, nearly every career path requires computer skills. Without access, disadvantaged youth are that much more behind their tech-savvy counterparts in the job market.
"Students may not develop the grit to stick with a tough problem when they are faced with something they cannot Google".
Do you think art can help to alleviate this? How?
For the students who have access to technology, arts education can alleviate some of the negative effects because undertaking art requires patience, determination, and collaboration. Students in the arts persistently draft, practice or rehearse their work before its presentation, developing grit and perseverance, which are key attributes of success. Furthermore, performance art and music requires teamwork and collaboration, helping to develop active listening and communication.
For children without access to technology, arts education can bridge the gap by developing the creativity that leads to innovation and the confidence and risk-taking that encourages the entrepreneurial spirit. At the center of arts education is developing student creativity and innovation. In the arts, students are not confined by one answer. Instead, they are continually asked to try new things and seek alternatives. This kind of creative thinking is a key first step towards innovation, which is essential in an increasingly competitive world.
At the same time, arts education cultivates confidence in young learners. The presentation of their work, through exhibit or performance, gives art students a sense of accomplishment. As a result, they develop a strong sense of identity and belief in their ability to interpret and express their opinions, driving their capacity to perform as leaders in their communities.
In addition, art helps to bridge the economic gap because at-risk students engaged in the arts are five times less likely than their peers to drop out of school and twice as likely to graduate from college, allowing them to pursue greater career opportunities.
Is there a story that stands out to you?
Gladstone Matshaya joined Lalela at the beginning of 2012 and attributes his success to being part of the program. Gladstone is currently a second year Law student at the University of the Western Cape and has passed his first year Cum Laude.
When he received his Grade 12 results, Gladstone’s first stop was the Lalela office to share news of his success. He proudly states that Lalela taught him to rise above peer pressure and to focus on his own success. Due to the many distractions during their exams, Gladstone and fellow Lalela learners chose to make use of our Lalela offices to study over staying in the community.
Gladstone, from the township of Imizamo Yethu, is one of our graduates who has been negatively affected by poverty. His parents are both pensioners, so there is no access to stable or active income into the family home. Gladstone often went without food or electricity and as a result, spent most afternoons studying at our Lalela office in Hout Bay. He became a firm part of our Lalela family during his school career and always gave back during school holidays by working with the younger children. He still visits us every holiday to assist us with our Lalela Holiday programs and also pops into the Lalela office every so often to share his results with us, and to access the computers in order to complete university assignments.
Out of all the qualities the program instills in the children, which do you think is the most important?
It is difficult to talk about one quality as the most important outcome of arts education because different artistic media develop different characteristics and life skills; however, all art forms lead to increased creativity and innovation.
One of the qualities I see within Lalela students that stands out is the high level of self-esteem, which leads to empowerment - a belief that they have the ability to create change for themselves as well as their communities. Other qualities that are incredibly important are increased motivation, critical problem solving, communication skills, and grit.
To sustain Lalela's programs, Andrea's partner at Lalela, Sandy Tabatznik began an initiative to design and produce scarves featuring images from their learners' artwork. From each sale, 100% of Lalela's profits go towards helping young learners find their voice and overcome the narrative of poverty through the transformative power of arts education. Each scarf comes with the story of the young artist who produced the artwork.
When learners see the scarves and know their voice is heard, they feel empowered that they are contributing to sustaining the programs and helping to bring arts education to other students like themselves. The sense of pride is evident on their faces.
“To tell a story through art, to have it printed onto a scarf AND to see someone wearing your art is an incredible feeling", said learner Simphiwee Bendle. "There is a story behind all the art. And by wearing a scarf, one too becomes a part of the story woven into these scarves. It is a great thing to know your artwork is worn around the world through the Lalela scarf and to see people appreciating the creativity of Lalela students. It is a dream come true to know that our stories are being heard by the public. People will see and acknowledge our stories as the youth of communities such as Imizamo Yethu, Masiphumelele and Hangberg. I am very grateful to Lalela for the scarves, for sharing our stories.”
“To tell a story through art, to have it printed onto a scarf AND to see someone wearing your art is an incredible feeling."
The Lalela Scarf is a beautiful way to show your support for life-changing art. For more information, contact Sandy Tabatznik at email@example.com.
You can also support the project through donations or corporate sponsorship, by interning or volunteering, or even becoming a Guest Artist. For more information on how to get involved visit Lalela’s website.