Arts Education: A Social Justice Issue




Arts Education: A Social Justice Issue

Abe Flores blogs about equity and access to arts education.









Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 27 begins:

“Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

Arts and culture are not a luxury but a fundamental human right (I think everyone reading this blog would agree). Access to the arts in schools and communities provides youth with  opportunities to forge a positive identity that reflects their strengths, interests and learning style. Unfortunately, geography often determines acess to the arts.

In the sixth grade I decided I was too cool for theare (click here for my previous blog), so I decided to play the cello instead (in retrospect, a lateral move on the cool index). I would lug that big beast around school proud to call myself a musician and at night practice until my parents could not take it anymore (we had a very small place and my mom compared my playing to the vocal stylings of a deranged cat). Nevertheless, music became (and remains) my passion, my obsession, my raison d'être (alongside my wife and son of course, of course).

But after elementary school, in a vain effort by my parents to quell my rebellious side, I was placed in a Catholic School. Wearing a uniform was bad enough, but to add insult to injury, it had no music program – no more cello!

With the transition to Catholic school, my fascination with punk rock exploded (what better way to get back at my parents?). I wanted to play guitar, and luckily a great and low-cost music and art school was in my neighborhood – The Los Angeles Music and Arts School (LAMusArt) in East Los Angeles. But I needed to buy a guitar and find a way to pay for my classes. I qualified for reduced tuition, but even though class fees were only $7 a lesson, they were still a bit prohibitive for my family (sorry for all the late payments, LAMusArt!).

Saving up for my guitar took several months of helping my dad at work and washing the neighbors' cars. It took persistence and a whole lot of nagging (plus some lofty promises - straight As, no talking back etc.) on my part to make it happen, but ultimately I started classes and spent three years learning the fundamentals of guitar playing. I was lucky to have such a wonderful music and art center so close to home with extremely subsidized tuition (thank you again, LAMusArt).

Not every neighborhood has a music and arts center that can fill the void of arts education left by budget cuts to local schools. And not all music classes can heavily subsidize their tuition to make them more accessible to low-income youth.  Geography plays a huge role in determining a student’s access to arts programs in schools and neighborhood music and arts centers. 

For example, South LA is severely lacking arts centers. The Center: South LA is currently working to create an arts center to fill the void, and created the map below to illustrate neighborhoods' access to arts classes.



In low-income neighborhoods, a child’s exposure to the arts comes primarily from school. Even though the California Education Code (sections 51210(e) and 51220(g)) requires all K-12 schools to offer arts courses, often access is dependent on local parent fundraising to make it a reality.  However, fundraising ability of parents is highly determined by zip code; thus, lower-income neighborhoods have a greater arts education deficit than more affluent neighborhoods.

The disparity is detrimental to the academic prospects of disadvantaged youth: Arts education levels the playing field for disadvantaged youth and provides them a positive outlet to engage in school and their communities.

Disparity in LA County is vast; the quality of schools-- and life-- varies dramatically. In A Portrait of California, a recent report on the American Human Development Index (“AHDI”), the disparity found in LA County was quantified using a composite measure of well-being and opportunity made up of health, education, and income indicators. Geographic areas are given an AHDI score between 1 and 10, ten being the highest possible score. 

The report shows that only a few miles separate two quality-of-life extremes.  In fact, the neighborhood of Watts in South L.A. scored the lowest in all of California with an AHDI score of 1.91.  Just a twenty-minute drive west on the 105 freeway from Watts brings you to one of the top ten scoring areas in California: the South Bay areas of Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach, Manhattan Beach and El Segundo have an AHDI score of 8.61.

The differences between South Bay and Watts are drastic:

  • Life expectancy in Watts is 10 years less than in the South Bay communities. 
  • Watts residents, on average, make $40,000 less a year.
  • Education attainment in the two areas are at the extremes: 53.8% of Watts Residents have less than a High School Diploma, compared to 2.9% of the South Bay area residents. Only 2.9% of Watts residents have a Bachelors Degree, compared to 40.1% of South Bay area residents.

Education attainment, earnings and life span are outcomes that are impacted by our environment. The environment we live in provides us with the opportunities to shape our life as we see fit. More opportunities mean more tools to make our vision of a good life a reality.

As a kid, I would often visit my grandmother and cousins living in Watts. The difference between my neighborhood of Boyle Heights in East L.A (AHDI score of 2.91) and Watts were substantial, glaring even to a twelve-year-old. When I visited Grandma’s house we were not allowed to go outside.  There were no parks nearby, no pizza delivery and the nearest movie theatre was a long way away.  My cousins would tell me about the shootings and gang initiations, and I would talk music. It was at this age that my life and that of my male cousin (whom I grew up with and who was a year older) took extremely divergent paths. I was a self-professed rocker and he was a cholo. We were both rebellious but we exhibited it in different ways: I joined a punk band, he joined a gang; I was a bad student with a bad attitude, he went to juvenile hall. Watts now has an amazing arts center at the foot of the Watts Towers and is slowly changing the surrounding neighborhood. But it alone cannot fill the void and provide arts opportunities to all of South Central's students.

My cousin and I did not have the same opportunities growing up: I had a stable, albeit poor, family; he was raised by my grandmother. That is not to say that our outcomes were pre-determined, but rather that the lifestyles and opportunities we were exposed to lead to different choices and outcomes. I choose to vent my teenage angst through my band; my cousin decided that gang life was for him. I never considered joining a gang (although there were plenty of them in Boyle Heights) because I had a different identity – I was a musician!  Not a very good one - but in punk, it's all about attitude and I had tons of it.

Geography and family does not determine who you are going to be when you grow up, but it does often determine the opportunities to which you will be exposed. If your parents are college graduates, it is more likely you will be read to as a baby, giving you a great leg up when you start school. If you live in an affluent neighborhood, you are likely to have access to great parks and quality schools, schools that offer arts education.

Arts education is not a panacea to all that is wrong with schools.  However, it provides students an opportunity to learn and express themselves in a manner that makes sense to them, be it theatre, visual arts, media arts, dance or music. The fight for equitable arts education is a social justice issue.  The opportunity to attend a quality school with a quality curriculum, engage in the arts, find your identity and express yourself should not be based on your zip code.  It should be accessible to all.


Abe Flores is Arts for LA's Advocacy Manager.  He's considering getting the old band back together.

Art Center: South L A

I want to connect with you to make this happen. 


Are you from the Center?  We're not sure whom to connect with...

Love that you are creating a movement for this in LA!!

Hi Abe -


I am an artist and am passionate about boosting exposure of the arts and human expression everywhere and for everyone. I'd like to participate in what you are doing. You can contact me via my website I used to live in South Central and many other disadvantaged neighborshoods in LA, DC, even VA, & NY. Thanks for sharing your passion! Biija

Rock on Abe---you nailed the

Rock on Abe---you nailed the if only our government could see it as crystal clear as you presented it.


Thank you!

You rock, Abe.


- Coworker Camille