Kerry Washington
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Kerry Washington can teach us all a thing or two

by Georgia Van Cuylenburg

Imagine you are a nine-year-old child at one of the poorest performing schools in all of America, and you turn up to your first class of the new theatre program and you meet your teacher, Ms Kerry Washington. Ms Washington is a really pretty, super smiley lady who kinda looks like she could be on TV or in the movies. That’s because she could be… and is. Your new theatre teacher is the lead of the Emmy award winning TV series Scandal, has starred in a number of blockbuster movies and was just named by Time one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

In her TV show Scandal, Kerry Washington’s character Olivia Pope is no stranger to getting a call from the president. But when Washington got a call from Barack Obama, asking her to join the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, she says was beyond honored.

Washington has consistently been very vocal about the important role that arts education played in her life: “I always joke that for me arts programs were like a third parent because my parents worked full-time. Rather than being a latchkey kid, I spent a lot of time in dance classes, choirs and the local children’s theatre company. All of those activities helped to keep me busy growing up in the Bronx in the 1980s at the height of the crack epidemic. To have some where to go that was a productive place for me to channel all of my hyperactivity was a great thing.”

The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities’ signature program is “Turnaround: Arts”. Under this initiative, celebrities are partnered with thirty-five underachieving schools in the nation. They assist with integrating arts into the curriculum in order to improve academic achievement.

As Washington explained in a recent piece about the program, “There’s an assumption that we’re trying to create more artists so people tend to try and let arts education be an elective, an extra that you sprinkle on top of math, science, reading and history. However, what we’ve learned through research is that the arts is not sprinkles on a cupcake; the arts is actually the key to unlocking all of our most serious issues in education. When there are arts in the schools, kids show up, they are more engaged in the learning process, they misbehave less and they want to graduate. This really isn’t about how to find the next superstars, it’s about how do we help these kids get the education that is their birthright in this country?”

In the first year of the program, Washington was partnered with Savoy Elementary in Washington DC. Before the program started, less than 20 percent of the school’s fifth graders were reading at grade level, and the school was in the bottom five percent of all D.C. schools. Washington’s efforts were combined with a whole school reinvention with arts at the core of its culture. This move was championed by the, somewhat serendipitously named, Principal Pope. “And now, two years in, the school feels transformed, with students, teachers and parents happier, math and reading scores rising significantly, attendance up by a wide margin and student suspensions decreasing by almost 70 percent.”

Washington is currently partnered with Warren Lane Elementary in Inglewood, California. She has visited the school several times a year, in addition to sending the students video messages. During her recent visit, she allowed the students to ask her ten questions ranging from her birthday to her favorite book. Each participant also had to answer his or her own question

The children aren’t the only ones gaining life changing experiences from these programs however. Washington says: “It’s exciting to watch a kid embrace their own sense of possibility. So many kids today feel extremely limited by their environment. When you help them get in touch with their creativity and their potential, they begin to realize that they have the power to create new circumstances. Kids are understanding that they have the capacity to be innovative, break barriers and change statistics in their community and in their lives. Watching them blossom into people who are excited to learn, grow and achieve is a spectacular gift.”

The work of Washington and other celebrity arts education advocates has produced undeniable results from all Turnaround: Arts schools across the country.

“The arts are not the whole solution. We need strong leadership, effective teachers and hard work on many fronts. But arts education gives our schools effective tools to reach and teach students. There are thousands (of students) in failing schools who need these tools so that they too can shine, not only on stage but in the classroom and in life.” In addition to Washington, celebrities including Forest Whitaker, Marc Anthony, Russell Simmons, Alfre Woodard and Sarah Jessica Parker are amongst the numerous artist mentors.

As well as her work in arts education, Kerry has leant her name and voice to a number of other causes. In celebration of her philanthropic efforts, it would be remiss not to also mention that she was a celebrity supporter at Until the Violence Stops: NYC, a festival presented by V-Day. She also gathered a team for the 2007 Lee National Denim Day, supporting the Women’s Cancer Programs of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, as well as supporting the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Creative Coalition, Get Your 6, Make A Film Foundation, Motion Picture and Television Fund and Peace Over Violence.

As an artist/entertainer that has committed her life to ensuring every child gets access to arts education and the bright future that they deserve, I do not have enough words to adequately express my praise and gratitude for Kerry Washington’s work. Her passion for adding color, music and joy to our children’s lives unequivocally makes her our Hollywood Journal Soul Angel of the month. And I’ll tell you this: If I was President of the U.S. (whether in TVLand or not), and I was charged with turning the future of this country around, I would want Kerry Washington on my speed dial too.

Georgia Van Cuylenburg

About Georgia Van Cuylenburg

Georgia is a comedian, writer and actress who started her production company to create work that makes people laugh and makes a difference. Through her entertainment and philanthropic work she is committed to sharing her personal trials to help others, and to having children around the world believe in their magic. Follow Georgia on Twitter @georgiavanc and YouTube

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