Arts As A Medium For Social Change

Credit: Konan Bokosee
Jun 03, 2022

New Category for Wolf Trap Grants for High School Performing Arts Teachers Encourages Students to Channel Commentary Through Artistic Expression

How does one define peace? What does it mean to be culturally responsive, and how does one address the struggle for human rights? These questions form the basis for three compelling new projects for this year’s Grants for High School Performing Arts Teachers. Each grant, awarded to Jordan Markwood of Rock Ridge High School in Loudoun County, Mary Jo West of Meridian High School in Falls Church City,and Kenneth Johnson of The Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, DC, is a reflection of a new category included in this year’s grant application: Arts and Social Change. The category was added for the 2021/2022 school year based on feedback Wolf Trap received from the previous year’s grantees.

“At Wolf Trap, we recognize that the arts can be a powerful medium for addressing community inequalities, so this year, we added the ‘Arts and Social Change’ category to our grants application,” said Cate Bechtold, Director, Internships and Community Programs. “We hope the funds and platform provided through Wolf Trap’s Grants for High School Performing Arts Teachers Program helps raise awareness about critical issues that affect our community, inspire dialogue, and offer solutions.”

While all projects use the arts to address the topic of social change, they each do so in their own unique way.

Jordan Markwood, chair of the fine arts department and choral director at Rock Ridge High School in Ashburn was recently named The Washington Post’s Teacher of the Year. His project was inspired by a desire to more accurately reflect the diverse population of Virginia, by commissioning composer B.E. Boykin to create an original musical piece to be presented to the Virginia Choral Directors Association as an option for the All-Virginia Chorus auditions. Students learned about the composition process and created their own pieces reflecting their cultural diversity, which they will play at a culminating performance, alongside Boykin’s composition.

“As the Commonwealth of Virginia increases in diversity, it is imperative to provide music written by individuals that represents the student population,” says Markwood. “Students are more likely to connect to the piece when they see themselves reflected in the text, music, or those that compose them. These songs can also inspire and motivate young musicians who might otherwise feel underrepresented in a field monopolized by white males.”

Mary Jo West, Meridian High School Music Teacher, Band Director, and recipient of the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Grant, undertook an ambitious collaboration with students from Gems Academy in Dubai, UAE to define the word “peace” through the lens of their cultural understandings. West encouraged students to step into the roles of researchers, creators, and performers to collaboratively produce a virtual music video that includes original music and lyrics to a piece the students titled, “We Sing the Same, We Break the Chains.” The music video will feature musical performances, art work and sampled audio from a peace forum between the two schools’ music, art and IB Global Politics courses. As a component of the video, music students learned about electronic and traditional music composition.

“By creating music and art as a medium to raise awareness, our musicians and artists have become advocates to challenge the greatest issue of global significance─peace,” says West. “Our students’ work included critically examining the issue of peace amongst cultures. Not only did they collaborate creatively to create music together, but they deeply considered perspectives of how we all sing the same.”

“Our goal is to heal the deep injustices in our world and confront social injustice that is otherwise easily ignored,” adds West.

Kenneth Johnson, Department Chair at Duke Ellington High School for the Performing Arts, conceived his project, “They Keep Coming,” as an exploration of the great tradition of African American music. Students used this exploration as a basis to process the world in which they live, and create a response. Their response included an original musical theater performance that looked both backward and forwards, addressing the struggle for human rights.

“I named our workshop and performance project after They Keep Coming, from the musical Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope, written by Mickey Grant,” says Johnson. “It was one of the first black musicals to be performed on Broadway that captured the rhythms, struggles, and resilience of the African American community through song and dance. I wanted my students to know this extraordinary theater work, and to inspire them to speak up and be heard.”

Johnson continues, “The great Coretta Scott King said, ‘Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it every generation.’ It was my hope, that exposing [my students] to the works of Mickey Grant and other Black musicals from the past, would help them to see that theater can be used to confront what is wrong and to celebrate what is often ignored. In the process of making contributions through their art, they come to know that they matter and that this is their moment to sing, to dance, and to fight for change.”  

Four additional grants were awarded to teachers who submitted applications to fund projects in other categories, including Master Classes, Commissions, Artist Residencies, Technology in the Arts, and Arts Integration. Grantees included Dr. Donna Stancell at PGCPS Virtual (Online) Campus (Prince George’s County, MD); Risa Browder at H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program (Arlington County, VA); Allison Devereux at Herndon High School (Fairfax County, VA); and Corinne Fox at Potomac Falls High School (Loudoun County, VA).

Wolf Trap is documenting and promoting the progress of this year’s grantees on its Twitter channel @WolfTrap_Edu. For more information about Wolf Trap’s High School Grants for Performing Arts Teachers visit

Image credit: Konan Bokosee