Executive Director Maureen Dwyer explains why every child deserves access to art education.
By Kinne Chapin
Reading, writing, and arithmetic – these are the three fabled disciplines of education repeated in nursery rhymes. And although current curriculum also emphasizes science and foreign languages, the “three r’s” continue to be the principal focus of American education. Of course, gaining proficiency in reading and math is a priceless advantage. But when schools place precedence on quantifiable skills, something equally priceless falls by the wayside: creativity and the arts.
Enter Sitar Arts Center, a nonprofit founded in 2000 with the goal of providing a high-quality education in the arts to students from underserved areas of Washington, D.C. Today, 80% of Sitar Arts Center students come from low-income households, and the center gives over 800 children a year the chance to explore the limits of their imagination. By continuing to focus on providing equity of access to arts education, Executive Director Maureen Dwyer and her team have made their founding mission a reality.
The Sitar Arts Center doesn’t only define equitable access to arts education by a student’s financial background – they also believe that students of all ages should have an equal chance to express themselves creatively. Infants can enroll in the Center’s Early Childhood classes with their parents, and adults are welcome to participate in the Center’s Arts Afterschool program, which offers instruction in creative disciplines from theater to writing. Sitar even offers summer programs for budding artists who want to fully immerse themselves in a creative pursuit.
Dweyer and the Sitar Center offer a valuable reminder that, like the three r’s, the arts are an invaluable component of a child’s education. Dwyer explains that when Editha, a Sitar student, was asked what she liked best about the program, she responded “finding out about me inside.” What Editha realizes, many adults forget. Exploring the arts offers children a chance to explore the limits of their own minds. Shouldn’t every child have that chance?
Quick Q&A with Maureen Dwyer
Washington Life: What is Sitar Arts Center’s Mission?
Maureen Dwyer: Sitar Arts Center brings its diverse community together to give underserved children and youth of Washington, DC the opportunity to explore and study the visual, digital and performing arts in an afterschool safe haven. The Center partners with local volunteer artists and arts organizations to provide comprehensive arts education, nurturing relationships and high expectations that enable young people to better know and express themselves as they discover and develop their artistic gifts and critical life skills.
WL: How was Sitar Arts Center founded?
MD: Twelve years ago, Sitar Arts Center opened its doors with the conviction that it is vital to feed children’s souls as well as their bodies, and that no parent should have to choose between the two. Founder Rhonda Buckley and namesake Pat Sitar provided after-school education and mentoring programs to children, working in community with families living in low-income housing in Washington, DC. The children were immensely creative and drawn to the arts, but did not have affordable, accessible arts education opportunities to discover and develop their gifts. Rhonda, a professional musician whose life was shaped by arts education, was called to action. She envisioned and built Sitar Arts Center with Pat’s inspiration and spiritual guidance. In 2004, Sitar Arts Center moved from the tiny basement of a subsidized housing building to its current facility, designed for optimal arts education at 1700 Kalorama Road, NW. Sitar Arts Center now serves more than 800 students each year from every ward in the District.
WL: How can Washingtonians get involved?
MD: Sitar Arts Center achieves it mission by forming a true community that works together for a common goal of providing real opportunities for families that would not otherwise have them. Each week, more than 100 volunteer artists donate their time and talents to teach, so if you are a visual or performing artist that is an opportunity for involvement. Other volunteers who love working with children serve as “lobby hosts” and help the students with homework and special projects and keep them safe and engaged in between classes. Still other volunteers join our Board or Leadership Council. And our community would simply not be complete without our donors. We subsidize the tuition of every student and there is a significant gap between the cost of providing a child with a semester of high quality arts education and what their family can pay. Most of our families survive on an income of less than $34,000 a year and Sitar raises 93% of its $1.4 million annual budget through charitable donations.
WL: What sets you apart from other DC nonprofits?
MD: Sitar offers a transformational community for families from birth through adulthood. Our volunteer faculty and partnering arts organizations is a distinctive model, enabling Sitar to provide access to all of the arts under one roof at a cost that every family in the city can afford. A parent can bring their baby to Sitar Arts Center for Early Childhood Arts where Sitar’s youngest students develop pre-literacy and motor skills through the arts and parents develop positive parenting skills. When that child is school-aged, he or she can enroll in Arts After School and select from more than 100 visual, digital and performing arts classes and 80 private instrument lessons per week offered by loving volunteer teaching artists or through our incredible team of partnering arts organizations such as The Corcoran, The Washington Ballet, CityDance Ensemble, WPAS and the NSO. When that child becomes an adolescent, they can join Sitar’s Emerging Arts Leaders an intensive leadership, life-skill, and life-path setting program. Over the summer, that teenager can be a Sitar intern, paid to be a community mural artist, Camp Sitar teaching assistant or a production staff member for Sitar’s annual summer musical. And of course, once that teenager gets through college we love to have them come back and volunteer at Sitar!
WL: Finish this sentence: I want people in DC to know . . .
MD: That arts education is a vital part of a comprehensive education for every child. When 17-year-old Forrest reflects on his work directing Sitar’s award winning student documentary, he says simply that it “changed his life” … As the adults of the DC community we need to remember that it is our responsibility to make sure that our city is filled with abundant opportunity and meaningful support for each and every child, regardless of their background.