Sweet Briar students advocate for the arts in Capitol, rub elbows with Big Bird’s friends in D.C. streets

The group gather outside the Russell Senate Building.
Sarah Se Eun Kang ’20 (from left), Cassandra Fenton ’18, Olympia LeHota ’20, Caroline McDonald ’17 and Natalie Szabo outside the Russell Senate Office Building.

For those who appreciate the arts, there may never be a better time to learn how to take a fight to Capitol Hill.

Four Sweet Briar students — Caroline McDonald ’17, Cassandra Fenton ’18, Olympia LeHota ’20 and Sarah Se Eun Kang ’20 spent Monday and Tuesday, March 20-21, in Washington participating in Americans for the Arts’ 30th annual National Arts Advocacy Day. They made the trip as winners of the Babcock Season Arts Advocacy Award, earned by writing impassioned letters to their hometown Congress members to urge support for the arts.

Kang, a studio arts major from Fayetteville, N.C., for example, plied her congressman with statistics on the economic impact of creative industries in North Carolina and facts on the efficacy of arts education.

“I implore you to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and support for the expansion of funds for arts education in public and high-poverty schools,” she wrote. “Rigorous instruction in dance, theatre arts, visual arts and music classes can promote essential characteristics to produce well-rounded students.”

Natalie Szabo, Babcock Season manager and assistant arts management professor, and Karol Lawson, director of the art collection and galleries, shared judging duties. The students submitted the letters in February — possibly around the same time President Donald Trump was identifying cuts from his 2018 federal budget proposal. The preliminary blueprint he released last week completely eliminates U.S. government spending on the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and other arts- and humanities-related agencies.

Of course, it is Congress that ultimately will pass a budget for the president to either sign or veto — and that’s where arts advocates can have an impact on the appropriations process. As the two houses hash out their differences over spending priorities, interest groups not only lobby their causes, they focus on empowering their supporters through educational events such as National Arts Advocacy Day.

Students with Amy Elizabeth Burton.
Amy Elizabeth Burton ’90 (center) arranged a tour of the Capitol and a ride to the Senate building on the underground tram.

Seeing an excellent opportunity for students to learn outside the classroom, Szabo created the award using Babcock Season funds allocated for travel. She hopes to make it an annual competition.

“I wanted to involve the students in something culturally relevant that would offer them an unforgettable and useful life experience,” she said.

“This conference had all of the top executive and administrative staff for the nation’s most well-known nonprofit and grass-roots organizations, which gave the students countless networking and learning opportunities.”

On Monday the group attended advocacy training sessions, culminating with the Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts & Public Policy at the Kennedy Center that evening.

LeHota, a first-year dance and art history major from Asheville, N.C., says the seminars were eye-opening. Several of the speakers represented NEA-funded programs that were familiar to her.

“The arts are my passion, my life,” she says. “I didn’t even realize how much the NEA was part of my development in K through twelve until I sat through the seminars.”

She says the experience in D.C. has fueled her drive to advocate for the arts and it’s given her the tools and the courage to tell her story as a means of promoting them. She did exactly that the next day.

The group had three meetings on Tuesday with congressional staffers for Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.; Sixth District Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.; and 10th District Rep. Barbara Comstock, R-Va. The students had opportunities to speak in each session.

The meeting with Kaine’s staff also was attended by administrators from some of Virginia’s largest nonprofit arts organizations and was the most positive, Szabo said. Three of the students spoke.

“They were the only student group [from] Virginia,” she said. “I was very proud of their short personal statements and plea to approve the bipartisan proposed NEA budget of $155 million.”

McDonald appreciated the attention the staffers from each office gave to the issues, but took note of their different positions. Kaine has already opposed the president’s budget proposal, she said, while Goodlatte’s office pushed back on the $155 million NEA request.

“[His office pointed out] that since two-thirds of the national budget was untouchable by Congress, that ‘little’ amount of the national budget actually weighs a lot more,” said McDonald, a South Carolinian who’ll complete her degree in art history with a dance minor in May.

She took away a sense that Goodlatte likely will support a smaller NEA budget, but that their voices were heard.

Alumna Amy Elizabeth Burton ’90 provided a highlight the two-day visit. The assistant curator in the Office of the Senate Curator, she arranged a tour of the U.S. Capitol Building. It included the Brumidi Corridors, constructed during the addition of a new wing in the 1850s, where Burton discussed a current restoration of its ornate artwork.

They also took the underground tram and toured with Burton in the tunnel beneath the Capitol on what proved to be a crazy day in the nation’s capital, Szabo recounted.

“President Trump was in the building, Vice President Pence was in the building, and [outside], there were [U.S. Supreme Court nominee Neil] Gorsuch protestors and PBS and ‘Sesame Street’ characters everywhere.”

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